I read a perspective piece by a colleague today, Jess Housty from the Heiltsuk First Nation. Talking about salmonberries and people and salmon, the interconnectedness, the mutuality and reciprocity being as evident as the taste of the cool salt spray coming off the north Pacific.
I miss that place.
In COVID, while I miss less suffering for so many, I don’t miss much else. I’m privileged that way.
But I miss British Columbia. Those salmonberries, the dank smell of rotting salmon, their nutrients being carried off by bears and wolves and eagles and martins deep into the woods, decaying into the moss and ferns, and into the wet humus only to be returned as salmonberries, sustenance for people. A good salmon run means a good salmonberry run means a good salmon run. And the circle is unbroken.
I sit and watch this nature film narrated by David Attenborough, these three minutes of the brightest boldest frogs I’ve seen, wrestling and leaping and engaging in a stand off with their black beady eyes. These frogs, smaller than my index finger, now larger than life on the big screen.
And I know how many hours of filming that took, sitting in steady drizzle – at times downfall – of rain, hands numb, nose running, always checking the equipment to make sure it’s not fogged up and the batteries are charged and the zoom captures the moment and the light is bright enough to pick up on their spots. It could be days waiting to catch the 25 seconds of the frogs in action, fighting with their long limbs and their toxic masculinity for what the narrator calls “his space,” contenders in the mating game, the sole and urgent goal to exist into the future and procreate. It is worth the wait.
What does this have to do with British Columbia?
It reminds me of the hours I’ve spent quietly still on bear stands, or sitting at the side of a rushing creek on a sharp rock in waders. Downwind enough for them to not be spooked but upwind enough for them to not be spooked. Hacking my way through along the water’s edge, avoiding grabbing a fistful of spiky devil’s club when I start sliding towards the riverbank. Snacking on salmonberries along the way.
The reward – if we’re lucky – is a glimpse of the spirit bear, the rare white bear that is made of legends, literally, passed down through a recessive gene and through the oral histories of all the Indigenous Nations in that central coast pocket in the garden of eden.
It was one particular day, after a few long days in community, hanging out with Guardians on their watchmen patrols, doing stream sampling, counting fish, counting whales, counting boats, spending time gigging for rockfish, planning for oil spill incidents and vessels in distress, listening to the grannies, feasting on the season’s bounty – the herring eggs on boughs of cedar and canned spring salmon and fresh halibut and eulachon grease – liquid gold to my hosts. We motored up into a small bay, its feeder creek barely visible save but for a slight break in the canopy. Anchored and hopped out into the estuary, waded up to shore, up the side of the flowing water, light starting to angle west, not nearly golden hour but we could see that was coming.
We got to a spot, got quiet, got still. The last day here. Maybe, just maybe, we’d see one.
And we did.
A Madonna. White, strong, thick fur. Ambling downstream, sniffing the air, aware of our small cadre of people, but paying no mind to us. Her two black cubs scrambling after her, chirping at each other, wrestling, one treeing the other for a few minutes before they scampered down after mom.
She went across the stream and settled in, keeping a clearing of trees between us so that we had each other in full view.
And her babies followed.
Nestled up next to her, both started nursing.
Time stood still.
What has taken some a lifetime, took me some luck. Some give. Some mutuality.
I miss that place.