Home is Where They’ll Lay Me Down

Illustration by Josh Gosfield

MY GREAT GRANDFATHER, NEILS BJERRE, was known as “Gussy Boy.” He was a poet — the only one in the family that anyone knows about. When he was an old man he did something he had wanted to do for a very long time. He took a boat back to Denmark, the place where he was born. He hadn’t been there in forty-five years.

During his trip he kept a journal, which he sent back to my great-grandmother in weekly installments. She had decided not to go. Perhaps she understood that this was something he would have to do alone. After all, it was his past that was absent. She was born right where she still lived, on the northern coast of California.

Somehow, after years wandering around, I have ended up in Oregon, east of the Cascades, just north of the California border. We farm near the headwaters of the Klamath River, and as I watch the water pass I think of the place where it meets the sea, down near the home my great-grandparents shared. I imagine a clear day with Gussy Boy and Memo sitting on the bank where the fresh meets the salt, dipping their bare feet into the cold, pushing their toes down into the mud. It’s autumn, and there are others around, gathered to watch the salmon pass.

NOT LONG AGO MOTHER RETIRED, and joined us here in Oregon. She was going through the last few boxes of her things when she found Gussy’s journal. She set it aside and brought it over later that day. I was very busy at the time she came by. I had a meeting to go to, and the phone kept ringing. I may have been short with her, and just laid the journal down on top of a stack of bills.

Later that day I sat down to eat. I picked the journal up off the stack and started reading it. I finished my lunch at about page five, but I didn’t stop reading until the end, fifty pages later. I never made it to my meeting, and when the phone rang I just let it.

May 16, 1951 (Tues)
Well, we are on our way. The landing bridge was cast off at 12:10, and the ship shook itself and started moving at 12:12 pm. We’ve had lunch — and a very good one too — and the passengers are stretched out in their deck chairs on the sunny afterdeck. The ship is filled to capacity, mostly with Danes, going home to visit the Fatherland. I have with me in my cabin two Danes and one Swede, all elderly and apparently respectable citizens. Another man I met this afternoon turned out to hail from Holstebro and knew several of my many relatives in that neighborhood. This world is getting too small to hide in. Lucky I don’t have to.

My family’s farm is part of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Klamath Irrigation Project. A lawsuit was filed this year by a coalition of downstream interests — environmentalists, tribal governments, and commercial salmon fishermen — alleging that the operation of the ninety-year-old Klamath Project is threatening the continued existence of the coho salmon, which are listed under the Endangered Species Act. A federal judge five hundred miles away has determined that the salmon need the water worse than we do, and has informed twelve hundred of my neighbors, farming almost a quarter of a million acres, that they will have to find another way to make a living.

Right or wrong, the suffering that has resulted from this decision is real, and we should resist dismissing it as just collateral damage. My wife, who manages a couple of rural health clinics, comes home at night with stories of old men weeping, of the doctors themselves, weeping. The nickname for antidepressant drugs is “farmer’s little helper,” and since no one can afford them, and can’t afford insurance either, they are trying to get pharmaceutical companies to donate sample packets.

We have been told by local environmental advocates that we deserve what has happened, that we brought this on ourselves, and we have been told by Indians and fishermen, “Welcome to the club.” Maybe they’re right, and maybe this is justice, a simple case of sons punished for the sins of fathers. But whether they’re right or not, there is a pressurized rage smoldering in my gut, and I cannot make it go away. I have spent years working to improve conditions on this river, and I have tried to persuade my neighbors that the downstream folks are just like us, their situation just like ours.

But watching my daughter’s eyes tear up as we tell her we may end up leaving, I feel like I want to punch someone in the face. I talk to my friends and neighbors, and every time I hear exactly the same thing: “I don’t know what I’ll do.” More than anything I feel lost, like the earth itself has disappeared from underneath my feet, like the blue, cloudless sky is a gun pointed straight at my head. I can’t go look at my restoration projects. I can’t help yelling at my friends in the agencies. When I think of the people downstream, people I know are just like me, I feel like I want to explode. I’m not like this. I don’t want to be like this. Right now, though, that’s how I am.

But when I read my grandfather’s journal, there was something there that felt solid, and I grabbed at it like flotsam in a freezing sea. Gussy was reaching, too, and he didn’t know what for, any more than I did. But I think it was the same thing.

WHEN GUSSY CLAIMED THE WORLD WAS SMALL, it sounded to me like wishful thinking, like the whole reason he was on that boat was because he knew otherwise, because he felt lost, too, in a world that had outgrown him, that had drowned out the quiet voices of people he remembered, had overwhelmed the rhythms of a place that really was small – small enough, at least, to call “home.”

But the world itself is not getting small. It’s as big as it’s always been — bigger in a lot of ways – and we ought not think of it otherwise. Our claim that the world has grown smaller stems from our reluctance to acknowledge that we humans – each and every one of us – have just grown much bigger. We have built machines, and by touching these machines we extend our presence quite literally to the ends of the earth. We can float and drive and fly where once we could only walk. We plug our senses in, and we see, hear, taste, smell, and touch things and places we could only imagine before. We have made ourselves so large that the earth itself seems to have shrunk, shrunk to the point that most of us feel like the earth itself is something we can wrap our thoughts around, something we can “get a handle on.” We tend to act like it’s our job to comprehend it, to manage it, to consume it. We have grown so large that its very salvation is something we feel we’re in charge of.

We’ve forgotten that our plugs can be pulled, our gears jammed, our lines cut, our industrial tentacles amputated, leaving us fragile, mute, and alone, the hungry monkeys we have always been, wandering around our tiny homes, forced to learn, once again, how to live within them.

May 25 (Thu)
I sometimes wish I had kept up the diary I started 44 years ago, when I began my journey eastward, a journey which now, at last, completes my “trip around the world.” On the other hand, it might be said one should not waste time looking back; world progress is built by men who look ahead, not stopping to lament over past mistakes. So maybe I, too, better keep looking ahead; if I can’t build an empire, a world of peace or a society of contentment, perhaps I can build a henhouse for the Madam when I get back home.

Someone claimed recently that “after all our efforts to save the salmon, we may come to see that it is the salmon who are saving us.” The lifecycle of the salmon is dramatic, mythic; it’s metaphorical in a way that fits fairly neatly into the stories we have been telling about ourselves for the last several decades. Their scarcity works like a warning.

But perhaps more critical is the fact that salmon fit into most of our much older stories, as well. Born into the brightness and rush upstream, they stay a while and then head on out toward the deep. They never really know their mothers, their fathers, although their very lives depend on the death and decay of the generation before. They reach the sea, and wander long and far, but always with the mute knowledge that by striking out they are headed home, that by fattening up they are feeding what’s coming after.

What they do then has been called “unimaginable.” From out in the ocean they find their way back. Among thousands of river mouths they find the right one. Faced with fork after fork, they almost always go the right way. They turn into monsters, red and hooked and humped and fanged, scraping and lunging their way up. They rub their faces raw, digging their nests in the cobble. The water mucks up with flesh and clouds of fertile white. So much of it futility, and yet there is no other way.

It is innocence, exploration, endurance, and luck, selfishness and sacrifice — limitlessness, and the gravity of home. These are themes we cling to. We’ve talked of them for fifty thousand years. The history of this region, the lifecycle of our own species, is exactly as dramatic, exactly as heroic, exactly as tragic as that of the salmon. Our instinct for home is as mysterious and irrefutable, and the consequences of losing our way just as bloody, final, and, perhaps, necessary.

Our story is their story and theirs is ours, and yet we call it “unimaginable.” Our problem is not that a fish’s life is so alien that “imagining” it is impossible — it’s that we’ve lost the habit of doing that kind of thinking. That faculty is so atrophied, as busy as we are with other things, that we’re no longer up to the task. We are like the boy who hit his head, and could no longer recognize his identical twin.

This is not, as so many seem to think, a permanent flaw in our genetic makeup. It’s a basic requirement of the conditions of our lives. Our inability to identify with the natural systems that surround us and sustain us, our reluctance to celebrate or even recognize the mutually creative, mutually destructive bonds between people and nature, is simply the result of having our attention directed elsewhere. Nowadays, trying to keep these things in mind is like trying to read a book on a merry-go-round. Everything’s big and bright and loud. The pull is centrifugal, away, outwards. No matter how badly we need it, the gravity just won’t hold.

May 27 (Sat)
I found myself on a pier, surrounded by hundreds and hundreds of strangers. Then suddenly, while scanning this sea of faces for traces of “my family,” I heard a feminine voice cry out; a pair of soft arms encircled my neck and a determined kiss was planted on my cheek. It was a shock, although not, I admit, an altogether unpleasant one. I discovered that my assailant was a very beautiful young lady, who now proceeded to claim, and prove, legitimate relationship to me, to wit: Her father is a nephew of mine. Nor was she alone. A full dozen of relatives had come to bid me welcome home. I didn’t know them. Only one of them had I ever seen before.

The greeting Gussy received at the docks in Denmark is hard for me to explain away. If I think about encountering a distant relative, one that I haven’t seen for a half-century, or that I have never seen, I can only imagine a sort of awkward cordiality. Perhaps we would sit and talk a while, if there was time, about the people we have both known, about places we’ve both been. When our time was up we’d shake hands, wish each other well, and suggest that we stay in touch, knowing full well how unlikely that is. Maybe it’s only preconceptions like these that would make such an encounter turn out that way. Maybe it would turn out differently if only I wanted it to, if only I imagined it would.

Maybe. But everywhere Gussy went in Denmark he was met by boisterous crowds of overjoyed strangers, some of whom traveled far to see him, most of whom wept openly when it was time for him to leave again. These encounters feel alien to me, and I suspect I’m not alone in this. Like Gussy, I would no doubt feel “shocked” and “moved” to be treated this way, after so many years, by a bunch of strangers whose only connection is a word, a name, and the place they all call “home.”

But maybe that’s enough. Maybe Family and Home, if we think about them right, if we put them in the privileged place they deserve, are enough to make folks act this way. What power there must be in these two things: over all that time, across all that space, a young girl shouts and waves, wraps her arms around, and kisses the face of an old man she has never seen before.

WHEN A SPECIES OF FISH GETS IN TROUBLE, there has, for the last few decades, been a fairly standard approach to getting them out. Data is collected and compiled, and a petition is made to classify this single species as “endangered” under national law. Federal agencies begin the process of determining the biological needs of the species, designating critical habitat, and developing a recovery plan.

Advocates for environmental protection begin filing lawsuits alleging negative impacts, and federal agencies or judges decide whether or not they’re right. Millions of dollars are spent on litigation. Even more is spent on studies, assessments, action plans, and monitoring. This work is done by “professionals,” who occasionally keep the rest of us informed about what they have done and what they intend to do. Occasionally they will even ask us for our “input,” which is recorded, reproduced, and included as an appendix to their final report.

The engine driving this process is called Blame. Advocates blame industrial earthrapers and their shoeshiners in the federal agencies. Corporations and industry groups blame the pinko treehuggers and their lapdogs in the federal agencies. Federal agencies blame Congress for not giving them enough money, and blame The General Public for being unwilling or unable to fathom the sacred mysteries of agency technical expertise. Meanwhile, the overwhelming majority consider the health of nature to be somebody else”s business.

But people, in general, really do have more pressing concerns than “preserving biodiversity” or keeping the polar ice caps frozen. We are trying to keep the house warm, trying to keep the kids in school, trying to keep the fridge full, the car running, the rent paid, the family together. And we are looking for something like love — a sense of belonging that doesn’t feel like submission, a sense of certainty that doesn’t feel like stagnation.

It’s true that, over the last several decades, people have been persuaded to “appreciate” the natural world, particularly when it was experienced as a clearly defined, state-sanctioned jurisdiction, with adequate modern amenities and hard-surfaced, multilane vehicular access. Most people have come to see these places as a source of joy, escape, recreation. Some have even begun to value them as a source of life, as repositories of “ecosystem services,” as the loving arms of our Mother Earth.

And yet species are still disappearing. People are still getting sick. The water is still mucking up. The cities just keep getting bigger, the crowds louder, the appetites more insatiable. Despite the new attitude — and despite all the new legislation — we are still, it seems, hurtling headlong toward ecological ruin.

But there have always been a few who knew this would happen, who understood that recreation and entertainment were soft stones, a flimsy foundation upon which to build an enduring respect for the natural world. Joy, escape, and even love of life itself – these would not be enough. There were some who looked deeper into nature and saw suffering, decay, death, and an appreciation — a commitment — that wasn’t ultimately contingent on one’s ability to hop in the SUV and head back to town for some burgers.

DURING HIS STAY IN DENMARK, Gussy visited at least one grave a day. Early in the trip Gussy’s brother, Hans, brought him to the place where his parents were buried.

June 14th (Wed)
I placed an armful of flowers from Kongensgaard’s garden at the foot of the stone, as a last greeting from their wandering boy. I cannot think of a more restful spot for mother and father to sleep. The plot is good-sized and brother Jacob and his wife are also buried there. The always faithful Hans sees to it that the place is well taken care of.

We all want the world to be “sacred.” But many are noticing that nothing sacred ever avoids the darker, more difficult aspects of our earthly tenure. It’s safe to say that efforts to raise consciouness of environmental issues have been “successful,” but how much of that success has involved an honest reckoning with that half of nature that is nasty and brutish, and how much is dependent on suppressing or ignoring such things, as dependent as the advertising campaign that got us to buy that SUV in the first place?

It’s no accident that we call this movement “green.” For the most part, the mythology underlying the environmental movement has always relied upon an undue preoccupation with life and growth, with beauty and leisure. The same has been said, more often than not by environmentalists, of the national mythology that started us gobbling and stomping across this continent so long ago. This is the one thing we haven’t changed, and it’s looking more and more like it’s the only thing that ever really needed changing.

It’s beginning to occur to people that it’s not enough to think of nature as therapy, as spectacular, as a nurturing mother and source of all life. Our preoccupation with life, with productivity, with joy keeps us from telling the rest of the story. It keeps us from going the rest of the way around. The life we love is born of rot. Decay makes the heat that fires our growing. Pain is the gilt that frames our joy. And if our common goal is to “see to it that the place is well taken care of,” then we should take a tip from Gussy’s brother Hans. Always faithful, we need to see nature as a grave.

June 24 (Sat)
No sunshine yet but it’s mild and there is no rain. Hans and I went to church in Lemvig this morning and nostalgic memories came back to me, as I sat in the old church, where I had come with my parents as a boy. The preacher had chosen for his text the story of the Prodigal Son, and I couldn’t help feeling there was a message in it for me. I’ve come a long way from the beliefs of my childhood, many of the dogmas have gone by the board, but the well-known hymns brought back to me the old feeling of restful peace, and reverence.

The first step to finding real solutions is the accurate characterization of the problem we’re trying to solve, and to insist that our problem is merely declining salmon runs is like trying to cure cancer with a box of Kleenex. There are many folks throughout the Northwest who are getting it through their heads that declining salmon runs are just a symptom of a much deeper malady. They are realizing that treating the fish problem by itself — without dealing with the relationship between fish and people – will produce, at best, a temporary fix.

A well-known example is the work of Freeman House and his neighbors on the Mattole River, on the northern coast of California. Faced with the prospect of losing their native salmon runs, they developed a plan to capture wild salmon on their way up to where their spawning beds used to be, and propagate the fish in homemade, small-scale fish hatcheries.

As a matter of necessity, this was a do-it-yourself affair, which is why, to my mind, the Mattole effort is so much more important than all the “official” efforts in progress throughout the Northwest. They had to beg and borrow everything they needed, be it hardware, technical expertise, human labor, or moral support. They couldn”t afford to be picky, to alienate citizens who could lend a hand or landowners who managed so much of the salmon’s historical habitat. They reached out to everyone — hippies, ranchers, logging companies, fishermen, and anyone else — with respect and humility.

The residents of the Mattole were a little ahead of the curve, but since they began their efforts in the late 1970s, the idea that salmon should thrive has taken hold throughout the Northwest. In the Upper Klamath Basin there are several efforts similar to that on the Mattole. Organizations like the Upper Klamath Basin Working Group, the Klamath Basin Ecosystem Foundation, and the Klamath Watershed Council have been working for almost a decade on collaborative, community-based approaches to not just endangered species recovery, but overall watershed health and economic vitality. These efforts have produced demonstrable, verifiable results, and participants see these results as evidence that these innovative approaches really do work — if they are allowed to.

Upper basin farmers, who have been core participants in these efforts from the beginning, are feeling like all their efforts have been for nothing, like the shutdown of their farms amounts to a punishment for the pivotal role they have played. Participating environmentalists, too, are feeling betrayed, like a blast of regulatory heat melted their snowball just as it was starting to really get rolling. The only glimmer of hope for these efforts is an evolving consensus that changes need to be made to our most fundamental environmental laws, changes that will allow local communities the time and space to do what coercive legislation has never been able to: outgrow once and for all the silly notion that there is some categorical difference between human communities and the rest of Creation. This is the wound that has been hemorrhaging throughout this nation’s history, and we are finally learning that our little tiny bandaids will never get the bleeding stopped.

The effort to restore salmon runs in the Northwest is massive, and there is much frustration at the pace of progress and the level of conflict. But it still feels to me like we’re going to pull it off. It feels this way not because of the financial and institutional power behind the effort, but in spite of it. It feels this way because people like Freeman House – people all across this continent – are demonstrating a willingness to have patience and faith without sacrificing passion, a willingness to allow a fresh set of stories to emerge from encounters between all different kinds of people, to allow their minds to be changed, even while they’re trying to change the minds of others.

This is not “consensus.” This is not “compromise” or “collaboration.” This is culture, living, breathing, and growing – a ceaseless cycle of splitting apart and fusing together, not everywhere at once but here and there, now and then. It is a sort of trial and error, by which we fine-tune our communities until they fit neatly into the landscapes where they’ve come to rest.

There is something in the way people are talking about salmon that marks a departure from conventional advocacy. There is something about the way others are talking that marks a departure from conventional “extractive” development. There is a gathering together, coming in close around something that can only be found where we live, that only shows itself to those who have stayed long enough to let their senses adjust. It’s not a thing but a growing, an iteration, ongoing and ever-changing — a conversation between a people and a place which are both, themselves, ongoing and ever-changing.

This is a point that is elegantly made in House’s book, Totem Salmon. And I think he was able to make this point for one very good reason. He was a fisherman. He killed salmon for money and for food. This experience underlies his struggle to figure out how he should relate to these fish – such as when he points out that the Yurok word for salmon means “that which is eaten,” and that the Ainu word means “the real thing that we eat.” Throughout the Northwest, alliances have been formed between commercial fishermen, Native American tribes, and conventional, urban, Euro-American environmental advocates. These alliances have had a distinct effect on the rhetoric of species preservation efforts, particularly within the ranks of conventional advocates. The reason for this is simple: the salmon, while they satisfy the same criteria – beauty, drama, marketability – that made the bald eagle and the spotted owl so useful to advocates, are the first endangered species that most of us love to kill and eat.

Not long ago I met a commercial fisherman whose boat had been idled since the early ’90s. I asked him about his relationship with urban environmental advocates. I suggested that while irrigators like myself may harm salmon through degradation of habitat, he kills them outright, on purpose, for money. I asked him what made him think these people wouldn’t come down on him once they were done with us, after the fishermen were no longer useful to them. He said some guys worry about that a lot. Then he said, “But listen to what the environmentalists are saying. They’re telling hardluck stories about families that have been run out of business. They’re talking about keeping small towns on the map and keeping their economies going. You would’ve never heard that kind of talk back when it was the owl. I don’t think they realize it, but this salmon thing is messing with their heads.”

And they are not the only ones. Small farmers and ranchers have always had the direct, daily experience of the deeply complex, morally ambiguous workings of natural systems — the dependence of life upon death, the inextricable marriage of growth and decay. These have always been part of the everyday lives of rural people. The problem has been that they haven’t had any real good way of talking about it, of turning that experience into something that draws the people and the land together, that reminds them daily that their two fates are really only one. Urban people, on the other hand, have come up with some very clever ways of talking about people and nature, but they have had to do it without the benefit of daily engagement, without the daily affirmation that our lives are made possible by the death of what we love.

Salmon are giving us a way to fill in each other’s gaps, and they happen to be ideally suited to making us do it in a very particular way — the only way that is both deep and durable enough to outlast all the corporate and bureaucratic hugeness that has thus far kept us from coming together.

Salmon not only force us to confront, accept, even celebrate the role of death in our lives, our own roles as killer and killed, they also force us to do it in particular places, within finite landscapes and communities, at scales compatible with the standard equipment of the human organism. Salmon have sorted themselves out into hundreds, maybe thousands of uniquely adapted populations, hard-wired for the specifics of this or that little crease in the earth. If they survive, if we are going to help ensure their survival, we will have to do almost exactly the same thing.

July 5th (Wed)
My brother Hans and I went for a stroll around town, and once more to the cemetery, this time to see my sister Sidsel’s grave. Then toward evening a car came from Kongensgaard to take me elsewhere on a farewell visit. It was now time to say good-bye to Hans. This was not easy. He is 77 years old and not too well. We both realized this was our last meeting, and our eyes were wet when we shook hands.

My wife and I hadn’t had a vacation for seven years, so we headed for the coast. We took the road that ran along the Klamath, all the way to the sea. We drove through the homes of the Karuk, the Hoopa, and the Yurok. On the Hoopa reservation we saw a child pushing his bike. Both tires were flat. My wife said we should give him a ride, and I said, “Yeah, we should,” and kept on driving. The boy never even looked our way. He wasn’t looking to us for help.

On the coast I walked the docks alone, counting “For Sale” signs on all the small boats, remembering the same signs on the farms where I live. In rows on each boat there were colorful license stickers with pictures of salmon leaping — ’89, ’90, ’91, ’92 — and then they would stop. There were taverns nearby, loud with wrinkled, reddened faces — angry just like we are.

We were headed down where Gussy had lived. I was going to see his grave. Gussy had made it back safe and sound, and then not long after, he died. Just before he left the docks in Denmark he wrote, “It was wonderful to make this pilgrimage to the Homeland, but it’ll be nice to get back home.” He put more than one home in that sentence, but it doesn’t sound like he noticed. I think a lot of us are like that.

He is in the ground on the north coast of California, and down with him he brought a heartful of stories about that place and the people he loved. He also had stories of a place on the other side of the world. He had people in the ground there — and in the trees and the air and the streams. That knowledge made him go back, and it helped him find his way.

My people are buried all over this world. There is no single place I can go to and find them. I have no family in the little graveyard at home, where the waters of the Klamath first hit the ground. But I know the stone-carved names there. I sit and talk and eat with people who have those names now. Last year, hat on my chest, I stood with neighbors and watched a man lowered into the ground. A man I had known, a man I had worked with, a man who had helped me. Someone once told him he’d better watch out, that “someday they’ll run us out of this country.” He just looked back to his work and said, quietly, “I’m not going anywhere.”

I like to think this is how it starts. That talk, this work, this shared place — they have made a part of his life a part of my own, and there is nothing anyone can do about that. I have stories to tell about this man, and the stories he told, we will tell again. He is planted in the land here, and because of that these stories are rooted here, too. And because of that so are the storytellers. There is nothing anyone can do about that. I wipe my daughter’s tears away and tell her, “We’re not going anywhere.”

My mother and father will be buried here. I will have stories to tell about them, and those stories will hold me to the ground where they rest, and I will see to it that the place is well taken care of. These stories are the part of our dead that lives on, and our dead are down in this ground, coming apart, coming back up, alive and green and reaching for the sun. This green will feed the river, and the river will keep our children fed. Our children, grown, with children of their own, sitting around the table, telling stories about us.

Mike Connelly is a public lands rancher and federal project irrigator. He hopes that’s what he will still be doing this time next year.