Letter to America: Prelude to Catherine Creek

By Seth Michael White

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September 3, 2015
Union County, Oregon

Three days after my mother passed, I dreamt death was a country just around the corner, an expanse of sagebrush and juniper.

Today, nearly one year later, I’m standing on the bank of Catherine Creek watching a colossal salmon hold her place in the current. She has come here to spawn, but it’s late season and most spawning is over. In June the rivers were already a trickle, and by July many of the feeder streams had run dry.

So I’m a little surprised (and a lot delighted) to meet the salmon here. Her dorsal fin is spotted white and waving like a surrender flag. Blotchy patches of fungus on her side prove her thousands-of-miles, years-long journey from this river to the ocean and back.

Salmon are often the centerpiece metaphor in the story of redemption and return, and rightly so. But I look around to notice other animals join in the throng: water ouzel; kingfisher; the delicate strips of a paper wasp nest; and, for reasons that are a deep mystery to me, a squirrel performing frenzied acrobatics on a cottonwood branch.

In knee-high rubber boots, I walk along the shore with forceps, scalpel, and collection vials, jotting notes in my field book. I am tracing the sources of food that will feed the salmon’s progeny. The leaves of black hawthorn sink to the streambed and are eaten by a cranefly larva; cranefly becomes a succulent treat for a young fish. Waving green algae on the cobbles is scraped off by a casemaker caddisfly; caddisfly emerges from her stone shelter and becomes a tasty morsel. A mayfly escapes the river as a winged adult and becomes trapped in the web of a long-jawed spider. Spider ponders the river at dusk and is caught unawares by the bat.

I turn one last time to the salmon in the river. She will be gone in a matter of days. My mother’s doctor had found what she thought was breast cancer, but after a barrage of tests the diagnosis morphed into stage IV lung cancer. Within a few short months, my mother crossed into that dream-country of sagebrush and juniper.

October 31, 2016
Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, Portland

I’m in the house of the dead, braced in my seat, clenching the armrests. Below me on the stage, musicians in formal black attire sway with their instruments. This is Leoš Janáček’s Prelude to From the House of the Dead, and the Oregon Symphony is delivering the piece to me, and a few hundred other fellow souls, spectacularly. Our collective pleasure ricochets off the ornate Renaissance contours of the hall.

But I’m caught off guard. I thought tonight’s program would be cutesy ghouls and ghosties, more treat than trick. Instead my heart thumps with the thunderous drum behind the grand sweeping strings, which repeat like crashing breakers on a rocky shore. Here come the creepy violins (the precursor to every modern horror flick) and their quick, high-pitched streams of dissonant notes. The melody is winning enough to beckon me—I follow willingly—yet discordant enough to lead me down a dark alley. Suddenly, I’m disconnected and alone, failing to recognize the landmarks.

From the program notes, I learn this was Janáček’s take on Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s autobiographical novel. Under tyrannical rule, Dostoyevsky spent four years’ hard labor in a Siberian prison camp for his part in a literary discussion group. Life in the camp was more than brutal. Among the prisoners, he describes “corruption and terrible perversity. Backbiting and scandal-mongering.”

“This was Hell,” Dostoyevsky writes, “the nethermost pit and the outer darkness.”

Janáček must have a found a morbid kinship with Dostoyevsky. The darkness of the Prelude is said to have originated from an incident Janáček witnessed during the General Strike in England: “Among the workers, things are boiling,” he wrote. “Today they shot a driver in the street, for no reason at all.”

And yet.

And yet, how does Janáček describe the underlying theme of House? The barbaric nature of humanity? The despotism of the ruling class? The injustice of everything? Instead, written on the score in Janáček’s own handwriting: “In every being a spark of God.”

Here, Janáček extends an olive branch to Homo sapiens, a testament to a faith in humanity’s benevolence, even under the cruelest circumstances.

In every being a spark of God.

The playful trill of bright horns breaks the symphony’s tension. But the reprise is short-lived. Three defiant beats of the drum conclude the Prelude, hinting at the darker movements to come.

November 9, 2016
Lloyd District, Portland

I don’t need to understand the evolution of stars to do my work, but the notion that my methods depend on the first three seconds after the big bang is somehow enthralling.

Today, nearly two years after my mother’s death, I’m in the laboratory preparing the Catherine Creek samples. I portion the samples into vials that I will ship to another lab in Flagstaff, Arizona. Miniscule quantities of detritus, algae, moss, leaves, insects, and fish tissue will be analyzed with a mass spectrometer for their elemental compositions, providing clues on how nutrients and energy move through the river food web.

Due to a quirk in stellar nucleosynthesis, some elements like carbon and nitrogen exist in twin forms—stable isotopes—whose ratios change at predictable rates with biological reactions. My methods piggyback on this mystery, and verify Walt Whitman’s claim that “a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars.”

I would like to talk to my mother about all this. I imagine we are having coffee. Bright morning sun gleams through the kitchen window. She cups the ceramic mug in her particular way. The coffee smells good: a rich earthiness, but with an undercurrent of sage and juniper.

We talk about the election for a while in the manner people we know talk about the election. You can wake up one morning and feel completely out of touch with your fellow Americans, people you once called neighbors. She shakes her head. I stare through the motes of dust. Maybe there is no way to understand. Discerning this, the poet William Stafford cautions us to vigilance: “The darkness around us is deep.”

Our talk shifts to the salmon, the one on Catherine Creek who came back. She was a statistical outlier defying the odds of an anomalous drought. Yet a changing climate means drought will become more common in the years ahead. The survival of the salmon and her young will depend, more than ever, on robust or tenuous connections: the mayfly, the caddisfly, the algae and the long-jawed spider. The black bear scavenging the spawned-out carcass, trailing nitrogen back into the forest. The tribal fisherman perched on the rough-hewn wooden planks of a fishing platform. The dam operator with hands ready on the spillway controls.

If all goes right, each behemoth fish will return to Catherine Creek carrying hints of already-extinct stars from the early universe: carbon isotopes, nitrogen isotopes, also faith. Not knowing what else to do, I follow the sparks.



Seth Michael WhiteSeth Michael White finds inspiration for his writing and work as a river ecologist in the watery landscapes of the Pacific Northwest and Central Europe. He currently lives in Portland, Oregon, with his wife and daughters.
Header photo of salmon by David Herasimtschuk, courtesy Freshwaters Illustrated.



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