Rivers run beneath us

The next time you find yourself at the intersection of Cambie Street and Broadway, imagine the creek that used to be there. Imagine the roar of it, loud as the traffic around you. See if you can conjure in your mind's eye the salmon struggling upstream there, the coho salmon and chum salmon making their way home to their ancestral spawning grounds in a marshy area just northeast of Queen Elizabeth Park.

Try to imagine, underneath streets of East Vancouver, a small river, with at least eight major tributaries, pulsing nutrient-bearing salmon in ancient cycles throughout a vast area of forest and marsh bounded by East 41st on the south, Grandview Highway on the north, and the hill country around Victoria Drive on the east.

The little river ended up with the delicate-sounding name of China Creek, and its estuary used to be in the vicinity of Great Northern Way and Clark Drive. Back then there was a broad, shallow arm of the sea where the railyards are now. Terminal Avenue runs through the middle of a place that was once watery and alive with sturgeon, oolichan, flounder, salmon, crab, mussels, and clams.

These are among the things that lie just beneath the surface of Vancouver, just beneath the surface of time and space and memory, 57 salmon streams that we know about. It's not that far down, and it wasn't all that long ago. There was China Creek, Brewery Creek, Bridge Street Creek, Mackie Creek, and their ghosts still persist in the storm drains. There are places where you can still hear them, when it rains.

I was talking to Celia Brauer about those streams the other day, just as the massively subsidized Sea Vancouver Festival was declaring bankruptcy after stiffing not only the Cowboy Junkies but even the guy it had hired to hang around and sing sea chanteys for a couple of days.

Brauer, 52, is the driving force behind a different sort of festival entirely. It's unashamedly unglamorous, and it goes by the name of the Salmon Celebration. It launched last year and it came off without a scratch and with practically no money. It's a series of workshops and day camps and storytelling evenings, all anchored around Rivers Day, September 25.

It's perhaps the most peculiar of all of B.C.'s many Rivers Day events. It doesn't take place on the banks of the majestic Stikine, or the mighty Fraser, or the troubled Cowichan, or the broad and mist-shrouded Skeena. It takes place in the heart of Vancouver, on the streets that buried all those little salmon streams that emptied into False Creek.

Last year, the main event involved about 350 people, a band, and a parade that began at Jonathan Rogers Park at West 7th Avenue and Manitoba Street and ended up seven blocks away at Creekside Park, near Science World. There was stuff for kids, and booths and tables, and the S'pakwu's Slu'lum Dancers from Squamish and a visit from a 10-paddler Squamish war canoe. This year will be like last year, only probably a lot bigger. (Keep an eye on www.publicdreams.org/salmon.htm.)

The Salmon Celebration got its start with as much help from the Public Dreams Society (probably best known for its spectacularly successful East Side summer Illuminares event [July 23]) as from mainstream environmental groups. That should tell you something. It's not just about whether we should try to "daylight" and revive some of those salmon streams around False Creek, after the example of the good people of Kitsilano and their efforts with Tatlow Creek. There is a different sort of work to be done, Brauer says, because False Creek's salmon streams were not buried by concrete alone.

"Our philosophy buried them," is the way Brauer puts it. "It's not about daylighting those creeks. It's about daylighting the part of our mammalian brains, the part that's gone to sleep, the part that connects with the wild world. We've got to get that back or the wilderness is lost."

In this way, Brauer brings a distinct and refreshing perspective to a conversation usually dominated by conventional environmentalists. It's a perspective derived partly from what she calls "the deep wisdom of the Jewish tradition that is now being revived by the Jewish environmental movement", partly from her childhood in a Yiddish-speaking immigrant family in Montreal, and partly from an epiphanic visit to Nahanni National Park in the Northwest Territories in 1976.

When Brauer talks about a metaphorical daylighting of Vancouver's salmon streams, one is reminded of something the "father of biodiversity", E.?O. Wilson, once wrote about the compelling power of religious tradition. He described it as "a great subterranean river of the mind", a complex instinct that "gathers strength from a broad spread of tributary emotions".

The Salmon Celebration Brauer is spearheading-with its theme of Remembering Our History: Celebrating the Living-might end up going some distance to daylight that subterranean river that runs just below the surface of Vancouver's consciousness: a river with salmon in it.

Whatever happens, it sounds a lot more promising than an opportunity to sit around at the Plaza of Nations, drinking beer at some Sea Vancouver gig.