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MailTribune.com
  • Oregon patriots can learn a lot from salmon

  • When we happily moved back to our native Oregon 20 years ago this spring, my wife compared our journey home to salmonids making that last swim upstream.
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  • When we happily moved back to our native Oregon 20 years ago this spring, my wife compared our journey home to salmonids making that last swim upstream.
    "We're like the salmon — we came home to die," Maureen would quip to friends and strangers alike.
    If the latter humanoids didn't dash off for a suddenly remembered appointment, she would cheerfully explain we were really Oregon expatriates returning home to live, not to shuffle off this mortal coil.
    But the comedienne in her knew that the repatriation explanation was not as funny as her heading-home-to-the-cemetery line.
    Folks like us, as gifted writer/teacher Kim Stafford so skillfully lays out in an essay titled "Oregon Patriot in Tough Times," were simply patriots of a place coming home.
    "An Oregon patriot is someone who keeps coming back to what this place is, was, could be, should be, will be — like the child by night, running toward the sacred land, the moving water, home," he writes.
    "Every salmon is trying to get back to that place," he continues. "Every salmon is a patriot of a place, willing to die to get there."
    With that, this reader was hooked. I did sniff to myself that my wife used the salmon metaphor first, albeit she merely dipped her toe into the salmon-bearing simile.
    His fascinating piece is in this spring's edition of the Oregon Quarterly magazine. The publication is sent to all University of Oregon alumni until we make that final trip upstream.
    When you think about it, salmon are wondrous creatures with the mysterious ability to find their way back to their place of birth. That's quite a feat, given the fact they can't ask for directions or poke their fish eyes out of the water for a better view.
    What's more, these patriots of a place are always swimming against the current to get home. Yet they ultimately get there.
    Unlike the salmon, we tend to spawn earlier in life. And we are a little squeamish about leaving our carcasses to feed the next generation, a la Soylent Green. But Mother Nature is a practical sort when it comes to long-of-tooth salmon providing protein to the small fry.
    Kim Stafford, the son of William Stafford, who was a longtime poet laureate of Oregon, is one of those writers whose words stay with you long after you've misplaced the magazine.
    Like his father before him, he joins a growing list of talented Oregon writers, such as William Kittredge of Lakeview, Ken Kesey of Springfield and former state poet laureate Lawson Inada of Medford.
    In his essay, Stafford suggests there are three ways to be an Oregon patriot. The first focuses on loyalty to the 33rd state's pioneer days or perhaps even its precontact past.
    That retrospective approach reminds me of Kittredge's 1987 book of essays, "Owning It All," which includes an insightful yet hilarious article that drags in feisty western artist Charlie Russell, kicking and snarling.
    It seems that in 1923, Russell had been invited to speak before the Great Falls Booster Club in Montana. After listening to half a dozen people boast of their pioneer roots, Russell cast aside his prepared statement. As he rose to speak about the land he loved, he went with the anger in the gut.
    "In my book, a pioneer is a man who turned all the grass upside-down, strung bob-wire over the dust that was left, poisoned the water and cut down the trees, killed the Indian who owned the land, and called it progress," Russell told the shocked group.
    "If I had my way, the land here would be like God made it, and none of you sons of bitches would be here at all," he growled.
    You're right. The "SOBs" never invited him back.
    The second approach, writes Stafford, is to be loyal to Oregon's here and now. This would include improving on what is working.
    Finally, he submits we could be loyal to the future in terms of what we hope to achieve — and preserve — to keep Oregon what it is, was, could, should and will be.
    He figures we ought to honor all three while leading with the third approach as we carefully, continually navigate our way into the future.
    That's good advice. We must also continue to watch and learn from the greatest patriots of a place — the salmon.
    After all, they are the navigational experts.
    Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or email him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.
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