Science Stories: The Art of Scientific Storytelling
Thanksgiving, North Pacific coast. Just me, some salmon, and a man that I liked but maybe did not love. We poured mead, chopped garlic for citrusy kale salad. A salmon steak—caught fresh and trimmed neatly by some fishermen friends down the way—sizzled on the stove.
Its candied outer flesh would crisp against our teeth; the meat would dissolve, buttery, on our tongues. He would pump up some Jolie Holland, pull fresh bread out of the oven, and remind me that I didn’t need to hold on if the distance was too hard. I’d never really know if that was a generosity or a request.
The next morning, we stepped off his boat and our shared cloud of breath intermingled for a moment in the cold air around our heads before dissolving upward and away from us. The dock was crisp with hoarfrost, and a goose had walked ahead, leaving tidy pigeon-toed prints which, in the residual warmth of the already distant bird, had begun, like the salmon, to melt.
I go walking in my rubber boots over the crackled sidewalks, through pools of rainwater. Rectangular refrigerated containers belly up against cement cold storage buildings, and gulls rummage all down the docks, shaking beads of moisture from their beaks, pesking for fish scraps. The air smells like falling tide, and like spruce, and like dead salmon. At the side of the road: weather-gray telephone poles like totem poles. And in front yards: totem poles like telephone poles, moss-capped, straight-spined—a reminder that this world is older than the canneries, older than the ships that dock at them and unload their glittering catch.
South of here, in a cave I’ve often walked through—helmeted, flashlight panning—a 10,000-year-old human skeleton has just been pulled from a yellowy pile of bear bones. He was a young man, and a traveler—his stone tools came from far away. His bones, like books, tell the isotopic story of a man whose food was mostly fish. He had spent his lifetime pulling his food from the sea. So, too, had the bear who ate him—wandering up from the tide flats, glistening roe between its molars. A surprise encounter near the cave’s entrance, where cool subterranean air sighed into the woods like breath between teeth. Quick knockdown, a second dinner. One salmon-eater inside of another. The bear crunched what it could but left a loose-toothed jaw, a snapped pelvis, three ribs to go cool in the cave over centuries.
Now, at the edge of town, mist lifts between the trees, and the sound of rain on moss dulls the dockside noise. A raven bristles and caws on a nearby branch, and it’s hard not to think about old stories. Raven created this place and it’s not really open for debate. You’d believe it, too, if you could hear the bell-tone voices of the bird-god’s children. If you could see where their wing tips send fog curling like eddies in a creek. If you could watch their enormous black bodies—tall as toddlers—come swaggering up the road, their claws like soccer cleats, their eyes like bullets. They tilt their heads and watch me go by. Like the cave man’s long-gone fingers, like the slicked fur of the grizzly that ate him, their feathers gleam with salmon oil.
As I hitchhiked the long road between Anchorage and McCarthy, a carpenter on his way back from the hospital picked me up, showed me his bandaged hand where a bandsaw nearly severed his thumb clean off, and bought me some blueberry pie with his workman’s comp cash at the only roadside truck stop within a hundred miles. Where my road diverged from his, he dropped me off, reached into the back of his car, and handed me a package of luminous salmon, freshly smoked in his own backyard. It should have been me—bedraggled, bumming rides at the side of the highway—who treated my benevolent chauffer to a gift, but still I accepted it graciously. I held it against my chest like treasure as he pulled away down the mountain road toward Valdez.
Later, too, when Alex moved into our house in Tucson, he offered a handful of smoked salmon, which had traveled with him all the way from Juneau after a summer working near Alaska’s rain-grayed Inside Passage. And over old films one night, Jonathan—carver of ulus, videographer of Inuit dogsledders, Alaskan transplant here in the desert—got to talking with me about snow, about fish. He left the room and returned with a jar of salmon clutched in his hand, mailed all those miles from an old friend in the north. He offered me one fat piece after another. They fell apart in sugary splinters in my mouth: saltwater candy shared from some faraway sea.
And isn’t the sharing the thing of it? When I visited an old shipmate at his inland home in eastern Oregon, we went fishing for salmon at Costco. We brined it—his uncle’s recipe—in his kitchen, smoked it over wood chips in a vintage Little Chief smoker. We recalled Alaska together and laughed in the smoky backyard and cleared a patch of land for his garden while we waited for the fish to cure. When it was done, the candied flesh dissolved in our mouths. It tasted like sea, like molasses. If hospitality had a flavor, the salmon, I think, would have tasted like that.
All summer, the salmon waited for rain. I got sunburned, even under the blanket of wildfire haze that settled low over Alaska, that stained the sky a bruisy orange, that would not lift. A rainforest without rain is an eerie place. Moss crackles underfoot. Mud dries into silty dust. Cedar forests go thirsty and send their oils aloft like war beacons so that, miles from shore and standing on deck as your ship cuts through deep water, you can smell their incense, sun-warmed, uncanny. The rain did not come. The salmon waited—waited for the creeks to fill, waited for enough water to scoot their way up under the spruce boughs, back up toward home.
Eleven million years ago, nine-foot-long salmon waited at the mouths of rivers along this same coast. Their 400-pound bodies, like the bodies of modern-day salmon, transformed as they traveled upstream from the sea. They stopped eating. They metabolized their organs. Their skin lifted away in chunks and strips as fresh water flooded their salt-loving bodies, as their cells popped open like a thousand tiny bombs. Their jaws grew curved. Their teeth grew sharp, for tearing at one another as they fought upstream toward their wedding beds which were also their graves.
Ten years from now, coastal salmon farming operations—which leach parasites and antibiotics into wild waters and wild fish populations—will have moved indoors, into facilities that recirculate filtered water like giant aquaria. Here, in manufactured currents that flow at just the right pressure for ideal meat texture, the salmon of tomorrow will swim. They’ll jostle behind thick glass viewing panes. They’ll push their speckled bodies into the flow. Maybe one will pause for a moment, will drift backward in the downflushing current, knocking against mesh and tank and whirling neighbors. Maybe it will seek some familiar smell and, finding none, will muscle forward again, searching. If a salmon has no natal stream, toward what might it strain? Does movement lose meaning, or gain it, when there’s no particular destination ahead?
My second summer in Alaska, a friend and I pulled our kayaks ashore on the final night of a paddling trip that had carried us along the edge of the ice age in Glacier Bay National Park. We had camped above a black sand beach and watched surf roll in as sheet after sheet of ice collapsed into the fjord from the face of a nearby glacier. At night, the katabatic wind running down off the ice rocked our tent with a chill persistence as steady as running water.
And now, we had begun our journey back down-bay. We’d pulled up our kayak and gone rummaging for firewood along the tideline. We walked across newly-exposed rocks: a beach that had been covered by a glacier 150 years ago when John Muir arrived by canoe to build his own campfire on the island across the way.
And next to us, in the raw gravel that was under 40 stories of ice not so long ago, things rustled and flapped in a shallow stream. We stepped closer in the dusk to peer at the thin ribbon of water that cut across the beach near camp. Inside of it, bodies thronged. Salmon, pushing forward. They weren’t returning to their birth stream—they were taking new territory. Where ice had retreated, fish had come pioneering up-bay. Sometimes life loops back where it began. Sometimes it hazards some new frontier. In the settling dark, at the edge of our campfire’s circle of light, we found wolf tracks and bear tracks dimpling the rocky beach: life following life.
At summer’s end this year, the rains came, knocking the smoke out of the air. The trees—the ones that had survived the drought—exhaled little clouds that rose like dragon’s breath. The salmon, against odds, ran.
Think of salmon milling upstream
Like lanes of traffic at rush hour
See them merge and glint
Think of salmon, digested into shit and soil and spruce
Like recyclables in a furnace
All those shards re-rendered into glimmering whole new things:
Green and amber and clear as windows
Think of their eggs, champagne-pink and gummy
Like grains of split citrus
Hear them pop between bears teeth
A thousand ripe desserts
Think of salmon with their smell stripped by upstream copper mines
The ore in their blood like heavy fog
The kind that keeps ships
From ever finding home
Think of salmon with scales in colors of rock and gut and blush
Their bodies tapestries
Shuttled through with movement, movement
Every year re-weaving themselves anew
And in the northwest, where orcas eat salmon instead of seals, they get choosy. They like the fatty ones: the Chinook, the king salmon. Merriweather Lewis liked them, too—the most flavorful fish he’d ever tasted, he wrote in his journal as the Corps of Discovery ventured west at the turn of the 19th century. When Lewis and Clark first tasted Chinook, given as a gift by Chief Cameahwait after the men had traversed the Bitterroots, they knew upon tasting it—that salty-sweet flesh, those flaky shingles of Pacific Ocean fat—that they had truly crossed the continental divide.
The resident pods of orcas all up and down the Inside Passage seek Chinook, and they teach their young to do the same. It doesn’t serve them well, these days, as Chinook populations fall and fall—down 40 percent in most places—due to dams, and poor hatchery practices, and diseases seeping into the sea from coastal fish farms, and overfishing, and shoreline development that flattens gemlike stands of eelgrass and fills the brackish shallows where baby salmon need to shelter before they head to sea. The orcas—who have culture as we do, passed down from one generation to the next—grow skinnier year by year, as they swim in search of their favorite food. They ignore the lesser other salmon—silver, chum—streaking past them in the sea’s green dapple, just as their grandmothers taught them.
But at the center of it all, the wonder—if you can afford a moment for wonder—is that orcas use their voices to identify the fish they love. They cast sound ahead of themselves and it pings back like sonar into a fatty organ called the melon, nestled just above the whales’ jaws. The melon concentrates the echoes and sends signals to the orca’s brains, clear as photographs, that help guide them toward prey. So sophisticated is their echolocation that they can tell individual salmon species apart, just by the subtly different way their bodies reverberate.
And think what an astonishing thing it is, despite the things that are unhinging all around the orcas, and around us, in the periphery—too lightless and too huge to really apprehend, even with eyes as sharp as ours. Consider the miracle of it: to see something with sound. To know a thing with your body.
Series Introduction by Alison Hawthorne Deming
Science Stories showcases the impressive literary work done by graduate students who participated in the first run of “The Art of Scientific Storytelling,” a new course I taught in Spring 2020 at the University of Arizona. The course, developed in collaboration with my Creative Writing program colleague Christopher Cokinos, was eligible for credit in the new Graduate Certificate in Science Communications offered by the College of Science. Its aim was to inspire creative works that were science-smart, works that might enhance science literacy among readers. The class read contemporary writers who covet the perspectives of science and the personal stories of scientists who write for non-technical audiences. We read memoirs, essays, op-eds, and poetry. We read works inspired by chemistry, astronomy, paleobiology, traditional indigenous knowledge: Primo Levi, Hope Jahren, Robin Wall Kimmerer, Kathleen Jamie, Alan Lightman, Gary Paul Nabhan, and Maggie Nelson, among others. The students came from a range of disciplines including optical science, astronomy, geography, climate adaptation, hydrology, mathematics, speech pathology, and creative writing. The conversations were rich and the talent abundant. They surprised me each week with their inventive and insightful takes on writing assignments. We offer this showcase of our experiment in the meeting of art and science.
Hannah Hindley is a wilderness guide and the recipient of the Ellen Meloy Desert Writers Award, the Waterston Desert Writing Prize, the Thomas Wood Award in Journalism, and the Bill Waller Award for Nonfiction. She was a 2018 Carson Scholar in science communication at University of Arizona. She is currently at work on a book-length collection of personal essays called Love and Other Fish, as well as a long-form piece about the weird ecologies of urban desert rivers. Follow her @hannah_the_bold.