Salar the Salmon - the book

 

 

Back to Salar the Salmon main page

 

Critical reception

 

UK editions

 

Overseas editions

 

 

 

The book:

 

Salar the Salmon is not a book to hurry through: it is a book which should be read carefully, savouring each scene, absorbing HW’s intense use of words which build up atmosphere layer upon layer. At the end we know not only the intimate details of Salar’s life but also that of the entire river and the creatures that live in and around it.

 

Many of the places and creatures in Salar have already been met in Tarka the Otter and many other stories already written, and so have an almost comforting familiarity; but they now appear in a fresh guise within this new scenario.

 

In its use of word pictures Salar presents a tour-de-force even greater than that of the prize-winning Tarka. It was an incredibly difficult task to embark on (one can see it was far harder than Tarka, where HW had Hunt details to support his story line), for to become as a fish means first knowing ‘fishness’, involving many hours of totally concentrated study and then – rarer – having both the ability with words and the imagination to translate that into a story that will capture it all for a public wanting a good tale.

 

The detail on every page bears witness to those hours of concentrated observation. HW had to find a new way to describe – having to go deeper and deeper into his own psyche. That took its toll and by the end he had become very exhausted.

 

The end of Salar the Salmon is more harrowing than even Tarka: Salar’s death is completely inevitable, but at the end we are given the idea of hope, of a new beginning. There is new life and the cycle is eternal: the title of the last chapter is ‘End and Beginning’. HW leaves us with hope for the future.

 

[‘In my end is my beginning’ are words embroidered by Mary, Queen of Scots (1542-87) under an emblem of her mother. The words are echoed by T. S. Eliot in ‘East Coker’ (Four Quartets, 1940):

 

In my beginning is my end.

 

(T. S. Eliot, a director at Faber & Faber, was one of those who approved Salar the Salmon for publication, and no doubt he read the book. He had very similar ideas as HW about the Past being part of the Present.)

 

We find this same cyclical philosophy to the fore at the very end of the last volume of HW’s A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight, where Phillip Maddison (HW) is about to start writing it.

 

HW’s own ‘The Sun in Taurus’ (on the main page) has already revealed the basic story of this tale of a year in the life of the five-year-old ‘big keeper, the cock-fish’ who is the central character: the salmon known as ‘Salar the Leaper’, so named by the Romans (Latin ‘salire’: ‘to leap for joy’). How fortuitous to find a name with such resonance to Tarka the Otter! However, a little more (considerable!) detail is needed to capture the full thrust of this quite amazing story. The chapter heading illustrations used below are by Charles Tunnicliffe, drawn for the first illustrated edition published in 1936.

 

 

salar endpaper

Charles Tunnicliffe's map, used as endpapers in the first edition

 

 

The book is divided into four parts:

 

Book One: Tideways

Book Two: Spring Spate

Book Three: Summer River

Book Four: Winter Star-stream

 

 

BOOK ONE: TIDEWAYS

 

salar ch1

 

Chapter 1: ‘Sea Assembly’

 

At full moon the tides swirling over the Island Race . . . the Island Race is a meeting place of currents over a sunken reef, or chain of reefs. The sea is never still there. . . .

 

This is Lundy Island sitting fifteen miles west off the coast of North Devon from HW’s own Field and Writing Hut. ‘The sun in Taurus rises’: so it is mid-April: Taurus rules from 21 April to 21 May.

 

With broad brush-strokes the scene is laid. We are given an outline of what it means to be a salmon. Particularly note ‘its first armour of sea-scales’, conjuring up the concept of knightly myth. We are introduced to the predators (those that wage war on others: there is certainly a hidden element of the idea of war present in this book, as in so much of HW’s work), but they demand our empathy in their own right. So we meet porpoises led by Meerschwein – old ‘Sea-hog’ (literal German translation) – who in turn are chased by the deadly gladiators led by Orca (Orca gladiator is the Latin name for killer whale) and Jarrk the seal. Regular HW readers will have met these creatures in previous stories: they are familiar characters now taking part in a new drama.

 

A tiny detail to bring to your attention: we are told that Salar was born ‘under Snowdon’. Thus HW is placing the source of the river Severn near to the great Welsh mountain (possibly a slight use of poetic licence there – the source of the Severn is on the slopes of Plynlimon in the Cambrian mountains, rather than Snowdonia!). But this surely has an extra hidden meaning. Salar the Salmon is dedicated to T. E. Lawrence so recently killed. HW had once referred to himself in an early letter to TEL as ‘Snowdon’ to TEL’s ‘Everest’. Indeed, there can be no reason for this aberration of Salar’s route other than to bring in this hidden message. But possibly even further than that nuance – if HW was ‘Snowdon’ in that sense, then he is ‘Salar’ in this context? He certainly identified completely with his Atlantic salmon; as he did with every creature and character he ever wrote about.

 

So in this opening chapter information is gradually built up, background and finer detail, a mini-crescendo and the chapter ends with a detailed and very visual description of Salar (so much of HW’s writing can be likened to painting and music) – now five years old and weighing twenty pounds.

 

 

salar ch2

 

Chapter 2: ‘Reef of Seals’

 

We meet a particular grilse (a young salmon who has been to sea only once), a maiden salmon named Gralaks who had been born

 

in one of the streams running down from the moor of the wild red deer, in the gravel redds above the pool called Fireplay.

 

(See the map: the moor is of course Exmoor: the Fireplay Pool lies below the railway viaduct that towered over the north end of the Deer Park just behind Shallowford – today carrying the main road.)

 

The story line picks up on the appearance of Jarrk, accompanied by a white (albino) seal and her cub; but this chapter is really about Garbargee, a cannibal conger eel weighing over one hundred pounds (that’s over 45 kilos), a slippery crafty rival of Jarrk. We are living underwater with these denizens of the sea. Salar leaves this melee following the little school made by Gralaks and ten other grilse.

 

 

salar ch3

 

Chapter 3: ‘Coastal Shallows’

 

We learn why Salar does not return (as his innate senses should have led him) to the river of his birth (the Severn, under Snowdon). Due to a tidal discrepancy he is lost! Recognising their mother stream, Gralaks and the other grilse turn into the ‘water of the Two Rivers’ (the estuary of the rivers Taw and Torridge). Salar goes on alone, getting near to the deadly Morte Stone but the turbulence makes him turn back. He briefly meets Trutta the sea trout (a major character). Then he arrives at Bag Leap (Baggy Point) where we learn of Chak-chek the peregrine and Kronk the raven, familiar friends from past stories.

 

HW here slips in one of his bon mots:

 

The gift of sight is the sun’s greatest gift to the world; it is only by the sense of sight that man clears himself; Truth is clarity.

 

(This has resonance to the well-known collect found in St Paul’s Epistle to the Corinthians. HW transposes ‘charity’ with ‘clarity’ – as he also does in The Phoenix Generation (1965; Vol. 12, A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight). The concept is rather out of place here, but was obviously in HW’s thoughts and it is interesting to find it at such an early point.)

 

Salar has caught up with the little school of grilse led by Gralaks, but he is spooked by first the porpoises and then has to take cover from Orca Gladiator (18 feet long) who had been following Meerschwein’s gang.

 

Fishermen ‘off the North Tail of the estuary of the Two Rivers’ watch the ‘’erring ’ogs’ (the porpoises) and their deadly play with a salmon – like children playing catch and throw: they hate porpoises, which eat salmon when they themselves are stopped by law against netting them.

 

 

salar ch4

 

Chapter 4: ‘Estuary Night’

 

A superb description of fishermen that night going out to net salmon (illegally) and being caught by water-bailiffs, whom they outwit by tying the salmon on a string tied round the waist of the skipper’s wife under her skirt. Their ‘bag’ when tipped out for the bailiff’s inspection only contains an ‘’og’ – in other words, a porpoise. The skipper’s wife cackles her disdain.

 

 

salar ch5

 

Chapter 5: ‘Lamprey’

 

Salar goes up and down the estuary with the tide as far as ‘The String’, the agitated area where the water from Taw and Torridge meet, and becomes ‘way-wise’. He avoids a fishing boat with a man spinning for bass. But as he watches the fisherman’s lure so he is being watched by Petromyzon the Stone-sucker: a fearsome lamprey (lampreys are very large creatures). Two pages are given to describing its slow stealthy approach to Salar – then:

 

It quivered, seeming to shorten and thicken and launched itself at Salar, rearing its head to strike at the scaled side; and instantly clamped itself there.

 

And whatever Salar does to try and dislodge the parasite, he cannot shake it off, so he gradually becomes used to the drag of its weight. Gralaks and her little school, and Trutta, the old sea-trout of seven spawnings, move up with the tide.

 

Myzine, the glutinous hag with whisker-like barbels, caught up inside the body of a bass, frightens the fisherman. He throws it over the side in disgust, where it immediately finds the lamprey attached to Salar: problem solved! Salar, free of the blood-sucking impediment but now with a wound on his flank, also moves up-river, passing the Long Bridge of the port (Barnstaple).

 

salar lamprey

Lamprey and hagfish

(from Collins' Pocket Guide to Fish of Britain & Europe,

1997, illustrated by Mick Loates)

 

 

salar ch6

 

Chapter 6: ‘Salvation’

 

Spring approaches: the legal fishing season arrives. Old fishermen grumble about the ‘Board of Conservators’ who favour the rich rod-and-line men upriver. They also ‘know’ that salmon spawn in the estuary on the Shrarshook – not upriver. So gravel being removed is ruining the salmon breeding ground! But their fishing to make a living is one more danger for the salmon.

 

It was the first day of April, and in the estuary and higher salt-water reaches of the Two Rivers the licensed nets were about to shoot their first official draughts of the year. From now until the end of August the passage of salmon and sea-trout in their rivers would be barred in narrow fairway and streaming shallow by thirty-six nets each eighty fathoms long . . . one or another of thirty-six nets was liable to encircle them.

 

 

salar fishermen
Fishermen netting in the estuary in the 1930s

 

 

Jarrk, skilful and wily catcher of salmon even out of the nets, is also active in the estuary. The first catch of the season, described in detail, promises the famous ‘zeven year glut. Never had they seen so many fish in a single draught.’ As the men slowly, with great skill and care, haul in the net we are told that Trutta, Salar, Gralaks along with her fellow grilse, are all caught inside the net, terrified. But at the last moment Trutta hurls at the net, holes it and escapes, and the others (except a few grilse) all also escape through this hole: ‘only dabs, seaweed, and crabs were in the seine when it was lifted ashore.’

 

 

BOOK TWO: SPRING SPATE

 

salar ch7

 

Chapter 7: ‘Tide-head’

 

Rain washes foul pollutants into the water. Salar had moved up and down the estuary many times during the ‘moon’s wax and wane’, letting the tide take him to the tide-head and return again. Now, once the pollutants clear, the stream becomes alive: Salar goes further up the river, past the railway bridge. Continuing, he has an encounter with a young otter, but Trutta knocks it away and it gets instead a lamprey off one of the remaining six grilse of Gralaks school. Salar has gone on up river.

 

 

salar ch8

 

Chapter 8: ‘Valley of Oakwoods’

 

Salar continues upstream, followed by Trutta. Salar is aware of and comforted by his presence. But Trutta is now a sick fish, injured by the thrust through the seine net. They come to a weir, one of many once made to hold water back for the mills, where there is also a salmon-trap from olden days, made so that salmon could get through the opening of the trap, so avoiding the weir; but then be caught; but the Board of Conservators have stopped the practice. As they journey, so we learn much river lore. Eventually several fish rest behind a rock, where we meet a well-mended kelt (a salmon that has been cleaned by the sea after spawning). And again we have that allusion to a knight’s armour:

 

The bright deposit was an armour against corrosion [of salt sea water] . . . it was made from an excretion of the body, a kind of solder sweated on each scale.

 

But Salar is restless and moves on followed by Trutta, Gralaks, and the kelt.

 

 

salar ch9

 

Chapter 9: ‘Clear Water’

 

Salar rests beneath a massive tree stump: we are told its history through the creatures it has given home to over many years. We read also about the (Himalayan) balsam – a plant redolent of Devon rivers and prominent in Tarka the Otter – which spreads itself so prolifically by catapulting its seeds yards away. (Today it is considered a plant pest and eradicated wherever possible.) The rain eases and all is calm, yet menacingly ‘The river moved with immense power.’ Salar is spooked by a dead lamb floating downriver, drowned in the unusual rush of water: and after the lamb, the ewe. The river is a dangerous place for all.

 

 

salar ch10

 

Chapter 10: ‘Junction Pool’

 

Salar arrives at Junction Pool, so called and made by ‘another river flowing into the main river at right angles’. (This is the river Mole – leading to the Bray.) Junction Pool, and its history and surroundings, are described in great detail. All the other fish are there, plus many newcomers. They wait. Some rest, some are restless.

 

Gradually the air was growing less cold in the valley. . . . All of a sudden, as though they had been waiting for a signal, all the salmon in the pool began to move, slowly at first, cruising just under the surface; then accelerating, one after another they leapt at the air. Far up and down the river . . . mile upon mile of grey swilling water broke with splashes.

 

The dun fly have emerged, providing food for the waiting fish.

 

 

salar ch11

 

Chapter 11: ‘Mended Kelt’

 

A boy comes to the river to fish – we read the details of his rod and other tackle. The rod ‘belongs to the boy’s father, who had used it when fishing for black bass in rivers of Florida’. (the boy is the son, of course, of HW – Windles (Bill), then aged eight: HW had visited Florida to fish in spring 1934, the year before writing this book.) The boy’s second cast falls next to Salar, but before he can take the minnow lure the kelt rushes past and grabs it. We see this catch from the kelt’s aspect. But when the proud boy gets the fish home he is mortified to be told it is a mended kelt, and useless to eat. It is buried ‘under an apple tree in the orchard’.

 

 

salar ch12

 

Chapter 12: ‘Sloping Weir’

 

Salar sets off ‘into the fast water of the new river’ (the Mole, going north) and comes to a

 

great bubble-churning rush of white water surging down the face of a sloping weir.

 

Many fish are gathered in the pool below waiting to ascend. But hiding behind an alder is a poacher and above the weir a heron is perched in a pine tree, also waiting.

 

 

salar slopingweir
Sloping Weir

 

salar slopingweir2

Another view of Sloping Weir, with a salmon leaping

– a fine photo by HW

 

 

Various fish try to jump the weir, including Salar, but the fall of water is too great. The special design of the weir made to help salmon actually makes it extremely difficult for them. The only easy place to ascend puts them within easy reach of poachers.

 

Heron and poacher wait for the salmon. But the water-bailiff appears. The poacher sees him coming and so is able to throw his home-made gaff into the torrent before he arrives. The bailiff addresses the poacher as ‘Shiner’. He is well-known for his poaching. (We have met Shiner already in Tarka the Otter, and elsewhere.) Crafty Shiner of course comes off best: he has only been after elvers for his dinner!

 

 

salar ch13

 

Chapter 13: ‘Black Dog’

 

The elvers were running. [Elvers are young eels returning from the Sargasso Sea to the rivers of their birth for the first time.] From blue dusk of ocean’s depth they passed into death: and from darkness the elvers rose again, to girdle the waters of half the earth.

 

(Sadly this is now a fast diminishing occurrence throughout Europe.)

 

Salar and Gralaks and many other fish wait for the lessening of the fall of water over Sloping Weir. Old Nog the heron feasts on the elvers and feeds his young on them. (This is a scene also met in a previous story.) More than 200 salmon pass up the weir; Salar making it at his second attempt and soon is three miles above the weir, where he rests.

 

A fisherman ‘with fourteen-foot split cane rod’ is working the water. There is a superb passage describing the various flies that the fisherman tries, which Salar ignores until eventually the fisherman tries a ‘Black Dog’, a rather dilapidated old fly ‘which had belonged to his grandfather’. (No prizes for guessing who this fisherman is! HW has mentioned his fishing exploits in his diary entries.) He carelessly casts and Salar takes it. We experience the catch now from Salar’s suffering. It is quite harrowing reading. At the very end, with his last strength, Salar manages to break free.

 

 

salar fishing      salar watching

HW fishing - the photograph used as the

frontispiece to The Labouring Life

 

HW watching for salmon and peal ascending a weir

(wearing his leather motoring coat)

(photograph courtesy of R. L. Knight)

 

 

salar ch14

 

Chapter 14: ‘Denzil’s Pool’

 

Salar rests to recover from his ordeal, then moves on with others to Denzil’s Pool (where another river joins: this is the Bray running down from due north – the Mole turns east); but he cannot dislodge the hook from his jaw. He is however now very aware of the danger of ‘lines and lures’.

 

A gang of six poachers with a lurcher arrive, their leader a ‘mild-mannnered, bespectacled cabinet-maker by day’. They plan to net the pool as was their habit. But they are being watched by Shiner, who holds a personal grudge against them (and they stoop to use of chlorine of lime to poison the water and dynamite to kill everything indiscriminately – against Shiner’s principles). Trutta recognises all the signs of ambush and finds a hiding place, Salar and Gralaks follow him. But this hiding place is the ‘property’ of Garroo, an old cannibal trout of 15 years, who is annoyed but cowed by the others.

 

The poachers jubilantly count a catch of nine fish ‘the largest twenty-eight pounds’:

 

It was half an hour to songlight, the shine was already gone from the moon in the great azure glow spreading up the eastern sky. Clouds, hedge, haystacks to the west were black.

 

They leave, but on return to their car, it will not start. Shiner has done a good job of sabotage! Very annoyed, they eventually hide their sack of salmon under a nearby haystack, abandon the car and disperse. Later Shiner innocently wheels his cart, seemingly laden with horse-dung, through the town (South Molton) and cheeks the policeman who is the local potato prize-winner about the dung:

 

‘’Tes proper stuff for growing big tetties.’

 

That night many of the leading citizens of the town, including several magistrates, dined on salmon which had been bought, surreptitiously, at their kitchen doors.

 

No flies on Shiner! But note HW’s masterly indirect way of telling the story.

 

 

BOOK THREE: SUMMER RIVER

 

salar ch15

 

Chapter 15: ‘Sisters’

 

The tone changes to a lyrical description of two sandpipers just arrived back from Abyssinia to spend the summer by the stream. Swallows and swifts also arrive.

 

Here the stream ran through a park where fallow deer roamed of olden time.

 

Currently the park is pasture for bullocks, black sheep and horses put out to grass after the fox-hunting season. They are led by a black gelding called Midnight. (Is HW thinking of Black Prince – his horse in the First World War?) The horses use the ford above the bridge to drink.

 

Salar is still resting but is slowly recovering from his ordeal. He is followed by Gralaks with Trutta in the rear and with some trout they are sheltering by a bridge.

 

The bridge was hump-backed . . . built in an age of picturesque and landscape ornament . . . Water flowed under its three arches and slid whitely into a deep pit beneath . . .

 

Shiner, who worked two days a week in the garden of a house just outside the deer park, . . . peered over the northern parapet of Humpy Bridge during his dinner hour.

 

 

salar humpy

Humpy Bridge, the ornamental bridge over the River Bray in the Deer Park

at Shallowford. It is unchanged today.

 

salar humpy2

HW with John Heygate netting fish in the pool below the bridge,

with his family on the bank

 

salar humpy3
No caption necessary!

 

 

Shiner sees the fish feeding on hatching nymphs and plots how to catch them. But he now becomes sensitive to them as live creatures. We read of a big trout and Graula, a smolt who by chance is a sister of Gralaks.

 

The smolt are going downstream; they brave Steep Weir and swiftly continue on to the estuary, Shrarshook Ridge, past the lighthouse, braving the tide rip at the Hurly-burlies and over the sand shoals.

 

There big grey bass, spined of gill-cover and dorsal fin, were waiting; and of the sea Graula knew no more.

 

Yet another danger, waiting to ambush these vulnerable creatures.

 

 

salar ch16

 

Chapter 16: ‘Shallowford’

 

Dippers abound under the bridges of the Two Rivers – and there is a pair under the middle arch of Humpy Bridge. The water is flowing slowly which allows algae to spread. The life of the water is detailed. Salar, Gralaks and Trutta are lethargic: other life is active. Halcyon the kingfisher catches fry for his own young. The horses come to drink. One hoof nearly kills a little squat fish, Gobio, a mullhead (a bullhead or Miller’s Thumb, latin ‘Cottus gobio’), whose life history we are told. Gobio survives on creatures smaller than itself, but is predated on by all other river creatures:

 

trout, salmon, eel, otter, duck, kingfisher, heron, moorhen, or dabchick. . . . Gobio was the most frightened thing of the Two Rivers.

 

A torpid Salar is seen by Shiner from the bridge. He went back to ‘the garden and told his boss [HW] what he had seen . . . he would be sorry if anything happened to the fish.’ He then, significantly, offers his old netting to protect the greengage tree from bird predators. A subtle way of telling us that Shiner has given up poaching: his nets are no longer needed.

 

 

salar ch17

 

Chapter 17: ‘June Morning’

 

The water is very low. Salar is sluggish (he is still not fully recovered from the hook wound in his mouth). He shelters beneath a dead alder tree which houses a family of woodpeckers: Hackma, and his mate and six ‘incessantly chissiwissing’ young. He watches a creature haul itself out of the water: he watches it (as does the reader) over several pages slowly turn itself into Libellula the dragonfly.

 

Salar is bothered by maggots round his gills. His colours have gone dull and he has fungus spreading out from the lamprey wound sustained earlier. He has stopped eating and his whole appearance has changed.

 

The story balance changes to above ground, the various birds which live round the river and use it, especially Old Nog the heron, who catches a fresh sea-trout with an ensuing skirmish, together with tactics, with a pair of crows. The appearance of Shiner ends the stalemate, and it is Shiner who has the trout for his supper, shared with his thirteen-year-old ‘kitten’.

 

 

salar ch18

 

Chapter 18: ‘Mayfly’

 

Chaffinches take centre stage – ‘Coelebs’ from its latin name. But after several pages of lyrical detail, a sparrowhawk ‘thrust out a talon’d foot’ and flies ‘away with the stricken Coelebs’.

 

Meanwhile Danica the mayfly hatches (slowly and described in fine detail) along with the whole year’s horde. The mayfly rise – to enjoy the briefest of lives:

 

To the moon’s pale phantom flew they, to find in sweet shock the everlasting river. Then they were falling, apart, the black drake empty of hope and illusion; the grey drake to the winding gleam below, bearing thither a strange secret joy.

 

The fish wait on: Salar, Gralaks, and a trout riddled with worms. The colours of all the various trout are painted into a prose poem of words – even Trutta lies in a ‘pink curl of bubbles which stroked his purple head’. Trutta had just bitten a large eel more or less into two parts.

 

 

salar pealstonefalls
Peal Stone Falls, the railway viaduct in the distance

 

 

The sky, the shadow of the alders, birds flying across the sky, a dipper, a kingfisher: it is all very visual.

 

In the coppery glow still brimming the floor of the valley the spinners were burnished points until they dropped into shadow: they were thin streaks of sunset fire rising to fall vanishing.

 

The sun sets, ‘Venus the Evening star’ appears. Danica finally succumbs while Trutta rests:

 

on a rock within which was a mayfly set in stone a thousand thousand years before.

 

 

salar ch19

 

Chapter 19: ‘Night Sun’

 

Night has fallen and Nirra the water-bat (a noctule species) living on night-flying sedge-flies emerges. Salar, Gralaks, and Trutta cruise up and down lethargically in the shallow water. A wood (tawny) owl arrives and tries to catch a water-vole, but it escapes into the water and so the owl moves on. A wild duck (female mallard) and nine ducklings move upstream but scurry back from the smell of a fox, which comes down to the ford to drink, sniffs around and moves on.

 

The moon leaned on the hill; Night was come to the valley . . .

 

Far up the valley, a late train rumbled across the viaduct . . .

 

At midnight the solar rays reflected from the middle of the Atlantic laid an ocean pallor along the western sky . . . Sky, rocks, water, glowed with the fluorescence of their own dark lives.

 

A new salmon arrives, Gleisdyn, momentarily exciting the others, but Trutta becomes alarmed and sinks to the bottom; the wild duck alarms but the smallest duckling (which has been shown to be a show off) does not heed her and so is taken by the creature with ‘a low whistle, softer than the cries of flighting curlew’: the otters were about.

 

 

salar ch20

 

Chapter 20: ‘Water Death’

 

The otters, a dog and bitch, now take centre stage. Their favourite food is eels which abound in the water running along the bottom of the garden where Shiner worked.

 

Many times the man living in the cottage, for whom Shiner worked, had heard their soft, water-musical cries . . .

 

We learn that the bitch otter is the offspring of a dam with a white tip to her tail and a very bold otter who, after being hunted for many hours, had drowned a hound with his last strength – his name was Tarka. (What wonderful crossing-over of plot!) This bitch has cubs and their father is now meeting them for the first time. (And we do of course remember the scene when Tarka’s father meets him for the first time.) They all play in the water, but the adult otters become aware of the salmon hiding and they flush Gleisdyn, whom they chase back and forth, biting at him. The big fish cannot escape. Once he ceases to move the otters are no longer interested and leave: the fox who has been watching everything gets a ‘free’ meal. But we learn that two days later the dog otter is hunted and killed, even as he had killed the salmon.

 

Salar and Gralaks move downstream to the deepest water at Sawmill Pool, but a hunted stag takes to this water and is at bay. The fish are much agitated by the rushing movement of hounds. As the stag leaves the water so it is shot by the huntsman. Salar flees further downstream back to Junction Pool where other listless fish lie.

 

A thunderstorm breaks and sends debris rushing down and stirs up gasses. The fish swim down ahead and out into the estuary – where an unheeding summer visitor drowns. The fishermen go out with nets to ‘look for him’, and manage to catch forty salmon! By then Salar is back in the tides of the Island Race.

 

 

PART FOUR: WINTER STAR-STREAM

 

salar ch21

 

Chapter 21: ‘Drowning World’

 

Autumn Equinox: rain falls and the water is on the move – the highest tide of the year flooding over the sea-walls into the marsh, creating havoc. Then the rain water from the hills tears down the river. The village behind the Great Field (Braunton) was flooded, and the town by the Long Bridge (Barnstaple) was awash and without electricity. Everywhere was water.

 

A great run of salmon come in, chased by Meerschwein and other porpoises. (These ‘German torpedoes’ are extraordinarily prescient.) As the flood receded so Salar ‘returned to the stream of the Red Deer Moor’.

 

Shiner is at Sloping Weir watching the fish (which he no longer catches). It was said to be the greatest run of salmon ever known. We watch the scene of them attempting the weir through Shiner’s eyes.

 

The water was alive with the spirit of salmon-life. It was the master-spirit which had given salmon their shapely beauty and their speed.

 

Then finally we watch Salar attempting the fierce climb. When the fish succeeds, it leaps high from the mill pool above: Such was the return of Salar – the Leaper.’

 

 

salar ch22

 

Chapter 22: ‘Steep Weir’

 

Steep Weir, described in detail, was the most difficult for the salmon on the whole river; and because it was difficult for the salmon it was a good place for poachers. Shiner now totally empathises with the fish: he is against poachers but also the bailiffs, who he ‘knows’ are there for money and not for love of salmon.

 

Shiner wants to help the salmon up the weir by lifting the ancient fenders at the sides, untended by bailiffs for many years and more or less rotten, which will open an easy path for the fish. We learn Shiner is a ‘solitary’, ‘a grey heron of a man’, living rough and we are told details of his life. But he finds poachers at the weir. He craftily outwits them and while lifting the fenders under their very noses manages to tip all three into the water.

 

 

salar fender

A salmon fender – note the salmon entering the spray, about

to ascend: a remarkable photograph! (photo by HW)

 

 

Then he sees a salmon leap above the easy green glissade he has created, and leap again: Salar.

 

 

salar ch23

 

Chapter 23: ‘Sawmills Weir’

 

Shiner walks up the valley to Sawmills Weir, where he meets a gamekeeper. They see Garroo the cannibal trout fail to take the weir. Shiner tells the gamekeeper how he has released the fenders ‘down to Steep’ and shows his knowledge of fish, and that of his ‘chap’ who is:

 

‘proper mazed about salmon, writing a book about’m.’

 

Salar has also arrived at the weir, and after a rest attempts to climb. He finds himself in a line behind Gralaks, with others behind him. Gralaks makes the final effort needed to get up – ‘and then she was gone’. (Gralaks has eggs to lay and an urgency to get to the spawning beds.)

 

 

salar ch24

 

Chapter 24: ‘The Redds’

 

Autumn, the first pheasant shoot, and many salmon and sea-trout moving up the river. Gralaks is above Fireplay Pool and is ready to shed her eggs. Three males including Salar are in attendance, and also Grai, a salmon parr weighing two ounces. Garroo the cannibal trout waits on.

 

Gralaks starts to prepare her redd for spawning: sweeping the gravel sideways with her tail fin and making a pit. On the first evening of December (HW’s birthday!) she sheds her eggs. The rival male fish are excited and jostle for supremacy. Salar moves forward and his milt is released to fertilise the eggs. Even tiny Grai fertilises nine eggs! But a rival seizes Salar and bites him. Much egg-eating takes place: Garroo the greatest culprit.

 

 

salar fireplay
Fireplay Pool

 

 

Shiner watches all this from up a tree. (Somewhere along the line Shiner the gardener has morphed into HW himself. HW spent many hours up trees hanging over the water to get his material, often, his wife said, making himself ill from the cold. Of course, Shiner, as a product of HW’s mind, is HW anyway, but this is a deeper transformation.)

 

Shiner, watching from a tree, heard a distinct snapping noise as each egg was sucked into the trout’s mouth.

 

Salar guards Gralaks and her eggs, especially against Garroo. When the spawning is finished all the fish are exhausted. Trutta had no milt, but guards his ‘mate’, whose eggs are actually fertilised by excited little peal. Now all wait for the rain.

 

 

salar ch25

 

Chapter 25: ‘End and Beginning’

 

We arrive at the frosty nights of the year’s end and learn of the effect of frost and ice on the water life. It is a difficult time.

 

The slow solidification of eddies and still stretches by the shallows made the runs faster. New eddies were formed in reaction, new ice affirmed their stillness.

 

Gralaks lies still in the deepest water. Salar, the great Leaper, lying in Fireplay Pool, is being consumed by salmon-pest and fungus. In his sick state he fights monstrous phantom fish:

 

black, opening monstrous grampus-mouths to crush him [HW and his own black nightmares]

 

He flees:

 

The weir was a flood of red water, and thundering about him.

 

But:

 

Salar had hardly moved, except to roll over in the delirium of his sickness.

 

A steam train had thundered over the viaduct. (Something HW must have seen and felt many times – quite dramatic at night – the red glow of the fire reflected in the water – hence ‘Fireplay’ Pool.)

 

Now the thaw begins. The empathic Shiner sees Salar, a sorry state covered with creamy fungus.

 

Every pool in the Two Rivers held dead or dying male fish.

 

Shiner sees Salar again, lying still in the shallow water over mud and sticks, and puts his hand under him: Salar hardly notices him until the shock of touch moves him slowly on into deeper water. Shiner all the time murmurs soothingly.

 

The year has turned, with small signs of spring – crowsfoot growing, mistle-thrush singing. But then it snows and the otters return and play, making a snow-slide into the water, but they suddenly hear the noise of a fish jumping.

 

Salar had leapt, the second time in the New Year. A wild hope of a spate and the sea had stirred in him. Together, the otters slipped into the water.

 

Trutta is with Salar. Shiner is watching from behind an oak tree. Salar sees the otters and flees: Trutta attacks them and they leave the water, smell Shiner, and vanish. But the next day Shiner returns and finds Trutta, or rather the head and backbone of the great trout, lying on the bank above the Fireplay Pool. The otters had come back late in the night. And below it, in water so shallow he is not covered, is Salar, also dead.

 

(You will appreciate that brave Trutta and, by effect, Salar the Leaper have been killed by the offspring of Tarka the Otter.)

 

The spate rose rapidly, and washed all away, to the sea which gives absolution, alike to the living and the dead. . . .

In the gravel of the moorland stream the eggs were hatching . . . each one alone, save for the friend of all, the Spirit of the waters. And the star-stream of heaven flowed westward to far beyond the ocean where salmon moving from deep waters to the shallows of the islands, leapt – eager for immortality.

 

 

*************************

 

 

Back to Salar the Salmon main page

 

Critical reception

 

UK editions

 

Overseas editions

 

 

 

 

Back to 'A Life's Work'