Creaturely Migrations on a Breathing Planet

| July 19, 2019 | Leave a Comment

Busy Bees by Sharon Sperry | Flickr | CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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Media Type: Article - Recent

Author(s): David Abram

Newspaper: Emergence Magazine

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Through his observations of cranes, butterflies, and salmon in the course of their annual migrations, cultural ecologist and philosopher David Abram reflects on the deep intelligence that lies at the heart of migration patterns.


In the summer of 1988, I found myself kayaking in the Prince William Sound of Alaska, a few months before the undulating surface of that life-filled sea was generously layered with a glistening blanket of oil by the Exxon Corporation. A suburban kid from Long Island, this was my first time in the far north, and I was stunned by the colossal scale of the place—by immense glaciers calving off icebergs into the waters around me, by the preponderance of eagles who seemed to glare down at me from every overhanging branch and snag. I had beached my kayak on one of the larger islands for the night, and after a simple meal, I went off walking along the coast as the sun was slipping down toward the horizon, drinking the salt air and listening to the lapping of the small waves and the wind in the needles. After some time I came to the edge of a surging stream about twelve feet across, rippling and splashing in the fading light; and without paying much attention, I sat down on a moss-covered rock a ways back from the stream’s edge just to bask in the rushing speech of those waters, and to gaze out into the oncoming night. And I lost myself in some reverie or other, until my awareness was brought back to the place by a pale glow spreading into the sky from the rocks on the far side of the stream. The glow got steadily more intense until, as I watched, the full moon was hatched from those rocks, huge and round as a ripe peach, pouring its radiance across the stony beach and the gleaming waves and the rustling spruce needles and generally casting a kind of spell over the whole place.

Now, I have never, of course, seen a cow jump over the moon. But that night I did see a fish jump over the moon. A great streamlined silhouette, its tail flapping, arced right over the full moon and then tumbled, splashing, back into the water. Whaa?!? I couldn’t believe what I’d just seen and so was still staring at the after-image—when another silhouette leapt right over the moon!

I got up and walked over to the water’s edge: the stream, I now saw, was thick with salmon, boiling with salmon, all jostling and surging against the current in fits and starts—it was as if the stream was made of salmon! I gazed and gazed for a couple of hours, then went back to my tent and tried to sleep, but couldn’t. So I walked back in the middle of the night and stood staring into that moon-illumined river of fish, and then I waded out into the middle of that mass of sparkling, silvery muscles, all surging and lunging against the current. In the middle of the stream, I was up to my knees in salmon, but they didn’t care—didn’t even notice; they bumped into my legs and then plunged on past with a single-minded determination I’d never encountered before, nosing aside their dead or dying cousins as they floated back downstream on their sides with their mottled red skin beginning to peel off. But these earnest salmon around me just nudged them aside, hardly noticing, intent on one thing and one thing alone—getting upstream to their spawning place, depositing their eggs and fertilizing those eggs, before they too began to fall apart and to die.

I’d never imagined such intensity, such single-mindedness: their total focus on getting upstream to create new life, and their utter obliviousness to everything else—to their dead or dying relatives, to other species who might prey upon them (to me, for instance, my own legs shivering among them), to everything other than the impulse to procreate . . . I’d never before encountered such a collective, visceral imperative.

When I returned to the splashing stream the next morning, an earlier high tide had erased my nighttime footprints from the sandy stream bank. The waters, however, had not erased the massive, clawed prints of a large grizzly. Several half-eaten salmon carcasses were lying about on the rocks. I tracked the bear up into the spruce forest and part way around a boggy meadow; then my jitters got the better of me and I hiked back to my camp.

PACIFIC SALMON ARE anadromous (or “up running”) fish; born in freshwater streams, they migrate out into the open ocean to mature, then return to those same inland streams to spawn and die. Each of the major species—pink and coho, chinook and chum and sockeye—has its own cyclical rhythm for this oscillation between fresh and salt water. Chinook salmon, for example, spend a year in fresh water and up to five years in the open ocean before making the return journey upriver; pink salmon, after only a few months in fresh water, spend a single winter at sea; chum salmon take two to five years in the salt of the open ocean, while coho salmon return inland after one and a half or two years. The migratory rhythms of sockeye salmon are the most diverse of the bunch. They spend from three months to three years in fresh water, and from one to four years in the ocean brine. The diversity and differentiation of the sockeye cycles results from the great variety of their freshwater habitats—the different lengths and sizes of their rivers and streams.

In fact, any wild Pacific salmon belongs not just to one of those five major Pacific species but also to one of hundreds of subgroups, a race or “run” unique to its natal river or tributary stream. Each race is marked by particular qualities coevolved with that stream, corporeal traits exquisitely tuned to the characteristics of that watershed: to the melting glaciers on the mountains above and the steep or gradual grade of a stream’s incline, to the coarse or fine grain of its sediments and the specific chemistry of its waters (itself informed by the geology through which those waters percolate, by the gnarled roots that jut into those waters and the specific leaves that fall upon their surface), to the patterns of shade afforded by the surrounding forest and the various predators (river otters, eagles, bear) of that valley. Each race of salmon is thus the rhythmic pulse of a particular place, each individual an ocean-going avatar of a specific stream or inland lake.

THE BOSQUE DEL APACHE National Wildlife Refuge is a sparsely wooded flood plain along the Rio Grande, at the northern edge of the Chihuahuan Desert. By this strip of moist bottomland, a band of Piro Pueblo Indians built their pueblos some seven centuries ago; they hunted here, and gathered wild fruit, and raised turkeys until Apache raids and European diseases forced them to abandon these fertile soils. Later the Apaches themselves came to camp among the willow stands and the cottonwoods. In recent times the river has dwindled, its waters drawn for use by industries further north—yet now and then it still floods these riparian fields, enabling local farmers to grow alfalfa and corn in the desert silence. Acequias, or irrigation ditches, run alongside the fields. These are used by the locals to manage the water levels on behalf not only of their crops but of the many wild, migratory birds that gather in this narrow place of moisture every winter, a seasonal convergence much older than even the earliest human inhabitants. Each winter, sandhill cranes gather here in enormous sociable crowds, roosting and feeding in the stubbled fields (a few adults standing extra tall, their necks extended to keep watch for the whole flock).

Yet in the summer, those same cranes are fiercely asocial in their breeding grounds a thousand miles north. There, each mated pair (sandhill cranes mate for life) defends an expansive territory just for themselves and one or two newly hatched colts, whom they steadily feed insects, seeds, and small rodents. Nonetheless, as the cold of early autumn begins to clamp down on the insects in those northern mountains, each crane family begins feeding and roosting with other nearby families. The young cranes make more and more practice flights, provoked by other scattered groups whose coarse bugling they hear gliding far overhead, until, unable to resist, they and their parents take to the sky, rising and rejoining other families in strands that gradually gather into great, spiraling hordes, fractaled dragons made of hundreds of long-necked and exuberant voices, soaring and flapping toward the south.

How does it feel to add oneself, after a summer’s solitude, to this slowly gathering sky-torrent? By what landmarks do these aggregate dragons navigate? How does this flood of wings find its way every autumn, year after year since time immemorial, to this tiny oasis of moist bottomland in the vastness of the New Mexico desert?


What is this allurement, this seasonal memory that rises in the muscles, calling one skyward, drawing one back and back again to the place of one’s begetting, to that precise blend of wind and rock and glistening water? The irresistible draw of the bustling and clamorous crowd now giving way, as it always has, to the imperatives of solitude and intimacy and home.


“Our way was never to over harvest and to always ensure sustainability of our food supply for future generations.”

The Yurok Tribe


  By what magic do these delicate insects find their way? How does an organism inherit such intricate instructions—precise navigational guidance that must be different for each successive generation? We do not know.

Read David’s full essay here.

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