Jim Taylor's Columns - 'Soft Edges' and 'Sharp Edges'

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Published on Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Salmon and the great circle of life

The conference hall was packed full. Five hundred people leaned forward to watch as an elder from a First Nations community along the B.C. coast moved down the aisle towards the microphones on stage. His red-and-black blanket cloak swished as he walked; the mother-of-pearl buttons adorning it flashed back at the spotlights following him. 

            This happened long before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission called for better relationships with Canada’s indigenous peoples. But the church, my church, was making its first tentative moves towards that goal. 

            The old man – he may not actually have been old, but he was older than I was, and he had a deeply weathered face – climbed the stairs onto the stage. He took the microphone from its stand. He held it to his mouth. 

            We waited, breathlessly, for his words of wisdom. 

            “We are the salmon,” he said. 

            Then he put the microphone back, and left the stage. 

            Well, that may not have been exactly how it happened. But that’s how I remember it. Because anything else, after that opening statement, was padding. 

            “We are the salmon” said it all. 

            The annual salmon run up B.C. rivers defined the circle of his people’s lives. The food that fed them. The culture that sustained them. The myths and legends that shaped them.

            They and the salmon were one body, indivisible. 


All are one

            We who live in an industrial cocoon are slowly learning that truth. Life has no individual components. You can’t treat the salmon, the forest, or bears and wolves, in isolation. They are one integrated whole. 

            Botanists wondered why the spruce and firs along spawning rivers grew taller, stronger, than forests a mere hundred metres further back. They found it’s because of the salmon. Bears catch the salmon, drag their catch back into the woods, leave the remains under the trees. 

            The rotting fish fertilize the trees. The forest, in turn, controls water flow into the stream. Provide shade to control the stream temperature. Shelter the bears who catch the salmon. 

            It is a single interlocking circle of life, and death, and new life. 

            This year is supposed to be a dominant sockeye run for the Adams River, possibly the finest display of spawning salmon in the entire province. At its peak, 10 million deep red salmon look like a solid mass filling the river’s pools. 

            But only about two out of every 100 fertilized eggs will survive a winter in the river gravels, a year in fresh water, the long migration down to the ocean, two years roaming wild in the Pacific, and then 500 kilometres back up the rushing Fraser, Thompson, and Adams river to spawn and start the cycle again. 

            The river flow, the forests along the river banks, the sediment runoff, even the smells in the water that the salmon follow to their home ground – all can be affected by as little as a slight change in temperature.

            Tinkering with one variable in the great equation of life affects the total outcome.

            Including the lives of the People of the Salmon. 

            It took me more than 500 words to express that concept. It took the elder in his buttoned blanket only four. 


Copyright © 2018 by Jim Taylor. Non-profit use in congregations and study groups, and links from other blogs, welcomed; all other rights reserved.

                  To comment on this column, write jimt@quixotic.ca





About last week’s column on teachers and teaching, Tom Watson recalled, “I attended elementary school in the storied ‘red brick school house’ with all 8 grades in one room. Two teachers -- one for grades 1 through 4, the other for grades 5 through 8. There were numerous silly little pranks played on the teachers, and anything that seemed to offer momentary disruption was fair game, but, somehow, they managed to weather whatever came their way with a sense of humour and a good measure of grace. They taught a lot by the words they used, but also a lot by who they were as people. It's interesting how, over time, one tests something against ‘I wonder what Mrs. Derbyshire would think about this.’ Regardless of the outcome of that inward test, those primary school teachers remain a measuring stick these going-on-70 years later, and I still remember them with fond thoughts.”


Isabel Gibson sent a couple of YouTube pieces on education, one of which emphasized the Greek of “educare” to “draw out”. Isabel commented, “I would distinguish between drawing out the wisdom of children (huh?) and drawing out their gifts, whatever they may be.

            “I expect there's an argument to be made for a common base of knowledge in a society, but what that might be (beyond the 3 Rs, which aren't knowledge so much as skills), I don't know. I remember studying T.S. Eliot in university and figuring my problem was that I hadn't had the education his poetry took for granted.

            “Modelling and encouraging attitudes that support lifelong learning -- and teaching skills for same -- would always seem to be worthwhile. Curiosity, critical thinking, humility about the limits of our knowledge… and likely more. [But] I don't have much sympathy for young people who blame school for them being able to factor a binomial expression (at least on the exam), but not able to do their taxes or cook a meal. School isn't responsible for everything.”


Laurna Tallman writes long letters (!) and this week she started on education, and went on to changes in her understanding of God (and along the way, of mine too). I’ll include only this excerpt:

            “Your column today reminds me that I learned in a less cluttered environment than today's child. I had parents who were devoted to my learning process in all sorts of ways and who supported the learning that happened in church and in school. I think there was less superficiality and more attention to essential concepts, but that may have been the result of talk about God, and the use of the Bible not having been banned from the schools. A kind of continuity of discussion about all of the kinds of topics you address in your blog was on-going in all of those environments so that it reached out into the wider community as well. 

            “Canada may have been more homogeneous ethnically in those days, but the reach of the church was intentionally world-wide. I was exceptionally blessed to be the daughter of two superb teachers: a grade school teacher, who also was an accomplished musician and very interested in psychology, and a research scientist who also taught in university, high school, and community college in addition to his work for the National Research Council in WW II.”

            Referring to the untimely deaths of two siblings, she continued, “My awareness of my parents' struggle with their own feelings and relationship with one another and with God gradually was transformed into my passion to learn and to discover, especially about human nature, the roots of good and evil, truth and non-truth, moral and immoral and amoral behaviour.”






Once again I find myself preferring the alternate psalm for this Sunday to the prescribed one. Here’s part of Psalm 19.


7 Good laws reduce tensions; like a compass, they give direction to the confused.

Consider God's laws--their clarity cuts through petty legalisms.

8 God's principles are straightforward--they have no fine print clauses;

God's instructions are never tainted by conflict of interest;

you cannot find a flaw in them.

9 They do not depend on partial understanding of the truth;

they are always true, always consistent, always dependable.

By sticking to them, our consciences stay clean;

we never feel soiled by circumstances. 


10 Clear directions are preferable to wealth or power;

they are as exhilarating as a spring morning.

11 They point us along the proper path;

they guide us towards our goal. 

12 For we cannot be objective about ourselves;

But God's standards are not swayed by fads or fashions;

like a lens, they let us see ourselves as we are. 


13 Save me from thinking myself self-sufficient.

Keep me from sinking into the quicksand of egotism.

Only then can I consider myself clean;

Then I can stand straight, slipping off the stresses of success. 

14 I don't want to live in isolation.

I dedicate the work of my hands, the words of my mouth, the thoughts of my mind, to you.

You give me my strength and my hope.


For paraphrases of mostof the psalms used by the Revised Common Lectionary, you can order my book Everyday Psalmsfrom Wood Lake Publishing, info@woodlake.com.






If you want to comment on something, send a message directly to me, jimt@quixotic.ca.

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                  I write a second column each Sunday called Sharp Edges, which tends to be somewhat more cutting about social and justice issues. To sign up for Sharp Edges, write to me directly, jimt@quixotic.ca, or send a note to sharpedges-subscribe@lists.quixotic.ca

                  And for those of you who like poetry, I’ve started a webpage http://quixotic.ca/My-Poetrywhere I post (occasionally, when I feel inspired) poems that I have written. If you’d like to receive notifications about new poems, write me at jimt@quixotic.ca,  or subscribe yourself to the list by sending a blankemail(no message) to poetry-subscribe@lists.quixotic.ca(If it doesn’t work, please let me know.)






To use the links in this section, you’ll have to insert the necessary symbols. Some spam filters have been blocking my posts because they’re suspicious of too many links.

                  Ralph Milton’s latest project is a kind of Festival of Faith, a retelling of key biblical stories by skilled storytellers like Linnea Good and Donald Schmidt, designed to get people talking about their own faith experience. It’s a series of videos available on Youtube. I suggest you start with his introductory section: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7u6qRclYAa8

                  Ralph’s “Sing Hallelujah” -- the world’s first video hymnal -- is still available. It consists of 100 popular hymns, both new and old, on five DVDs that can be played using a standard DVD player and TV screen, for use in congregations who lack skilled musicians to play piano or organ. More details at wwwDOTsinghallelujahDOTca

                  Wayne Irwin's “Churchweb Canada,”an inexpensive service for any congregation wanting to develop a web presence, with free consultation. <http://wwwDOTchurchwebcanadaDOTca>

                  I recommend Isabel Gibson’s thoughtful and well-written blog, wwwDOTtraditionaliconoclastDOTcom

                  Alva Wood’s satiric stories about incompetent bureaucrats and prejudiced attitudes in a small town -- not particularly religious, but fun; alvawoodATgmailDOTcom to get onto her mailing list.

                  Tom Watson writes a weekly blog called “The View from Grandpa Tom’s Balcony”-- ruminations on various subjects, and feedback from Tom’sreaders. Write him at tomwatsoATgmailDOTcom or twatsonATsentexDOTnet




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