Salmon River with dipsicus fulonum

Oregon's Epic Estuaries

There's a dramatic world of life where our rivers meet the ocean.

In twelfth-century Ireland, every aspiring poet had to learn—in addition to meters, forms, and techniques—dindsenchus, or the lore of high places, the topography of all the important places in Ireland about which a poet might write. Dindsenchus included prevailing winds and rains, prominent plants, limestone caverns and outcroppings, magical properties of the landscape, and especially water—loughs (lakes, including lakes that come and go seasonally), rivers, sea inlets, and springs. A poet could begin to write only after being certain of the where of the poem.

In Galway Bay in western Ireland, I found myself one afternoon out on a grassy island sitting behind a rock for a windbreak and staring out to sea. I had wandered out at low tide across a rocky stretch of exposed bay bottom. To my right, a small river came into a finger of the bay, and a family with two small children walked barefoot on the sandy riverbed. I looked away to the sea again and got lost in the shifting light and waving grasses that seemed contiguous with the wind-whipped bay. When I happened to look back toward the sand spit, the family had moved off, and most of the sand had disappeared. When my brain caught up with what I saw, I announced “whoops” to the wind and scurried back down the path off the island and arrived at already wet rocks. I quickly made good my escape from the incoming tide. Dindsenchus, I thought, the ways of the local water. Hell of an Irish poet I’d have made stuck out on that island for six hours because of my ignorance of local waters.

Estuaries in Oregon, especially the small ones—Salmon River, Nestucca, Sand Lake, and the like—are wedge estuaries where the incoming tide wedges itself under the outflowing river, and the salt and fresh waters barely mix. Plants and animals live here in paradox where the two waters meet. Paradox, it has always seemed to me, is the characteristic of all true things. If you find a singular, uncontested bumper-sticker “truth,” you are probably in the presence of some kind of fraud, someone else’s agenda. In complexity, irony, paradox—that’s where truth hangs out. The two waters wedged together twice a day create a kind of truth that contradicts itself at two levels: biologically and strategically.

Siletz estuary

With their paradox of twice-daily washings, salt estuaries are among the Earth’s richest biomes in terms of plant and animal diversity. Every single plant that’s bathed twice a day in salt water would grow better in fresh water alone. And yet the plants stay for the chemical feast that is sea water—nitrogen, potassium, phosphorus—a fine fertilizer. But the feast comes poisoned. Sodium and other salts are the plant killer. Try a handful of salt on any weedy lawn spot and see what happens. So the estuary plants have to devise strategies to let the food in and keep the poison out.

If the devil is in the details, then sodium salt is the devil. As long as a plant can find a way to keep the sodium out, the rest of the feast can pass in. There are a number of strategies to fight off the sodium. Some plants (saltwort or turtleweed or pickleweed, Batis maritima) in the estuaries are succulents and simply hold enough water to dilute the sodium and keep the levels tolerable. Some marsh grasses become monocultures—the same plant that genetically developed a salt tolerance as a survival strategy then came to be the only successful individual and completely filled its niche. Saltmeadow cordgrass (Spartina patens) has a special membrane on its roots that allows it to suck in mostly water, and glands on its leaves that help it spit out the salts that make it into the plant.

And as the plants march from full exposure to seawater up the estuary incline toward dry land where there are rare washings of seawater during storm surge or other unusual conditions, each plant has a competence to deal with various quantities of seawater at full or partial strength. The entire estuary, and scientists use this word for both plants and animals, is a collection of strategies: strategies to grow, to reproduce, to feed, to survive, to compensate for unusual circumstances (storms and floods again). Once I encountered the anthropomorphic notion of plants strategizing, I had a hard time keeping the metaphor from running wild: where is longing, plotting, seeking, despairing, worshiping, loving?

And from there the complicated truth that is an estuary began to suggest a literary form that has always contained such complicated truths—the epic. Heroes, fabulous adventures in strange places, superhuman deeds, divine interventions, an underworld that works in opposition to this world—these are some of the main features of the epic.

Choose your hero in this place of paradoxical waters: Caspian tern, lugworm, clam, Spartina grass—or, what should get a sack of votes, bacteria. You could make a case for each.

Scott Andress

For example, I recently went with David Craig, a friend and bird biologist from Willamette University, to help catch and band Caspian tern chicks. Just under half the world’s Caspian terns live on East Sand Island in the mouth of the Columbia River—about 9,000 to 11,000 breeding pairs—something like 22,000 birds out of an estimated world population of 50,000. This island is the battleground for salmon-versus-birds skirmishes that have been going on for more than ten years, since a 1997 study of tern predation on fish near Rice Island, twenty-one miles upriver from the Columbia’s mouth. Since then, terns have been moved and environmentalists and government agencies have been battling in the courts. Lots of parties have a stake: the Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Bonneville Power Administration, Oregon and Washington sport and commercial fishermen, the Audubon Society, bird biologists, and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, to name the primary participants.

We arrived through a fog from the town of Chinook on the Washington side of the Columbia mouth, beached the boat on East Sand Island well below the level of the birds, and I looked up to see the colony explode in the air, and then David pointed out the reason. A bald eagle cruised overhead, and the colony rose as one in response to the predator. While the sky filled with birds, a designated fighter squadron of terns broke out of the whirling vortex of wings and pursued the eagle, darting at his wings and plucking at flight feathers. The noise of the rising was symphonic, and I caught David smiling at my reaction—my jaw dropped, my aural senses overwhelmed by the thickness of the bird noise, sudden and profound. I tried to pick out various parts in the cacophony: the sopranos, the tenors, the baritones. But the sound was so thorough from low to high, so completely blended into one, that it reminded me of the definition Plotinus used for the sublime in literature—one single great note rung from all parts. Then as the birds organized their explosion to return to the nesting ground, the form of their settling resembled what Yeats called a gyre or spinning vortex and claimed was the shape of human history. Yeats saw that gyre in the rising swans off the small lake at Coole. I grasped for the literary references as a form of mental sanctuary in the face of the dislocation I felt at being overwhelmed by the birds. I was separated from my own reality by the singularity of what I witnessed; the sound and sight had its own fierce reality that overrode all other experiences. I’d never seen or heard anything like it.

Part of the explosion, I now noticed, was a rain of small fish the birds had been eating and, in the excitement of the perceived attack, had abandoned in flight. These were the fish that had pitted group against group for years: steelhead and salmon smolts (the money fish), but also shiner perch, staghorn sculpin, anchovies, herring, peamouth, bridgelip suckers, rainbow smelt, lamprey, flounder, and various minor prey like eulachon or candlefish. Did the birds get to eat anything they wanted including the salmonids that constituted the cash crop for many interested parties? Or did the bird diets need to be managed in a perceived “balance” that would make everyone satisfied?

The birds had already been moved out to the mouth of the Columbia at East Sand Island from their original breeding spot on Rice Island. Between a 1999 pilot study and the actual relocation from 2000 to 2008, the birds had proven amenable to change: their diet went from 80 percent salmonids on Rice Island to, for certain seasons anyway, only 30 or 40 percent on East Sand Island. Rice Island was made physically less desirable by inserting poles into the surface: terns land like airplanes and need a runway. East Sand Island was made more desirable for terns by clearing brush. And so the terns moved downstream into the mouth where more saltwater prey mixed with the salmonid prey. Given the richness of the estuary, the terns proved tractable, but the people with vested economic interests insisted that the colony of birds was still responsible for too much predation. Plans were made to reduce the size of the breeding site on East Sand Island in 2010 from six acres to one. Biologists hoped the dispossessed birds would find other suitable sites. Early in 2010, because of low water in the Klamath basin, one of the most important sites planned to accommodate the dispossessed terns, it was decided to leave all six acres of breeding habitat on East Sand Island, at least for that year.

I left the island thinking there is a great torque in the financial interests of humans, a twisting and wringing that constitutes itself as self-righteousness: feed myself and others, provide essential services, grow the economy. And the counter-wringing: the idealism of preservation and conservation against some vague but passionate concern for our future as humans. If you follow the consequences of these opposing forces, you find a result: 55 percent of all U.S. salt estuaries (remember, home of the epic, guardian place of the metaphor for truth itself) have been filled in and compromised so they no longer function as estuaries (diking is the usual method in the eastern United States). When an estuary is filled in, the river water behaves itself and stays orderly for building condos or growing rice in impoundments. The estuary becomes civilized. Its scale of life is reduced. Condos go up. Complexity goes down.

I first conceived of estuaries as epic literature walking alone—seeking my own dindsenchus—in the Nestucca estuary. I had been reading about lugworms (Polychaetes, a huge group of worms) and found that they were probably the most photographed of all worms for their feathery beauty. Also called bristleworms, featherdusters, fireworms, sea mice, and clam worms, these worms are everywhere in the ocean from surface to mud but especially rich in estuaries. I learned there was a giant version in Atlantic estuaries—though not in Oregon estuaries—sometimes three meters long (Eunice gigantea), that was the fiercest predator in its neighborhood, eating everything it encountered in the bottom mud, everything that was not big enough to eat it. Here was a dragon.

In epic literature there is always some super force (often superhuman: think Beowulf’s strength versus Grendel’s thirst for human blood, Odysseus’s cunning versus Circe or the Cyclops). There are extraordinary deeds and powerful divinities, the everyday material world, and, for contrast, an underworld or some magic equivalent. These characteristics congregate in long, narrative poems usually—El Cid, Song of Roland, The Epic of Gilgamesh, The Odyssey, Beowulf. Ordinary people become extraordinary by doing extraordinary deeds, and then they usually try out the values and mores of their society in the process—honor, strength, resilience, loyalty, brotherhood, cunning, and so on. The regular material world is usually not sufficient for the trials, and so add the supernatural, the place where all the rules change, where nature and natural are redefined repeatedly—a dark tower, the underworld, a wild cedar forest, the sea bottom, a cloven oak. We are familiar with these qualities and places on various scales in Harry Potter’s world, in the Ring trilogy, and in cartoon versions such as Superman, Batman, Iron Man, and Darkman ad nauseum.

Sand Lake estuary

In an estuary with its superabundance of life, its salt and fresh water daily dance of life giving, its dragon predator worms (even the much smaller versions in Oregon), the magnitude of struggle and the survival strategies that arise in plants and critters alike, we have regular life amplified into the heroic.

Imagine we have shrunk into estuary mud where our dragon worm, Eunice gigantea, has been waiting for night to mate. She has waited for the moon and has her own segmented light to attract a male. Both she and the male bud off and deposit their butt ends, which in some species grow a new head. We’ve taken to hiding in the Spartina grass forest witnessing the doubling of the worm population in one night, worms that will be looking to eat us as soon as next week. How do we forge our swords? When do we dare venture out onto the mud flats for food? The tide will come in bearing fish that will eat some of the worms; foraging crabs will scurry in, then beat it back to the ocean on the outgoing tide. Every two weeks a big tide will bring saltwater in farther than usual, and we should plan ahead for that assault. Some salt-washed plants manage to accommodate these incursions biweekly but fall to the big storm surges or the five- or ten-year tidal bores that wipe them out. The whole estuary world is a thick, heroic soup of stratagems and schemes to eat and reproduce, and we would need to be heroic to live here.

Estuaries are under siege across the United States, and in particular now in the once-thriving Mississippi delta. Smaller but just as insidious sieges threaten Northwest estuaries. Grays Harbor, Willapa Bay in Washington, Coos Bay in Oregon have all experienced “filling and diking.” The result is loss of estuarine vigor—complexity. I think what science means by loss of complexity we can also think of as loss of epic scale. Darwin called this complexity a “tangled bank” in which layers and more layers of complicated survival-informed influences linked species together in struggle. What epic literature does—why it has persisted in the human intellectual landscape since well before writing—is remind us through story that we are complicated and connected creatures and not alone in our longings, fears, and aspirations. Our literary model has always been the natural world, conceiving ourselves as extensions of the eagle’s power, the mouse’s timidity, the storm’s destruction, the wolf pack’s organization. In estuaries we are bound up in the potent richness of life, and what’s at stake each day is nothing short of dredging or oil spilling or draining away our own story.

Michael Strelow, PhD ’79, is a professor of English at Willamette University. His novel, The Greening of Ben Brown, was a finalist for the Ken Kesey Award in fiction in 2005. His essay “The Logic of Wildflowers” appeared in the Spring 2009 Oregon Quarterly.