Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Sacred Fish

Copper River salmon are the best fish in the world.
No. Seriously, they have the richest Omega-3 content of any fish in the world.  Not that I've personally tested every type of fish, but that's what I've read...  Its because the Copper River is such a long, and cold!, and swift!, river.  So the returning salmon swimming upstream to spawn need the fat reserves to power that long swim in the long cold swift river.  Apparently in the fish markets in Seattle you can buy "sockeye," "coho," "king," or "Copper River" salmon.  Sockeye is the same as 'red' and coho is 'silver.'  Both types have runs on the Copper River, but there is such a difference between other place's sockeye and coho compared to the Copper River that 

We went to Chitina to go dip-netting.  Dip-netting is just what it sounds like.  You have a big net on the end of a long pole, you hold the net in the water, and when a fish swims in, you pull it out.  The fist stick to the edges of the river where the (very strong) current is a bit more manageable to swim against.  You want to fish in an eddy, where the water is flowing upstream, partially because the fish like these as it makes their journey easier, and partially because it ensures that your net is open to catch the fish! 
I have perhaps never been so aware of my latissimus dorsi muscles as I am after a day of holding a net in river, and hauling out big fish... not that I'm complaining. 

I'd never been to Chitina before, or actually that entire part of the state.  It is so beautiful it is almost unreal.  Sometimes I forget just how big our state is, or just how beautiful it is.  And then I drive for 10+ hours and as I pass into the second mountain range that I drive through, my breath just catches in my throat from the immense beauty of it all. 

When I was a girl, we had a book  of Native American stories and legends from cultures across the continent about animals.  One summer I remember deciding to try to memorize them all, so that I could tell them myself to the family around the campfire when we went camping.  I never did memorize all of them, but one of my favorites from that summer was Northwest story about salmon.  I believe it was a Haida tale, but it my have been from a different Northwest culture.  (The following is entirely paraphrased and no doubt changed by my memory...)

Every summer, the people of the Salmon would leave their lodges in the oceans and put on their salmon fish cloaks and would  run up the rivers to the spawning ground.  The People would catch the salmon and dry and smoke it to support them through the winter.  They would return the bones to the river, so that when the bones reached the great lodge of the salmon people in the ocean, the salmon people could continue their lives, having left their salmon fish cloaks with the People.  There was a little girl who lived in a village on the banks of the river.  One day, her mother cooked salmon for dinner, and after the meal was over, her mother wrapped all the bones up in the fish skin and gave it to her daughter to put back into the river.  The little girl started towards the river, but along the way she got distracted by a game the village children were playing.  She placed her bundle down on the ground, deciding that she would come back for it as soon as the game ended.  When she came back to the salmon bundle, it was open and the bones were scattered on the ground.  "oh well," she thought as she gathered the spilt bones and ran to the river.  She gave the bones and skin back to the river and ran back to her mother's house.  The next year, as the salmon were running toward the spawning ground, a handsome lame stranger came to the village and claimed the girl as his promised bride.  When the village heard the stranger's story and realized he was the salmon who was missing a bone, they gave the couple wedding presents and sent the girl off to live in the great salmon lodge in the bottom of the sea.  She was very scared, but when she arrived she found that the lodge was just like the great lodge at home, that the village had a spring for fresh water just like at home, and that the women cooked with bentwood boxes and cedar baskets, just like at home.  The stranger and the girl fell very much in love, for he was a skilled craftsman with a tender heart.  Because he was missing a bone, he could no longer put on the salmon skin cloak and swim up river every summer, but every summer for the rest of her life the girl would put on her cloak and swim up river.  When she passed her home village she would jump as high as she could, so look over the bank and see her family.  Later, the couple's children would swim the river every summer with their mother.  And that is why the People and the People of the Salmon are family.

I remember liking the story as a girl because it was about a girl who had a grand and transformative adventure (and married a handsome stranger!) and also because it was about salmon.  Today, I love the story for the way it speaks of respect and interdependence.  Though the bones of the Chitina salmon are likely to end up composted for my garden rather than returned to the river, I enact my respect by using every part of the fish.  We did leave the guts for the gulls and the river, but the tails have gone to make quarts of salmon stock, the heads sit in bags in the freezer to boil for food for pups through the winter, the spines and ribs of filleted fish are likewise in the freezer waiting to become soup.  Of course, there are fillets and steaks, and a couple of whole fish for feast days as well.  That, and I learned the Zen-master art of the salmon fillet:

The Darlin'Man was resistant to filleting the fish at all, for fear of wasting precious salmon.  He had a good point, if we were to judge based on the couple of fish he and I tried to fillet down at the river.  We probably got barely a third of the meat off in the fillets.  So we packed the catch in ice, and decided to process them at home.  The Darlin'Man stayed as Summit to help his folks with a hot (running!) water installation, while mom and I packed the fish to Fairbanks.  We spent all night and half the next day (with a long nap!) in a companionable kitchen dance while I wielded knife and she worked the vaccuum packer.  I learned that an impeccably sharp knife is the first step to Zen-fillet success.  And then, it is just a matter of placing your eyes at the tip of the blade of the knife, and slowly riding along the ribs.  My last carcasses probably had barely a tablespoon's worth of flesh left on bone...  

A (translated) third century Toaist Chinese text reads:

Prince Wen Hui's cook
Was cutting up an ox.
Out went a hand,
Down went a shoulder,
He planted a foot,
He pressed with a knee,
The ox fell apart
With a whisper,
The bright cleaver murmured
Like a gentle wind.
Rhythm! Timing!
Like a sacred dance,
Like "The Mulberry Grove,"
Like ancient harmonies!

"Good work!" the Prince exclaimed,
"Your method is faultless!"
"Method?" said the cook
Laying aside his cleaver,
"What I follow is Tao
Beyond all methods!

When I first began to cut up oxen
I would see before me
The whole ox
All in one mass.
After three years
I no longer saw this mass.
I saw the distinctions.

"But now I see nothing
With the eye.  My whole being
My senses are idle.  The spirit
Free to work without plan
Follows its own instinct
Guided by natural line,
By the secret opening, the hidden space,
My cleaver finds its own way. 
I cut through no joint, chop no bone. 

"There are spaces in the joints;
The blade is thin and keen:
When this thinness
Finds that space
There is all the room you need!
It goes like a breeze!
Hence I have this cleaver nineteen years
As if newly sharpened!

"True, there are sometimes
Tough joints.  I feel them coming,
I slow down, I watch closely,
Hold back, barely move the blade,
And whump!  the part falls away
Landing like a clod of earth.

"Then I withdraw the lade,
I stand still
And let the joy of the work
Sink in. 
I clean the blade
And put it away."

Prince Wen Hui said,
"This is it! My cook has shown me
How I ought to live
My own life!"


 (qtd. from John Kabat-Zinn's "Wherever you go there you are: mindfulness meditation in everyday life.")

 I may not yet be as masterful as Prince Wen Hui's cook, but his way with ox and cleaver is one that I discovered on my own with knife and salmon.  I look forward to my practice next summer when next the people of the salmon don their fish cloaks and swim upstream!  Meanwhile, the freezer is stuffed to the gills (pun intended) with best salmon in world. 

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