There once was a salmon. He was swimming in the same direction as all the other salmon. Salmon to his left, to his right, ahead of him and behind him, below him and above him. As far as his eye sight could reach he saw salmon. Gently swimming. All in the same direction.
They were swimming against the current. When they got to the river delta, they squeezed closer together and swam. Against the current. Together.
When the river got narrower, the spaces between them got narrower, and they continued to swim.
Then there was a small waterfall. It was a little step up in the river. It was just a big enough step that it forced all the salmon to slow down to allow for the salmon ahead to take the time they needed to jump up over it. Then everyone would do the same, and they would all continue up river.
The one salmon looked around and took note of all the other salmon waiting their turn to jump up the waterfall. They all just looked ahead. He scoffed at being delayed by something so trivial. He found the jump to be just as easy as it appeared. He looked around for agreement, but found no one noticing.
This went on. But the currents where much stronger and the waterfalls were increasing in size and number. Many of the salmon had to try several times to jump up over the waterfall. Some of the salmon were too old, or too young, or simply too tired. They had no strength left, yet they never stopped trying. They were left behind.
As he continued to swim with all the salmon that successfully made the jump he gestured down river and expressed his concern: “What happens to them?”
“They die.” replied someone, blankly. And that was that.
This went on. With each waterfall, more salmon were left behind. Some were dying. Gasping for breathes. Belly up. The one salmon was strong, but with all the distress around him, he had to ask: “Where exactly are we going?”
Up until now, he had never even considered that to be a question one could ask.
“Just keep swimming.” said a voice, that seemed to come from everywhere. And he did.
He glance behind him and saw an ocean of salmon, all looking fiercely determined. Or angry. He couldn’t tell. And they all swam at him. He whispered in another direction: “Why don’t we just stop here?”
“Because if we do, then everyone dies.”
Teeth!! Big, yellow teeth. The beast was standing in the middle of the waterfall, snatching salmon right out of the air as they leapt up. The one salmon, on his first attempt to jump the falls, saw the beast ripping apart a fellow salmon. Eating it. Guts out. Blood in the water. The swim up river was now only struggle and death. He was frantic. Everyone was frantic. Everyone kept screaming at him or at each other “Keep swimming!”
Leaping up the torrents of water. Barely missing the gnashing teeth. Rapid after rapid, bears everywhere. Death all around. Salmon getting shredded. Salmon dying of exhaustion. Salmon literally leaping to their deaths and yet no one stops swimming. No one stops leaping. Everyone keeps swimming.
Finally. In mid air, it dawns on the one salmon that this leap would be his last leap. While in air, the world slows down. Time moves so slowly that he can see everything. Upstream and downstream. Past and Present. The future. He sees the stream in its entirety. A stream lined with bears. Waterfalls forever. He sees eagles, nets, hooks, dams, log jams, drought and poison. Almost no one makes it to the end. Everything is killing them. “There is no hope for us. We’re all dead.”
He lands safely back in the water, but he is no longer a salmon.
He finds himself swimming, but now it feels unnatural, as if he’d forgotten how. He has to consciously force himself to continue what was once a mindless instinct. He slows down, falling back. He swims at an angle, past salmon who barely acknowledge his presence. Sideways. To the edge.
The current is slower by the shore. He finds an eddy behind a bolder. With no current to battle, he catches his breath and attempts to catch his thoughts. From his quiet hiding spot, he watches the salmon struggling, just out of reach. His mind reeled.
This went on.
What he didn’t notice was the raccoon up on the river bank.
“Why aren’t you swimming upstream?” the raccoon interrupted, startling the salmon. “You don’t look like you’re dying.”
The question seemed to shatter the dam of emotions in the salmon. He began to spew: “I don’t know! I don’t understand why they need to keep on swimming I don’t even think they know don’t they see what’s happening don’t they see that they’re all going to die!? Why didn’t they stop back there?! Where are they even going?! This isn’t happening I have to stop this I have to warn them…!!
In mid frenzy, the salmon whipped himself around, about to dart back out into the current, but the raccoon abruptly stopped him.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa, buddy!! the raccoon shouted. “You got your gills all flared up and your acting all crazy like your going to do something… crazy! Just relax a second and tell me what all the fuss is…”
The salmon stared, wild eyed. He lowered his voice to clarify for the raccoon.
“We die if we swim and we die if we don’t swim?! It doesn’t make any sense! And no one seems to notice or even care!! Why is this happening?!” pleaded the salmon.
The raccoon lifted his right brow, feeling foolish for having to state what should be obvious. “You’re salmon. This is what salmon do.”
The salmon stared, clearly needing more explanation.
“Look. Every year you all swim upstream and then reproduce. Most of you die trying, but not every one, and that’s what makes you strong. That’s your thing. That’s just what happens. That’s what makes you salmon. You have power in numbers.”
The salmon was still staring, and the raccoon enjoyed suddenly having a pupil, so he continued.
“It’s not about you or your friends or your family. It’s not about who lives or dies, it’s about the effort. The effort defines you as salmon. If you don’t swim up this river, then you’re not salmon. You’re…” .The raccoon hesitated, searching for a word that wouldn’t come to him. ” …something else.”
The raccoon was perplexed by the idea that something could stop being what it is and become something else; something that it isn’t… but is.
The raccoon had confused even himself. He subtly examined the salmon, to see if he was buying it.
“Something else.” Muttered the salmon. “Something else?”
“Yeah. You might look like a salmon, but if you don’t try to swim up that river, then you’re something else.” The raccoon owned his statement.
“But I can still warn them! I can show them the dangers! I can break them of these old habits! We can still live happy healthy lives down river and not have to worry about all of this ever again!!” The salmon gestured to the parade of carcasses drifting in the currents just past the bolder’s edge.
“Whoa whoa whoa” The raccoon once again interrupted, with a face somewhere in between worry and panic. “I don’t think that’s a good idea. I mean listen to me.” The raccoon stood up and gestured wildly. “Look! Salmon are salmon because they don’t acknowledge their chances of survival….because… if they all knew their fate… they’d be tempted to just give up. If you take that drive away, you might live but…. ” He lowered his voice to a whisper: “If you go and tell them the ugly truth… then your kind really will die. No more salmon. Ever.”
And that was that.
Both the salmon and the raccoon were silent and starring off into their own distances.
And this went on.
The salmon felt defeated, but he understood. He now knew that salmon had to struggle and had to be eaten by just about everything for the species to continue successfully. He now acknowledged that not only was there nothing he could do to change this, but there was actually nothing wrong with it to be changed. He concluded that everything was just is as it should be.
He stayed in the comfort and safety of the eddies, watching every generation struggle to swim upstream and vowing to keep his knowledge to himself. He was something else. And that was that.