I had the idea for this blog while in a cinema. I write a lot and a lot of my ideas for my writing occur to me while I’m not actively trying to think about writing: I can’t count the number of times that a bolt from the blue has come to me while I’ve been watching a band perform; and when I’m in the cinema, if the film is in any way less than gripping, my mind starts to wonder.
The film that I was seeing when I had the idea for this blog was a feature-length documentary entitled Oceans. Oceans is a French film, but for its English-language release the narration had been translated, re-written and added to; perhaps not surprisingly, the result of this tinkering was an English script which was pedestrian at best and flat-out awful at worst. Perhaps if it had originated in any other language the problems would not have been so marked: though I don’t speak French I’ve watched a lot of French films, and adored and cherished many of them, but I think there are phrases which probably sound quite beautiful in French, to a French speaker, which when rendered in English become preposterously overwrought.
Still, the film’s visuals were never less than astonishing, which is perhaps why when my mind wandered, it didn’t wander far. Amid the footage of fish, and whales, and seals, I began thinking about animals. I’m reaching the age where I’m starting to become acutely aware of all the careers I’ll never have. I’m unlikely to ever get paid to go around the world looking at exotic animals. That being the case, I decided that I could at least write, for my own contentment, about the animals I do manage to see.
Given the particular genesis of this blog, then, in a cinema watching a film about marine life, I feel a little lax for having taken so long to get around to writing about a species of fish. To be honest I’ve wanted to do so for some time – but fish are difficult to notice. Unless you actively seek them out, there are precious few opportunities for most of us to encounter a fish.
Which makes those occasions when we do notice them all the more memorable. I have two particularly vivid memories of fish from when I was living in Canberra: on one occasion, I saw a Darter (Anhinga novaehollandiae) dive beneath the water and re-emerge moments later with a Redfin Perch (Perca fluviatilis) speared on its beak; prior to that I hadn’t even been aware of the existence of such a fish beneath the surface of Lake Burley-Griffin, the enormous artificial lake that dominates Canberra. On another occasion, when I was crossing Commonwealth Avenue Bridge in Canberra one spring, I looked down over the handrail and saw there just below the surface of the lake hundreds of European Carp (Cyprinus carpio), the scourge of Australia’s inland waterways. They were spawning, I suppose.
I haven’t seen any fish since moving to Melbourne seven years ago, but I know they exist in the city’s rivers and creeks because for almost a year now the Yarra City Council has been building a fishway near my house at Yarra Bend, where the Merri Creek flows into the Yarra River, which would allow migratory native fish to swim upstream past the existing weir.
Fish migrations are as extraordinary as any in the animal kingdom; more so, perhaps, because of the physical effort required to swim upstream against a strong current. I tried paddling up a river once, in a national park in far northern Finland, and I regret to say that I gave up rather easily.
That was in 2003. I spent the majority of that year living with my grandparents in England, but in August and September I went backpacking through Denmark, Sweden, and Finland, realising an ambition I’d until then only been tentatively aware of. I like the cold, and cold climates, so Scandinavia has always held a particular allure to me, even when the only thing I knew about the region was that it was cold.
I wended my way through the three countries, meandering across Denmark before rushing towards Sweden’s east coast and working my way up the Gulf of Bothnia. I crossed from Sweden to Finland by land, walking across a bridge over the Torne River before catching a bus north into the Arctic, where I made the aforementioned rather feeble attempt at kayaking on the Lemmenjoki River (or, actually, just the Lemmen River, as “joki” is the Finnish word for river).
Before arriving in Finland, though, I spent a few days in Umeå, a town of about 75,000 people located two thirds of the way up Sweden’s east coast. While in Umeå, which I had chosen as a stopping place for no other reason than that it was a convenient day’s travel from Stockholm, I hired a bicycle and spent a day riding the length of a nature and history trail along the banks of the Ume River.
Near the end of the trail, ten kilometres out of Umeå, I was lucky enough to witness what must be one of the greatest of all sights in the animal world: a salmon leap. By Stornoffors power station, one of the largest hydroelectric stations in Europe, there were a series of cascades in the river, which signs along the trail pointed out as a salmon leap. I went there, not even sure if I was arriving at the right time of year for the salmon migration, and after waiting patiently I was rewarded with the sight of an Atlantic Salmon, and then another and another, trying to leap up the waterfalls.
The basic, extraordinary facts of the Atlantic Salmon’s life-cycle are by now so well known that they probably don’t need to be repeated. Suffice to say they spend the first years of their life in freshwater rivers, before migrating to the Atlantic Ocean, where the majority of their growth takes place, then ultimately, when they’re mature and ready to breed, they return to the river in which they were born, swimming thousands of kilometres in order to do so. Unlike some other species of salmon, the Atlantic Salmon does not always die after spawning, and some individuals return to the ocean to repeat cycle all over again.
When you spend more than a few days travelling in a foreign country you inevitably pick up a few words, some more unusual than others. The way to the salmon leap at Stornoffors was, of course, sign-posted, and I was delighted to discover that the word for “salmon-leap” in Swedish is the wonderfully descriptive “lax-hoppet”. “Lax” is Swedish for salmon, and “hoppet” – well, I’m sure you can guess.
In fact, it’s easy to guess the meanings of a surprisingly large number of Swedish words – or Danish words, for that matter, or German words (to get to Denmark I travelled by train from London through Brussels and then Hamburg). They’re all related to each-other and there’s a great deal of commonality between them. In Danish, the Swedish lax becomes laks; in German it’s Lachs. Somewhat surprisingly, “salmon” is a native English word which is wholly derived from Latin: in Spanish the fish is called salmón; in Italian, salmone; in French, it’s saumon. This may not seem so unusual, because English has borrowed and adapted so many words from Latin and from French in particular that we tend to forget that our language is not a Romance language. It was only when I was travelling through Germany, Denmark, and Sweden, that I fully realised just how much of Northern European language English is. Spend any time in any of those countries (and presumably Norway, too, though the one time I’ve been there I was too young to be interested in such things), and you’ll find yourself constantly bumping up against almost-familiar words: whether it’s a sign in a park reminding dog owners to keep their hund on a lead, or a street-sign directing pious tourists to the nearest kirk, the origins of English are everywhere apparent in Northern Europe.
I don’t know if it’s particularly important to remember how English began, though. Mainly I just find it interesting. But English, more than most languages, is given to growing and changing and absorbing what it needs from whatever it encounters. When I was travelling in Europe it wasn’t just suggestions of English that were everywhere – the language itself was, too, being spoken by Germans, and Danes, and Swedes, not to mention Italians and Belgians and everybody else who without English wouldn’t have shared a common tongue. English is the world’s lingua franca – fitting, perhaps, for a language that has always been the language of the people. And in the course of its growth, by its very nature, English doesn’t just look to new sources of inspiration but returns to its origins, too. After seeing those salmon leaping up the waterfalls at Stornoffors, and having been riding a bicycle all day, I suddenly felt very hungry. I continued on my way, and found a shop, and – callously, perhaps – bought myself some gravad lax. That’s Swedish for cured salmon – which in English we call gravlax.
Image sourced from http://en.wikipedia.org