The Navigation of Salmon as Cultural Analogy


There is this stunner of a word in the English language – murmuration.

It is the word for a flock of starlings who engage in this pulsing and shifting synchronized flight that makes for gaspingly beautiful fluid shapes. Seemingly every bird knows exactly when to turn and how far while maintaining speed with the entire flock.
Other birds do similar actions but only starlings officially get the gem of word: murmuration. It is word that just feels good rolling around in your jaw. A total pleasure. I couldn’t say why it is that only starlings get the word when others do almost the same activity but that seems to be the way that it is. But this activity, more broadly, is part of a large ‘flocking’ (among birds) or ‘schooling’ or ‘shoaling’ (among fish) or ‘swarming’ (among insects) behavior that groups of animals engage in for what is understood as both a safety measure – a predator has a harder time targeting a specific animal – and efficiency. Check your textbooks for the laws governing fluid dynamics! There may be other reasons too! Perhaps birds and fish love doing this flocking and it is joyful for them. I can’t say with any certainty. But I can’t say that it isn’t so.
There are simple rules that govern how this works with the birds or fish who flock like this and it is essentially that when there are enough birds or fish gathering together some rules are automatically and instinctually followed i.e. – you must stay a certain distance from your neighbor and you must turn in the same direction when two or more of your neighbors turn in the same direction, as just one possible example. And a simple rule like that can make stunningly complex figures until enough of the birds or fish on the edge break away because they don’t have enough neighbors to follow the rules and then the murmuration or flock can suddenly break apart.
You have likely all heard of the mythic and mighty stories of salmon runs and their returning home, fighting up waterfalls, to the very same patch of river they were born in to spawn and lay their eggs after having spent years at sea living the noble salmon life. The Grand Circle. This myth exists for a reason – it is largely true. Salmon do this.
But it isn’t always true. There are salmon who stray on their way home. Who get lost. Who may or may not spawn but usually don’t if they get lost. The salmon scientists seem to know from their studies that this number changes from year to year.
The thought used to be that salmon would stray ‘on purpose’ because there was too much competition in the spawning grounds and the strays would look for places where there were fewer salmon so the likelihood of their genes being passed on would increase. But the scientists were seeing the opposite – the bigger and stronger the salmon run the less strays. And strays were less likely to reproduce.
At the same time a different fish scientist was studying the Golden Shiner. A minnow sized fish that prefers darkness to light. A single fish in a tank couldn’t find a designated dark spot in the tank when light was constantly shining on it and following the fish around. But when you made a school of the Golden Shiners they could find the dark spot very easily and quickly. One fish on the edge of the school would notice the dark spot somehow slow the school down and pass the information on to the group and they’d all crowd into the dark.
For the salmon scientists reading this study this was a revelation. Weaker salmon runs year to year meant that salmon had smaller groups to help make decisions on navigation together. Hence more strays.
The science of navigation ecology is only a few years old and emerged from these two groups of scientists. It is being applied to animal herds, insect swarms, birds, fish and elsewhere.
But now salmon scientists are understanding why salmon would gather and almost hover around river tributaries where the water forks which they never understood. But the understanding now is that the salmon are now smelling different odors and functionally voting collectively about which way to go. While light and food and tide certainly also have influence the group social cue is now considered a very large determiner in salmon (and other animal) movement and navigation.
I don’t want to press the analogy too hard but let’s say that people who are trying to make culture-making things in the world, things that belong to a place, and give life to a place and are part of the place being pulsing and vital are like Golden Shiners or Salmon. Or starlings. They eat and are eaten. They reproduce ones that know something about this old trail and tradition. They are a glistening strand in the web of the life that has been strung in one small corner of the wine-dark waters. You will need more of them to make wise and beautiful choices in the world by lifting the veil of each morning with good company around them and close by.
So all the people I write about and their fine, and sometimes vanishing, work in the world might be part of the flocking or murmurating behavior of people. We might need more of these types in the world to have them to have all make these life affirming choices together again and again.
Thank you so much for continuing to support Primal Derma while we are out in the waters of the world. And I’d pray that you find some of the other grand practitioners of some of these old culture-making ways so that this flock of old ones has a chance to renew something fine.

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