"Sacrament" among Christians refers to bread and wine (Holy Communion, the Eucharist) or water (baptism.) Understandings vary among traditions. But what does the word actually mean? Roughly, it simply means something ordinary through which the divine shines. As most generally understood, "sacramental" means that the divine shines through the natural world.
How about salmon? Can salmon be regarded as sacramental?
I contend that, especially along the Pacific Coast, the salmon embodies a sacramental quality.
Not for everyone, of course. For some, catching salmon is a job, like repairing a car--just a way of making a living.
Among the Nisqually tribe, living along Puget Sound, the first salmon caught in the spring run was hauled out of the water and treated ceremonially. The fish was prepared and shared by all members of the village. Bones, intact, were return to the river, pointing upstream. This symbolic act meant that villagers were respectful to the fish spirits. That is a sacramental act.
Salmon had tremendous respect among later immigrant in the Pacific Northwest. For example, my Tacoma parents enjoyed catching, cleaning and cooking the fish. It was good to catch them in Commencement Bay, better at Neah Bay, and absolutely tops in the Pacific Ocean out of Westport.
Here's a favorite photo of my dad, his catch and me in about 1944. He's caught his fish in Commencement Bay and he's displaying it in our backyard. The fish is about as long as I am tall at age four or five years.
For the past 17 years I've lived part time in a beach community located between the mouth of the Columbia River and the Nehalem River estuary. Just few weeks ago a neighbor brought my wife and me a gift of fresh salmon he'd caught in the Columbia estuary. A couple of weeks later other friends brought us fresh salmon they'd just caught in the Nehalem River. The gifts were presented and received with joy, flavored with respect for the fish, the streams and the ecosystem, and blessed ("God, . . .bless this food") and eaten in a shared meal with our friends. It all seemed sacramental to this writer, an admitted sacramentalist.
- Contemporary fishermen grieve at the depletion of salmon runs.
- Some blame deforestation of the hills, and they're probably correct.
- Others point at dams and rejoice when a dam comes down. They are probably right, too.
- would the Northwest be the same without salmon?
- Are hatchery salmon of the same highly sacramental quality as wild fish?
- Are we killing something in the human spirit or the spirit of the Northwest even while decimating our salmon populations through dams and clear cutting?
- Is the removal of a dam in the Olympic National Park the end of the process of dam removal or will many additional dams be removed to open the rivers to salmon?
- Can public policy be shaped to save the salmon? Sacramentalism does lead to stewardship of the natural world. Saving the salmon is possible, desirable, and seems obligatory to me.