A story of ecological connectivity, wildlife flows, and how to create a safe passage for human and non human climate migrants
My skull is pounding as I launch headfirst against the cement wall. This obstacle, so near to my final resting place, is a tear in the orbit of my bloodline. I am caught in a gyre of churning water, a flailing body of skin and bone depleted by months of relentless exertion. My brothers and sisters beside me contort into the same frenzy, tails thrashing, bewildered at this impasse.
We are the urge of life to close a primordial cycle of birth and death. Inside my molecules lies the snaking shape of every river turn. We will flow up the trunks of trees to blossom into rich leaves, stroking the ocean and becoming krill that will feed our kin. We are a single mind that makes ocean, river and forest into one.
As you read these words, millions of bright-red salmon voyage from ocean depths towards the mouths of gushing rivers after years of feeding and fattening out at sea. They will ascend their ancestral streams to spawn and to die, navigating great distances through instinctual processes that still befuddle scientists.
The entire food web of the Pacific Northwest depends on the regularity of these annual salmon runs. The salmon feed the forest. They are a counter-current of upward swelling oceanic compounds; up to 80 percent of the phosphorous and nitrogen found inside salmon-adjacent plants and trees originated in the deep sea. As they swim upstream, the fish are snatched up by bears and birds who leave the carcasses to decompose on hungry soils. With fish in their fibers, the trees provide shade and rooted earth to ensure that streams remain cool and clear for salmon to keep running. Theirs is a delicate evolutionary reciprocity.
These prodigious salmon runs are less the story of an individual species than they are a massive coordinated planetary movement, a metabolic highway of nutrients.
With their life in motion, salmon are the embodiment of the unknowable immensity of the aquatic beyond reuniting with the sharpness of eagle feathers and grizzly teeth.
They are the manifestation of the hyper-object, a phenomenon so massively beyond normal perception of time and space.
Coastal rivers used to clot with mobs of ascending salmon. Now, most of the legendary runs from days of yore have become stories told to disbelieving children. There are multiple reasons for this: deforestation, rising ocean temperatures, salmon hatcheries, lice-infested fish farms, and notably, the impenetrable obstacle of obsolete dams, abandoned weirs and clogged streams that stand in their path. Such unmanned river roadblocks reject the passage and circulation of salmon with callous intractability.
All around us swim versions of the salmon body, oceans of visible and invisible flows of species and natural processes. Phytoplankton breathe out half the oxygen we inhale; seeds travel across continents held in the soft bellies of migrating storks; the Amazon rainforest produces rivers of condensation that flow in sky currents to the heights of the Californian Sierra Nevada mountains, where they cool to form the snowpack that farmers depend on to irrigate billions of dollars’ worth of crops; nematodes and rhizobia below ground shuttle nitrogen to plants and decompose organic matter, the most ancient of agoras.
In fact, seemingly distinct ecosystems together form a single, highly intelligent planetary organism. A swarming body of enzymes, nerves, carbohydrates, lipids, proteins, and nucleic acids working in unison. Just like in your body, when these are well-connected in a system of freely moving exchange, they perform to their maximum expression.
The migratory birds, mammals, reptiles and insects that move seasonally between ecosystems are like blood cells that travel through the organs of your body. As they follow their biological impulses across earth, ocean and sky from one ecosystem to the next, they move through vein-like channels called wildlife corridors, pollinating plants and churning up fertile soils, spreading nutrients, drawing down carbon dioxide, and feeding human communities both in belly and mythology.
A tragedy of our time is that lifeforms can no longer move freely through vast tracts of land. With overhunting, extreme habitat loss and landscape fragmentation, their roaming grounds are tightly restricted to a few disjointed sanctuaries. Migrating animals struggle to find safe corridors to connect their movement between these last wild places or ‘stepping stones’ to rest in, and when they do return to their home grounds, they find them plainly less inhabitable.
The innumerable relationships that hold our planet in delicate balance are vanishing — dismembered piece by piece into parcels of scattered organs. Barbed wire fences encircle our intestines, 8-lane highways slice across our throat, and the remnants of dams and weirs choke our lungs. Pipelines leach into procreative ovaries and power cables numb the brain. Tightening ligatures of homogenous hedgerows and monoculture plantations are branded across our skin.
Then there’s the looming ligature of the climate crisis. The ever-encroaching threats of drought, starvation, rising seas and urban sprawl don’t discriminate between species. It is one thing for evolution to have guided your free and wilful migration across land, and then suddenly finding yourself unable to move or return home. It is equally shattering to be forced to move against your will in an artificially-induced migration because home is no longer survivable.
Today, 1% of the world is a barely livable hot zone. By 2070, that could go up to 19%.
As Abrahm Lustgarten from ProPublica reports, “Many will dig in, suffering through heat, hunger and political chaos, but millions will be forced to move. In sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Latin America, as many as 143 million people might be displaced within their own borders”.
If you overlay the projected maps of mass climate migration, human and animal alike, with the orderly maps of clearly delineated private properties and state fences, even the most novice cartographer could predict imminent conflict. They could foretell that the tracks of mountain lions and Guatemalan mothers, both clutching their kin, will find themselves unable to cross the same wall.
My greatest concern is that tensions will increasingly mount in areas where there are blockages. Our enduring legacy may too likely be a failure to recognise and integrate those forced to move, casualties of a worldview that fails to accept that which is unfamiliar to us. Recognising that we could share a common lineage or an interconnected fate imparts great responsibility.
An act of recognition asks us to care and to acknowledge that something or someone has a right to live as we do, on land that may even have been their home before we arrived.
In some places, symptoms will escalate into visible conflict; in many countries this is already the case. Others will disappear more slowly, insidiously, millions of silent deaths like the disappearing salmon runs. We are the product of billions of years of evolution yet we risk annihilating our one chance of witnessing all that evolution could still yet make. Only now are we able to see the gruesome irony that the ultimate form of control is extinction.
Our challenge will be to make space or create safe passages for all forms of life that move through space and to help them build new homes. We need to cultivate ecological and social practices that will teach us how to reacquaint ourselves with a wilder planet. Sometimes strategies to ‘rewild’ nature require the introduction of missing keystone species like the jaguar or the Iberian wolf. The presence of the predatory wild at our domesticated doorsteps is understandably intimidating, but the greater trade-off is that of further ecological degradation. We can become skilful in handling human-wildlife conflicts and accommodate the reality that life has its own intricate designs for how life flows, and that those designs don’t always fit snugly within our radically simplified maps of the world.
If we are to ensure the Earth’s aliveness, we have to feel it as our own body. Earth’s natural impulses and flows are our own, internal to us. We must feel its stagnation and constrictions within our organs. We can embrace and embody its circulatory wildness instead of fearing it. Only then will we collectively bellow out to blow the dams and cut the fences and release the natural rhythms and riots of life back into our landscapes.
In liberating Nature from our chokehold, we will allow life to breathe again.