I have absolutely no idea where I am from.
I can take you to the house that I consider home, the woods where I used to wander and the pond from where I pulled my first bluegill. I can trace back my lineage to the early days of Cleveland, further still to my northern European ancestry and some long forgotten former family abode called Foulness Island. The latter is a real place, though I like to think I’ve avoided the literal translation. I can tell you all these things yet I cannot point to the stream or river where humanity first appeared.
A chart likely hangs in some anthropology department that displays the latest breakdown of human evolution, filling in the latest missing link in the hominid fossil record and showing the trendiest hypotheses of our endemic origins. Perhaps humanity’s origins lie somewhere in Africa, the rift valleys or further north between the Tigris and Euphrates.
Are we not all native to the same place? As human populations expanded beyond the African savanna we’ve naturalized, or from some perspectives become an invasive species. How many generations does it take to become native to a place? Is it merely time or some other measure of naturalization?
We evaluate other species differently. Scientists have defined animals’ native ranges, an outline we can draw on a map, the environment where they originally evolved.
We give little to no credit to that powerful Darwinian fitness that allows certain species to adapt to varying situations across the globe. We do this with any animal that has a high evolutionary fitness. Think of raccoons, coyotes, blue jays; we often despise them. I won’t even attempt to dissect the fitness of a virus. Yet we love animals that are fragile, that cannot survive in a changing world. Think panda bears or Bengal tigers. We look down on the ones who survive in spite of our influence on their environments.
Despite their inability to sustain a viable population, our local tributaries harbor a fish of great fitness. We fish for them weekly, sometimes daily, and we even name them the same as their native kin on the west coast; steelhead. They evolved on the other side of the country with access to salt and cold water tributaries and now make a life in warm water rivers and fresh water lakes. Their effort to exist is admirable, both here in the Midwest and in streams abroad.
Yet we belittle them, tell them they aren’t real. We look down our own non-native noses and determine the worth of something that had zero say in how it got there. We ought to enjoy the tug of a fish that has fought through unnatural environments to take a natural strike at our line. We should admire a steelhead that spawns in a futile pile of sediment. We should marvel over the individuality of color and gradient that rests in our hands after a fish is brought to net.
There is absolutely something special about a native species, about encountering something specifically evolved for that exact location, that exact time and place in the universe. Maybe some transplanted fish don’t have that sense of evolutionary harmony, but they don’t know that.
All those judgements and emotions come from us, from our own native land somewhere in the stars. The fish don’t know any better; perhaps we shouldn’t blame them for their current location and indoctrinated life cycles. Maybe now is the time to appreciate the fitness that steelhead have brought with them from the millions of years in Pacific rivers, to take that extra half-second when they slide through our fingers to continue their journey upstream in a river system where they will always be alien.
This essay is part of a series by the authors of Floodplains on the topic of the biological and cultural implications of Great Lakes Steelhead.
Artwork by David Wilson.