Thousands of snow geese whirled above us, like a white river of birds, flowing from the northwest, eddying above us, and continuing until they disappeared into the cloud bank of the North Cascades.
We see snow geese in the lower Skagit Valley every winter, but we had never seen anything like this. On our way north a couple of weeks ago, we'd realized that this was no ordinary trip to the Skagit. Even before we reached the valley, we looked up and saw the sky filled with geese heading south, all flying in the same plane, grouped not in one large V but in many small ones, creating a long herringbone of birds across the sky.
Is this the way European Americans first saw the Pacific Northwest, when the sheer abundance of nature seemed staggering even by the standards of the early 19th century? It wasn't just the presence of big fish, big trees, and big birds that impressed them, but the stupendous numbers. When Lewis and Clark reached the Columbia River in the fall of 1805, thousands of salmon were swimming upstream to spawn, and the natives were drying them on scaffolding and rocks. The explorers had never seen anything like it. "(T)he number of dead Salmon . . . is incredible," Clark wrote. Forty-two years later, the artist Paul Kane saw the fish arrive at Kettle Falls in "one continuous body. . . more resembling a flock of birds than anything else in their extraordinary leap up the falls, beginning at sunrise and ceasing at the approach of night."
Some settlers realized early on that this Northwest abundance was more tenuous, more fragile than it looked. In 1884, C.W. Young, acting manager of the Port Blakely Mill Company, which operated perhaps the world's largest sawmill, not only saw the handwriting on the wall but sounded an early warning. In a letter to the home office in San Francisco, he wrote: "The timber contiguous to (Puget) Sound is nearly exhausted." Young wasn't speaking in absolute terms. He was talking about the finest straight-grained timber, the trees that were, by the elevated standards of the time, considered suitable for flooring. There were still a lot of trees. But they were the dregs. "The part remaining is such as was passed by in prior years."
By then, observers who focused on reality, rather than frontier illusion, saw that men fishing from rowboats in the Columbia River's broad estuary were starting to deplete the world's greatest chinook salmon runs. In the 1880s, a regional magazine observed that on the Columbia, the "large pack and the fact that the run of fish in July was very great are pointed to as evidences that the supply of salmon in the river is not becoming exhausted." However, "(t)o achieve this result a greater number of boats, larger nets and more assiduous fishing were necessary, and it is pretty certain that the proportion of salmon running in April, May and June, the ones which go to the headwaters and become the chief propagators, that escaped the miles of meshes spread for them, was very small. (I)n spite of the increase in the size of nets, the number of boats and the skill of the fishermen, the average caught by each boat has largely decreased."
Well into the 20th century, some people were still unaccountably surprised by what they had wrought. William Kittredge, who grew up on a ranch in central Oregon's Warner Valley in the 1930s and 1940s, has written that he and his family drained swamps, diked fields, and irrigated dry soil, turning the natural landscape into productive farmland. In their own minds, "we were doing God's labor and creating a good place on earth, living the pastoral yeoman dream. ... And then it all went dead, over years, but swiftly. You can imagine our surprise and despair, our sense of having been profoundly cheated. . . . We felt enormously betrayed. For so many years, through endless efforts, we had proceeded in good faith, and it turned out we had wrecked all we had not left untouched. The beloved migratory rafts of waterbirds, the green-headed mallards and the redheads and canvasbacks, the cinnamon teal and the great Canadian honkers, were mostly gone along with their swampland habitat."
That day in the Skagit Valley, the snow geese above us honked constantly, and we could hear the thunder of their wings. The sound of wings reminded us of William Butler Yeats' poem, "Leda and the Swan," which imagines the Greek myth of Zeus, who has taken the form of a giant swan, raping (or maybe seducing) Leda, the queen of Sparta, (a union that produces Helen of Troy):
A sudden blow, the great wings beating still
Above the staggering girl. ...
For us, the beating of giant wings — so unlike the fluttering of finches and sparrows that we hear every morning around our feeder — often has a bittersweet quality. Every spring, we hear the heart-wrenching sound of the male swan on the pond next door, his mate long since dead, beating his great, clipped wings in a vain effort to lift off into the warm morning air.
Seeing that whirl of white birds above us, we remembered standing in Cordoba, on a bridge built by the Romans, damaged by the Visigoths, restored by the Moors, and fortified by the Christians, watching hundreds of egrets disappear at dusk into their roost trees by the Rio Guadalquivir.
We also recalled a wedding we attended in the early 1990s at Neah Bay. The bride was a member of the Makah tribe. The wedding took place a little outside town, at an old village site overlooking the shore. The bride and groom stood with their backs to the water. As the guests stood looking out at the water, people walked in behind them, chanting and drumming. The old sounds filled the air. Then, just at the moment of the wedding ceremony, right behind the bride and groom, a flock of white shorebirds rose into the sun.
Coincidence? Of course. But how could you not see that explosion of sunlit birds as the spirit of the place, that place in which people had lived for so many centuries, in which they had chanted and drummed the old songs?
Places often, perhaps always, stand for events or values or spiritual presences. Years ago, my wife and I took a Greek freighter from Brooklyn to Piraeus, spent a couple of days in Athens, then took a bus to Delphi. It was off-season and a little rain had fallen, so we had the ruins all to ourselves. In the town, we ate moussaka made with potatoes, tried the local baklava, pulled our single beds together at night. The next day, we climbed down through the terraced olive groves to the bottom of the valley, then up through the olives on the other side, startled near the top by a herd of goats with curving horns and wild eyes.
From high on the hill, we looked back across the valley at Mt. Parnassus, where the god Apollo was supposed to live. The sky was clear. The sun beat down. In the distance, we could see the Aegean. Suddenly, under that bright blue, cloudless sky, from the summit of the mountain where Apollo lived, came a peal of thunder. It was stunning. It was eerie. Without a cloud in sight, thunder pealed from the home of the god. We didn't believe in the god Apollo, of course, but we knew about him, and just knowing that the thunder came from his mountaintop gave the experience an almost spiritual or at least supernatural dimension. The mountain wasn't just a mountain. The clear-sky thunder wasn't just a natural phenomenon. We were drawn quite unexpectedly into the world of Greek mythology.
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