Friday, September 25, 2009

Existentialism and Nuance on the American River

I don’t write a lot about my work in this space. But today I start classes for a new degree.[1] In light of that, I thought I’d post this essay I wrote for the Ichthyology class that put me on this path. I am a river modeler[2] so it made sense to me to take a fish class as part of my PhD course work. It was probably my favorite class I took, and, so, here I am getting ready to dive back into academia one more time.

A Walk Down the River

It was an enormous confluence of fish going nowhere, but headed there resolutely. This was my reaction to the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of salmon backed up behind the closed gate of the Nimbus fish hatchery. Nearby a father asked his rambunctious but intrigued sons “What if that was your life, all you wanted to do was swim upstream?” I pondered what he might be trying to teach at that moment. Perhaps that his sons were lucky to have longer and more meaningful lives or maybe that resolve and sacrificial, single minded purpose were admirable traits. I suspect, however, his comment may not have had a precise pedagogical intent but may have rather been an articulated reflection on his own mortality. I allowed myself the smug fantasy that one of the boys turned to his dad and quoted Sartre or Camus in an attempt to actually respond to the deeply existential query. Existential themes, however, did appear to be the topic of conversation as visitors seemed inspired by single minded fortitude but reminded of the brevity and futility of cyclical existence.

The Nimbus fish hatchery was designed to mitigate habitat losses that resulted from the construction of the Nimbus dam. A large fenced structure that spans the width of the river “guides” the fish to a ladder where they back up behind a gate. Periodically the gate is opened and several fish proceed up the ladder to holding tanks where they are allowed to “ripen,” “anesthetized” and “harvested[3].” Eggs and sperm are removed and mixed and the subsequent fresh water life stages of the anadromous fish occur in large concrete tanks. A path proceeded past the visitor center and tanks full of densely packed juvenile fish whose synchronized movements were more reminiscent of shoaling behaviors than anything that might seem preparatory for life as a wild salmon or steal head[4].

Half a mile downstream the river was still thick with fish near its banks. I made my way down to the river edge where a tall, lanky heron had taken its position over viewing the buffet before it. I waited patiently with the bird, for a perfect picture, which I proceeded to take without film (strangely symbolic of the futile struggle I was observing). In my anthropomorphization[5] I suspected that the heron was not happy to share its bank with me. But it was far more patient than I and soon had its fishing location to itself.

The view a little further downstream was the most poignant. Both the dam and the mass of fish came into view together, standing in striking counter distinction to each other. Both were awe inspiring. The dam was massive and symmetrical, bearing a geometric simplicity and representative of human ingenuity. The fish were complex, chaotic and organic on an enormous and moving scale and bore the mantle of temporal priority. A placard about the dam revealed that this was a Bureau of Reclamation structure. I was mildly relieved to learn that it was not the Corps of Engineers’. But the specific facts of this system were incidental, since the Corps is the managing entity in a number of very similar situations. It is the Corps after all that brings us the absurdity of the Columbia River fish trucking program. But this is not distant mockery because, for me, the Corps is not a ‘they’ but a ‘we’.

Reflections on a Managing Institution

I am part of a new Corps of Engineers. Not the institutional “New Corps” with Seven Points of Stewardship, environmental objectives and green rhetoric, but a much more organic entity that is the inevitable result of an organization that expects 50% turnover in the next 10 years. These ‘old guard’ positions are being backfilled by scientists and engineers whose training postdated our nation’s development of a broad environmental consciousness. My colleges and I joke about making careers out of undoing what our predecessors in the organization have done. But there is a quiet dissonance as we continue to manage their legacy looking for incremental, environmental gains while bearing the disdain of environmental groups and negotiating a poor funding environment for restoration projects.[6]

A compelling philosophical argument could be made that the city of Sacramento should not exist given the flood risks of living at the confluence of two enormous, flashy, mountain fed rivers. But, empirically, it does exist and the Nimbus dam provides it some protection. Further argument could be made that flood protection of this sort is actually detrimental to urban areas because it creates a false security of extended periods of safety while only exposing them to infrequent but very large and catastrophic events. This, however, is a nuanced discussion and therefore, like most nuance, not really in play in public discourse. Therefore, we have inherited an impasse between humans and fish. Our predecessors overcame the inertia of dynamic, unpredictable natural systems. Our inertia to overcome is social dependence on engineered systems despite the growing evidence of their detriment. This is more poignant for me since social dependence on engineered systems is not an abstract problem someone else has. Not able to afford a house in Davis, we have made our home behind a West Sacramento levee.[7] [8]

[1] #5 for those keeping score at home.
[2] I construct numerical models of natural systems…but that does not keep my wife from telling people I model professionally.
[3] This is one of the problems with the hatchery ‘solution.’ by only propagating genetic material from a few founding individuals we create a genetic bottleneck and artificially induce genetic drift and decrease allele diversity (making the population less versatile to respond to changing conditions and disease).
[4] I cut my favorite line here. it was something about being able to purchase fish food for $0.25 and feeling seedily voyeuristic watching the fish frenzy as I threw it in…like some sort of red light district peep show.
[5] I am not sure what the verb for anthropomorphism is.
[6] I cut the following section here because it struck me as bitter. But here it is: ‘Incremental gain’ is the rally call of stewardship minded individuals on the inside. We are still in a phase of institutional reform where the low fruit of obsolete dam removal and structure re-operation are available and helpful for the establishment of precedent. However, population pressures and climate trends give the Nimbus dam an excellent chance of outliving me. The Corp’s will always do what it is funded to do; anything else would literally be a federal offense. So we plug along, looking for our incremental gains, marketing restoration work to the power brokers and deep pockets and working for small, achievable paradigm shifts. In a sense it is a compromised and resigned environmentalism, with little hope of major impact on the Nimbus situation in the near future. For this we are often not thought of as full partners in the environmental movement. But I have always been more interested in action than ideology, and like my position on the inside for exacting meaningful change and synergistic solutions to the greatest extent possible.
[7] This is no longer true. We took advantage of the housing market crash to move to Davis…mostly to unify our lives…but getting out from behind the levee was part of it too.
[8] Professor Moyle started each class with a haiku that he wrote that morning (and an example of fish in art…his wife is an art history prof) so we were encouraged to submit haikus with everything we wrote.


Joel said...

I think the verb form of "anthropomorphism" is "to anthropomorphise", but the whole construction seems terribly unwieldy to actually use. I guess it's one of those nouns that hasn't really been verbed by the public, probably because it's such a long word to begin with that it's not really in the spoken vernacular and that's where a lot of noun verbing takes place.

Joel Wilcox said...

"Anthropomorphize" was used in a Calvin and Hobbes comic. That makes it a real word.

Oh wait, no it doesn't.

Teresa said...

Anthropomorphist is a favorite one in eco-critical studies--and anthropomorphistic for that which is wildly anthropomorphic or has become an anthropomorphism.