Salmon in the Trees

How’s that?   Actually, I get it now.

Fishing Tongass Forest Salmon

Salmon in the Trees is the title of Amy Gulik’s recent collection of photos and essays by Alaskan environmentalists, which draw on the genetic science of the temperate rain forest. The name was borrowed for the art installation we experienced on our way to a noon chamber music concert deep in the woods near Sitka; hanging in the trees were yard long salmon interpreted by local artisans, native grandmothers, and child artists. And it was David Suzuki who helped me unpack this concept one lazy afternoon as I sat on the deck reading his Autobiography.

“Science,” he says, helps us “tease out nature’s secrets.”   Awed by its intricate, complex interconnectedness, we start to understand the folly of “managing” the environment.

Temperate rainforest supports far more biomass than any ecosystem on earth. Ours extends from Northern California to Alaska in a narrow band between the Pacific Ocean and the coastal mountains. Prodigious rainfall on the great trees carries nutrients away from the forest floor. How then does the forest continue to support huge red and yellow cedar, Sitka spruce, and Douglas fir once the nutrients are swept into the sea?

Summer reading included David Suzuki’s Autobiography.

Suzuki explains.  “Terrestrial nitrogen is almost exclusively 14N, the normal isotope of nitrogen; in the oceans there is a significant amount of 15N, a heavier isotope that can be distinguished from 14N.” The temperate rainforest is laced with thousands of rivers and streams and if the forest is clear cut, salmon die off. The shade of the canopy keeps water cool, tree roots keep soil from washing into spawning grounds, and forest creatures nourish young salmon as they make their way to the ocean. So salmon need the trees. And the trees need the salmon.

“Along the coast,” writes the Canadian environmentalist, “The salmon go to sea by the billions. Over time, they grow as they incorporate 15N into all their tissues. By the time they return to their native streams, they are like packages of nitrogen fertilizer marked by 15N. Upon their return to spawn, killer whales, and seals intercept them in the estuaries, and eagles, bears, and wolves along with dozens of other species, feed on salmon eggs and on live and dead salmon in the rivers. Birds and mammals load up on 15N and, as they move through the first, defecate nitrogen rich feces throughout the ecosystem…A single bear may take from six hundred to seven hundred salmon. After a bear abandons a partially eaten salmon, ravens, salamanders, beetles, and other creatures consume the remnants.”

Researchers at the University of Victoria have demonstrated this redistribution of nitrogen: years when there are large salmon runs produce wide growth bands in trees and increased amounts of 15N contained in them. Salmon hold everything together.

“Our fragmented human efforts at environmental protection pale in comparison. They do not respect interdependence.” Referring to his native British Columbia, Suzuki explains why.   “The whales, gales, bears, and wolves come under the jurisdiction of the ministry of the environment, and the trees are overseen by the ministry of forests. The mountains and rocks are the responsibility of the minister of mining, and the rivers may be administered by the minister of energy (for hydroelectric power) or the minister of agriculture (for irrigation).”

And the salmon? They come under the Department of Fisheries and Oceans for commercial fishing, under another department for the First Nations’ food fishery and under the tourism ministry for sports fishermen.

In 1992, years before all this was well understood, the co-founders of the fledgling David Suzuki Foundation went to Earth Summit at Rio with this Declaration. It captures my evolving awareness.

Declaration of Interdependence


We are the earth, through the plants and animals that nourish us. We are the rains and the oceans that flow through our veins. We are the breath of the forests and the land and the plants of the sea. We are human animals, related to all other life as descendants of the firstborn cell. We share with these kin a common history, written in our genes. We share a common present, filled with uncertainy. And we share a common future as yet untold.

We humans are but one of thirty million species weaving the thin layer of life enveloping the world. The stability of communities of living things depends on this diversity. Linked in that web, we are interconnected–using, cleansing, sharing and replenishing the fundamental elements of life. Our home, planet Earth, is finite; all life shares its resources and the energy from the Sun, and therefore has limits to growth.  For the first time we have passed those limits.  When we compromise the air, the water, the soil, and the variety of life,  we steal from the endless future to serve the fleeting present.


Humans have become so numerous and our tools so powerful that we have driven fellow creatures into extinction, damed the great rivers,torn down ancient forests, poisoned the earth, rain and wind, and ripped holes in the sky. Our science has brought pain as well as joy; our comfort is paid for by the suffering of millions.  We are learning from our mistakes, we are mourning our vanished kin, and we now build a new politics of hope. We respect and uphold the absolute need for clean, air, water, and soil.  We see that economic activities that benefit the few while shrinking the inheritance of many are wrong.  And since environmental degradation erodes biological capital forever, full ecological and social cost must enter all equations of development.   We are one brief generation in the long march of time; the future is not ours to erase. So where knowledge is limited, we will still remember  all those who will walk after us, and err on the side of caution.


All this that we know and believe must now forever become the foundation of the way we live. At this Turning Point in our relationship with the Earth, we work for an evolution from dominance to partnership, from fragmentation to connection, from insecurity to interdependence.


2 Responses to “Salmon in the Trees”

  1. 1 Jan August 27, 2012 at 8:21 am

    Very nicely said. It really makes me appreciate our cool rainy climate.

  2. 2 Amy November 25, 2012 at 12:27 pm

    What gives me great hope for Southeast Alaska is that there is still time to get it right. All of the pieces to the circle of life are still intact. Nothing is missing. And if we can learn from the lessons that “salmon in the trees” teach us, then we just might maintain a special way of life for us too.

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