Sometimes I go out for a day to ramble, no real direction in mind, no real goal. Perhaps just an inkling of a desire, a thought, a feeling I follow, such as “I really want to get out of the city today.” Or, as it was on a fine sunny day last week, “I wonder if I can find some Elderberries before first frost?”
There is something of the eternal in days like this when I leave all sense of “should” behind and follow my senses and the wise old beat of my heart. I drove up 26 that day towards the mountain, reveling in an unexpected day of freedom, and in my solitude, which is becoming increasingly comfortable for me as I adjust to life as a single woman again. 18 years in partnership left me far away from myself, on many levels, and these days half of what I do is simply learn to be me, on my own. This demands more of me than one could know unless they have traveled a similar path.
The sun was bright and shone in that early autumnal way, where gold fills all the spaces between, and the light imbues everything with a certain magic. Colors are brighter, or perhaps just different somehow, the sun hanging lower in the sky as we weave our way towards winter. Or maybe it is the knowing that days like that are few to come over the impending long darkness of winter in the Pacific Northwest, either way, the spell of the light was thick and lent itself greatly to the beauty of the day and my sense of enchantment.
I am a baby forager. By this, I do not mean that I forage for babies, in case you were beginning to worry and wonder if perhaps you are on the wrong blog. No, I tend to leave babies with their parents unless called into Auntie duty. I mean simply that my knowledge and skills in finding wild food are still growing and quite undeveloped as of yet. This being so, I was thrilled to see the plump clusters of dark purple my eyes were searching for, just off the roadside, even while traveling 45 miles an hour. I pulled over, flipped a U-turn, and parked on the shoulder. Basket in hand I made my way to the Elderberry bushes, and after a word of gratitude and a prayer of asking for permission to harvest, I began. Those deep blue, purple fruits, so tiny and fine, coming easily into my basket as if there was no place on earth they would rather be.
I am stunned, awestruck by the generosity of the earth with great frequency. Especially in my garden that freely gives me mountains of cabbage and potatoes, beans, corn, and beets. Yet there is some real labor involved on my end, a bit of a give and take. Foraging is like Christmas. “For me? Really!? Why thank you!” My basket half full in 10 minutes, I bowed my thanks and kissed tenderly the plants leaves, having nothing to offer but my gratitude and praying that this was enough for the code of reciprocity to be upheld.
Back on the highway and with my prized berries, I knew the day was not done, and drove east again, heading towards a place I know so well, to be as close as I was and not pay a visit felt like sacrilege. Bigleaf maples, dripping with golden leaves, hung low over the road as I turned off the highway and onto Salmon River Rd, heading towards a favorite trail, long beloved by my family. I love the way places become kin when you visit enough, much like human friends. This place fills me with a sense of belonging, of knowing and being known. Of all the beauty I have seen in this glorious old world, there is really no place I would rather be than Oregon old-growth forest.
I was not geared up for a real hike, a saunter was more my desire so I took my bag, with my water and journal and walked along the river trail, searching for a place to land for a while, a place in the sun, to put my pen to paper. A poem had been tugging at my heart asking to be born for 5 days, and it was time to let that baby come to life. I found some sun, and a large smooth rock, just the right size for me to sit on, contemplated taking off my shoes but that water, even in early October is so cold, I kept them on. I wrote, and marveled at the beauty of it all, the simple grace of my days, the quiet. All the struggle and worry I carry so heavily on my shoulders felt a million miles away. In that golden afternoon it was just me, and the river and the wild old trees, and God, and as I would soon find out, Salmon.
Poem finished and I stashed my book away, sauntering along the riverbank to a deeper pool I love, one with a pebbled beach, a hole deep enough for a dip on a warmer day. Looking out over that sacred place, sun streaming in the crisp blue sky, I smelled river, and cedar and humus and… Salmon.
I searched the shoreline until I saw her, nearly beached but still in the water, nearly dead but still breathing. Eyes mostly cloudy, but still seeing. I knelt beside her, eye to eye we looked at one another. And I began to sing, a song that came from where, I don’t know, but it moved through me like it was there all along like it had been waiting for just this moment to be born, right now for me, and for her. ” I don’t know how the Salmon sings, I don’t know how the birds get wings, but I am woman and for this I give praise, my body is my vessel for all my days, my body is my vessel for all my days…”
As I sang I began to move, clearing pebbles to make a clear smooth surface, gathering stones, pine cones, and moss, small bright rose hips. My hands making an image of a fish, an image of her, from the materials I gathered, an act of art to show my love, a physical prayer for her and her kind, a way of being in the presence of her dying, and her living, and the place where those two met, which was now and here. I placed three rose hips to be her heart and one last stone to be her eye. The working complete and the prayers prayed, I went to sit beside her once again.
I beheld her in her dying for quite some time, not close enough to scare her, or at least I don’t think so. I noticed others then, their bodies already in various stages of decomposition, her sisters…all around her as she lay dying. I was so moved by this, even as I type these words the tears pour hot down my cheeks. I was and am moved, not by the sorrow of the thing, though that is present as well, but more by the strength, her strength. To travel hundreds of miles to her home place, through struggles unknown, following only the call of her body, her sense of smell, and the knowledge of home. To lay her eggs and then her body down to die in those cold dark waters, next to the bodies of her kin, the cycle complete, she had only her last breaths left.
The knowing hit me like a strong wind, a force, a voice almost audible, but not quite, audible in my heart and bones and sinew, “why would you think you deserve more than Salmon?”
See, I am always praying for direction. I joke that creator needs to make some neon glowing arrows to toss at me so I can find my way, my mortal mind so dense I can’t seem to figure out what comes next. But maybe I have had it all wrong, maybe all I need to do, all I can do, is follow the tides in my body and my sense of smell, all the way to home. Maybe I need to leave behind the concept of a mortal body and crawl deep down into my creature body once again, it all seemed so simple, so apparent. What hubris I have been inhabiting. I would have laughed if I’d not been crying.
Why do I cling so tightly to this concept of “should?” Where in nature is there any such thing? “What should come next, what should I do, how should I be…” Does Salmon sing that tired old song? No. She simply swims in the direction of home and completes the cycle.
It would be terribly human-centric to say she came to teach me a lesson that day, but I know I came to learn a lesson, and I was fortunate to find her and to be slow enough to see her, and to be ripe enough to listen to the voice on the wind and in my heart. We humans, the younger sibling of all creatures, so brazen with self-obsession, looking only in behind our own eyes, miss so much. If there is one thing life is teaching me each day and each year, it is to slow down, open my eyes, and be amazed. As our beloved Mary Oliver has said, “Pay attention, be astonished, tell about it.” It may be there is nothing more I need to know.
I give great thanks for this learning. For my teachers who come in all forms, plant, fungi, human, animal, celestial, and, Salmon.
Driving home that day I let the sounds of the forest travel with me, I sang my simple song and let the cars drive by, busy in their doing-ness, and I quiet in my undoing-ness. Unbuttoning the heavy coat of shoulds, and sliding it off my shoulders, one note at a time. All I must be is woman, with my full- broken heart, with all my joy, with my one precious life. I ask for nothing more, I ask for no more than Salmon. May I be so fortunate.