I got the liner notes and read the words:
"The winds have changed the sunburned trees;- vanilla hills grow brittle coats.
A last strong cry to face the winter rise up from their golden throats.
Their songs are leaves upon the water carried on the rivers back. The current draws them fiercely under,-the season of their beauty gone."
Sung a capella, I found it very moving, partly because it deals with end of life transitions that are increasingly within my own province, but also because it is making fresh language out of my much loved familiar landscape. It goes on to sing of the salmon that faithfully struggle up the river and, when all about is dying with the advance of the winter season, carry the promise of new life beyond death: new eggs placed in the river gravel giving the promise of the renewal of life in the spring. The song then offered the final blessing:
"So gather strength like songs in baskets, summer petals, autumn leaves. Join the fools against the current, journey on to glory land."
What appealed to me when I thought about it later was the reaching out to find in a salmon run ( which is common enough as to be ignored by most of our busy citizens) a new way of expressing an old truth usually understood in terms of well established religious imagery carried over here from Europe. Surely, I thought, that is the true function of the arts: to rebirth perennial life stories into local, accessible forms for new generations to participate in.
A few months later we were invited to an annual mid summer "Christmas party" during which a game would be played which involved the exchange of cheap, funny gifts. As I knew a commercial fisherman would be there, and that declining salmon stocks affected his livelihood, I thought of the song and the fertility of the imagery and decided to make a shrine to salmon which would feature a section of stream bed and salmon eggs in the gravel. A shrine for the increase of salmon; wishing them well. To make in more interesting, it would be in kit form: gravel and eggs to be placed by the new owner in such a way that he would be performing the act of the salmon spawning in symbolic form. I must admit though, that I was thinking a visual idea through, and this mock up would be a good way to test it out. Or so I hoped.
Of course in the end it was not really funny and the point was missed ( a pretty esoteric idea, after all) but at least it fitted fairly well among all the gifts that were being traded around. For me, that did not matter because before the party, in doing a trial run with all the ingredients, -placing the gravel, depositing the eggs (orange beads), covering them with more gravel, I had discovered that I was actually performing a powerful ritual. It was dead serious, not funny at all, except perhaps in that I had thought it could be merely a harmless diversion .
I had been reminded that the arts have their roots in that mysterious realm usually approached by religion. There is a lot of spirit here, the knowledge of which reaches back for humans to their earliest beginnings. Its part of our urge to create art, to feel the extacy and, whether we know it or not, to bring new meaning to our societies. We think aesthetics, but we touch elemental stuff.