Extraction of the fish otolith is a careful surgery. Tweezers part the delicate membrane of the fish’s transparent inner ear canals, exposing two tiny white flakes, a mere three millimeters across, floating just beneath the fish’s brain. Responsible for the fish’s orientation, balance, and sound detection, otoliths are oto (Greek), meaning ear, and lith (Latin), meaning stone, or ear stone. Similar to pearls, otoliths are composed of calcium carbonate. Every year, a unique layer of protein and calcium carbonate is laid on the otolith surface, creating rings much like a ring on the trunk of a tree. By studying an otolith, scientists can determine a fish’s species and age, even chart the course of its lifetime.
Imagine a scalpel bisecting the otolith, unleashing a great whooshing as the music of the ocean escapes, whale song, porpoise speak, a chorus line of fish, music muted by the weight of the ocean, made audible all at once, like a record being played for the first time in many years. Beneath a microscope, small irregularities in the otolith speak of measurement and memory. A minute groove marks your departure from the fish hatchery, a raised ridge the first time you tasted salt water. Hold the otolith to an ear, they say, and listen to the history of the ocean.
Summer evenings, we go fishing. While my brother chums the water with expired Muenster cheese he has requested from a local grocer, I curl into a hollow rock sculpture, the clay and cement boulder molding around my body as if shaped for me. Our fishing spot lies next to an amphitheater shaped like [End Page 37] an opening eye, the seats arching outwards like large ripples. I like to stand on the large star where the cement comes together denoting the amphitheater’s exact center. From there, when I speak, my voice echoes and amplifies back at me. I am at the center and everything is for me and at me.
Lined with flagstone rocks and hedged by a running path, our lake straddles a gigantic wading pool enclosed by white sand beaches and hundreds of sun recliners. Manmade lakes, like ours, necessitate fish stocking, releasing hatchery-farmed fish—in this case, bluegill, catfish, and trout—into a body of water to create a population where none exists. In many ways, our town is like that lake. Designed with an eye towards opulence, the lake is artificial, manicured, picturesque, and its existence is reliant on water piped hundreds and hundreds of miles from northern California and the Colorado River Aqueduct.
You are known by many names—king, Quinnat, spring, Tyee. You are Oncorhynchus tshawytscha, a Chinook salmon. Often ranging in size from two to three feet, sometimes growing nearly five feet long, and weighing over 100 pounds, you are the largest species of Pacific salmon. You are a subtle blue-green on the head and back, with silvery sides and black spots on your tail.
Where once there was wilderness, you swam hundreds of miles upriver to spawn. Then, there were only rocks, earth, and cool water passing through your gills, until one year, where once there was wilderness, there grew a great cacophony. It was the undoing of the earth unto the river. Men worked their pickaxes and shovels, sending great plumes of silt slithering into the water, their voices raised in a fish shanty:
To me, weigh! Hey! Slow the fish down!Slow the fish down, bullies, pull him around.Slow the fish down for fair Folsom town.Give me some time to slow the fish down!
And slow you down they did. Over the course of a century, the mining of gold and the eventual constructions of the Folsom and Nimbus Dams, humans cut off hundreds of miles of Chinook salmon spawning ground along the American River, leaving effectively seven miles. [End Page 38]
During heat waves, my brother sleeps in a dry bathtub tangled in thin sheets, and I, downstairs, on a couch beneath an open window, both of us trying in our own way to tame our hot skins into slumber. Like our southern California neighbors, we are industrious in...