Chelsea Green, 2017
Reviewed by Marian Van Eyk McCain
Mueller, who is a Norwegian naturalist and philosopher, has a strong and many-stranded relationship with salmon. He explains that he is drawn to them, …not only as a thinker, not only as a rational mind studying an “object,” but through the fullness of my mindful body. For years he has watched them come home to spawn in the gushing, gurgling, foaming river that runs through his own home city of Oslo. He has imagined how it might feel to live in the body of a salmon, to undertake that incredible journey from the fresh water of home to the salt water of far distant oceans and finally, all the way home again to spawn and die. And through a number of evocative passages throughout his book, he takes his reader on that journey too.
Over a span of years this bond with the salmon has led him to write not only about the salmon’s epic voyage from river to ocean and back but about how our anthropocentric, materialist attitude to the natural world—our way of seeing and treating it simply as a collection of ‘things’ for our use—has given rise to exploitative fishing and salmon-farming industries that now threaten that wild creature’s very survival.
Norway, Mueller’s home country, is in the forefront of those fishing and fish-farming industries. There is an eerie parallel between the circumscribed, limited, deadening life of a captive-bred, genetically engineered salmon in a fish farm tank and the life of a modern human being in a society increasingly alienated from wild Nature by several centuries of Cartesian thought-patterns. Mueller, like his mentor David Abram and other leading-edge ecocentric writers, yearns, through his work, to lead us back out of this tragic alienation and encourage us to live once again in the fullness of our own mind-bodies and in right relationship with all the other life forms who, like us, make up the body of this living planet.
A typical example of this rightness is given by Mueller in his description of the relationship between the wild salmon and the indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest. He points out that with our clever human minds we have created technology that extends our power far beyond that of our naked hands and bodies. This is both a blessing and a curse. It enables us to hunt and fish and feed, clothe, house and entertain ourselves. It also tempts us to give in to our innate desire for more and bigger and better. It awakens a wicked insatiability that can lead to our eating out our environment and self-destructing.
This, as we know, is exactly what is happening on a worldwide scale right now. The indigenous tribes Mueller has studied have for centuries incorporated into their culture special warnings in the form of songs and dances, stories, symbols and rituals that served to curb these excesses. So the people who live near the river banks take from the river only enough salmon to feed themselves comfortably and let the rest of swim free. Human being and fish thrive in balance. Nowadays we can recognize this a basic principle of sustainability. But along with our wildness, our mainstream culture has lost this essential wisdom. This is what we need to reclaim, as a matter of urgency. Which is why books like this are so needed.
When I say “books like this” I mean books that combine beautiful, lyrical narrative that stirs our hearts and souls with an articulate, well-informed environmental critique that stretches our minds and leads us to new insights and understandings. Books like this one tug, too, at our bodies, reminding them of their ancient and enduring connection with all life and maybe even inspiring them into some practical action out there in our world.
I found this book a glorious, thought-provoking blend of art and scholarship and I highly recommend it.