I want to say there is nothing serene or comforting about the Sitka woods right now. The air reeks of dead salmon, seagull feces, fungus, mushrooms, and the rotting substrate of the forest floor. The soundscape is not the usual quiet whispers of the woods, but now a cacophony of screeching, whining gulls and eagles piercing the air with their bombastic cries. Every sense is filled with the rawness and harshness of nature’s less-romantic side, the side we don’t want to see, the side we often choose to pretend doesn’t exist.
Salmon are desperately battling the currents as they swim upstream, squirming past the bodies of their decomposing dead brethren, as the gulls wade through the mess of carcasses, cackling loudly about it. Winter is on its way and things are dying off, yet nothing wants to die. So all those things still living are desperately devouring all the things that are dying: the fungus, the birds, the bears, even the microscopic bacteria converting all these dead things back into the basic chemicals that make up all life in the first place. It’s a free-for-all among those feasting off the death of their wild comrades. At this very moment, the wilderness is acrid, loud, cold, wet, uncomfortable. It is not the usual safe haven to which I can normally escape. Because I have this romanticized view of what nature should be, my knee-jerk reaction is to feel disturbed by the brutality of this part of the yearly cycle.
I see this reaction from many of the tourists who come this time of year, as well. I’ve started giving a weekly program on the salmon run, where I take visitors out to the river to see it for themselves. Every time now, I’ve gotten comments on how “sad” the salmon cycle is, how messy and unpleasant it seems, and generally negative reactions to what they see. At the visitor center this week, we’ve also gotten a request to “save the salmon that are stuck struggling in the shallow parts of the river.”
I do understand this discomfort with the savageness and cruelty of the natural world right now. I feel it too. I want to pretend nature is peaceful and romantic and orderly, just like I want to pretend all other parts of my life are the same way. But nature is not, and neither is life. In fact, the two are rather synonymous — nature and our personal lives. Both follow cycles of birth, life, death; progress, success, failure; order, disorder, chaos, and back again. I think being able to recognize this and find comfort in the discomfort of it all is where happiness is found.
I’m trying to do this in my own life as well. I am uncomfortable with the many uncertainties I am facing right now. Uncertainties with the direction of my life, with figuring out what I want, with my friendships and relationships, with where I’ll even be a month from now. And instead of being able to escape into the forest to at least experience the peaceful order of the natural world, I am bombarded with nature’s own uncertainties of her many manifestations grappling with inevitable mortality as the season of abundance comes to an end.
Yet, as I walk the spongy damp trail each day, with fetid aromas filling my nostrils, I also see all the new life and order coming forth from the death and chaos. The dead salmon are fertilizing the rainforest and feeding the scavengers and recharging the river ecosystem with fresh nutrients. There are tiny new saplings growing right out of the dead tree stumps throughout the woods. These dead stumps are called “nursery logs,” and as their saplings grow big and strong, the stumps will rot away, leaving the new grown-up trees with big hollows in the root systems in the space where the log once laid, a beautiful reminder of where it came from.
Despite all appearances, there is something comforting and serene about the Sitka woods. There is comfort in knowing that this is how the cycle goes, that life comes straight out of death, and that change truly is the only thing we can rely on.