Spawning Wisdom About Life and Death
At Samhain, celebrated on November 1, the veil is thin between the worlds of the living and the dead. Fall is a good time to see spawning salmon swimming upstream in rivers around the Puget Sound area. Salmon can teach us a lot about death as part of the natural life cycle.
In the Celtic tradition, the salmon is the most ancient and wise creature. Old stories tell us that five salmon swim in the Well of Segais, the source of all life. This sacred pool is surrounded by nine hazel trees (Coll, tree of wisdom in Celtic Tree Ogham). Their nuts drop into the well, and the salmon eat them and become wise. Five streams, representing the five senses, flow out from the well. One must drink from the streams – use knowledge gained by the five senses – and also from the well of inspiration and intuition. “Until we have come to the well and drunk from it, our lives are incomplete.”
Salmon spawn at the end of their life cycle. They return over hundreds or thousands of miles to the same stream, sometimes the exact spot in the stream, where they were born several years before, using their navigational skills and keen sense of smell. Their appearance may change dramatically – silver scales transform to vivid colors, and most males develop a hooked jaw. Once they reach their destination, the female digs a shallow nest in the streambed, signals that she is ready, and males vie for dominance. The female and her mate release eggs and sperm into the nest and then repeat the process upstream until they are out of energy. Both adults eventually die. Their bodies feed predators, especially bears and eagles. They also nourish insects and microorganisms in the water that provide food for the baby salmon after they hatch. Droppings from predators fertilize trees and other plants in the forest, which in turn provide shade and sheltering habitat for young salmon. Life ends in death, which gives birth to and nourishes life.
A month ago, a beloved member of my wife’s family died of cancer. The cancer was aggressive, and her death came much more quickly and surely than anyone expected. We all feel deep sadness.
Two nights in a row before she died, I had dreams that seemed to reveal the fierce struggle that was going on in her body as her healthy cells worked hard to regain balance and maintain basic functions and the cancer continued to grow. Each of these dreams was paired with a dream of joyous anticipation and exuberant, playful release.
Death can be excruciatingly painful, physically and emotionally. And death releases the spirit into its next journey. Memories and wisdom from the life that has ended – hazelnuts dropping into the sacred well – stay behind to nourish and inspire others.
I wonder if our souls know their way home as well as salmon do.
 Philip and Stephanie Carr-Gomm, The Druid Animal Oracle: Working With the Sacred Animals of the Druid Tradition (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994), pp. 106-107.