At Muir Woods National Monument I recently watched the endangered Coho salmon prepare to spawn, which is shown in the video below as a male and female make a redd for their offspring. (A redd is a gravel depression salmon create with their tails and into which the eggs are laid and fertilized.) Coho salmon are making a comeback in the Redwood Creek that flows through Muir Woods here in Marin County, California. Each December after the first heavy rain, the sandbar at Muir Beach breaks. The seam allows salmon to leave the ocean and swim upstream to the creek where they hatched about three years before.
The parents undergo dramatic physical changes on this final journey. Their jaws and teeth become hooked. Their skin blushes with hues of red and pink. With immense effort, they make their way upstream. Finding a shallow spot for a redd, they create their nest, lay and fertilize their eggs, all the while maintaining their resistance against the incessant current. Having completed this final phase of the life cycle, they die having given their lives so that life may continue.
The final lines of The Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi capture the spirit of the salmon's life cycle:
"It is in giving that we receive...It is in dying that we are born to eternal life."
Of course, their behavior is driven by instinct, a genetic imperative that lacks our tendency toward prolonged self-reflection and angst. It simply is the way of things. The salmon just keep working their way through the water.
I, however, am not as zen as the salmon. I want to know why the current is against me, how to control it, and what's the meaning of it all. I gripe about how wrong it is that I must swim upstream when life should be so much easier.
The salmon school me in living. They inspire me to swim with my whole body, heart and soul, whether the current is with me or against me. They invite me to remain open to the inevitable changes that will occur in life. They remind me that, ultimately, this existence is not really all about me. My individual life serves the greater cause of Life itself, of which I am part.
The salmon don't pause to ponder what the meaning of it all is. They embody their purpose. They live who and what they are with every ounce of energetic verve in their being. That's all they do, and it's enough...for them and for us. As Joseph Campbell said:
"People say that what we're all seeking is a meaning for life. I don't think that's what we're really seeking. I think what we're seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonance within our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive. That's what it's all finally about."