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KEITH WILLIAMS – 2019 ROAM AWARDS FINALIST – Essay in Awe Category

Keith Williams

Herring Awe

by Keith Williams

The constant hum of water over rock as it came down the stair step falls drowned out any other sound, except for the occasional car or pickup that banged across the route 7 bridge just upstream. Graffiti covered the concrete, but whoever tags the bridge doesn’t paint the rocks of the falls. That to me conveys come kind of respect, a reverence of sorts.

The herring were up in the falls for the first time this year today. Their golden tan backs occasionally broke the surface of the riffles as their dorsals and tails slashed at the water. The shallows erupted with short bursts of males chasing females in tight circles, and silver flashed when they turned flat to the surface. They filled the stream with energy and exuberance.

Herring are migrants. They spend their lives at sea and come into freshwater to spawn. This was the annual spring time return to Principio Creek at the head of the Chesapeake Bay, that must have occurred here for millenia. It is an event I anticipate and I look forward to snorkeling with these fish all year.

Silver patches of scales were stuck to the orange and tan bedrock in swatches of dried red blood. Sites of a herrings demise the night before and life giving sustenance to a heron, eagle or mink. The run increased in the last 5 days. I suited up and slid into the creek. The first herring that gathered in the lower pool 5 days ago were timid and tentative. The slightest motion or shadow sent them flying. A pool brimming with fish became barren with the smallest movement of my arm, or camera shutter click. They came back slowly, meekly, and would again fill the pool to bursting with life.

But once the herring push up into the middle and upper pools they become bold and more  daring. Fewer things distract them from finding mates. When I move here, the school responds, but quickly recovers. Their singleness of purpose is palpable. Their drive to swim upstream as far as they can, real. What primordial cues trigger this urge? We have placed impediments in their way, so that a reproductive strategy that made compete evolutionary sense eons ago, no longer does, so herring numbers are declining, in spite of their best efforts.

They are more than “just” fish. They are beings, souls, living entities with a purpose, as much of a purpose as I have. I laid in the creek beached on the bedrock and looked into the dark eye of each herring that came close. The black discs on silver saucers, on first glance looked empty. But there was a knowing there, a knowledge in those black eyes. A perception of the world vastly different from mine, something I couldn’t fully perceive, or understand, but I wanted to.

Their bodies were clean silver, indigo, gold and every combination of shades in between. Their colors changed and reflected the ambient lighting and background so that I couldn’t pin a single-color label on them. They were too dynamic to portray with one descriptor. These fish embody beauty and raw power and singleness of purpose. How does nature construct such loveliness? And why? If this reproductive thing is entirely utilitarian, simply to procreate the species, why the investment in beauty?

The herring surged upstream and came back down in a continuous churn of fish. The abundance was overwhelming and I couldn’t imagine a time when they were thicker than they were today, but those times existed. The fish spun when they reached my mask and went back upstream. The ones in the back, in the green back ground, looked like ghosts. But I hoped they weren’t. The mid Atlantic herring population has declined 90% in the last 25 years because of dams, over fishing and spawning ground sedimentation.

I watched a roiling mass pushed by current but also creating its own with the unified strokes of their forked caudal fins. A stream of silver bubbles framed the school that pulsed between the strong moving water and the quieter eddy where I propped myself on slick bedrock. The water was just shallow enough to allow me to beach on the outcrop and watch the school pulse and move, ebb and flow.

The lower pool had large suckers beneath the herring school, and I wondered if the herring provide protection from aerial predators on the suckers. Or maybe the suckers were waiting to vacuum up eggs which swirled through the water as sand colored dots and gathered on the bottom of eddys. A dozen female tessellated darters hopped over the sand flat in the lower pool. Some of them were rotund with eggs, and I could see the faint orange outlines of the egg masses through their very full stretched translucent skin. It is easy to not pay any attention to darters when the herring are in, but there is an equal measure of biologic drama occurring on the bottom with the darters as there is in the water column with the herring. I didn’t see any adult males in the eddys because they were all busy defending their spawning territories under rock overhangs. The eddys were full of eggs and scales, and female darters hopped through the fluffy bed of herring eggs. 

Just upstream in the rockier section, every overhang had a male tessellated darter under it. The bigger males were darker maroon above with green sides and orange bellies. There was a collection of rocks on a gravel flat near where a small stream comes in from an old cut granite block foundation that provided what appeared to be great breeding habitat for tessellated darters. Female tessellateds stick their eggs to the roofs of rock overhangs and the males fertilize, then defend them. I watched a group of males at this collection of ideal breeding rocks near the tail end of the second pool.

The male in the middle had an ‘a’ frame crevasse with a female inside. He and the female in his home turned upside down bellies to the roof and spawned. The male on the left defended a flat roofed shelter, without a female. I got to know this male on the left. He was larger and darker than the one in the middle a frame and he had a white spot on his left side that identified him. He left his flat roofed low rise to shoo away other males that came in too close. But he didn’t have a female in his place. So he sat in front of the middle darters home and waited. The middle darter came out to the challenge, to shoo away the larger darker male. They vibrated their heads up and down, as fast as needles on a sewing machine, flipped head to tail and locked jaws on fins and tumbled through the stream. The current pushed them around as they were too busy fighting, too locked onto each other to negotiate the flow. The smaller paler male from the middle a frame let go of the darker males second dorsal fin first and presented his belly to the surface as white spot remained locked on his caudal fin. They drifted like this for a few more seconds until the larger male released his jaw grip.

White spot was the victor of the battle, and assumed his place in the middle a frame, which contained a female. They turned their bright colored belies to the roof and spawned. It seems she was attracted more to the accommodations rather than the male. Whichever male commanded the best spawning space won the female. So maybe females select the male based on what appears to be the best place for her eggs. 

A small eel stuck his thin head out of his hole in an eddy that contained a fluffy blanket of herring eggs, and a collection of a dozen gravid female darters. I wondered if the eel would try to snatch one, but he didn’t even make an attempt though he had ample opportunity for a meal. Maybe I disrupted his hunting flow. A small hog sucker mopped food off a large bedrock slab. The herring, darters, sucker and eel made the creek complete. All was right with this world of awe.

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