October 5, 2003
By Joe Rojas-Burke
It was the birthing of Salmon Nation, and many who gathered in Portland's Pearl District pondered the same question: What exactly is Salmon Nation? "I think this is the start of a revolution… I hope," said Yvon Chouinard, a climber and founder of outdoor clothier Patagonia. "It's about getting back to the real world," he said.
Mike Marshall, a grower of oysters in Yaquina Bay, pictured Salmon Nation as a place where all food is grown as "naturally as possible," where the ocean and rivers are bountiful enough to sustain fish and fisherman. "That's what the ecology can sustain," he said, while expertly shucking oysters for the crowd lining up at his booth.
Others were less sure about the meaning.
"I've heard the slogan. Is it about saving the salmon?" asked Louise Grant, who nevertheless enjoyed the block party with her family. A fan of Oregon State football, she admitted having more knowledge of Beaver Nation.
The creators of Salmon Nation ask that you think of it as a real place, defined not by political boundaries, but rather by the mountains, rivers, estuaries and ocean waters where salmon hold a keystone position among living things — a land stretching from Alaska to California. "Imagine, if you could, a society and an economy based on the natural character of the land," said Spencer Beebe, founder and president of Ecotrust, the Portland nonprofit group orchestrating the Salmon Nation campaign, with help from Patagonia and other sponsors.
Salmon Nation is also a brand — designed with the help of advertising firm Wieden+Kennedy — to sell a new way of thinking about the environment. It is the catchy signifier of the complicated, uncertain, fiercely contested and never-ending battle over Pacific salmon. It is, in Beebe's words, the idea that we can have healthy, wild salmon stocks and a vibrant economy, too.
Organizers say they are trying to wage environmental activism sans the guilt trips and gloomy prognostication. Instead, you've got Adam Lane, chief financial officer for Ecotrust, costumed as a giant fish, and offering firsthand insights into the salmon lifecycle. "Well, you swim upstream a lot," he said. "And it's very important that you know where to go to spawn." Nearby, a coalition of the willing pledged allegiance and became citizens of Salmon Nation, with all the privileges and responsibilities that come with it (such as special deals on consumer goods from participating merchants).
Crowds piled up for fresh grilled salmon. And certainly not the farmed variety, stressed Amy Dickson. She owns a commercial salmon fishing outfit in Newport that specializes in supplying chinook fished by hook and line from the ocean to upscale restaurants in Portland and elsewhere. Dickson brought along a working fishing boat, an open dory with plenty of wear and tear to conjure images of harsh work at sea.
A troupe of dancers in fins made like salmon, darting and circling among onlookers. The thundering engine of a drag racer left ears ringing. The link to Salmon Nation: It runs on bio-diesel, a clean-burning concoction of vegetable oil and alcohol. On stage, the band Pink Martini delivered its signature lounge sound, followed by speechifying by Patagonia's Chouinard and, from the U.S. House of Representatives, Oregon Democrats Earl Blumenauer and David Wu. Also making an appearance was former Gov. John Kitzhaber.
Whether a campaign such as this can reach beyond neighborhoods like the Pearl District remains to be seen. Beebe, the Ecotrust impresario, said it already has. "We've got ranchers here, we've got loggers, we've got housewives, kids, skateboarders," he said. "Every one of them is an environmentalist in one way or another."
Carol Craig, a member of the Yakama Nation, from Wapato, Wash., judged the event a positive step and an effective way to start conveying complicated messages. "This is great — and it's been fun so far," she said. She displayed historic photographs of Celilo Falls — where her father once plied long-handled dip nets to scoop salmon from atop platforms. The falls were submerged in 1957 beneath the pool formed by the Dalles Dam. Her goal was to impress upon people that salmon are a way of life. For the Yakama and many other tribes, salmon are gifts from the creator, whose message to the salmon people was this: Take care of the fish, and they will take care of you. To this day, the Yakama and other tribes ritually honor this agreement by greeting the first catch of the year with an elaborate celebration.
More Salmon Nation block parties are planned for Seattle, San Francisco and, possibly, Los Angeles and an Alaska city.
Elizabeth Walker, a Portland grade school teacher, soaked up messages at the Portland event but still remained a little sketchy about the meaning of Salmon Nation. But the ambiguity struck her as ingenious. "It leaves you wanting to learn more. Salmon Nation. What the heck is that?" she said. "It's a good marketing tactic."
Joe Rojas-Burke: 503-412-7073; email@example.com