In book form, the “commonplace” was where notable ideas, quotes, and images were collected as snippets and assembled together. The term implies a physical aggregation, but actually derives from a Greek phrase that referred to “general themes” — broad perspectives configured and presented as arguments, often for wide application.
Our common places carry both these meanings: shared geographies with a set of inherent topographical and ecological features, but also places with which people form individually unique and diverse relationships.
Few landscapes hold as much of this physical and cultural information as Oregon’s iconic salmon systems — reaching from seashores to mountain slopes, coastal wetlands to high deserts, and including much of society’s past, present, and future ideas about how salmon life history should intersect with our own.
The distinction between real and projected features is not as clear as we might think. The science of salmon is something of a “commonplace” itself — a body of work not separate from society’s aspirations as much as an expression of them, a kind of giant scrapbook that reflects and shapes our field of view and the stories we tell. By extension, the management of salmon is not based on the salmon’s world as much as our imagining of their world through the multiple and overlapping filters of our economies, communities, hopes and fears, needs and expectations.
This portfolio of images explores two versions of those aspirations as they relate to salmon. It is neither an exposition of now-familiar insults to their once abundant populations, nor a contrived conflict about whether to have salmon at all. Instead, the pictures highlight how the present conditions in which we find ourselves are the legacy of original commitments we made about salmon, extrapolated over 150 years and largely unchallenged . . . until now.
In short, this is a story about our stories. One is grounded in nineteenth century agricultural science, and entrusts protection to Production. Its central conceit maintains that industrialization both engendered this crisis and holds the keys to its remediation. We affirm our loyalty to its promise through ever more creative alternatives to salmon swimming up and downstream, ignoring the persistent context of scarcity, the extraordinary complexity and expense necessary to oversimplify what was once free and abundant.
An alternative, re-emerging story asserts the primacy of Relationships over production, of freedom over control. Throughout the region, on rivers like the Sandy, the Siuslaw, the Rogue, and the Klamath, unlikely collaborations are insisting on renewal — of natural systems, of cultural potential, of legal and moral responsibility to indigenous people, and more. People are examining formerly intractable problems, asking different questions, amending legacy frames, and reaching radically different conclusions with profoundly inspiring results.
Salmon systems, animate and assembled
“To try to understand the animal apart from its background — except as an imaginative exercise — is to risk the collapse of both. To be what they are, they require each other.”
—Barry Lopez, Arctic Dreams: Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape
Where salmon come from
“The intuitive mind is a sacred gift, and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.”
Replacing salmon's special genius with our own
“Uncertainty is uncomfortable; certainty is absurd.”
Fish in, and out, of water
“The scientists I have known upon the river, men as great as they are obscure, came almost to worship the salmon and hid their worship under scientific jargon. Watching the inscrutable quest of the salmon, recognizing a principle beyond their power to explain, these men (though they would be the first to deny it) turn into religionists of a queer, incommunicable congregation. The greatest of them, a man who had spent his life and genius on the study of these fishes, once said to me, as we watched them surge up the river: ‘We really don’t know anything about them. I don’t think we ever will.’”
—Bruce Hutchison, The Fraser