words by willow defebaugh
Welcome to The Overview, a weekly newsletter in which Editor-in-Chief Willow Defebaugh offers an expansive look at the latest events in climate and culture—and how it all fits together.
“Not I, nor anyone else can travel that road for you.
You must travel it by yourself.
It is not far. It is within reach.
Perhaps you have been on it since you were born, and did not know.
Perhaps it is everywhere—on water and land.”
The lifecycle of a Chinook salmon is perhaps one of the most awe-inspiring of any known creature—a heroic journey of transformation, persistence, and sacrifice. After being born in a freshwater river, young salmon (called parrs) travel seaward and undergo a metamorphosis called smoltification, turning into saltwater fish. They do this so that they can spend the next four years of their lives feeding in the Pacific ocean, traveling hundreds of miles from home.
This next part baffled scientists for years: The salmon that survive their years at sea migrate back to where they were born. It turns out that they use the Earth’s magnetic field to navigate their way. They are, almost literally, pulled toward home—a call so specific that the salmon don’t just return to their natal rivers or even streams, but the very shallows they were born in.
When they reach the mouth of the Columbia River, they pick up the scent of their natal waters and begin to swim against the current to reach them, turning back into freshwater fish along the way. The journey from here can only be described as a grueling one: their ideal spawning shallows can be as far as 1,900 miles upstream and 5,000 feet above sea-level. To get there, they forgo food, face battering rocks, and have even been known to jump up 8-foot waterfalls.
The salmon that survive the journey begin to spawn. A single female may release as many as 5,000 eggs, while the males release sperm to fertilize them with the help of the current. What happens next may be the most marvelous of all. Days after giving birth, the salmon begin to die. Not only that, their decaying bodies nourish the stream and surrounding ecosystem so that their offspring can thrive—and begin their own journey.
So why am I writing to you about salmon? Because their story is our story. We have been on our own arduous journey this year, and after watching the presidential debates on Tuesday night, all I could feel was tired. Tired of watching someone manipulate the truth and deny facts. Tired of having to convince people that they should care about our planet and everyone on it. Every environmentalist knows what it feels like to swim upstream. We do it every day.
Why do we do it? Why do we fight against the currents of complacency and corruption? Like salmon, we sacrifice our lives for the ones that will follow, who will in turn do the same, completing a long journey that is not linear, but circular. And like salmon, we do it because we are pulled toward the waters that birthed us—not physical shallows, but a deeper ecological awareness of our place in the world. Toward home.