PEOPLE TELL ME STURGEON STORIES. A man frying oysters
in a restaurant in Portland tells me that his grandpa told him
there used to be so many sturgeon in the Columbia that you
couldn’t use a net because it would for sure get broke. A biologist from Texas tells me that sturgeon evolved into their current
form long before there was a hint of person in the world. The
journalist Richard Carey notes that there are stories of sturgeon
in the Volga River in Russia weighing nine thousand pounds,
which would be twenty-eight Shaquille O’Neals, and that some
sturgeon species can whistle, and that the Kootenai Indians of
Idaho used to harpoon sturgeon from canoes they designed to
be dragged by the fish until it was exhausted and could be hauled
aboard or towed to shore: sturgeon surfing. An anatomist friend
of mine explains that sturgeon have cousins among the bony
fishes who emerge from the water and wander around on land
for brief periods looking for good things to eat, and that they
have other cousins who build up speed to about forty miles an
hour underwater and then leap out of the water and glide for
more than five hundred feet, which is seventy-one Shaquille
O’Neals, and that sturgeon themselves, along with their closest
cousins the paddlefish, have such extraordinarily sensitive sensory barbels — the four long whiskerlike tissues between mouth
and nose that look not unlike a teenage boy’s first uncertain
mustache—that they may be able to discern what kind of cat
they are about to eat. This could be.
and a certain renown, especially among children, still, he is confined without cause, and chances are excellent that he would
rather be in the river, goofing on salmon and whistling at girls
and eating cats and basketballs like the other guys.
I end up at the edge of the Mighty Columbia, which is
thought to be maybe 10 million years old and which was brawling past this spot, crammed with Acipenser transmontanus,
long before my forebears wandered out of Africa, gaping at the
wider world. A heron lumbers over, looking like a blue tent. In
front of me the Bonneville Dam stretches forever. Sturgeon live
so long that there are certainly elders above the dam, upriver,
who were there before the first lock was built in 1938. Perhaps
they are wondering when the sudden wall in the water will dissolve. Perhaps the vast ball of sturgeon that boiled at the base
of the dam in early 2008 was not motivated by lust or politics
or sea lion revenge plots but by the itch to communicate with
loved ones behind the Wall.
I go back and watch Herman for a while and consider that
maybe his job is to be an agent of wonder. Maybe everyone who
gapes at Herman gets a sturgeon seed planted in their dreams.
Maybe Herman is the one among his clan chosen to awaken
the walk-uprights. Maybe he watches the people who watch
him and every time a child leaps back amazed Herman silently
scores another one for the good guys. Maybe he is here to grant
us humility. Maybe humility and wonder in the right proportions lead to wisdom. A
I KEPT COMING BACK TO HERMAN. Every once in a while I
would find myself thinking about him and soon I would be in
the car sailing through the stunning Columbia Gorge to stand
quietly in the shadowy corner of his viewing room for
a while. Without fail, every time I was there someone
would be startled and say something startling. It wasn’t
always a kid. One time a small man with a mohawk
haircut said something in a language I don’t know, but
his tone was unmistakable and I would bet the house
he said holy shit in Mayan or Tagalog or whatever. Another time a man knelt and prayed when Herman hove
into view. Another time a young woman came in and
watched Herman for a while and then whirled on me
and delivered a sudden tart lecture on how it was a sin
and a crime to jail this fellow living being in this ridiculous circus, to which I didn’t reply, there being nothing
to say, and she stomped o=.
I went and sat by the river for a long time after that,
though. She was right; Herman is in prison for the crime
of being amazing, which doesn’t seem altogether fair.
And for all you can say that he’s safe, and well fed, and
has lots of visitors to his jail cell, and cool roommates,
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Some springs, apples bloom too soon.
The trees have grown here for a hundred years, and are still quick
to trust that the frost has finished. Some springs,
pink petals turn black. Those summers, the orchards are empty
and quiet. No reason for the bees to come.
Other summers, red apples beat hearty in the trees, golden apples
glow in sheer skin. Their weight breaks branches,
the ground rolls with apples, and you fall in fruit.
You could say, I have been foolish. You could say, I have been fooled.
You could say, Some years, there are apples.