This past summer, my husband and I drove from Massachusetts to the Pacific coast, and back again. Like the lyrics to “America the Beautiful,” we sailed along the highway under “spacious skies” in Minnesota, admired the “purple mountains’ majesty” in Montana, and took note of the textured, “fruited plains” of Iowa. It wasn’t mentioned in the song, but the pastel landscape of Nevada took our breath away.
Such ceaseless beauty (okay, Indiana and Chicago were a little rough around the edges) almost made me forget about climate change. Yet it was impossible not to think about it. From “sea to shining sea,” the signs — both literal and figurative — are everywhere.
Some reminders are hopeful. For example, Windmills dotted the Iowa landscape.
Actual signs are more discouraging.
One near our campsite in British Columbia, outlining the impact of climate change on Canada’s provincial parks, notes that,
“Global Warming will push many plants and animals further north or higher in elevation. Change will come too quickly for some species and they may disappear.”
But it was a sign at Seattle’s Chittenden locks, outlining the final chapter of the life cycle of Pacific salmon, that forced me to stop and reflect on my own role in our ecosystem. Am I a taker or a caretaker? According to the sign, salmon are givers, even after death.
“Although dead, salmon continue to play a large role in the health of the environment. Through decomposition, salmon carcasses contribute to one of the planet’s most magnificent transfers of marine nutrients to freshwater and terrestrial systems. A release of nitrogen and phosphorus into the water and soil encourages plankton to thrive. Salmon fry reap the benefits of a healthy plankton population as they commence a revitalized life cycle. Streamside vegetation blossoms with a surge of natural fertilizer and shades the water, providing cool cover for the salmon fry. A salmon’s life cycle has tremendous beneficial effect on the environment.”
Living salmon also help the environment during their long swim from the ocean through the Puget Sound and then upstream through fresh water back to where they started. According to the Wild Salmon Center,
“Salmon runs function as enormous pumps that push vast amounts of marine nutrients upstream to the headwaters of otherwise low productivity rivers.”
Because other life forms, including humans, depend on them for sustenance and would suffer, even perish, without them, Pacific salmon are what’s known as a keystone species.
The human life cycle may not be woven into the environment as naturally as the salmon’s, but like their activities, ours are intricately enmeshed with the natural world.
I’m hoping that when it comes to halting climate change, we can evolve into a keystone species. In fact, given that homo sapiens are a huge part of the problem, we are the only species that can.
We must do everything in our power to be more like the salmon, and give back as much as — or more — than we take from our planet — our one and only ecosystem.