alfreddepew

One Million Pounds of Fish

In Ecology, Work, World Work on October 24, 2010 at 10:22 pm

Chris Causey

Guest Post by Chris Causey, a professional mediator in Portland, Maine.

It is hard for me to imagine a world without fish.  I wish I could say that statement was linked to some scientific truth or recent data supporting the incalculable bounty of marine life but neither is true.  In fact we all know the seas are in trouble.  My relationship with fish and the sea itself has more to do with the nature of my imagination—the nature of my very soul, which is a watery place inhabited by sea creatures.  As a boy, I both loved whales and imagined I worked on tall ships hunting them.  At once I read about and studied various types of whales and also kept paintings of 19th century whaling scenes–gory scenes of men harpooning whales from open boats.  It was probably no mistake that in my young manhood, I worked as a commercial fisherman in Kodiak, Alaska–fished for six years and made my living as a deckhand on salmon, halibut, herring, crab and trawl boats.  I don’t know how many fish I contributed to killing, but I do know how exhilarated I was to participate in the hunt, the acquisition and the kill of those fish and crab.

Yet, even as I worked and made my livelihood on these boats, I related to the sea and its inhabitants in other ways, too.  The sight of porpoise dancing beneath our bow or a gray whale breaching in the distance used to fill my heart with such gladness, it’s hard to describe without sounding foolish or daft.  Once, when working on a salmon seiner, I watched two sea otters mating in some drifting bull kelp in the early morning, and was nearly beside myself.  They sort of rolled around, and I thought at first they were wrestling, then I saw the male’s piston thrust, the female’s smiling face, all in the rising and falling waves near the rocky shore, and I couldn’t help laughing.  I wished that I could turn to the multitudes and say, look at them making more otters–isn’t that the greatest thing you’ve ever seen in your life?  Any time something from below showed itself on the surface, whether shark, seal, or jumping salmon, my heart leapt for reasons I cannot entirely express.

So the idea that somehow the oceans are becoming sterile means for me, a loss that reaches to the very depths of my experience as a human being and a loss that transcends human experience.  Although I no longer make my living from the sea, my soul, my imagination and the oceans are somehow inextricably linked.  My shore for where the human meets the non-human is literally and figuratively where the sea meets the land.  It has taken me a long time to realize that what’s down there beneath the waves is both me and way beyond me, and for that, its remaining rich, fertile, diverse, and thriving is a calling of the highest order.

Recently I returned to Kodiak for a short visit.  There I met a man and his son, also visiting, who were looking for a place to spend the night.  I shared my accommodations, and the man, call him Tim, told me about his former work as a boat captain in the Bering Sea.  Now the vice president of a software company, he was then one of the first captains to explore the cod fishery in the western Aleutians.  He said he convinced a fish processing company to have one of its processing ships follow his boat, and there was a lot of risk in that, not knowing whether there were any fish out there or not.  One day, as the cod were schooled to spawn in Nazan Bay off Atka Island, he caught a million pounds.  One day.  He said he had to drag a net full of codfish behind his boat through the treacherous Amlia pass to the processor because the processor’s captain would not take the vessel through the pass to meet him.  He also said it was the eeriest day he had ever fished.  The Bering sea, which is hardly ever calm, was like poured lead and the comet Hyakutake was in the sky.  He’d seen wind clock at over one hundred and fifty miles per hour, wind that you simply can’t believe is being churned up by nature, but that day the wind and water were so flat it made him suspect something horrible might be coming.   We stood shoulder to shoulder in front of a huge map of Alaska, taped to the wall.  “I plugged the processor,” he said smiling, but without pride.  “One million pounds in one day.  There was nothing left for us to do but start back to Seattle.  My deckhands put a charcoal grill on the back deck.  They were bowing to me and saying “not worthy not worthy,” because I had just caught a million pounds and we all had made a ton of money.

The grill was going and that comet was in the sky and I’m feeling about as great as I can feel, looking out at the sea, which can tear you up, and then to top it off, as it grew darker, Korovin Volcano on Atka began erupting just enough to see sparks of orange shooting out of it.”

I knew what it was like to watch a net or a crab put come up from the bottom full of fish, the sense of wonder and acquisition, the absolute jubilation of catching so much fish.  I knew if I were a deckhand on that boat, I would have been bowing with his other deckhands, celebrating, and I know too the sense of loss I felt, knowing that in one day one boat took a million pounds of cod fish from the sea.  I don’t consider my position ambivalent at all.  I am a predator, the most capable of all predators but recognizing too that is a grave responsibility.  I have used the words stewardship and heard it used in many contexts and understand that stewardship for hunters and fisherman cannot be a smokescreen to hide some shadowy need or hidden agenda.  It means recognizing our primordial desire to hunt and fish and take and kill and be absolutely successful doing so and looking at that closely, reconciling our need to prove ourselves and provide with a greater sense of confidence that we need not actually catch or kill the fish and that there is more than a game of chance, drive and desire as the biomass shrinks

In his book, The Gift, Lewis Hyde wrote the following: “Ecology as a science began at the end of the nineteenth century, an offshoot of the rising interest in evolution.  Originally the study of how animals survive in their environments, one of ecology’s first lessons was that, beneath all the change in nature, there are steady states characterized by cycles.  Every participant in the cycle literally lives off the others with only the ultimate energy source, the sun, being transcendent.  Widening the study of ecology to include man means to look at ourselves as part of nature again, not its lord.  When we see that we are actors in natural cycles, we understand that what nature gives to us is influenced by what we give to nature.  So the circle is a sign of an ecological insight as much as of gift exchange.  We come to feel ourselves as one part of a large self-regulating system.”

Science is about not knowing and wanting badly to know.  Fishing is about pursuing and wanting badly to acquire.  The two share similar emotions of passion and drive and the limitations of where we are now vs. where we want to be.  The deadliest catch is so popular in part because of mysterious acquisition and part because of what the men on those boats endure as they go after crab, but its flaw is that it is shot produced and shown in order to appeal on a completely human scale.  What is missing is a moral vector, the perspective that includes the non-human and beyond human, the awe and humility and veneration owed to nature because it is our source not only to what we know, but to what lies beyond our knowing.

When asked if he were a religious man, Albert Einstein answered as follows:  “Try and penetrate with our limited means the secrets of nature and you will find that behind all the discernible laws & connections, there remains something subtle, intangible and inexplicable.  Veneration for this force beyond anything that we can comprehend is my religion.  To that extent, I am in fact, religious.”

My concern lies somewhere at the heart of what Lewis Hyde and Albert Einstein are intimating.  We are part of something, not lord of it, and our connection to this something (nature) is also our connection to all the mystery that lies behind it.  It includes hunting, taking, and killing and acquiring, but it also includes relating in a way that guards against arrogance, mindless consumption and exploitation.  Otherwise the watery part of the human soul is apt to become dry and brittle.

For more information about Chris Causey and his work, visit: http://causeymediations.com/about-chris-causey/

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