- Francesco Guidicini
Adam Weymouth is an author and environmental activist. His work has been published in The Guardian, The Atlantic and New Internationalist. He lives on a barge on the River Lea in London.
Sitting in an Alaskan courtroom in 2013, Adam Weymouth witnessed the trial of 23 native Yup-ik fishermen charged with breaking a fishing ban aimed at protecting the alarming decline in local salmon. The Yup-ik defence was that the ban compromised their cultural and spiritual heritage: in seeking to protect an endangered species, the law was also threatening an indigenous way of life that had sustained communities for centuries, and families for generations.
Through this local courtroom saga, Weymouth sees a microcosm of a much wider story concerning the conflicted forces of global environmental change. As the author puts it, ‘I came to see how two different ways of interpreting the world were being forced up against each other.’ Among globalisation’s many paradoxical effects, he suggests, is disconnection and the isolation of metropolitan life from the wider world. Nature and wilderness have become reduced to abstractions, allowing us to forget our own intimate place in the ecosystem and the intricate symbiosis of human beings and the environment.
The legal battle in Bethel, Alaska, prompts something of an epiphany in Weymouth, compelling him to complicate the now familiar narrative of planetary destruction that pits people against the planet. Rather than pointing the finger of blame, he suggests that to acknowledge the devastating effects of climate change also demands that we ask: “Why should people not be part of that ecosystem, why is the culture [of people like the Yup-ik] not part of what we’re trying to value and keep?”
It is this question that propels the author of Kings of the Yukon on a 2,000 mile canoe journey down the Yukon River through Canada to Alaska and into the Bering Sea. The Yukon River is ‘the longest salmon run in the world’ (31). It is just three days travel from London, and also a world away. The moose outnumber people here, according to the locals.
Among the five species of salmon inhabiting the Yukon’s waters is the largest and most prized of them all: the king salmon (as it is known in Alaska), or the Chinook (in Canada). Sedimented in the story of this fish is the history of the land through which it swims and the people whose way of life depends on it. Kings of the Yukon describes in this context, the 10,000 year old rock carvings of salmon to be found ‘etched into sandstone’ at the mouths of the river’s tributaries. The indigenous Chinook people share their name with the fish in which they once traded. The epic story of the king salmon in its muscular journey up the River Yukon consumes its entire life-cycle, from birth to death.
Kings of the Yukon combines the idioms of travel writing, natural history, ethnography, environmentalism and the fisherman’s yarn. Certain passages suggest the specialised precision and concern for categorical detail of the scientific manual as it works to capture ‘the complicated lexicon of a fish spawned in its own glossary’. This fish does not simply have fins, but a ‘dorsal, adipose, tail, anal, pelvic and pectoral’ (18). There are splashes of Latin throughout the book. However, these references are worn lightly within a book whose telegraphic sentences create an easy, informal, conversational style.
Crucially, Kings of the Yukon captures more the spirit than the science of the salmon. As Weymouth notes early on, the salmon ‘travel further than science can reach … much of what they eat and where they winter can only be surmised.’ The narrative goes on to trace both the mythology and the mystery of the fish, which Yup’ik legend states exists in a human form at sea, adorning ‘fins and silver skins’ only before entering the river. Elsewhere, the book captures the very real, but almost supernatural strength of the king salmon, as it swims against the Yukon’s gushing current on a journey which ascends over one thousand metres into the mountains above. As Weymouth poetically puts it: ‘they will reach the clouds’.
No wonder those who fish for the king salmon treat it with such reverence and respect. In Whitehorse, Yukon’s capital city, Weymouth meets Richard Dewhurst who takes him to his mother’s old fish camp at the river’s edge. It is abandoned and derelict now, but back in the day his family came every summer to catch, dry and smoke enough fish to last them the winter. Every part of the fish was used. Their first catch was honoured with a thanks giving and ceremonial dinner before the bones were placed carefully back in the water ‘pointing in the direction that the salmon had come, so that the next year they would bring more’. Nowadays the family fish for salmon only rarely, just enough to pass on the rituals and traditions to the next generation.
If Weymouth’s river adventure seems to echo in places the muscular bravado of Jack London or Ernest Hemingway, this is mitigated by the modesty and humility of the narrative voice. The book is quick to acknowledge moments of fear and cowardice, or to register its author’s wide-eyed innocence next to his more seasoned travel companions. As he puts it of his previous experience before setting out on his audacious journey ‘I have spent perhaps a week in a canoe, on British rivers that look, to Canadian eyes, like trickles – the Medway, the Dart, the Wye. I have learnt my paddle strokes from books.
For all its emphasis on the cyclical, part of the appeal of Weymouth’s narrative is its suggestion of a linear journey – meandering like the Yukon, but with a definite beginning, middle and end. There is something consoling in this linear arrangement, which suggests culmination and completion within a world ever more incorporated, yet divided, by the circumscriptions of the global marketplace. In its exploration of a remote region of North America, Kings of the Yukon confronts ‘the climatic and economic forces that are shaping the rest of our world’ (15). In paralleling the life-cycles of nature and the tentacular circuits of global capital, this book brilliantly exposes the fragile balance human nature must strike if it is to navigate a successful path between them.