By Zack Metcalfe
The single greatest challenge in my life has always been avoiding despair when facing the mistakes of the last century. Several months ago I read a book called Here On Earth, by Tim Flannery, and in one chapter he describes a terrible mistake made long before I was born. The spent nuclear reactors of Russian power plants were dumped into the Arctic Ocean. Time and tidal forces will eventually penetrate their casings and cause unimaginable harm to the oceans.
Problems like this are beyond my power to rectify, as so many of the world's problems are. I imagine diving into those icy depths and hauling each reactor back onto land, but this is of course ridiculous; perhaps it's a coping mechanism.
Then I read A Whale For The Killing, by Farley Mowat, and again despair tugs at me. I imagine somehow going back in time and putting myself between Moby Joe (the whale) and those who mean to kill her. I feel the need to make some difference, some amends.
Only weeks ago I visited my hometown in southwestern Ontario. This slice of farm country is blessed with a small river, cutting the village in half and forcing some natural beauty onto its banks.
My family owns a dam down river. We refurbished its crumbling foundations when we took ownership over a decade ago. It's a beautiful spot, surrounded on both sides with unmolested forest. Growing up, this was my happy-place.
As I walked overtop the thundering columns of water I saw fish, many fish, leaping into view. They were trying to reach higher waters in which to spawn. This was impossible as the dam is ten feet tall.
Never in my childhood had I seen so many fish fighting the water. When we rebuilt the dam, the local conservation authority told us not to build a fish ladder because so few fish swam our river. What I saw suggested the contrary.
My cousin brought me to the far side of the dam and pointed down to the weakest column of water. There was a colossal gathering of fish there, hundreds, crowded together tight, forming a black mass in the stream. Even as we watched, more fish leapt from the river and joined the school trying to confront the dam.
It pained me to see this and despair was close at hand. All I could do was watch them try...and certainly fail.
My cousin climbed off the dam and jumped onto the same concrete slab as the fish. Most of them were scared away, but some stayed. He began grabbing the slippery creatures and throwing them over the dam to higher waters. Perhaps two or three fish were saved in this effort.
This reckless move inspired me.
"Do we have any nets?" I cried down. My cousin looked up and grinned.
When we returned to the dam half hour later, we carried an old bed sheet between us. We rushed in behind the school of fish, both of us holding one corner of the sheet into the current. The frightened fish fell against it and were trapped. My cousin used his legs to hold down both corners of the sheet while I went ahead, dislodging any fish still in the column of water.
We dumped our catch into a bucket and carried it to the high side of the dam, releasing our fish. Several more times we did this, rescuing as many as 600 by the day's end.
My cousin and I made a relatively small contribution that day, but it set larger projects into motion. My family in planning to install a fish ladder before next spring. Moreover, the most significant change took place in myself. Hauling buckets of fish up river was unconventional, but it broke my spell of despair.
Small steps inspire big ones.