The Pleistocene Age when the great ice cap covered the larger part of the Northern Hemisphere was the nursery of the Atlantic salmon. As the glaciers receded and vast quantities of fresh water poured into the northern seas, the salmon evolved into the anadromous fish which it is today, first tasting life in a gravelly bed of fresh water; migrating, when strong enough, into salt water, where it feeds ravenously and in two to four years attains its growth; then returning to the river of its birth, where it spawns and in an exhausted state drifts, tail first, downstream, struggling to reach the salt sea, where it may be revitalized for a second cycle. Cave dwellers in southern France and northern Spain drew its likeness on reindeer bone. Later, the Romans, whose legions fed on it in their conquest, named it salmo, “the leaper,” for leap it will, up falls and over logjams or rocky obstacles in its fight for life.
The characteristics which have made the Atlantic salmon the noblest and most beautiful of fish have also, under industrial conditions, made it the most vulnerable. From the spawning bed to the feeding grounds, the salmon runs a gauntlet of from several hundred to two thousand miles, beginning with anglers, set nets, and trawlers in the estuary. The rivers have become polluted: lumber companies with their slash, sawdust, and lignin, the mines and distilleries with their unscreened discharge of poisoned water, the hydroelectric dams, and everywhere man’s incurable habit of using streams as sewers have progressively killed many once abundant streams. And now a new danger threatens. Not until young salmon were tagged and traced on their long voyage downriver and out to their secret feeding ground off the Atlantic shelf did we know where they grew. We still do not know for sure what they feed on, but we do know where they feed — off the coast of Greenland. Here congregate and mature the millions of salmon from the rivers of Canada, Scotland, Ireland, England, the east and west coasts of Sweden (and the paltry few from Maine), and here congregate the fleet of Danish trawlers. Greenland belongs to Denmark, and the fact that the fish originate in the rivers of other countries (Denmark has but one salmon stream.), whence they would return if they were not slaughtered, does not trouble the Danes. For a good look at man’s predatory greed and for the most vivid and comprehensive history of Salmo salar yet written I recommend Anthony Netboy’s The Atlantic Salmon, A Vanishing Species?
Mr. Netboy gives us a dreamy picture of the past when salmon, “with the stamina of a racehorse,”were coursing up the main rivers of Europe — the Thames, the Elbe, the Moselle, the Douro in Portugal, and the Miño in Spain; when fish grew to great size, the record being a 103-pounder landed in the River Devon in Scotland; when Parisians caught salmon on the Left Bank of the Seine; and when the nets on the Dutch section of the Rhine alone yielded 1,200,000 pounds annually. In those days before the Rhine became “the longest and worst sewer in Europe,”Rhine or Scotch salmon were a delicacy in the restaurants of Paris and London.
The author describes the life cycle and migrations, and he speculates on the mysteries of the fish: that the red coloring of their flesh may be derived from the crustaceans in their diet; that odor is the crucial factor in guiding salmon to their home stream — is it the dissolving oxygen content that attracts them?; that they live on their fat while in fresh water, never eating even when icebound; and that their survival depends on clean, passable waters and on swift and enlightened regulations.
Salmon are too valuable to be exterminated, so said the Magna Carta in a clause stipulating that rivers be kept unobstructed by agents of the Crown so that migrating fish would have free passage. But laws work only when men are vigilant; they have been so in Britain but not in Spain or France; the Rhine died while Switzerland, Holland, and Germany were still dickering over a treaty, and the United States squandered its Atlantic salmon faster than any nation in the Old World. Today we rest our hopes in Canada. Canada is presently supplying the bulk of the tagged salmon (78 percent) caught off the west coast of Greenland, and if the new stern trawlers, now abuilding for Greenland, with their 600-hook deeplines, live up to the expectation of catching 4000 to 5000 metric tons of fish a year (primarily cod), one wonders how many salmon, half-grown or mature, will be included in the Danish plunder. How greedy can men be?
Gavin Maxwell, whose Ring of Bright Water made the otter an imaginary pet in thousands of American households, has performed an exemplary and entertaining task in the writing of his new book, Seals of the World, the second volume in the World Wildlife Series. Mr. Maxwell tells us that the seal world has been reduced to thirty-one species, ranging from the little ringed seal, less than five feet long, through the fur seals, with their doglike heads, which I have watched as they fished in the Ipswich estuary, up to the giant elephant seal, twenty feet long, four tons in weight, with a roar that can be heard for miles. In his terse and lively manner the author describes the habitat and present population of each species, where they are found, whether they migrate, what they eat, and when they mate; and then comes the heart of the matter, what has happened to the species in its relation to man. This is a bloody story with infinite variations, and occasionally a happy ending, for the butchering for blubber and skins which began in the mid-eighteenth century came to a halt a hundred years later when there were too few left to make it profitable. By 1890 the killing of fur seals on the Pribilof Islands and indiscriminately at sea had become so wasteful that the herd was nearing extinction; by this time, two million skins had been processed, the tax and royalties on which very nearly paid the United States government for the purchase of Alaska. At last Russia and the United States saw the light; they agreed on protective regulations, the population began to increase, and today some 70,000 Pribilof seals are taken commercially each year, all bachelor bulls, with Japan, Great Britain, and Canada each getting their quota. Conservation in the nick of time.
The Atlantic Salmon
by Anthony Netboy (Houghton Mifflin, $6.95)
Seals of the World
by Gavin Maxwell (Houghton Mifflin, $6.95)
The Algiers Motel Incident
by John Hersey (Knopf, $5.95; Bantam, $1.25)
To the War
by Robert Edson Lee (Knopf, $4.95)
Observant and authoritative, Mr. Maxwell is most entertaining in his account of the walruses, how they use the bristles of the mustache to filter off the debris from their favorite shellfish; how they enjoy sunbathing, climbing on top of each other on an ice floe until it becomes overloaded, tips up — and the whole herd finds itself back in the water; how they often sleep in the water in an upright position; and how they haul themselves ashore using their tusks to get a grip on the ice or stone. He is equally explicit about the elephant seals, with their mammoth courage, the leopard seal, the playful seal pups, and the baritone sea lions.
John Hersey, the author of that classic work of reportage Hiroshima, has assumed a less compassionate but no less difficult assignment in his new book, The Algiers Motel Incident, in which he attempts to recapture the action and the motives leading up to the killing of three young black men at the height of the Detroit riots last summer. On the night of July 25 a frantic call went out from a National Guardsman that snipers were operating in the Algiers Motel, a transients’ hostel on Woodward Avenue, only a few blocks from Twelfth Street where the black uprising had started. Shots had been heard from the interior of the Algiers. The police, who were the first to arrive, had itchy fingers, for a member of the force whom they all respected had been killed only a few hours before, and vengeance Was in the air. They shot their way in, and in searching for guns, they brutalized and killed three of the group of ten young Negroes whom they took to be the snipers. In broad strokes at the beginning Mr. Hersey seems to make it an issue of black innocence against white sadism, but as the interviews, interrogations, and testimony continue, one begins to wonder.
Part of Mr. Hersey’s difficulty is in trying to think and react as a Negro would. Few white writers are able to — Alan Paton is one who does — but Mr. Hersey is no novice, having spent a summer living with a Negro family when trouble was grievous in the Deep South. One must respect the perseverance and sincerity with which he dedicates himself to this book. Yet his sympathy for the blacks leads him to minimize the recklessness and irresponsibility of the young blacks and to maximize the cruelty of the police, whose anger had been inflamed by the fact that the punks had two white prostitutes with them. Most of these black suspects had police records. Carl Cooper had served time repeatedly for his thieving, and Auburey Pollard, who had also done time, was feared as a knife carrier and a bad fighter. All of them had a cynical contempt for the legal process; they had taken part in the looting, and what is more, they did have a gun. It may only have been a starter’s pistol — the evidence on this is not clear — but to have discharged it inside the motel in the dead of night, when they well knew that snipers were at work, was an act of flagrant defiance. They asked for trouble, and they got it.
I think Mr. Hersey is too emotional in his exoneration of the behavior of the young blacks, and I think that the fragmentary pattern of the report is too theatrical. The book becomes a test of credibility in which the reader matches his judgment against the writer’s. “I am continuously aware,” writes Mr. Hersey, “that my reliance in this narrative on the statements of witnesses tends to fragment the story; it is not so much written as listened to, in bits and pieces.” One has to fit the pieces together as in a crossword puzzle, making due allowance for the confusion, illiteracy, or lying of the witness, and in the process I come to question not Mr. Hersey’s selections, but his conclusions.
In his account of the white justice that followed he is on firmer ground, for it was a travesty, the evidence and due process bent to exculpate the police and the technicalities invoked by the judge so disgraceful that it is no wonder those blacks who were involved, and chief among them, Carl Coopers mother, came away with hatred in their hearts.
Occasionally to a war veteran in mid-life comes the realization that never again will life seem so fresh and varied and dangerously worth living. To the War by Robert Edson Lee is the honest, evocative testimony of a likable young Iowan who graduated in architectural engineering just in time to be adapted as a hull-repair specialist in the Navy. He worked first inspecting submarines in Portsmouth, then on a repair ship in Saipan patching up the wounds of Iwo Jima and Okinawa, then on a floating drydock in New Guinea. His book is good because the tablets of his mind were so impressionable and because he writes with such verve and humor. He is something of an artist; indeed, his watercolors finally broke down the resistance of his first Captain and Exec., who, of course, were regular Navy. Spared as he was from combat, Lee is forthright with men, fastidious with women, and never takes himself too seriously. This little book holds much that is masculine and true.
John Wain, British critic and novelist, is the author of a long work in verse, Wildtrack, published recently by Viking.
Amos T. Wilder, not to be confused with his father, the theologian, is a young sociologist currently teaching at Yale.
Gertrude Himmelfarb has written extensively on radical figures of the nineteenth-century British establishment. Her biography of Darwin is the standard work on the subject, and her latest book, Victorian Minds, was published by Knopf.
Frank Getlein is art critic of the Washington Star and an editorial writer for that journal.
Edward Weeks’s book Fresh Waters was recently published by the Atlantic Monthly Press. Mr. Weeks, Herbert Kupferberg, and Phoebe Adams contribute to the magazine every month.