Salmon Brings us Together

This has been happening my whole life. Salmon brings me to harvest with my family, brings me across Kachemak Bay in Alaska to learn fish-skin sewing from Audrey Armstrong, brings me to awe as I watch them swim upstream, brings people to my table again and again, and brings me here, to Vermont Performance Lab. Of course, in this case, we had to arrange for the wild salmon to be here.

There used to be a healthy Atlantic Salmon population in the Connecticut River, all through Vermont. Wild, of course (before the designation “wild” was needed), but in 1798, a dam built on the lower end of the Connecticut River blocked the migration path and decimated the salmon. Today, in conversation with a biologist at Vermont Fish and Wildlife, I learned that there is still a small - very small - population of wild Atlantic salmon here. They are borne from wild, natural reproduction. In fact, some swam up the river, right past where I am now, in Brattleboro, this year. The population has to be supported now by the Connecticut River Program, a hatchery program, but out of 6 million fry stocked in the river, less than 100 per year have been coming back (51 last year)! It's pollution, dams, and something in the ocean that is causing the massive decrease in Atlantic salmon survival. Obviously, Atlantic salmon are protected in the Connecticut River and should have been protected long before we got to this point. For our fish-skin lantern making project this week we could have gone fishing for landlocked salmon in Lake Champlain and Lake Memphremagog, but then we would have had to rely on our fishing prowess. And, we would have had to get a lot more fish since landlocked salmon are smaller. So, we ordered our big, wild salmon from a fishmonger. 

The salmon have met me here and we are about to begin. Judy Dow is here too, a master basket-maker. We met for the first time in person in the hotel lobby and for me, it was like meeting an old friend. Immediate comfort, immediate conversation about things important to our lives. She is someone who like me, makes things. And I think we are both dedicated to actively remembering and knowing where the things we make come from. I think we both actively pursue the “why” in our making. Though our answers may be different, it is the question that is important.

Why am I making a dance that will be housed within an installation of hand made, functional fish-skin lanterns? Because as I walked along Bishop Beach in Homer, Alaska, the image of these lanterns flooded my mind. I had seen the exhibit Skin Sisters at Bunnell Street Gallery a year before. It was an exhibit of art work – sculpture, baskets, jewelry - all made of fish skin. The show was dedicated to the artists' teacher, Fran Reed. It was amazing visual work. I wanted to learn. I met Audrey Armstrong at that opening and her words in relation to fish-skin sewing, memory, knowledge, and love stay with me. Being back in Homer absolutely influenced the appearance of this strong image of fish-skin lanterns. I imagined a stage full of them. And it made me start to learn how to make this thing I imagined.

The salmon entered my mind as I walked the beach in Homer, but of course, they have been with me all along. From age 0 to high school the salmon brought my entire extended family together, yearly. Cousins, second cousins, third cousins (all cousins), aunts, uncles, and grandma were joined by my parents, brothers, and me at the beach for a glorious week of really hard work. I remember the waves making their extremely regular and continuously mesmerizing sound as we went to sleep in the tent each night. I remember rolling down dirt cliffs again and again with my brothers and cousins and running through the woods, pretending I was a deer. I remember beach-combing in the off hours with mom and grandma, food cooked over the fire, and the constant hum of my adults in motion, conversation, and work. The work! Yes, I remember the work.

First of all, as a child, you learn to bonk. Bonk the heads of the salmon we catch. I know, it sounds horrible. And I admit, as an adult, it is more difficult. But this is our food – for the entire year, for the entire extended family. We need this fish and we are thankful for them. We celebrate them and we want them to die quickly. These days, when I see people land fish and let them flop in the sand, I am angry and disappointed with how removed some humans are with other creatures of this world.

As children, bonking meant that we were part of it – this important and celebratory time for our family. We chose our rocks well and we were always accompanied by a stronger adult who was ready to step in if needed. We sat on the beach and watched the salmon swim into the nets. We acknowledged each and every one. We watched our fathers and uncles and older cousins go out in the boat to haul in the fish from the net so it didn't get too heavy. When the tide went out, we all helped disentangle the fish. 

Totes of salmon were brought to grandma's house where in shifts, the rest of the work began. Scaling (something else us kids could do), cleaning, filleting, stripping, (work we graduated to due to the knives, the fast pace, and the precision needed) and tying. Tying. At this point, it is late in the night. No knives are necessary once we are ready to tie, just mounds and mounds of strips of salmon and circles of string. The only precision required is that the string be tied one inch (or so) below the end and that strips of equal size be strung together. Precision that us older kids could handle as the adults took a much needed break.

Perhaps I am exaggerating, or my memory fails me, but my cousin and I (yes, 2 of us) would be on that fish cleaning hill tying strips till the wee hours of the morning. Complaining (of course) that we were the only ones working. I guess it didn't register to us that there was still the brining, the drying, the hanging of rows and rows of strips in the multi-story smokehouse. Not to mention the stoking of the fire – not too hot, not too burned out - for the hours, hours, and days ahead. Still, we felt justified. And perhaps that is key; every moment with these fish is important. Our moments growing up, learning the skills necessary, building relationships with each other and with the fish, prepares us for a life of working with them and each other. My cousin and I got to bond over our chore and when my mom or one of the other adults came out to join us, we felt incredibly part of something.

We learn how to respect the rivers and ocean because that is where the fish are. We learn how to treat them once they are caught, how to protect them from sand and sun, how to prepare them and take care of them all along the way. I haven't even gotten to the assembly line that happens in the smokehouse once a certain amount of fish is partially smoked and ready for canning and kippuring... but the rack of venison with blackberry demi glace, root vegetable, and chevre & thyme crust on my table at the Tap Room in Brattleboro is almost consumed and I am compelled to tell one more story about the table. 

A few years ago, my collaborator and friend Karen Beaver and I had dinner together at my house. Karen is also from Alaska but hadn't been back in years so I wanted to give her a little taste of home. We had salmon for dinner and for dessert, my grandma's agutuk. We shared stories of home (Alaska) and home (Minnesota and South Dakota) and our lives and our work. We remembered things we thought we had forgotten.  And we kept commenting on how good the salmon (and salmon berries) shared between us was. I am so grateful we had that food to share. We have to fiercely protect and love our salmon. Salmon brings us together.