The bridge across the Gate awash in rain. Victoria’s Requiem is playing, the chorus’ major sixths ascending the tall towers, pinnacles of refined sorrow and they carry my heart with them. I cross the Californian aorta, the main way from the Californian heart, the Bay of San Francisco and it beats still, but faintly.
Each year brings with it rain, and rain freshens the rivers that at last flow out the Gate, and the salmon hold until the water tastes right to them. There were millions of them, not long ago, and I have talked to men who remembered watching salmon harvested with pitchforks. From the ocean they came, the Californian sacrament, leering monsters from the deep set on wriggling their way past the mouth of the creek I live on, up through the Delta and the Valley, to fling themselves onto the cobble bars of Sierra Nevada rivers, food for grizzlies and condors and people. They sacrificed their lives so their young might live, and smolts tumbled down the streams each year into the Delta.
There were three runs each year, or four, depending on how you count them, great pulses of Chinook into the rivers for their young to tumble down in turn.
Thousands of miles of spawning beds reached by the Gate, a watery hand with a hundred fingers, and one by one we chopped those fingers off. The dams went in. Snowmelt languished in dull reservoirs, and downstream the winter and spring run chinook staggered. Those runs are a historical curiosity now. The spring run on the San Joaquin River is extinct: the San Joaquin’s slack, piss-river tributaries are, below their respective dams, far too warm for spawning in spring. The Sacramento spring run and the Winter runs on both branches of the Central Valley watershed are not far behind. It is the fall run of Chinook that has survived so far to keep Central California a salmon country. That run is a fraction of its historic size, but still a quarter million fish a year.
But not this year. The fall run of Chinook into the Central Valley has collapsed.
I cross the opening of a dead heart, and Tomás Luis de Victoria’s grief a half-millennium old is near too much to bear. They have fallen, there below me, kept from the mountains we have so betrayed. Oh, my mountains. Unto you all flesh once came, dug redds in streambeds, mixed milt and egg with meltwater, brought life out of the gravel. They are falling now, the last of them. The bay constricted and intoxicated, salmon smolts sucked by millions into turbines, their water shipped to the desert to grow cotton, billion-dollar concrete aqueducts running past rivers dry in summer, fish curling in the sun on the bottoms.
Dies irae, dies illa, solvet saeclum in favilla. The soul of California’s land and water and we are losing them. Dona eis requiem.