In the Pacific Northwest forests, particularly here in BC, we have what I like to call “nitrogen trees” . Studies have shown that each Fall, during the night, large numbers of black bears feed on salmon from the streams. In this process, they drag innumerable salmon carcasses into the forest and often the bears will leave behind parts of the fish to rot in the forest. In fact, this occurs so frequently that about 4000 kg of salmon are left behind in each hectare of forest. Nitrogen from the decaying salmon soaks down into the soil and is then drawn into the trees via their roots. The trees and the salmon have a beautiful, harmonious coexistence rooted in ecological reciprocity.
Many of the areas we are in have evidence of this. Often, the children will stumble across the carcasses or bones of salmon that have given their life to the ecosystem. Recently we had a few new learners join one of our more established groups and, while participating in a bushcraft activity near the river, several salmon remains were discovered. All of the children we regularly work with have been taught the law of reciprocity and know how to apply it in the natural world so, when one of the new learners proudly exclaimed they had found remains, I stood back to watch what would unfold. Would my long-time learners remember the law of reciprocity? Would they speak up here?
In the natural setting of outdoor education, the facilitator, mentor, or teacher is not there to control the outcomes. It is not my place to jump into a situation like this and guide it to the outcome I want. I have already done that with the values I have interwoven into our daily rhythms. I have told the stories, lifted their eyes to the skies while rooting their feet in the earth. What they do with that information is for them to decide.
On this particular day, the children had begun to crowd around the spot where the remains were found under a group of cedar trees.
“It’s definitely a salmon, look at the jaws,” said one.
“How did it get here, it’s so far from the river,” someone else added.
There were musings of salmon growing feet and walking up the riverbank and eagles grabbing salmon from the river then dropping them midflight. A wonderful, curious discussion went on for quite some time until one of the new learners said:
“Wait, which one of us gets to take this home? I did find it first”
Aha. There it was. Who does this fish belong to? Without a pause, one of the children simply stated
“It belongs to the forest. It is already home.”
At this explanation, most of the children walked away from it and went back to their skill activity; however, the child that had found it looked perplexed. He stood over it not sure what to do next and clearly, wanting those fish teeth as a little dresser treasure. I could imagine the thoughts running through his mind. We live in a society of instant gratification where we are the alpha species. We take what we want, often without thought for the repercussions. We do not do it out of malice, we are just conditioned for it. Finders keepers, right?
One of the most rewarding aspects of my job is moments like this where I am given a window of opportunity. The open ended, non-judgmental atmosphere of outdoor education allows for these types of organic learning scenarios to surface. I called the children back to the fish remains. I asked the child who had said the fish belonged to the forest if they could explain what they meant. As the sun filtered through the tree canopy overhead, they talked with confidence of the way the fish feed the bears and the trees and then the trees give life to humans.
“We need the fish to make the trees strong so that we can have fresh air”
It was a simple explanation, but it was perfect. We need each other. All of us.
The child who had found the remains still seemed reluctant to just leave them there so I gathered my little learners into a story circle and told them all The Legend of The Lost Salmon (Yakima Legend) in which the greed of the people made them careless and they disrespected the salmon causing them to leave. As a result, the people began to starve, and the elders had to beg for food to fill the bellies of crying children. It is a warning to take only that which you truly need and to always differentiate between a need and a want.
At the end of this, the child who had wanted the remains was quiet for a minute before saying “The trees probably need that fish more than I do” Everyone nodded in agreement and then we returned to the activity we had been working on.
The gift of outdoor education sessions is this exact situation. We have breathing room. We can stop an activity to address a possible conflict with respect and dignity to everyone involved. We can learn from every single interaction. We can shape a generation that communicates peacefully with each other and the natural world. We can create spaces of symbiotic reciprocity and we can do it all with some wayward salmon bones.