Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Living rivers

Today we heard that Atlantic Salmon have returned to the Seine for the first time since the First World War thanks to major efforts to clean up the river’s water. The Times compares France’s success with the failure to reintroduce Salmon to the Thames. Apparently 20,000 larvae are introduced to our river each year, but only a handful return each summer:

Unusual rain patterns are thought to be to blame. Britain’s sewers are unable to cope with intense downpours, causing them to overflow into the river. The worst culprit — London — is also closest to the river’s entrance, making the prospect for salmon even less enticing.

“The difference between the Seine and the Thames is that all the industry on the Seine is far inland, near Paris,” said Darryl Clifton-Dey, of the Environment Agency salmon restocking programme.

The Salmon are an indicator species because of their sensitivity to the water quality. In Brian Clarke’s ecological novel, The Stream (2000), a salmon’s return to its spawning ground registers the devastation industry, drought and agricultural chemicals have wrought on the river:

The great salmon had entered the Clearwater around the time the young man was arranging delivery of the new, improved fertiliser; yet for the length of his journey and for all that he had been in the Clearwater so long and had lain so long in the pool opposite the stream entrance, the taste of the water coming out of the stream held him back.

It was not until the trees on the skyline were wrestling with the wind and the leaves were being stripped away like migrating birds that the urgency of the salmon’s need overcame the reluctance that restrained him and he moved…

The pictures he had been given to help bring him there, the images of bouncing light and clean gravels and drifting nymphs and the glimpsed outlines of mayflies flickering overhead, might have faded from the salmon’s head utterly. The ache in his gut was growing and the stink of the chokeweed was putting a catch in his gills because the chokeweed was dying as it had always died when the cool weather came.

During the week when the starlings began to flock and swirl as though caught in wild currents and the Minister’s office asked if the date of the official opening could be moved from the Tuesday to the Thursday, the bed of the stream suddenly reached up and touched the salmon on his belly and seemed to waken him as though from a dream. It was as if a high fright passed through him. He suddenly turned and dashed downstream, swimming faster and faster, sending waves slopping up the banks and making the rushes shush and sway.

In this novel everything exists in relation to something else – salmon to farmer, nymph to gravel, chokeweed to starling. Clarke describes places and times for one being through reference to another, a technique that makes the Salmon’s disorientation more shocking.

All the European rivers that flow into the Atlantic once surged with Salmon. It’s heartening to imagine a reverse of the story told above as the fish surge back into the Seine.

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