Being Salmon, Being Human: Encountering the Wild in Us and Us in the Wild
Nautilus Award Silver Medal Winner, Ecology & Environment
In search of a new story for our place on earth
Being Salmon, Being Human examines Western culture's tragic alienation from nature by focusing on the relationship between people and salmon--weaving together key narratives about the Norwegian salmon industry as well as wild salmon in indigenous cultures of the Pacific Northwest.
Mueller uses this lens to articulate a comprehensive critique of human exceptionalism, directly challenging the four-hundred-year-old notion that other animals are nothing but complicated machines without rich inner lives and that Earth is a passive backdrop to human experience. Being fully human, he argues, means experiencing the intersection of our horizon of understanding with that of other animals. Salmon are the test case for this. Mueller experiments, in evocative narrative passages, with imagining the world as a salmon might see it, and considering how this enriches our understanding of humanity in the process.
Being Salmon, Being Human is both a philosophical and a narrative work, rewarding readers with insightful interpretations of major philosophers--Descartes, Heidegger, Abram, and many more--and reflections on the human-Earth relationship. It stands alongside Abram's Spell of the Sensuous and Becoming Animal, as well as Andreas Weber's The Biology of Wonder and Matter and Desire--heralding a new "Copernican revolution" in the fields of biology, ecology, and philosophy.
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About the Author
Martin Lee Mueller, PhD, received his doctorate in philosophy from the University of Oslo in 2016. Before that, he received his master's degree in culture, environment, and sustainability at the University of Oslo's Center for Development and the Environment (SUM). He has previously helped build teaching centers in rural Mongolia, worked as a kindergarten teacher, been an elementary school librarian, and led a wilderness school in the Norwegian forest. Recently he has also been touring as a storyteller to festivals in the U.K. and Scandinavia, with a stage performance inspired by this book. Being Salmon, Being Human: The Performance weaves together philosophy, traditional storytelling, and Samí joik music. He lives in Oslo together with his partner and daughter.
Dr. Stephan Harding has been concerned with conservation of the earth and its creatures since he was a child. He holds a doctorate in ecology from the University of Oxford, a degree in Zoology from the University of Durham, and is both a resident ecologist and the coordinator of the MSc in Holistic Science at Schumacher College. He lives in Devon, England.
"Here is a philosopher who has learned to think not only with his head but with his whole body. A keenly aware human animal, Martin Mueller dreams himself salmon flesh. Gill slits open along his neck as he glides between mountain streams and the broad ocean currents. His scales glint and ripple in the moonlight, their reflections posing ever more penetrating questions for our species. This is a game-changing culture-shifting book, ethical and eloquent, opening the way toward a more mature natural science--one that's oriented by our own creaturely participation and rapport with the rest of the biosphere."--David Abram, author of The Spell of the Sensuous and Becoming Animal; director, Alliance for Wild Ethics
"The salmon farming industry is not only cruel and environmentally damaging; it threatens to corrode wildness itself. No one has made a more compelling argument to support this fact than Martin Lee Mueller. Philosophically, scientifically, morally, and artistically, Mueller blows the industry guys literally out of the water. If you care about the future of salmon, you must read this essential, rigorously documented book."--Sy Montgomery, coauthor of Tamed and Untamed; author of The Soul of an Octopus
"What if looking at a salmon brought you into deep meditation, and at the end of that meditation you realized that you were looking at yourself, that the salmon was you, you were the salmon, and all is one? That realization is the greatest story on Earth. This book is that crucial meditation."--Carl Safina, author of Song for the Blue Ocean and The View from Lazy Point
"We are slowly realizing--in our dramatic cultural epoch--that dualism has come to an end. Humans do not stand above the Earth; we are but one of its ways of imagining itself. The thinking and feeling of the coming era won't distinguish between imagination, matter, theory, and desire. Martin Lee Mueller's book is one of the first works to radically imagine this new world that is dawning. He shows that reality is a weaving of yearning bodies expressive of innumerable existential stories. Here, outwardness and interiority, humans and salmons, physical descriptions, historiography, and memoir are continuously intertwining. They are equally important aspects of a multifaceted whole that calls for scientific descriptions as well as for personal expressions. Mueller's work is a fine example of the new renaissance slowly gaining momentum, in which we understand our humanness as one strand of the world's manifold desire to become."--Andreas Weber, author of Matter and Desire and Biology of Wonder
"This eloquent, impassioned, and often poetic book offers something remarkable: a coherent philosophical and spiritual vision for this era of ecological fragility. Marked by clarity and compassion, Being Salmon, Being Human is a beautiful, important work--and a necessary one."--Judith D. Schwartz, author of Cows Save the Planet and Water in Plain Sight
"With this beautiful and important book, Martin Lee Mueller has written a love song to the salmon, and a love song to all life. This book deserves to be read and understood, as an important step in helping us to remember how to love this wonderful planet that is our only home."--Derrick Jensen, author of A Language Older Than Words, The Culture of Make Believe, Endgame, and many other books
"Mueller's book carries both erudition and urgency secreted within its silvery scales. He understands the hour is late, and his intelligent push towards across-species storytelling is to be taken seriously. Bless his steps, and may his work carry its nutritional goodness far, far over the green teeth of the sea."--Martin Shaw, author of Scatterlings Getting Claimed in the Age of Amnesia
"A marvelous exploration of what it means to belong within life's community. Mueller integrates imagination and analysis to produce a book of rare and important insight."--David George Haskell, author of The Songs of Trees and Pulitzer finalist The Forest Unseen; professor, The University of the South
"What a fantastic gift from the nation that has given us both deep ecology and farmed fish. Martin Lee Mueller is the first to explain how strange this pairing can be. From Descartes to Naess, he knows his philosophy. But no one before Mueller has dared to ask our gravlax itself, 'Who are you?' This is the wildest salmon book ever written."--David Rothenberg, author of Survival of the Beautiful and Thousand Mile Song; distinguished professor of philosophy, New Jersey Institute of Technology
"How refreshing to read a book on human-fish relations that actually considers the fishes' own perspectives! With lyrical, empathic prose, Mueller beautifully expresses both the sensual world of a salmon and the tragedy of our self-absorption."--Jonathan Balcombe, author of What a Fish Knows
"In these pages you will find a well-referenced eco-philosophical story about some of the confounding origins of our separation from both self and all that is nonhuman. Martin Lee Mueller's words are a song of celebration, offering a shared sense of salvation to see salmon and humans, as Haudenosaunee Faithkeeper Oren Lyons might suggest, as relatives rather than resources. Read this book as a clarion call and homecoming for a vision of a new 'Theory of Relatives-ity' with the mantra being: 'Bring the Salmon H.O.M.E. Bring the Humans H.O.M.E. (Here On Mother Earth)!'"--Brock Dolman, director, WATER Institute, Occidental Arts and Ecology Center
"In Being Salmon, Being Human, Martin Lee Mueller brings the abstract categories and arguments of eco-philosophy vividly to life by using them as a lens through which to examine the salmon feedlot industry in Norway. Weaving together narrative, poetry, science, natural history, and economics, while contrasting Indigenous and modern perspectives on the meaning of salmon, he creates an eloquent, multi-layered terrain of thought and story that exposes the abject depth of wrongness that this industry represents. By implication, the whole of modern industrial civilization, and the forms of nationalist identity to which it gives rise, are revealed as equally in error.
"The beauty and passion of the writing made my own ancestrally Nordic bones ache with longing for the still enchanted, still poetically charged landscapes and seascapes of this 'small kingdom in the far north, ' this 'Way to the North' that has long been a beacon of ecological consciousness and may now, under Mueller's tender tutelage, help to point a Way towards a more bearable future."--Freya Mathews, professor of environmental philosophy, Latrobe University, Australia
Publishers Weekly (starred review)--
"Mueller, a naturalist, philosopher, and storyteller from Oslo, links his fate to wild salmon in a remarkable work that doubles as poetic treatise and a broad environmental critique. He migrates across many waters--including ethnography, genetics, and linguistics--but throughout his focus remains the coho, sockeye, and other river-spawning salmon species with which humans share an intricately woven history. Anthropocentrism comes in for harsh criticism in this account. So does the Norwegian fish-farming industry, which boasts of providing 12 million salmon dinners a day; AquaBounty Technologies, a Waltham, Mass., biotech company that in 2010 applied to the FDA to market a genetically modified supersalmon; and René Descartes, the early modern philosopher whose separation of mind from body (and thus of the human from nature), Mueller argues, is responsible for the "suicidal" course on which humans have put the planet. Here, Spinoza and philosopher David Abram (Mueller's mentor) offer alternate "narratives" for survival, an ecologist investigates how the fungal networks in tree roots help forest communities survive, a geomorphologist studies modern humans' dysfunctional relationship with dirt, a microbiologist espouses Gaia theory, and an ethnographer asks Quinault elders for their "side of the story" regarding Capt. Robert Gray's 1787 "discovery" of the Columbia River. This is a powerful book about what it means to be human in the "more-than-human" world."
"In this lyrical nonfiction debut, philosophy PhD Mueller critiques modern Western society's attitudes toward the natural world, using salmon as both case study and controlling metaphor, juxtaposing the modern salmon farming industry with Native American tradition. The result is a cross-disciplinary work interweaving aspects of philosophy, psychology, spirituality, and environmental ecology to advocate for a more empathetic, respectful, and holistic approach toward interacting with the natural world. Mueller creates an accessible introduction to environmental philosophy-the branch of philosophy dealing with humans' relationship to nature-with a strong narrative thread. Verdict Appropriate for academic libraries and large public libraries."
"Pacific salmon have become a signature species for many environmental titles in recent years, and Mueller could be excused for echoing some of those sentiments. Although he does focus partly on the familiar surroundings of the Pacific Northwest, and specifically the positive impact of the removal of the Elwha and Glines Canyon dams in Washington State, Being Salmon, Being Human splits its focus between matters ecological and philosophical. Mueller, who lives in Norway, opens with the stunning recollection of reading an opinion piece from a fishery economist in a local newspaper questioning the value of wild salmon versus a thriving farmed-fish industry. Though pitting wild against farmed fish is not a new tactic, Mueller goes deep into the philosophical question of why wild salmon do matter more, considering the works of Descartes, Heidegger, and beyond while looking at human culture, storytelling, and geographical identity as affected by the revered fish. This unique approach packs some thoughtful messages that reveal the ever-broadening appeal and significance of this enduring creature."