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When the Salmon Disappeared

Richard Hugo’s “Duwamish” is as melancholy and depressing as “Skykomish River Running” was exultant and uplifting, and yet the Duwamish River is less than sixty miles from the Skykomish River. The difference between the two is industrialization and pollution.

When I was growing up in Seattle, the Duwamish was probably the major source of salmon in Puget Sound. On fishing derby days, rows of boats nearly covered the bay between West Seattle and Skidroad while endless schools of salmon headed up the river.

Those salmon barely exist today, partially because of we fishermen, but mainly because of the pollution that has destroyed the salmon’s breeding grounds, the destruction that Hugo so clearly portrays in “Duwamish.”

This is the Northwest, not the Midwest; here rivers run swift and clear, not slow and gray. But here the lumber mills and concrete plants crowd the river banks slowing the river, spewing waste products, turning the already gray water ever dingier.

At low tide the garbage discarded by new and old industries emerges, dominating the landscape. Even the businesses that helped destroy the river have shut down, leaving their brick corpses behind. It is a landscape of the dead.

Even the Indians who named this river, just as they named the beautiful Skykomish, no longer claim this river as their own. They’re ashamed of what has become of it and no longer interrupt their beer drinking to tell miraculous tales of the river.

There are more than enough gray days in Seattle, but the dinginess of this river turns even a sunny day gray. At the very least, a single cloud blocks the sun. Bright trees that should reflect brilliantly in the river are muted and gray. The river always looks gray, just like the heavy rain clouds that gather in November.

In reality, this river is dead. Dead like a decaying porgy nailed to the piling. It has been abandoned just like those who live here in poverty have been abandoned. A lack of friends has killed it.

In the end, though, the poet does not have adequate words to describe this place of abandonment. “There is no word along/ this river I can understand or say.” This is the ultimate betrayal.

It is a betrayal not only of the land, but of the heritage of the land. It is a betrayal of those whose memories are intertwined with this river. I can never take my grandson fishing on this river, so he will never know the joy that I had while fishing here with my father. In essence, he will never know my father existed at all because this river has been taken from us by greed and ignorance.

Little wonder Indians feel betrayed by the white man’s failure to honor the old fish treaties. We have destroyed not only the Indians but the very rivers that sustained them. In the end, if we’re not careful we will also destroy that which sustains us, and there will be no one to name the rivers. There will be no more Skykomish, no more Duwamish, just gray rivers dumping sewage into a gray Sound.