Being Salmon, Being Human

 “Bill Frank Jr., Chair of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission … stated, ‘If the salmon could speak, he would ask us to help him survive. This is something we must tackle together.’ And I would say that the salmon are already speaking, if only we would listen.”

Derrick Jensen, Thought to Exist in the Wild

Each time the salmon return to do their dance, they renew their contract with the land, a contract that extends into the memory of the land for as far as their unbroken lineage reaches. We have come back once more, they say with the plain audacity of their flesh. And as they migrate up the river, those who stand by and witness their passage – with nostrils twitching in recognition, with mouths or maws or beaks watering, with protein-starved bellies aching – understand, and in their own turn commit themselves to the contract. It is a contract not of ownership but of relationship, a contract signed with blood and roe, with saliva and sweat and feces. It is a contract validated by pangs of hunger and the throbbing urge to make love, a contract ratified on the brink of starvation and in the midst of a community feast. Those who walk upon the land, and those who swim up its rivers, and those who feel their way into its dark soils with their sprouting roots, all pledge to give themselves wholly to the land, to take, and to return. And the land, in its own turn, pledges its complicity to all of them, to beaver, elk, spotted owl, human, mallard, juniper, salmon. It pledges to be food, shelter, nursery, deathbed. It pledges to be all of this at once. This is the nature of reciprocity, the foundation of ethics.


In his landmark publication that inaugurated deep ecology, Arne Næss wrote that the global ecocrisis exists alongside an ethical, existential crisis. Næss’ contention has since received affirmation from within philosophy and from human psychology. The claim is that viewing the disintegration of the biosphere as a mere externalphenomenon misses the suffering incurred by humans, namely that humans, too, become diminished in the process. This entanglement remains a core challenge to the discipline Næss helped constitute within philosophy, ecological ethics.


This ongoing PhD research project about the ethics of reciprocity begins from the assumption that there exists a philosophical crisis in relation to the larger living community that has brought about and is aggravating ecological calamity. At the root of the ecocrisis lies a widened gap, or ontological discontinuity, that modern humans experience between themselves and the more-than-human world. I seek to understand this discontinuity better by looking at two specific cases, both of which are expressions of the convoluted relationship between humans and salmon. The first is Norwegian aquaculture, the second is the confrontation of a particular Northwestern First Nation – the Lower Elwha Klallam of the Olympic Peninsula – with white settler culture.


Though the two cases are superficially dissimilar – both with regards to chronology, places, actors involved, and historical frames of reference – each of these particular moments in the human-salmon relationship presents the exact point in time where the modern mindset set out to transform nature from a state of former wildness into a state of domestication. In the case of the Lower Elwha Klallam, modernity proposed itself as a means to transforming an untamed river into a force for the common (human) good.


In the Norwegian aquaculture case, modernity proposes itself as a means to domesticating a species on an industrial scale, again to promote the common (human) good. In either case, modernity’s drive towards domestication – of the land, and of the fish – appears to be a symptom of a culture centered on linear and broken, rather than holistic and integrative patterns of reality, a culture characterized by an abstracting and dissociating mindset, where humans are perceived as somehow separate from, and above, the natural world.


But there is compelling evidence now to establish that being human is grounded in the reality of the natural world. Hence, a way out of the ecological crisis will involve, among other things, a philosophical reconciliation of the human with the larger living community. It will involve, in other words, a critique of modernity’s ontological core, its insistence upon discontinuity.

Science, Religion, and the Sacred (Essay)
Linear Narratives, Cyclical Narratives (Essay)