It is not often that I am compelled to put my thoughts into writing, but of late I have found myself caught in a very subjective crisis. If you will bear with me I will make every effort to articulate my thoughts in a fashion that will help you see my dilemma.
Spring of 2005 arrived at Singing Falls, our angora goat and fiber art ranch. With it the intense aspects of shepherding the very pregnant does and the newly born kids of our band of angora goats once again took a prominent place in our lives. Our calendar always shows expected birth dates, for we have already noted breeding dates and calculated the requisite gestation time. So, as spring came on, we were there as always monitoring sounds from the barn with an intercom system.
There are always the nightly treks, these visits to the barn necessary when a doe begins to give birth and her grunts and cries are heard through the speakers. The season, perhaps the busiest of the entire year for us, takes a profound annual toll on mind, body and spirit. It is a time we have grown to enjoy and comes with a price we are willing to pay.
Though demanding, that time of year is filled with our greatest rewards as shepherds. Soon enough the air is filled with sounds of the new goat mothers “talking” to their kids and the kids themselves exuding false cries of alarm when their mothers are not paying close enough attention. The new life that literally bursts from the tiny new goats is exhilarating to watch. It’s always thrilling to watch them cavort and play, dancing from rock to rock, their somersaults into in the air constraining us to wonder why they are not born with wings.
These newborns seem to spend most of their playtime chasing each other around the huge volcanic rocks that dot the pasture. Swiftly they romp round and round the large lichen laden boulders playing their favorite game which seems to be “king of the mountain. With an energy that refuses to quit, they draw near to and cavort around a large creature not quite like them, one who quietly watches them with dark almond shaped eyes.
He, of course, is the Polish livestock guardian dog who makes sure all the goats are safe. He puts up with their playfulness and rarely bats an eye, even when they jump on his back like they would one of the rocks.
At the same time, the happy season so full of life, can be filled with sorrow and dismay. As shepherds we see the infrequent stillborn or malformed baby, or watch with sadness as a first-time mother spurns her young because she cannot reconcile the pain she has just experienced in giving birth. How about the annual phenomenon that we have come to know as the “missing kid”. How many hours have we, as shepherds, searched high and low for a missing kid goat, hoping that we will find it tucked away by its mother in some small mountain crevice and not eaten by some creeping predator? The old story of the shepherd who left the ninety and nine to search for the one missing sheep comes to mind. The responsibilities of the season are immense for us.
The new life in the goat-yard always seems to eclipse any sorrow, however, and though we suffer loss and even shed tears, each new spring brings with it a new sense of anticipation. We seem to forget anew all the “bad times” and our hopes are large.
For me, personally, however, the spring of 2005, was very different. The first day of spring was beset with extreme drought. This, in conjunction with last winter’s unique experiences caused life at Singing Falls ranch to change. I think for the better. Let me explain.
Pieces of the Puzzle
At the end of December of the previous year (2004) Coho Salmon were discovered in the stream that bisects Singing Falls, our ranch, the stream named Joe Hall Creek. The appearance of the large fish was a major event for me. In fact, having farmed in the wilds the better part of my adult life, I had yet to witness such an incredible phenomena. To be sure as a shepherd I had seen a lot.
Our sojourn in Colorado imprinted deeply into my soul the marvel of the Kokanee Salmon runs during the bitter cold winters of the high country of the Rocky Mountains. They sustained us for long stretches during the year. I’d bring home 36 at a time (the alloted portion for a day) from the Shadow Mountain dam where State employees could be found during the bitterest cold blizzards milking the fish and fertilizing their eggs for the hatchery program.
Seeing the huge sea run Coho (few as there were) begin their reproduction cycle here at Singing Falls brought back memories for me. I recollected conversations I had had with the elders of this area as they spoke to me of the salmon runs of the “old days”. One said that in that day he could walk across the water on the backs of the fish, the stream was so tightly jammed with spawners. Another, a neighbor, spoke of how he would often be kept awake night after night due to the jumping, thrashing and splashing sounds made by large Coho in the stream next to his house.
I marveled at their stories but never suspected I would see these same fish show up in my day. Now, during my watch, the stream was all but silent, even during winter’s rains that swelled the stream. During the winter 2004, however, when these fish swam up the Joe Hall again and I was able to view them for myself. Now that I was seeing salmon, that up to now were only historical accounts on the tongues of my elders, a response within me was triggered. This response is one that is difficult to describe, but I will try.
During the time I’ve lived here nature has revealed many faces. I’d witnessed drought when the Joe Hall creek would dry up and the ground would crack open, forming long zigzag gaps that were and deep. The raging waters that channeled through the stream bed of Joe Hall Creek in winter would gradually subside as summer began its slow approach. First it would be trickle. Then it would dry up completely. It was the way of this land and I was well acquainted with it. It wasn’t always so. My older neighbors said the stream used to flow year-round.
Suddenly everything changed the day that the Salmon migrated from the coast of Oregon, fought the obstacles in their way, and appeared, almost miraculously, in Joe Hall Creek. My head reeled with astonishment and yet my heart leaped with joy. What was happening here?
I did not realize the stark void of what I had been missing until I actually saw the salmon. Suddenly I didn’t ever want to see that void again. Whatever had brought them back was still the unknown, but I knew that I wanted to do anything in my power to make sure that they kept coming back. It had been more than fifty years since the fish had been here, most of the old timers said They all shook their heads, no less incredulous than I was to see them back.
Now flesh appeared on the words of the elders. As I watched with awe these enormous fish diligently laboring to build their nests and propagate their species. I was completely amazed. I couldn’t grasp what it would really be like to see the stream filled to overflowing with fish this size, fish thrashing and wallowing, boisterously churning the waters, vying for the ideal place to construct their nests, lay their eggs and fertilize them. Here they were, coming again, to make sure their species lives on. Emblazoned into them is a knowledge, their instincts for survival and propagation fine tuned. The gravelly nest (redds) are formed and the act of spawning their young begins.
With their reemergence on the scene something was awakened in me. It was a conceptualization of ancient years and seasonal cycles. Indeed, these streams had once hosted thousands of salmon every year. Like clock work each late fall they would arrive after their strenuous two hundred plus mile swim upstream from the Pacific Ocean. They would wait patiently for the pulsations which signaled the rise of water in the rivers and streams from the winter rains. At the perfect moment the ancient impulse that triggered them to return to their spawning waters would awaken.
Here they would return like the machinery of a living time piece. Here, in our stream they would once again begin their final dance the dance of life and finally, of death. Here they would come, as their ancestors did, to give birth to multiple thousands of alevin and to then, like those same ancestors, die, their decaying bodies feeding their own young.
Some years before I came here, for some heretofore unknown calumny of reasons, the rhythm of this life cycle I speak of was broken. In my time it only lived on as a memory in the shadowy recesses of the minds of those in my community who themselves were aged. They had seen it all but following generations saw it not. Though a senior myself it was new to me.
The Fertile Garden
It wasn’t at first that I detected the gnawing gaping hole that the missing fish represented. I received a call from Mr. Wes Yamamoto, a member of the USFS Tiller district of Umpqua National Forest. He requested permission to have a “sharp” fish biologist named Calib “Casey” Baldwin come and record the “event”. The entire community was astir with the news of the return of the long missing fish by this time. A recording of this unusual break in the status quo in Joe Hall Creek, tributary of the Elk Creek, drainage needed to be made.
Mr. Baldwin seemed quite astounded to witness that single coho hen building her redd (egg nest). To be sure, as a professional biologist working for the government, he had seen many salmon. But the unique reappearing of the coho at Joe Hall Creek was a scientific anomaly that piqued his interest. These wild Coho had not been seen in Joe Hall Creek for over a half a century, of this he was fairly certain. It would be well worth scientific study.
As we meandered along the riparian zone, thoughts beset me. Fragments of a larger picture began to tumble into my mind. Visions of man and beast taking their fill of the large sea run fish rushed upon me. I saw, as it were, bears carrying off large salmon into the brush surrounding the stream and envisioned coyotes and raccoons pulling dying and spent fish carcasses to the shore for their feasting. Skunks and insects, crayfish and worms, a veritable menagerie of creatures were flying and crawling, all depositing the rare and precious elements the fish have hauled with them from the sea, into the surrounding woods.
Once a farmer, always a farmer and in a flash I saw my own verdant organic garden. All who have thus planted seed know the need for good amendments in order to produce a prolific garden. A realization struck me like a thunderbolt. For over fifty years, since the salmon ceased their migration here, the forest had been deprived of vital nutrients provided by the thousands of deceased fish that once filled the stream. The large picture was just this: there are intricate life links that bind the entire system together to form the “whole.”
Eagles, ospreys, owls and squirrels all seemed to lament the vacuum left by the heretofore vanished fish. And what about the beaver? What part did he play in the larger picture before being trapped into non-existence within our Oregon streams?
How deficient the soil had become. Trace minerals from the sea no longer spurred the health of the vegetation or mammals. Sickness had spread through the surrounding riparian zone and even to the ancient hills as a result of the chain of living and dying that now stood broken.
I had always sensed we had been forced by circumstance to do too much too fast as a society. Now the stark reality of the present state of the land in which I dwelt pressed upon me. The truth that I had long acknowledged cascaded into protected layers of my soul. We, as a society, had erred.
Again, more like the farmer I am, I could envision the flow of creation in all of its business passing with time like an old buckboard farm wagon. The major and most influential elements of the systems of nature are like the large wheels that carry the wagon along. Like giant forces of mobility, these large wheels move the entire system along through passing time.
Then, through some drastic mishap, the spokes of one of the wheels lay shattered and useless. The wagon is stopped from traveling through time as it would or should. The earnest goal that nature has pursued for ages had gone out of reach. The wagon was stilled and lay disabled.
The spokes of this wheel are pieces of the system that carry the cycles and rhythm of existence to their intended end. The streams were now disconnected from the surrounding soils, organic debris and flora. Though they once soaked the regions around them with water and nutrients, they now have etched in them a deep boulder laden trench to bed rock. When they once lavished their liquid riches upon roots, clays, old logs and stems beneath a canopy of thick mosses, a quiet harmony ruled. Now those waters seem to purposely rush headlong, only to speedily rage to river and sea, taking mud and precious silt with them.
There is no resistance to these waters. The substance that enriches the land should should have been left behind in pools, amidst wood pilings in the stream and upon the banks. Like a breach in a dam, the unfettered waters burst into the bottom soils of the stream bed, carving and eroding in their wake places fish cannot be born or die any longer.
Here where the fish named the “blues” once turned red, they were no more. Think of it! It has been 50 plus years since these fish have visited this stream! I once asked an elderly and respected neighbor of mine what his hay field would look like if he didn’t fertilize it for fifty years. “It would be a useless waste of weeds”, was his response.
The beavers that dwelt by the hundreds in the upper reaches of the watershed are gone for the most part. This spoke of the broken wheel has all but disappeared like the salmon have.
Imagine thousands of salmon carcasses migrating, spawning and then dying in the remote corners of the watershed. Envision how many and what kinds of animals and plants thrived on these living and spent fish. The streams once teamed with crayfish and aquatic creatures whose existence depended on the annual return of the salmon. Humans also used to carefully await the winter surge of these swarms.
Many of the species dependent on this yearly rush of protein up stream would deposit pieces of the nitrogen rich waste up into the woods to fertilize the forest and fill it with micro-nutrients and minerals found in the sea. Insects multiplied and became food for other animals. Many elements of the natural cycles of life in my forest are languishing as a result of the breach. My property, built up upon thousands of years of these fish coming here and blessing the surrounding areas, had been destitute of that blessing for more than 50 years.
Help From Friends
As a rancher and shepherd by vocation, and naturalist by persuasion, the implications of a new beginning with the reappearance of the Coho was not overlooked by me. One of the quintessential ingredients that would serve to make up a healthy and sustainable forest suddenly appeared back on the scene.
The interface between private lands/landowners and the wildlife has been a rough one. The ability for us as landowners who dwelled outside of the cities to live in consort with nature while simultaneously making a living has often left the “wild” side on the short end.
The day that I walked with Casey Baldwin along Joe Hall Creek (after we both watched that first hen building her nest), he described to me the kind of conditions in a stream that would attract the building of just such a nest. I assured him that further up stream there were spots identical to those he had just described. “Shall we have a look?” he asked.
Sure enough. As we walked along the corridors lining the Joe Hall Creek (now on my private property), our eyes were regaled at the sight of several pairs of mating Coho, all building their nests in graveled beds.
Mr. Baldwin very casually asked me if I was interested in doing something for the fish. He said there was expertise and perhaps funds available for instream aquatic habitat restoration work. Without hesitation (and with some trepidation, I might add) I expressed my interest.
Government and private land owners have not exactly had the best of relations in these rural areas. My reservations had been well established within me. This reservation comes with living in the forests as a private citizen these days. Many well established families lost their livelihoods because of environmental forest management policies that were enforced in recent years. What was I getting myself into? The situation was too important not to take a chance. So, after much deliberation and prayer, my wife and I decided to take that chance.
Given the time of year, action had to take place quickly if we were going to get into the current cycle of applications to initiate scientific evaluation and apply for the appropriate funding. This was an arena of activity I had never been involved in. There was much to learn and little time to adequately prepare. Fortunately the arrival of the fish in our stream was in itself the most powerful statement that could be made. And also fortunate was the fact that various agencies could hear what the event of their arrival was saying.
One of the most significant bodies in the decision making process in our county was the Umpqua Basin Watershed Council (now the “Partnership for Umpqua Rivers). After delineating some major problems that affected both the upstream and instream conditions of Joe Hall Creek, I decided to submit through the Partnership (PUR) for an OWEB (Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board) grant. Knowing I could never afford to do the all the work that would be necessary with my own resources, an appeal for assistance seemed the only real remedy.
An upstream man made mudslide and a woeful dearth of natural barriers in the stream were the main hindrances to healthy spawning grounds. Historical records showed that Joe Hall Creek was a year round stream, but as I mentioned at the beginning of this writing, it now dried up for several weeks in the late summer year after year. Large wood and stone weirs would have to be engineered and placed in the stream to act as a shelter for young fish and to create pools. Each task called for was monetarily beyond my own personal reach.
I found in the watershed council an eclectic group of many interests working together to restore the watershed to its naturally productive state. At one table, one meeting ground, sat representatives from environmental groups, the timber industry, ranchers, the Cow Creek Indian Tribe, and fishing enthusiasts. Government, private landowners and industry worked together as a partnership to accomplish what none of them alone could do. Given the current day we live in where strife and noncooperation is the norm, the sight was something to behold.
And they helped. On such short notice Casey Baldwin was able to get our project through. The “Dog Salmon” (so called because the spawning and dying fish when ingested by a wandering farm dog would cause a dog’s demise) would be given another chance to return to their ancient spawning grounds .
My part in the big picture? I would be adapting our ranching operation with a mutually beneficial adjustment of our husbandry methods to keep our herd and flock out of the riparian zone immediately adjacent to the stream (a perennial source of liver-fluke parasites in our herd.)
It is now the next rainy season in our area of the world ( Fall/Winter 2005-2006, Umpqua National Forest). The “Silvers”, “Dog Salmon”, “Blues”, “Coho” – call them what you will – have returned again this year and in even greater numbers!
I walked the creekside with my wife a couple of weeks ago, the mists of the mountains hugging around us. “Shhhhhh,” I pressed my index finger to my lips and told her to move slowly to the edge of the creek.
A large scarlet colored “buck” (male salmon) suddenly swam through the water below us and fought off a younger intruding buck that wanted to fertilize a few eggs himself. My wife and I watched for a few minutes in hushed silence as the miracle of their being back where they belong unfolded before us.
mohair at singingfalls.com