Some words or expressions are peculiarly dense. They look like just words on the outside but they are actually concealed stories, complete and detailed, compressed into just a handful of syllables. Simply to utter the sounds of these dense words is to cast a spell over the day and make it something that it was not. For me, this is the power in the very everyday-seeming expression ‘dropping back’. Just to think it stops me in my tracks, and leaves me stranded in a reverie by the bank of a river in early spring.
As I write this, I am still by the rivers of the Outer Hebrides while Sharon is, briefly, by the Tullaghobegley. The rivers here are in spate, as most rivers are at the moment: raucous and diffracted like a class of school-children piling off a bus. And the tides have been extremely high.
These beautiful little rivers, punching above their weight, flexing their modest muscles as soon as a shower has fallen, relaxing them again within hours of the sun coming out. They rise and they drop back as if on a whim, with none of the great siege preparations for a flood made by the Wye or the Severn or the Ouse. But it is not the dropping back of the water level that I am talking about. I am thinking about the expression as it applies to the salmon and sea trout that live in these rivers.
We are often reminded of the salmon’s journey back upstream to the place of its birth, to breed and very often then to die. In some species of salmon in the Pacific systems there is complete mortality after the spawning. But not so with our own wild, beleaguered Atlantic salmon. And certainly not so amongst the sea trout that so often share their habitat. Most of the cock fish die after breeding – and there is another story there about the nutrients from their bodies providing the fertility that nurtures the young parr – but many of the hen fish wake up the morning after their totally reckless love-making and start to think of living again.
Their bodies are emaciated from a long fast (adult salmon are unable to eat in fresh water – it is the price of their osmotic versatility) and from producing the richness of thousands of eggs from their own store of fats and proteins. Their skin is not the beautiful silvered mirror, backed with a faint purple that exists in no other context, with which they entered fresh water. They are dressed in dirty reds and black tatters. Their scales, those that remain, are itchy with parasites, and their gills are fringed with decay. They are now known as Kelts.
Still, they hold their station in the spring rivers by a determined, slow shovelling of water with their great slab tails. They cannot just make a run for it. The reversal of the chemical changes that allowed them to enter fresh water must take its own time. But they begin the slow journey that is ‘dropping back’. They begin, using another term in the same lexical family, to ‘mend’. From the spawning beds far upstream they will drop back pool by pool, hold a while, then drop back again.
Eventually they will reach the sea pool. The ‘sea pool’. The place of transition. Washed with salt twice a day. The ultimate in liminal. A place of great danger. In low water or low tides it is a death-trap. Fish can be stranded by a falling tide and all their many predators know to wait there. But not this week. With a great joy I have just seen all the little rivers here puff themselves up to torrents at just the right time and throw themselves at the highest tides I have ever seen. The sea pools briefly became great open thoroughfares and I stood and watched and saw nothing at all. But I knew that fish were dropping back past me, exhausted, smiling, slowly turning silver and heading out to start all over again.