Act: Inspiration

Being Salmon, Being Human: Preface

October 23, 2017

Ed. note: The following excerpt is the Preface from the brand new book just out from Chelsea Green: Being Salmon, Being Human by Martin Lee Mueller. You can find out more about the book here.


Ironically, as we work to save the salmon, it may turn out that the salmon save us. – Paul Schell, Mayor of Seattle

We inhabitants of industrial civilization still live inside a human-centered story. The story articulates itself in the ways we speak, what we think, how we listen, what we hear. It expresses itself in the physical forms of our life-worlds, in our legal, political, and economic institutions. It gives structure to the way we conceive of and inhabit both space and time. It shapes our encounters with other-than-human living creatures, as well as with the larger planetary presence. This is the story of the human as a separate self.

The human-centered story is causing the ecological web to come undone at a magnitude of disintegration that is difficult to comprehend, even when one accumulates the evidence. We are in the midst of a systemic ecocide, and the pace of disintegration is so rapid that it is difficult to keep up. The task is no longer to patch up fissures in the story’s frayed fabric. This is the time to abandon humanity-as-separation, and to aid forth the emergence of entirely different stories to live by. Even from within this moment of great uncertainty, trauma, and loss, we can anticipate a future in which the human animal can thrive in the midst of the larger, living Earth community. Whatever it takes for our kind to thrive—whatever it takes for this remarkably inquisitive, cunning, creative, and flexible two-legged animal to live a rich and good life—our awareness of who we are as humans must grow from a deeply rooted awareness of the larger planetary presence within which (or whom) we dwell, alongside so many other vibrant presences such as salmon, wolf, moose, alder, elm, mountain, river, or thunder.

This book explores possibilities to abandon the story of humanity-as-separation, particularly as that story has been expressed in the wake of the Cartesian split, which can be thought of as an inaugurating moment of modern philosophy. This involves learning to navigate the story more skillfully, so that we can recognize and observe it, then critique it, and then visualize and realize ways to move through the critique toward alternatives. We must also have a clearer understanding of what is holding the story together, even when the signs of stress are abounding.

The story of humanity-as-separation is thorny and complex, and no single piece of work can hope to tell the entirety of it. Much important work has already been done or is currently taking shape.1 Far more remains to be accomplished. For still the planet’s magnificent web of life is being pierced, fractured, fragmented, poisoned, trashed, consumed, impoverished, killed. Still it is commonplace to speak of the larger living community as an “environment”; still there is a strong habitual bias toward knowing (and treating) other-than-human creatures as “resources” rather than living beings. We are far from having fully envisioned, let alone enacted, a human-Earth relationship that is mutually beneficial. And yet we are moving toward that bold ambition with determination, with inventiveness, and indeed with a sense of wonder.

It was Socrates who called wonder, or thaumázein (Θαυμάζω), “the only beginning of philosophy.” After him, Aristotle observed that all philosophy arises from wonder, suggesting that it is “through wonder that men now begin and originally began to philosophize.” Two thousand years after Aristotle, René Descartes—arguably the first truly modern philosopher—spoke of wonder as “the first of all the passions.”

Descartes thought of wonder, in the words of contemporary philosopher David Wood, “as a gateway or stimulus to science which could be set aside after serving its purpose.” But Wood adds: “My sense is that this is too harsh—wonder need not impede science.” And indeed: Even in these days of fast-developing, highly sophisticated, and often highly specialized scientific discovery, we find that each of our encounters with the world has the potential to steep us more deeply in wonder. Four hundred years into empirical science we might indeed be approaching a threshold in our understanding, where we see the world not as less but as more wonder-full, not as less but as more alive, not as less but as more enigmatic.

This enigmatic encounter with a living planet might also be far more familiar to us than we have supposed throughout these centuries. It might be that our scientific ways of knowing the world are catching up throughout all times: that humans share deep, intimate kinship ties with the larger Earth, and that Earth itself might be more accurately understood not as a giant lump of largely inert matter, but rather, as David Abram has suggested, as our own, larger body. Therein might lie our best hope for crafting an empirically informed, scientifically sound humanism-in-participation. Stepping more fully into Earth’s larger and more enigmatic life might be our best bet for becoming more fully human.

What we call wonder is a certain disposition, a certain openness to encountering the world directly through our embodied being, without presuppositions or preconceived theories. That disposition has been most elegantly expressed recently in the school of phenomenology, that study of direct experience. To encounter the world as a phenomenologist is to encounter a world that has not been exhausted of its wonder; it is to encounter a world whose wonder cannot be exhausted, for the sense of wonder emerges spontaneously from within the thick of our direct encounter with the world’s never fully fathomable complexity. It can emerge from watching bands of fast-moving rainclouds march above our heads in the evening sky, or from finding the entirety of our awareness absorbed by the sound of splashing water as one salmon after another leaps up a rapid in a turbulent river, or it can emerge from reading a scientific paper that describes in great detail the strangely cyclical, intertwined story of how without life, there would be no more water on Earth, and of how without water, there would be no more life. Or that sense of wonder can emerge from meeting a stranger whose surprising body posture, strange choice of words, eccentric facial expressions, unfamiliar tone of voice, and very different insights give us a glimpse, if ever so briefly, of what it is like to know this same world from an utterly different point of view. Gradually and never fully, the world reveals some of its layered and dynamic complexity, its depth, diversity, creativity, and cycles of participation. It calls upon us to reflect on our place within. This sense of wonder goes inward in two complementary ways: First, it goes from our sensuous bodies into the depth of the living terrain.

And second, it goes into the equally rich, complex, layered, and dynamic topography of our individual mindful bodies, or embodied minds, as we participate fluidly with, and respond resourcefully to, the larger sensuous terrain. Earth might be experiencing itself through us, and Earth might be equally experiencing itself through so many other embodied awarenesses, be they salmon, Sitka spruce, dragonfly, microbe, or whale. There might indeed be a robust scientific case for thinking that now, as Earth has reached the respectable age of 4.543 billion years, this living planet might in some sense be more complexly self-aware than at any earlier moment.

A few words on what this book is, and on what it is not: It is not, first and foremost, a work about the salmon industry (though the industry does figure in it). It is a work about the stories we live by, stories within which we come at times to dwell so deeply that we do not easily recognize them as story. Being Salmon, Being Human: The symmetry of the title implies that our sense of who we are as humans is mirrored in our lived relationships with other creatures. It implies also that we become fully human to the degree that we give space to others, such as salmon, to live out their own full potential. My interest is in exploring how the story of humanity-as-separation is making itself felt in the lived encounter between humans and salmon, and in exploring also how alternatives to that story might already be sprouting in the encounter between us and the salmon.

The philosopher Holmes Rolston III has given a luminous description of what ecological philosophy strives for, and how it thinks to get there. He writes that “[ecological philosophy] does not want merely to abstract our universals, if such there are, from all this drama of life, formulating some set of duties applicable across the whole. . . . [It] is not just a theory but a track through the world.” This book pursues such a track through the world. It is a way, and if there has to be a “point” to it, then the way itself is it. I seek to wander, as the track unfolds, graduallly out of the story of humanity-as-separation and into the thick of reciprocal participation between ourselves as human animals and the animate terrain, a thick that we coinhabit not only with salmon but with rocks, fungi, soil, streams, the pulse of the tides, the oceans. To seek tracks out of the story of human exceptionalism is not to “leave story” entirely. It is rather to look for what other stories struggle to be born from the compost of the old, and then to aid these fledglings in their self-emergence, like a midwife or gardener, rather than an inventor. As Neil Evernden cautions, “there is no way to deliberately elaborate a new story—it is not a conscious exercise, not something susceptible of reasoned solution. One can only hope to pull back and see what emerges to fill the void.”

When studying salmon and their awe-inspiring, ancient journey, one sooner or later recognizes that many journeys have more than one beginning. So, too, does this book. One beginning was in August 2010, when the Norwegian business newspaper Dagens Naringsliv published a brief opinion piece on the future of salmon in Norway. The piece was signed by Rögnvaldur Hannesson, a professor of fishery economics at the Norwegian School for Economics and Business Administration. In it, Hannesson publicly raised the question of whether or not it is time to sacrifice all of Norway’s wild salmon in favor of their domesticated cousins. The paper described Hannesson as one of the country’s leading experts on fishery economics, and so his contention held a certain authority. “We should perhaps ask ourselves what we want wild salmon for?” writes Hannesson. “If wild salmon get in the way of the fish farming industry, then I must say we must be ready to sacrifice wild salmon. The industry creates great values and jobs along the entire coast. It is an important business branch, one that is important to keep. We need not feel pity for the upper class that will miss a playroom; surely they’ll find some corresponding amusement.”

Here I was, living in the land of Arne Nass, founder of deep ecology; Gro Harlem Brundtland, a pioneer of sustainable development; Fritjof Nansen, Nobel peace laureate and Arctic explorer; Roald Amundsen, first man on the South Pole; or Adolf Tidemand, the painter whose work celebrates Norway’s extraordinary richness in natural beauty and grandeur, its waterfalls, its cascading rivers, its fjords, its high plateaus.

Caring for, loving, and taking pleasure in nature’s commons are ideals deeply rooted in the people here; forging kinship ties with these commons might in fact be the quintessence of what it means to make a home in this astonishingly beautiful northern land. And then, from within, this voice that openly and earnestly suggested letting a species go extinct!

What are the implications of this suggestion? What worldview is being advocated here? What values resonate within it? What would that mean, to give up on the salmon? And how does this relate to the perfect storm of ecological collapse already well underway?

Meanwhile, another beginning was materializing on a different shore, on the Pacific Rim in the American Northwest. There, in a small community along the Elwha River, a short but mighty stream that gushes from the Olympic Mountains and spills into the Salish Sea, an extraordinary story was playing out: Almost exactly a hundred years after the salmon there had been deemed superfluous and in the way of industry, the human community was beginning to help their salmon leap back from the razor-sharp edge of extinction and recolonize the river.

The return of the Elwha salmon became the motivating force behind the largest dam removal ever to be undertaken, anywhere in the world.

Early in the twentieth century, when white settlers first envisioned the two dams in Elwha River, these dams were to yield “peace, power, and civilization,” according to the pioneer and businessman Thomas Aldwell, who was the chief visionary behind the dams. It was Aldwell’s intention to convert the Elwha River “from its waste and loss into a magnificent source of energy and strength.” The building of the two dams was widely recognized to be a significant step toward modernizing the American west. In the hands of ingenious humanity, this “mighty power for good” was constructed without fish ladders that would permit the salmon to climb past the Elwha Dam and past the Glines Canyon Dam, and soon the fish, once renowned as the mightiest salmon in the Olympics, began to decline. Meanwhile, the watershed indigenous community, the Lower Elwha Klallam, also found themselves cast into a desperate struggle for survival. Once known throughout the region as the Strong People, they found that the rapid decline of their totem animal, the salmon, went hand in hand with an unraveling of community ties.

But by the year 2013 both dams had been completely dismantled, and the Elwha was running again, free of obstructions. Slowly, the salmon began moving upriver again. And as they did, the human community throughout the watershed engaged in a re-evaluation of the cultural narratives that have structured thought and guided action.

In some ways, the events in the Elwha watershed were the antithesis to Hannesson’s suggestion. The chronological symmetry between the two cases, combined with their stark contrast, intrigued me. I began reading about the Elwha, and eventually I decided to visit the Olympic Peninsula in the summers of 2012 and 2013, to learn more about the Elwha salmon and about the people who make up the watershed community, both indigenous and others.

But why salmon? The first and simplest answer is I, too, am drawn to salmon! I am drawn to them not only as a thinker, not only as a rational mind studying an “object,” but through the fullness of my mindful body.

Salmon certainly have provoked my intellectual curiosity, yes. As curiosity turned to professional preoccupation, and as this work stretched out—first into months, then into years—the salmon continued to challenge me, daring me to respond to their call with the best of my intellectual abilities.

But they do so much more! Seeing the salmon come back to spawn in my home river, Akerselva, incites any number of feelings within me: There is a sense of humility as I ponder the incredible journey they have just completed; there is a sense of gratitude for the promise they bring of new beginnings; there is even a sense of ecstasy over seeing such enormous creatures right here in this gushing, gurgling, foaming artery as it cascades right through my city, Oslo.

And of course, I am drawn to the salmon sensually. It takes but the smell of smoked, wild salmon, wafting invisibly under my nose as I sit on a street corner, chatting with a colleague-friend who has brought me this gift from his home river, the Klamath in Northern California, for me to notice how my body instantly responds to the call of salmon. Little flashes of recognition ignite every distant part of my mindful body, setting ablaze my imagination, prompting a sharply focused alertness, making my tongue water, my belly ache in impetuous expectancy. All senses seem to pool into just one desire: to sink my teeth into this flesh, to feel how the finely textured, delicate strip of tail-muscle disintegrates in my mouth. To taste that delicious food. To sense how it passes deeper into me. And then, to intuit the metamorphoses the food ignites inside of me: the reciprocal gift of bodies, the dance of belonging, the ancient rite of attraction.

I claim no exclusive ownership to such experiences. On the contrary: Through them I participate in a long and continuous lineage of human ancestors, elders who translated the salmon’s epic journey into metaphor; ingenious peoples who carried the salmon’s endurance and commitment into story; communities who created fine recipes to celebrate the flesh; sensitive souls who felt the salmon’s life cycle resonate deeply with their fascination for the motif of the journey, as well as the motif of transition, and the cycle of birth and decay. For as long as humans and salmon have encountered one another alongside the oceanic rims of the northern hemisphere, their nations have been engaged in a long, enduring, and reciprocal conversation on the good life. For millennia, humans and salmon have struggled to fine-tune their lives in the presence of the other, to flourish side by side, indefinitely. They have sought to creatively adapt to lands in which they were not alone but participants, shareholders, accomplices. Looking back across this vast stretch of time, we dare say that salmon have not only fed the flesh of our bodies, and not only fed the flesh of so many other, more-than-human beings—they have also fed the flesh of the mind, the landscape of the imagination.

For example, in 1653, Izaak Walton wrote that salmon “is accounted the king of freshwater fish,” and that he saw in salmon a beauty that “I think was never given to any woman by the artificial paint or patches in which they so much pride themselves in this age.” Half a century before, in 1599, the priest and botanist Peder Clausson Friis wrote that “salmon are deemed the most noble fish and the best and most beautiful that are caught in Norway.”17 More than 2,000 years before Walton and Clausson Friis, Julius Caesar’s legions were marching through the Rhine Valley when suddenly they observed large, silver fish migrating upriver in great numbers—who would not let themselves be stopped even from rapids or minor waterfalls. The Romans, observing the fish in awe from the riverbanks, called them salar, Latin for “the leaper.”

Salmo salar remains scientific nomenclature to this day, preserving a link to that original sense of awe or wonder that the Roman legions must have felt when they saw these magnificent fish leap up rapids in one of Europe’s mightiest rivers. Go back as far as 23,000 years, and you will encounter cave dwellers in what we call southern France, earlier humans who painted the image of salmon onto a rock ceiling. These ancestors also carved the shapes of the sleek and energetic fish into bones and antlers. As far back as the written, painted, and crafted records of our forebears permit us to follow them into historical time, the salmon were there, gifting our ancestors with their flesh and nourishing our ancestors’ imaginations. Our own kind reciprocated the gift by cultivating ways to translate the salmon’s nourishment into metaphor, language, and story.

These observations show why salmon are a rather fine topic for a work in ecophilosophy. For if philosophy rises from wonder (as the ancient Greeks were first to suggest), and if salmon have been nudging humans toward experiencing wonder for millennia—prompting our forebears to structure their thought in accordance with these strangely metamorphic fish—then to turn toward salmon in expectation of being drawn once more into wonder is to turn to the cradle of philosophy itself.

I intend to think my way into the topic not as a disembodied, rational intellect pondering an “object of study”—that is, not in the Cartesian tradition—but as an embodied mind pondering the lives of very different embodied minds. Here is a two-legged, lung-breathing, sentient animal at home on the solid ground of the Earth’s landmasses, pondering ways to relate respectfully and accurately to scaled, gill-breathing, sentient animals at home in the rivers and the oceans. My body becomes an arena of that confrontation with otherness; I will need to pay attention to the ways in which even the very language I work with is being shaped by the encounter of my mindful body with those enigmatic, intelligent, oceangoing creatures. This entails an engagement with the school of phenomenology, and especially the way it has been articulated by my predecessor and teacher, David Abram, who was first to bring this branch of philosophy to bear on ecological questions.

Martin Lee Mueller

Martin Lee Mueller, PhD, received his doctorate in philosophy from the University of Oslo in 2016. Before that, he received his master’s degree in culture, environment, and sustainability at the University of Oslo’s Center for Development and the Environment (SUM). He has previously helped build teaching centers in rural Mongolia, worked as a kindergarten teacher, been an elementary school librarian, and led a wilderness school in the Norwegian forest. Recently he has also been touring as a storyteller to festivals in the U.K. and Scandinavia, with a stage performance inspired by this book. Salmon Fairytale weaves together philosophy, traditional storytelling, and Samí joik music. He lives in Oslo together with his partner and daughter.

Tags: building resilient societies, connection with nature, cultural stories