By learning how to swim against the current like salmon do, a woman finds her way back to the source of her language and identity.
As our times’ bewildered becoming keeps unfolding, two simple words from a French medieval poem have accompanied me every step of the way: contreval l’iaue. They sank into my heart the moment I unintentionally translated them into my ancestors’ Occitan idiom. Contreval l’iaue thus became countravāl l’aigo. Thanks to this phonetic shift, the immemorial waters stored in those words started flowing through me again, like a creek at the edge of the woods on a full moon night — like the brook that sang in my childhood at the back of our home in the summer, when I loved to listen to its hum and watch the stars twinkle in its clear singing waters. Since I bartered the sounds of the medieval langue d’oïl for those of langue d’oc, this inner stream that spills stories of times long gone hasn’t stopped murmuring, nor I listening.
Why did I feel the urge to summon the image of going against the current in an idiom that my ancestral memory instinctively recognizes as its own? Because, the brook whispered, it’s a matter of reaching farther than our everyday idiom, so as to retrieve the memory of a way of speaking, and being, attuned to our innate alliance with water and air, earth and sky. This is how I recovered the memory of a way of responding to life that in my childhood was deemed devoid of dignity: hounded as it was, in those alpine canyons where my childhood is rooted, by the widening spread of modernity and of the urban languages, the national tongues — French or Italian, depending on the side of the watershed that those valleys happen to demarcate.
Back in the 1960s, the screens of our first croaking TVs taught us the value of those unifying national languages; along with it they also instilled in us a feeling of rejection and shame for the myriads of local idioms that our Elders still deemed theirs to inherit, cherish, and pass on. Idioms suspected of being uncultured, distrustful of writing, recalcitrant to literature, adverse to modernity. Idioms considered incapable of self-transcendence, and therefore in need of removal, in the same way that a forest gets clearcut to make room for a cluster of apartment blocks, the ragtag onset of yet another urban, and in its own way inhuman, conglomerate.
Image upon image, I found myself following the downward current of the large river that the Italy of the economic miracle had turned into, a current where we all ended up converging, and which by gravity drew us, mostly unawares, into the unifying eddies of a single estuary, exiting which we became dispersed in the great sea of transcultural globalism, where we now find ourselves swimming, engulfed in the rubbish that our collective insatiable hunger for modernity keeps offloading around us.
And by looking back, from the depths of the oceans, unto the alpine creeks that keep flowing into these increasingly murky waters, I suddenly understood something that I had never quite comprehended before: that the wild idiom into which I was born was deemed uncouth and therefore despicable because it perfectly mirrored the intrinsically earthy countenance of those human beings who knew that their lives were from time immemorial in natural, intimate communion with those particular mountain ranges, those larch woods, those running creeks, pastures, and low-ceiling cabins that they belonged to. And although I was forbidden to use their idiom, I knew it was nonetheless to that specific dialectal declension of our way of being human that I belonged.
Today as back then, I know this ancestral manner of experiencing aliveness is inscribed within me, as if it were a soul tattoo. And I know I share this tattoo, this imprinted speech, with all those who still remember how life keeps feeding on the earth and the air, the fruits and the animals, just as it keeps partaking of one and the same embodied awareness and memory.
This ancestral manner of experiencing aliveness is inscribed within me, as if it were a soul tattoo.
Despite that inborn wild love, that rootedness, I was carried, or rather swept, by the current that was washing me downstream, as I was torn from my ancestral land. I was told that this was necessary in order for us youngsters to “work our way” into the world. And what a long way did we travel, as we found ourselves pulled into tangles of suburban bypasses and existential crossroads, as we immersed ourselves in the anonymity of long subway tunnels and career progressions where everyone seems to be rushing toward an invisible goal, haunted by the same undecipherable dreams, dreamed by others in their stead.
Trapped in that collective illusion, little by little we lost all memory of a possible return to the springs of existence, ours and life’s own, and allowed the marine currents to take us farther and farther away into the open sea. Those among us who did not believe in the illusion of having to “work our way” into the world abandoned themselves to the currents, like boats without a rudder, so as to finally meet their destiny — a destiny you know keeps looking after you tenderly from behind, caring for you like that guardian angel whose nonexistence, they assured you, is a scientifically proven fact. I found myself swept by the currents way beyond Hercules’s columns, till I reached, overseas, new lands, unknown estuaries, different rivers, foreign slopes.
This is how I came to peer into the mystery that many long years on the Pacific coast of the North American continent have now woven within me, silently bridging these lands and those of my birth, this wildness and the one from which I was once torn away. This is how I came to see the urgency of leaving not just the oceanic depths where our existence unfolds, but also the shores I had become used to calling home, so as to travel upstream.
I found myself, mentally even more than physically, traveling along valleys so different from my own, which nevertheless now owned me. Walking against the current, I set out in search of the long-lost springs that gush forth, hidden under mosses and ferns, sheltered by cedars and arbutus trees, so as to approach the mystery of origins. In the course of this long, slow, and exhausting trudge I saw that if every brook generates its own eco-dynamics, each of these unique ecosystems shares in turn something specific with all others. Symbolically, we could call it not just “lack of salinity,” but rather “sweetness”: because, ever since Dante’s times, all that brings us home from exile is sweet to our palate.
Everything here is a mesh within the large living web that the yearly return of salmon casts as far as the eye can see, like an endless ecological embrace.
Wave after wave, rock after rock, in the course of my upstream journey I came to see that this is salmon’s territory, and everything here gets its nourishment from it. Vast and complex, the fabric woven by salmon’s offerings is boundless: it embraces, feeds, and sustains every one of the organisms living in the waters and on the lands that are imbued with their presence. Everything here is a mesh within the large living web that the yearly return of salmon casts as far as the eye can see, like an endless ecological embrace.
This is the inner knowing that has fashioned the mindset indigenous to this land, proper to the human dwellers who for millennia have managed to live in sacred partnership with salmon. Should salmon return no more, human beings too, along with everything else pertaining to this particular biosphere, will be extinguished or become, in some perverted way, inhuman. Because, year after year, along these shores, as you find yourself identifying almost inadvertently with its totemic omnipresence, you too, little by little, become, or return to be, salmon: it’s the memory of salmon’s way of being that seeps through you; it’s in the fibers of your being that salmon’s way of remembering comes back to life. It doesn’t matter whether you are vegetarian and don’t eat salmon: all along, since before the advent of humanity, salmon wedded their life to the life of these lands. Everything that grows here grows bearing the imprint of the gift of themselves that salmon keep making.
All along, since before the advent of humanity, salmon wedded their life to the life of these lands. Everything that grows here grows bearing the imprint of the gift of themselves that salmon keep making.
Among us humans who live here, there are those who still remember: those who still see and know, despite the unrelenting urbanization of the land. And there are those who, because of the urbanizing process, ignore and underrate: either because they forgot, or because they belittle. And then there is a flock, a herd, a school of “in-betweens”: beings called to cross over from one way of living, and of knowing, to the other; and this crossing over is like an inner conversion, it takes place by way of a slow, exhausting return upstream — countravāl l’aigo, precisely.
I wish I could say I embraced this conversion as soon as I arrived here, deliberately. I wish I could say that every one of the migrants who through the centuries came to settle these lands could partake, with slightly different words, of this same story. I don’t need to say that such is not the case. I don’t need to emphasize that a journey upstream happens gradually, and always as a struggle: even more so when it’s a matter of approaching the mythical and symbolic aspects of the food we are offered.
As they are being decimated, salmons faithfully follow their existential lead, year after year making their way back home. Their genetic recollection of something akin to my motto, countravāl l’aigo, keeps calling them to the springs where they once were born, so as to reseed life and concurrently end their existential journey in their native waters.
An Indigenous fisherman once told me how his ancestors knew which of the local rivers and streams each of the returning salmon would be looking for: it was the different patterns on their backs that allowed people to recognize salmons by their ancestral identity, by their local belonging. That web of scales, black gray and silvery, which under the supermarket’s fluorescent lights appears to us as utterly casual, is in fact salmon’s own language, inscribed like a tattoo on their skin, inflected in a myriad of dialects: as numerous as the rivers and streams, as varied as the languages spoken by the Indigenous people of this land.
That web of scales is salmon’s own language, inscribed like a tattoo on their skin, inflected in a myriad of dialects: as numerous as the rivers and streams, as varied as the languages spoken by the Indigenous people of this land.
One of the causes for salmon’s decline, that fisherman told me, is urban development: the great majority of the waterways that up to a few decades ago fashioned this territory and its ecosystems have now been buried under pavement and cement, so that those salmons’ families, lineages, idioms no longer have a home — their own — to return to. Salmons thus die in the ocean while vainly looking for their river, prevented as they are from undertaking that journey upstream that would allow them to spawn in the only place intended to that effect: that particular river bend where the language tattooed on their bodies resonates from beginningless time with the language inscribed in the land, sung by the waters, whispered by the wind, caught by the cedars’ sinuous boughs.
We, too, by embracing the need to journey countravāl l’aigo seem to respond to a similar call; a call that speaks to us of a return to Source, that urges us to leave behind the saltiness of sea water, in order to regain the freshwaters of long-forgotten streams, where the memory of our archaic, primordial being may come to life again. Yet I can see equally well that we too, like salmon, are today drifting confused in murky waters, our sixth sense unable to descry the specific site of our ancestral belonging, that gushing of freshwater we know we ought to be able to identify because it keeps beckoning to us with words whose meaning we are uniquely poised to understand. Which address do we carry tattooed in the deepest layers of our individual existence, unbeknown to our rational cognition? Will we succeed in finding our way home, or has our river mouth been cemented over by some merciless hand?
Extinction is a threat that lays in wait for us all. There is no reason to believe we might be among the spared ones. Yet we can hope that this awakening, this call we have heard, will not be in vain: that we will succeed in making the journey upstream we have been called to, in order to go die where dying means unheroically to give one’s own life, so that the life that owns us may be renewed again.
By considering our current predicament from the joint perspective of salmon history and the story of humanity on this planet — a story of hundreds of thousands of years — we can perhaps come to see how at this time, when we are the ones roaming these immemorial shores, our inner senses may well be groping for the memory of the estuary of that particular river in whose waters we humans once took both shape and life, that river whose language our souls still keep speaking, regardless of our denials. Plunged as we are in the saltwaters of our urban consciousness, of our civilized existence, we are now sighting the time when this kind of deprived life is drawing ever closer to an end.
If we mindlessly stay on in the oceanic waters, we will certainly become extinguished in them. If we respond to the call that is now harrowing us, if we embark upon this journey countravāl l’aigo to the forgotten sources of our choral identity, of our cosmic interdependence, it’s the work of a lifetime, and of all life in time, that will thereby be consecrated and sacrificed. Our own life, of course, but equally so the whole of life that teems right now on that fragile, mobile, thin surface which is our biosphere: life as a whole is at this time looking for that miraculous river mouth that might allow her to return to the origins of life itself so as to give new life to that life, a new spelling to that shadowed spell.
To swim against the current, so as finally to come home from the exile that has long ensnared us, seems to be an ecological imperative in today’s world.
Countravāl l’aigo. To swim against the current, so as finally to come home from the exile that has long ensnared us, seems to be an ecological imperative in today’s world: that is the only vernacular we need to learn anew, the only river mouth worth looking for. In hopes that tomorrow there will still be someone to say that life, which seemed all but lost, was saved by being lost.
View A Salmon Story, a film about First Nations in the Pacific Northwest in the early twentieth century and their relationship with the returning salmon.
Acknowledgments: I owe the differentiation between bone memory, flesh memory, and skin memory to Martin Shaw, who talks about it in many of his writings and videos. Also, I am grateful to David Abram and Robin Wall Kimmerer for their inspiring essays on salmon life and legacy.
Daniela Boccassini is a professor of Italian Studies at the University of British Columbia, Canada. Her research interests focus on the quest for transformative understanding, or gnosis. She has studied ancient transformative practices such as falconry and alchemy and writings from authors such as Dante Alighieri, Michel de Montaigne, and Carl Jung.