Fifteen people march in Idaho to mourn the vanishing salmon

  • A hearse leads the death march in Salmon, Idaho

    Bill Haskins

There is a chaos theory adage about the movement of a butterfly's wings setting off a hurricane on the other side of the globe. It is an interesting notion; for every action, a reaction. It has about it a certain humility, a recognition that we know very little about the potential impact of our doings.

It was the first thing that came to mind the other day in the aftermath of a bizarre and wonderful event in Salmon, Idaho. A town where just eight months ago the citizens held a rally protesting a federal court injunction that put salmon first. A town where some bumper stickers read: "Environmentalists welcome! We haven't had a hanging in years!'

It was called a Salmon Parade in the application for the parade permit, but it was really a funeral, a macabre death-march for the great chinook runs that once surged through local waters. At high noon on a hot, dry, mid-September day, 15 men and women, all dressed in black, all wearing mourning veils and all donning death masks, proceeded in a slow march down the main street. The procession started on the south end of town near the high school, where large letters announced "Home of the Savages." Creating a Saturday noon traffic jam bigger than the parade itself, the curious spectacle crept along, passing in front of the taxidermy shop where a stuffed wolf is shown eating a freshly killed cow. The movie marquee read CLUELESS.

The once aloof and skeptical sheriff and his deputy warmed to the rag-tag group and added an ironic air to a meager parade line. They were the great protectors, bracketing marchers front and back, blinking lights and all.

Led by an eerie old hearse, the death marchers followed a large black and white banner which read: 1961: 3,700 REDDS - 1995: ONLY 6!! (A redd is a salmon's aquatic nest of eggs and roe, left after spawning.)

Right behind the banner swam a line of five eight-foot-long papier mëché salmon, each a colorful pink and green on one side, a stark black and white skeleton on the other. The whole affair had a Charles Addams cartoon feeling about it.

A ghost band, consisting of single violin, sax and harmonica players, followed a lone drummer down the street as she beat a slow cadence of doom. "Taps' was the only tune they could all play to some degree or another. Finally, three black-clad women brought up the rear of the parade, pushing a wagon filled with little cardboard fish painted like the large ones. These little fish were handed out to parade-watchers.

On their colored, "alive" sides a message read:

Salmon, Idaho, was named for chinook salmon which spend most of their lives in the ocean. But they are born and they die in fresh water streams far in the mountains. How they find their way back, after five years in the ocean, to the precise spot they were born, is still a mystery to everyone but the fish themselves.

On the dead sides of the fish it read:

We are enormously privileged to share our rivers with such magical fish. But we have not been generous; the three damns (sic) on the upper Snake River have caused declines in salmon populations that will soon be irreversible. These three damns provide very little electricity and to remove them would not burden Idaho's agricultural lands. Please write to Governor Phill Batt, Capitol Bldg., Boise, ID 83720, and ask him to remove the dams and restore Salmon, Idaho's namesake to the wild rivers of Idaho.

That was all that was said. Nobody mentioned the huge gold mine up the Yankee Fork of the Salmon River that just a month before had dumped 20,000 gallons of cyanide into the river, effectively killing this year's runs on that tributary.

Nobody mentioned the massive levels of logging or intensive cattle grazing which occur on Forest Service lands, two practices which greatly increase erosion and sedimentation levels that smother salmon redds. No, all the traditional accusation and blame which surround this issue was ignored or forgotten, replaced by a silent and clear reverence for the great fish. The entire event went off without incident. There were no public hangings.

The marchers were received mostly with curiosity. There were many passers-by, some with Idaho plates, who honked and gave a thumbs-up. Still, a few barflies emerged into the light to yell "Dams are habitat, too!" But all in all, everything went smoothly. The two most encouraging and rewarding signs were the nodding smiles of older watchers who probably remember the thrashing salmon runs, and the small crowd of high school kids who followed the parade down to the river, wanting to know more.

The kids were told about an artists' cooperative in Missoula, Mont., called Ground Zero. They found out that this salmon death march was just the crazy idea of someone a lot like them. Everyone talked about details of the parade and good ideas for next year. They all laughed about the sheer bafflement most parade watchers displayed.

It may take a week or a month or maybe a year for the rest of the dazed looks in Salmon to turn into recognition or even compassion. It may not happen at all. In the meantime, I like to think about a rare butterfly fluttering its wings on the small island of Hope in the South Pacific. I try to believe that this tiny, quiet action could cause a great chinook wind to blow, warming the hearts of a cold industrious people on the other side of the planet.

Woody Beardsley is an activist with the artists' cooperative, Ground Zero, which is based at the Ecology Center, 1519 Cooper St., Missoula, MT 59802.

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