“Are we freer when we let go of the need to own, to control, and, sometimes, even to know, especially when the path to knowledge violates the spirit of other living things?”
It was the day after a heavy spring rain when I ventured out to take a walk in Wildwood, a favorite park not far from my home in Toledo, Ohio. The Ottawa River, which meanders through this park, had overflowed its banks. While some of the waters had receded, signs of flooding were evident. A thin layer of mud—dry in some places, still wet in others—covered everything within an inch or two above the ground—every blade of grass, the base of trees and shrubs, a smattering of small twigs and stones, and the strong, wide leaves of the newly emerging skunk cabbage. Also left behind by the retreating waters were earth-brown puddles just deep enough to cover a shoe that might unwarily step off the boardwalk. These pools would dry up soon, as the forecast for the next several days was for sunshine and warm breezes.
As I rounded the first bend on the boardwalk, a rapid up-and-down motion in one of the puddles caught my eye. When I got closer, the movement stopped. I leaned over the railing and saw a fish, about six inches long, lying in the shallow puddle. The fish lay on its side, one eye looking up toward the sky, and one fan-shaped fin flat against the mud. Concerned about the fish’s survival, I stepped off of the boardwalk and into the mud. As I did so, the fish started flapping again—this time splashing me with the same mud that coated everything on the ground around me. I reached down and grabbed the fish with my hand, thinking that catching a fish had never been easier. Keeping this slippery fellow, however, wasn’t so simple. It quickly squirmed out of my hand, and with a big splash, was back in the mud and water. I was now covered with a second coating of mud. But this was of little concern to me as I had, by now, assumed a certain sense of responsibility for the welfare of the fish.
Meanwhile, the fish was thrashing around in the puddle at my feet and seemed panic-stricken. Was it afraid of me? Of the unknown? Of the possibility of being trapped in the diminishing pool of water? I didn’t know how to calm a fish, nor was I sure how to deal with the philosophical questions that came to mind. Should I leave the fish alone? Would nature do better on its own, or should we intervene when some element of nature is in distress? Looking at the fish again, I realized it had little time or interest in my philosophizing about the issue. It needed to get back to the river as soon as possible.
Once more, I reached down to grab the fish—this time with both hands and with an increased awareness that catching a fish and holding on to it are very different things. I approached the task with a “This-is-for-your-own-good” attitude. The fish seemed to sense my determination and lay somewhat still in my hands.
Fascinated by the fish and my direct contact with it, I was inclined to hold on to it for a while. I wanted to study its different colors, the shape of its mouth, the texture of its scales, and the look in its eyes. Here was my opportunity to examine a fish as it is in real life, with nothing standing between me and it—no glossy paper, no TV or computer screen, no words—just me and the fish. I could feel it, smell it, run my fingers and eyes over it. In a way, I could own it.
In the meantime, the fish was struggling to breathe; and I wondered what it might be thinking and feeling. Was the fish aware that I was holding it? Did it have any idea of the power that was now in my hands—the power of life and death over it? I knew that I held more than the body of the fish. I held its destiny.
There we were, the fish and I, eyeball to eyeball—both of us living, breathing, sensing individuals. The fish, however, was at a distinct disadvantage as it was out of its element. What I held in my hands was not a fish in its natural environment, it was a fish in captivity. To really know this fish, I would have to enter its world. I would have to immerse myself in the river and swim along beside it.
I looked at the fish, right into the eye that was facing up toward me and the sky. I searched for a soul in the depths of this deep, dark pool, but it remained hidden from me. I saw only mystery.
Once again, my mind focused on the inequality of the situation. While I was in the privileged position of speculating about the fish, its whole being yearned for water and freedom. I quickly walked across the boardwalk, gently dropped the fish in the river, and watched as it seemed to become one with the flowing water. Within seconds of releasing it, the fish was out of sight. Its impact on me, however, remains.
As I left the park that afternoon, I puzzled over why I felt a renewed sense of freedom. After all, wasn’t it the fish that was set free in the waters of the Ottawa River? Could it be, I asked myself, that as long as I held onto the fish, I was in captivity too? I had thought for a moment that I could own the fish, that I had caught the fish and that it was mine. I even felt I had the power to determine its destiny. But maybe I was missing the larger picture. In freeing the fish, I may have liberated something within myself, as well.
The renewed sense of freedom I experienced as I walked home from the park makes me question the impact of power and ownership on the human spirit. I wonder, are we freer when we let go of the need to own, to control, and, sometimes, even to know, especially when the path to knowledge violates the spirit of other living things?
In some profound way, my encounter with the fish enriched my life. When I left the park, I was covered with mud and the smell of the fish but I was also filled with a deeper appreciation of the mystery of life all around me. The spirit of the fish had touched my soul—and for this, I am grateful. I know it was I, perhaps more so that the fish, who received a special gift on that Saturday spring afternoon.
Read more from Ruth Wilson: “Following the Spiritual Path of the Coyote.”