There’s a truly absurd play in which two people sit on chairs waiting for Godot to show up. We wonder why they are waiting or if he will show. Spoiler alert, he doesn’t. Sometimes that’s what it feels like to wait for the salmon–the chinook and the coho–to appear.
I walk along the bank to search. I push through the salmonberry to get a better view, then grab something and lean way out to see if a pool up ahead has something swooshing deep in it. After edging my way to a better vantage, I can tell there is nothing, but that doesn’t mean there hadn’t been something. I hear a splash downstream that had to be a fish. No, it was just water rushing over a downed log. Where are the salmon? It rained enough, two or three good storms: surely the fish are here.
I picture a logjam. I have fish eyes. I’m in the water. The water pushes comfortingly on my sides. Light flickers. I feel a rush of current, so I seek where it’s coming from in that tangle of wood just upstream. I’ve already been through many of these since I left the salty ocean. I’m strong. I’m capable. I could get through there if I wanted but I don’t feel like it right now, so I’ll let the current take me back, back. Here, downstream of this riffle, I think I’ll stay for a bit. I sense others of my kind nearby.
I’m a human again.
I crawl and duck through some willows and then straighten. My jeans are soaked; my hair, too. I could have worn a cap but it would have been pulled off by the branches. I could have worn rainpants but the comfortable ones would have gotten ripped. Besides, all those clothes are a lot of fuss. I’m wet enough now that I can sit on a log and I won’t get any wetter. So I sit. I scan. I wait.
I hear sounds of running water and then sounds of last night’s rain that is blown off the trees by a gust of wind. A couple of yellow-brown maple leaves fall through the air. One lands in a slow spot on the surface of the creek. It drifts, then stops–stuck, I suppose, in a spot with no current. What color is the creek, I decide to ask. Brown-yellow-green-glassy-gray, I answer myself. The colors expand in sideways spills. The colors are mostly reflections, meaning I can’t define what I see, not in my rational human terms.
I want to see a salmon, that I know. I want to be able to go back in and tell my husband I saw the first one of the year. So I remain sitting. I stare. I have a perfect view. Time stretches. Sometimes I sing in my head, or count, or push to-do-lists away by thinking of my wanna-do’s. Paint ferns on the propane tank? That would be fun. Transplant wild ginger? Work up the stream temperature data? We had eight data-logging gadgets in the creek for the third year in a row. We want to know if the stream restoration is having an effect on temperatures; apparently, juvenile salmon don’t do well if the maximums in the water get above the mid-60s for several days in a row. I could work those data up, sure. Or I could drink another cup of coffee in front of the woodstove where I could watch the flames and then the embers.
I scan my view. I want to see a salmon. I want that water to slice, I want to get that rush like the rush I got when I was pregnant, when a knee or arm would soar across my belly. “Look, quick!” I’d call to my husband, but the movement would be gone. I’d have to wait, he’d have to wait. We’d have to be on top of it, not in reverie–be sharp, on alert, ready to spot it at the start–the kid we didn’t know yet. That first salmon. Any salmon.
Fishy friends would tell me to look for redds, those swept-up spots in the gravel where pairs of fish have left fertilized eggs. Sure, I’ll look for redds–but I’m not sure I ever see redds before I see the salmon, though. My search image is great for three hundred kinds of plants, but fish sign? Give me the fish so I can be sure.
Suddenly, I jerk to look behind me–that healthy paranoia we all have around here, that while I’m looking for something in the water, something large on land is looking at me. Large, muscular, with a strong tail, sculpted body, limbs that move deftly. I’m up, turning circles, making myself wide and tall. I see nothing anywhere behind me or above me in trees. Then I laugh at the irony. I want the cougars here, just not this moment. I want bushy-tailed woodrats, just not in my house. And the fish, I want them here and now.
I turn back to the water. Did I miss anything? Might have. Happens all the time. How many times over the years have cougars seen me, I wonder. And how many fish have slipped past me when I wasn’t looking, when I was?
Standing, I realize I’m cold and stiff. I’ll go in. Later today or maybe tomorrow, I can pull out a resin chair. Maybe I’ll bring one for my husband, too. We can sit on the edge of the creek and wait, and talk, and wait. Truly absurd.
Will the salmon come? Of course. But will I see the salmon come?
And why am I waiting? At least that answer is obvious. I’m waiting because the salmon’s return affirms that–beyond to-do-lists and worries and fears in my head, beyond the effects, not always good, that people are having on this Earth–wild nature is still out there. Not just wild nature that thrives on disturbances we’ve made (like starlings and reed canarygrass). I want to know that as leaves fall, rain patters, snow drifts, buds burst, and then skies clear, these animal rhythms continue to the drumbeat of the year. That we haven’t ruined everything. That there’s hope.
That is why I’m waiting for chinook and for coho.