The author of such novels as The River Why and The Brothers K and collections like River Teeth and My Story Told as Water is more than serious about restoring salmon runs. In areas such as the lower Snake River, four dams are huge points of contention between conservationists, fishers, ecologists on one side and wheat farmers and barge operators on the other.
This family of fish that includes trout, steelhead, cutthroat and salmon is Duncan's talisman, a living, spiritual creature that is guardian of not just the health of rivers and their interdependent ecologies, but also the medicine to heal humanity.
Even with the Endangered Species Act under attack and with climate change often discounted, Duncan refuses to despair. "Salmon are my totem creature, and salmon don't despair," he says. "They keep trying to return home to their mountain birth houses and create a beautiful new generation no matter what kind of hellhole industrial man has made of their rivers. Mother Teresa spoke with the heart of a wild salmon when she said, 'God doesn't ask us to win. He only asks us to try.' I'm in the business of trying."
In four appearances over three days (April 15-17) at the Spokane Club and Spokane Community College, Duncan will speak in the spirit of renewal and reclamation and on behalf of fishers and the salmon.
In a Tuesday speech entitled, "Fins and Fields: Restoring Snake River Salmon," Duncan will undercut the arguments of those who want to retain those four dams on the 140 miles of lower Snake River.
Duncan brings a real sense of hope to this contentious four-decade old debate about those dams and the struggling, suffering salmon. "My wheat farming friends who now oppose the dams are living examples of the conversion of ignorance into awareness and matter into spirit," Duncan says. His raison d'etre in this debate and many others is to find common ground, and to enliven a holy respect for earth and for humanity's shared struggle to understand.
"My desire that their wheat-barging and irrigation systems be cost-effectively replaced by railroads and pumps is an example of the same. Farmers and fishers are brothers and sisters now. That's as it should be. As it once was. It's right out of the gospels, actually."
Duncan bobs and weaves with words and ideas, like the fly fisherman he is, letting the lure undulate in eddies and swirls of cold mountain water where he now lives some 20 minutes from Missoula.
He understands the battle of the fish coursing through plugged up rivers distressed by silt, cut trees, toxins and slack water. Yet Duncan inculcates hope in his fiction and creative essays. He believes in the power of individuals to make a difference with their hands, and the collective spirit of doing good, like cleaning up rivers and dam breaching, which Duncan is wholeheartedly in favor of.
"We've jettisoned a lot of hate and ignorance," he says. "We just breached a dam in Missoula, Montana, and it's been a cause for huge celebration by every kind of cowboy and Indian and realtor and Rotary Club member you can imagine. The upper Clark Fork River fishes and farms better by the day. Five-thousand five-hundred miles of streams await the same treatment near here."
An elegant number, that 5,500. It's that sort of reality David James Duncan can grab onto. Fishing the world's streams, he is a kind of dervish of reclamation.
Duncan discusses "Fins and Fields" on Tuesday, April 15, at noon at the Spokane Club. Tickets: $20. Visit www.wildsalmon.org or call 747-2030. On Wednesday, April 16, at 7:30 pm in SCC's Lair, Bldg. 6, Duncan will lecture on "Holy Fools in Literature and Real Life." He'll also appear Thursday, April 17, at 9:30 and 10:30 am in SCC's Humanities Center, Bldg. 16. Three at SCC are free. Visit www.ewu.edu/getlit or call 533-8048.