Interview with D.J. Duncan

deschutes river, snake river, oregon fishing, oregon rivers
David James Duncan finds solitude in his own Tamawanis Creek.

written by Kevin Max


Editor, Kevin Max, caught up with David James Duncan, the author of The River Why, to explore a raft of ideas related to water. In the fall 2009 issue, Duncan tackles the notion of Water as Soul. That piece alone is a wonderful journey across the world, back through time and finally into the flesh of Duncan’s mind. In this interview, he wades deeper into political, environmental and the film based on his novel.

1859: As someone who’s fished for decades in Oregon, what trends have you witnessed vis a vis water flow, fish population, development?

DJD: Too many trends to keep track of from over here in Montana. Last time I was in Bend, the Deschutes Library folks put me up in a deluxe condo with tennis courts and a mall and a restaurant and deli and pub and golf course. My room — and hot tub — were overlooking the Deschutes. After a couple days I realized a little stand of junipers by a spring near the canyon rim looked familiar. I then realized I used to drive over from Portland and camp there, in what was then “Wilderness.”

Here are three trends I ponder:

Trend #1: Oregon is a special place, but it shares the fate of the world. In 1952, I was born into a world of 2.6 billion humans. We now live in a world of seven billion. This is huge, and devastating. But this too shall pass. Someday a sustainable world of one or so billion of us may marvel at the time when poor Mother Earth managed to house seven billion in the ragged shelter of her atmosphere.

That these changes have occurred in a world wracked by the tripling of its population is surprising and, in my view, cause for hope. We live in a time of great suffering and mind-boggling transformation, but also, without question, a time of tremendous positive change.

Too many people speak of Earth’s population, and the change it’s wrought in Oregon or wherever, with horror or bitterness or anger. I’ve been guilty of this myself. But something in me has softened around the fact of Crisis. That’s the trend I’m seeing and feeling. We can only do what we can do, and I’ve realized that I don’t do what I do well when panic or anger or fear are my energizing force. Humanity’s suffering, the Earth’s suffering, the suffering of wild creatures and ecosystems and gods and angels, too, far as I can tell, has become so evident that I try to be gentler toward the crazy fact that there are seven billion of us. I try to turn away from panic toward small acts of love, and let those acts be my energizing force. I try to thank Mother Earth ceaselessly for putting up with us, and to thank people who serve her, and their fellow creatures, with sensitivity and creativity and compassion. I’ve lost my angry edge except on one issue. Which I’m coming to.

Make a Difference… Volunteer

SalmonWatch Adults can become stream-side guides in an education program for high school students that centers on field trips to view spawning salmon.

Visit The Nature Conservancy and find a project in Oregon where your talents are needed—from river bank restoration to photography.

Help out with a SOLV project, including the spring and fall beach cleanups

Adopt a river through the Marine Board and SOLV.

Help your local watershed council.

Trend #2: I was born in a world of overt Jim Crow, overt faux-Christian chauvinism, overt nuclear arsenal building and saber-rattling between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. A half century later, the U.S.S.R. is gone, the U.S. has a progressive black president, a worldwide army of passionate ecosystem defenders is gaining an ever-stronger voice, and a new form of spirituality now seriously engages the expression of faith in many forms. That these changes have occurred in a world wracked by the tripling of its population is surprising and, in my view, cause for hope. We live in a time of great suffering and mind-boggling transformation, but also, without question, a time of tremendous positive change.

Trend #3: You didn’t think I’d let you escape without raving about Pacific salmon collapse now did you? The Pacific salmon, after a Smithsonian Institute study just over a hundred years ago, was declared so bountiful that the institute doubted whether the interference of industrial humanity could seriously diminish their numbers at all. Boy do the people who funded that research deserve a refund! Eleven million Fraser River sockeyes — the entire run, really — have just been obliterated by contagion from corporate net-pens and all the Canadian government is doing about it is shouting, “It’s NOT OUR BELOVED NET PENS!” The Yukon River chinooks have “ick,” a disease we associate with guppies in stagnant pet shop tanks. Sacramento salmon runs have crashed.

Where’s the hope? The Columbia/Snake system drains over a quarter square million miles of the continent. Its surviving wild chinook, sockeye salmon and steelhead migrate farther and more significantly higher, into the mountains than any other salmon species. The purity and high elevation of their wild Idaho and eastern Oregon and Washington birth streams make them more capable of surviving global warming than any other salmon species. That’s my big hope. Yet these salmon are endangered, and bound for extinction, due to little more than the brokenness of our political and information systems.

I was born in Portland and raised in sight of the Columbia/Snake. I now live in the headwaters of the same, and have fished the rivers and creeks of this system for half a century. I have waded thousands of miles in these waters, and have held easily a thousand adult salmon and steelhead in my hands. My writings on these experiences have been read by millions and have been an influence in terms of educating the public. Yet for eight of the past nine years, the policies governing this watershed and its salmon and steelhead have been determined by men who’ve never caught, held, cherished or released even one wild salmon or steelhead: a conniving indoorsman named Karl, and a tragically ignorant Texas perch fisherman named George. That two abstracted minds filled with Limbaugh-like neocon superstitions succeeded in railroading America’s science, hijacking its policy, and for eight years governing 5,500 miles of Idaho, Oregon and Washington rivers being stripped of their salmon, is astounding to me.

Part of the reason they managed it is that “the news” only tracks the statements and misstatements of miscreants like these — even on the subject of salmon management. Why? It’s a challenge to the sanity of people like me. The tens of thousands of hours I’ve spent immersed in these actual waters, painstakingly studying and relishing every life-form they support, and worshipping their salmon in thanks for all they’ve given me, are not “news.” The “news” is the salmon “policies” of Rove and Bush and this disconnect continues under Obama. Because the BPA runs the dams, and greases Patty Murray’s political machine, Patty Murray has convinced the Obama administration to accept the biological opinion of the Bushies though that bi-op was driven by nothing but neocon superstition and is not biologically or scientifically or spiritually true at all. The removal of the lower Snake River dams would constitute the largest workable salmon recovery in the world at a time when the ocean’s fisheries have been reduced by 90%. We’re talking about saving our childrens’ freaking lives here. But our “news” and politics have become so manipulative and rhetorical and virtual that they aren’t capable of making contact with reality any more. Acknowledgements of physical reality would occasional be reassuring from our so-called leaders. Expressions of outright love, like those you find in the best science, poetry, film, prose, oral accounts, children’s drawings, local watershed group celebrations, of wild rivers and salmon, would be even better.

But it ain’t happening. So what to do? It’s a serious riddle to me. Our “news” and politics, if I took them to heart, would negate the joys and sorrows of my entire life, negate my gratitude to the Maker of Rivers, Seas and Salmon, negate things that I’ve learned, intimately, via my body, mind, heart, and soul. Even babbling about how Patty Murray has deluded the Obama Administration into accepting a railroading of salmon concocted by Bush and Rove feels, somehow, like a disservice to my true self, as well as to salmon. What can I say in response to any “news”that negates the reality of my life experience, and the existence of the soul within me, and the outcry of the vast majority of Northwesterners, who love salmon, except To hell with it. Such “news” and politics negates our treaties with the Northwest Indian tribes, negates their chance for livelihood, negates the fact that the salmon are their Eucharist, their ancient and holy food. Such news and politics negates the legacy of the commercial fishermen Jesus, Peter, James and John, negates the tradition of the Loaves and Fishes, negates the Genesis commandment to allow our “good” and God-blessed fishes to “fill the waters of the sea.”

I plan to remain standing at the foot of that federally mandated cross as America drives its last best salmon into oblivion. I plan to go on naming the salmon’s cross, their crucifixion, and their crucifiers for what they are.

So I can only gape at, I can never accept, the news and politics. If I am to maintain any kind of physical integrity or spiritual viability at all, I can only stand by the experience of my life and by the lives of the salmon and steelhead I’ve studied and loved and held, lifelong, in my own two trembling hands. The pressures of politics, credulousness of news shows, and “bi-ops” of connivers who’ve never touched such blessed creatures have nothing to give salmon but a government-made cross to die on. I plan to remain standing at the foot of that federally mandated cross as America drives its last best salmon into oblivion. I plan to go on naming the salmon’s cross, their crucifixion, and their crucifiers for what they are.

1859: Tell me a good (relatively) nonfictional Oregon fishing story.

DJD: I recently spent time with a PBS “Nature” crew doing a documentary on the horrors of being a wild salmon suffering state and federal “recovery efforts” in the Columbia/Snake. In their migration to the Pacific and return home to the mountains all of these salmon had swum the length of Oregon twice, eluded prey and fishing nets and the Bonneville Power Administration’s sixteen killer dams. The film guys were ragged from three weeks of filming industrial hatcheries and dam-mitigation devices and endangered salmon slit open and killed and posthumously processed for their eggs and milt instead of being allowed the first page of Genesis birthright that is the Spawn.

At the end of two days of hard work I took them, without hope, to a tiny tributary of the Clearwater 28 miles from my house—a stream that touches the Montana border 4,000 feet above sea level and 665 river miles from the Pacific. All they wanted was a canned shot of me, “the broken-hearted salmon lover,” scanning the stream six hundred feet below us with binoculars, trying to spot a salmon in a pool. It was 3:30 in the afternoon, bright sun, no chance of seeing anything due to crashed spring chinook salmon numbers yet again this year. I did the phony Bino Shot, and they started to pack. But I’d already done some phony fly fishing that was bugging me, so I told the camera man, “Wait a sec. The little pool I was scanning often really does hold salmon. You should at least shoot that pool, so that astute viewers know this wasn’t just staged. Anybody who knows salmon will recognize good holding water. It adds credibility to all you’re doing to let folks see it.”

He thought this a good idea so he moved tripod and camera to the cliff edge and started framing the shot. Just as he got things aimed and framed, I saw movement through my binos. An enormous female spring chinook swept into the crystalline wilderness water and spawning gravel at the tail of the pool. Jim Norton (the actor Ed Norton’s brother, a salmon lover like me, and the progenitor of the film) and I went nuts. Then the East Coast fellas saw her, caught on to the one in a million miracle of it, and went nuts too. These men had been filming every techno-debacle in the Columbia/Snake system starting with a time lapse of the eight dam gauntlet. At the sockeye facility at Redfish the techno-utopians who run the place had written WELCOME HOME SOCKEYES! on the labratory wall where they kill and slit open the guts of every returning fish and start throwing antibiotics and antifungals to fight the head-rot the salmon get from concrete tank abrasions, and maybe athlete’s foot ointment and Preparation H too. They’d climbed 7000 feet and swum a thousand miles to be WELCOMED HOME to quick graceless murder and the immersion of their offspring in an industrial sockeye Mitigation Soup. At every dam, going and coming, this crew had filmed young and old salmon crushed or flumed or tagged or handled or sucked into barges or fought over or devoured by introduced predators or miscounted or techno-diddled. They had not seen ONE wild salmon doing what wild salmon were created to do. So though she was 600 feet below us — or if you’re into Symbolism, because she was 600 feet below us — we were blown away by this perfect fish, huge and unmarked, her body looking as if the ocean and estuary were a quarter mile away.

She stayed in the center of view finder, like a ham actor. It was incredible. You could see, you could feel her nervous, sexual vitality, all that distance away.

“Is there a male? Is she alone? Is it useless that she made it?” the crew started worrying. Ah! Genuine human concern fires up when you get away from the technoids and see the real, shining, wild thing. As if in answer to their worry she was joined by a jack—a male of 6 or 7 pounds. A mere boy in salmon terms, but carrying milt, and so better than nothing. And his presence stimulated her. Right there in bright sun, water clear as air, that queen of a salmon turned on her side and began ramming a redd into the spine of this continent, her body shining like a silver knife blade, water churning, stones visibly flying, not a mark on her, the jack going nuts, swimming circles around her, over her, under her.

One day we’ll become worthy of our incredible world and the souls that tell our hearts to beat and the wild salmon that find the fire in water and use it to create astounding life. In the meantime, I stand in earth’s flowing water as if my life depended on it because, for me, it really does.

Then out of nowhere, a big eggplant-colored male swept into view. A big strong sperm-laden Swain, with shoulders and courage and several pounds of milt and a toothy kype to drive off opportunistic egg-eating trout. The crew and I lost it again, cheering and high-fiving and high-tenning each other. They started worrying some more, like the fathers they all are now, they were so invested in the drama. “Are there bears around here? It’s so shallow down there, and the water’s so clear. Won’t a bear just catch them if it sees them?” One might, I said, sure, but at least a bear isn’t a ‘mitigation facility’ behind a cyclone fence and barbed wire where spiritually tone-deaf technoids carve WELCOME HOME CHINOOKS!, gut them, and force their abducted children to chemically bond with, and return as adults to, a concrete vat that clones behavior and breeds contagion and guarantees their final doom.

We watched the three-way jack-buck-queen dance in Idaho wilderness for half an hour. We stood within sight of Montana, 665 river miles away from, and four thousand feet above, the Pacific. Then the queen and her court disappeared, and the film guys were out of time. We’ll see how their film turns out.

What did we catch that day? The REAL bi-op. The fact that this wilderness stream is the wild salmon’s, and our, best hope. Trying to improve the Genesis gift, we’ve created hell. The Obama administration’s attempts to improve the gift by accepting Bush/Rove’s lies, confirms my belief. All this primordial wild Gift needs to bring the abundance and beauty latent within it, is our acceptance of it, as given, and please God “unimproved.” Yesterday, when five tired grown men saw the gift embodied, they couldn’t help shouting like kids at Christmas. They’d seen a Pacific Northwest Holy Family and they knew it.

1859: What are Oregon’s biggest challenges in river conservation?

DJD: Convince Congress to remove those four damned Snake River dams. Maybe with a filibuster in the meter of Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham.

I do not like Snake River dams!
I do not like them Sam I am!

1859: What’s your take on “The River Why” film production?

DJD: Sigh. I engaged in a three-year legal battle against the producers of the film over their handling of my film rights. That battle was settled last fall. My name is off the film, Sierra Club’s name is off the film, and the rights have returned to me. I tried to remove my title from their film, too, but the federal magistrate in San Francisco let them keep it.

If I make a River Why movie, Patrick Markey (who produced “A River Runs Through It”) and Matt Salinger (a film and play producer in New York) would produce. I’d transfer it to Idaho so the LSR dams and endangered salmon would figure in. Sherman Alexie would co-write, with carte blanche to create hilarious Nez Perce characters, as only he can do. I had this ball rolling, ’til the current film was shot. If the current film bombs we may reconvene and do it right.

The current filmmakers held my rights for 25 years, and repeatedly tried to sell off the “property” they claimed to be “developing,” yet claim their efforts are “a labor of love.” Could be, but please spare me any such love. They wrote a crappy screenplay, filmed in a rush to outrace my lawsuits, used a non-fly fisher to play a “Mozart” of a fly fisher, used a rubber salmon to play a wild chinook, and so on. I wish them the best because at this point, why not. But as for their movie’s chances, how to put it? The Italians consider it lucky when a bird craps on your head. A great horned owl nailed me when I was fishing the Bitterroot last year and I’ve been pretty lucky ever since. As regards the alleged upcoming movie, I figure vast flocks of birds are going to have to poop on a lot of heads in order for their film to be good. Then I suppose more flocks are going to have to nail my friends and me to get the film of my dreams made. Could get messy! So let’s not forget, amid my grumbling, that all movie peoples’ souls are as unborn, enduring, constant and pristine as yours or mine.

One day we’ll become worthy of our incredible world and the souls that tell our hearts to beat and the wild salmon that find the fire in water and use it to create astounding life. In the meantime, I stand in earth’s flowing water as if my life depended on it because, for me, it really does.

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