Animals may come to us in the wilderness of dreams and visions. A certain blue fish has appeared in so many of my dreams over the years that I have often cried in astonishment and surrender, recognizing a profound healing relationship to this fish guide within. The blue fish has become a symbol of the treasure in the deep, of the rich life that swims in the abyssal regions of the soul. In these days of rampant exploitation of nature and alienation from it, such experiences show us vividly that we are not separate from nature.
When inner animals also come to us in outer nature, it becomes especially clear that there is no separation between inner wild and outer wild. Why would there be? We are nature. There is just a continuous stream of energy from more spiritual to more material forms. When I began to encounter the blue fish in the waters of creeks and rivers, I stepped into an endless flow of fish-nature inside and out.
Drawing facilitates my participation in the spiraling gyre of this inner/outer continuum. In therapy, and as a therapist, I have valued art-making for honoring the living images that rise from the deep psyche; for actively engaging in the creative process of transformative healing; and for giving form to the entry of nature and spirit into the therapeutic process. I make devotional images of the sacred process of growth towards the higher Self and that depict my increasing realization of belonging to the community of life.
Many years ago, after having had scores of meaningful fish dreams and having made a series of fish-assisted transformative drawings, I thought I’d reached the end of the fish-visitations. Then I participated in a guided visualization to seek a healing vision. I imagined walking on a path and coming to a cave. Entering the cave I saw that up ahead there was an opening to a room filled with light. Light from an unknown source illuminated a blue fish on top of a large volcano-shaped mound. I was surprised. The fish said, “So, what did you expect to find in the cave?” A fish, of course! I drew the fish on the mound in the cave.
This started up the fish-drawing series again. Feeling a need for more protection around my creative process, I asked the blue fish for help. He made a sacred circle of colored pebbles, carrying each pebble in his mouth. He is about to place a rose purple stone in the center for my heart.
Synchronistically, I came across a photograph in an old National Geographic of a small blue Lake Malawi fish above the huge volcano-shaped sand nest he had built. It looked so much like my vision of the blue fish on the mound in the cave that I gasped in astonishment. The caption said that the males meticulously move sand one mouthful at a time to build the nest to attract females, and they constantly guard the nest from intruders.
When a stronger inner supporter of my creative energies began to take shape, I imagined him as being like this small mound-building fish that patiently, grain by grain, carries sand to build his big mating stage. Every time I act on my creative energies, saying, I support myself to get out the colors, I support myself to choose a paper, I support myself to draw, I am the blue fish carrying a pebble in his mouth to build his nest-mound so he can mate with my feminine soul and fertilize the egg-seeds of my love.
In August that summer, when I went to Nature Camp, in the mountains of Virginia’s George Washington National Forest, I went right to the stream, to the fish. I loved being with a certain family there at camp. Gerald is a wetlands restorer and an enthusiastic teacher about rivers and fish. Sharon is a passionate writer who teaches creative writing, and Rachel, then almost four, was their dark haired, spunky, creative, exuberant, soulful daughter.
Rachel, confident and sure of herself, was a child who had never been shamed or scared by her parents, as I had been. They were the family I would have needed as a spirited, nature-loving child. Rachel was the child in me as she would have been, unshamed and unafraid. They shared a wonderful blend of temperament and interests. I was drawn to the positive family model they embodied. Secretly, I imagined drawing them as a fisherman and fisherwoman with their curious, adventurous fisherchild to bring healing to my own inner fisherchild.
On one very hot day I stood for a long time in the cold pools of Big Mary’s Creek watching the fish. Later, Gerald, Sharon, and Rachel, some other campers, and I used the kick net to seine the South River and caught black nose, long nose, rosyside and redbelly dace, stonerollers, bluehead chubs, common shiners, mottled sculpins, fantail and long fin darters and torrent suckers. There were a few trout to study, too. Such a richness of fish species! This is the James River watershed. Gerald said that acid rain is killing off the fish species in the rivers higher up the mountains, but by the time it flows through the limestone it becomes neutralized enough to support all these species here in the South River.
I was amazed to hear him talk about how the male bluehead chub carries stones in his mouth to build a large mound where females lay their eggs. He fertilizes them and guards the nest from predators. He pointed out an old chub nest left over from last year’s spawning season, but I really couldn’t distinguish it.
Another day when I went to the creek I came upon the family at the girls’ swimming hole near the stone bridge. Rachel and I played in the cold water. Then we collected fifteen or more different colored river stones including ochre, rust, salmon, sky blue, gray-green, yellow-green, turquoise, and rose purple. They were the colors of the stones that the fish brought in my drawings! We had fun grinding the soft, smooth stones onto a hard rock, making a beautiful palette. Rachel painted my face as a “cat princess,” and I painted her toenails with different pigments.
Later, a group of us hiked up to Table Rock and went swimming in the deep, cold rock pool at the base of the waterfall. We slid down the rock chute and plunged into the cold water. Watching us, Rachel said, “Betty Lou, you are brave…but I’m even braver!”
The next year Nature Camp was held in June, fish spawning season. I wanted to explore inner blue fish writing while drawing the creek and continuing to learn about the fish in the creek and the river. My summer course would be Fishing Inland Streams. Inner and outer eco-spiritual energies are what I’d be fishing for.
During Gerald’s class on wetlands, he took us back to the South River and showed us a bluehead chub’s nest, as an example of symbiosis. It was a one foot diameter, slightly mounded patch of small stones amidst the field of larger stones that forms the bed of that part of the South River. He told us that fish eggs need to be deposited in spaces where there is not silt to smother them and where the current constantly flows over, oxygenating them. So, the fish deposit the eggs on the upstream side of the stone mound.
The male bluehead chub is one of only 10 fish species in the world (out of 34,000) who can move stones in their mouths like this. One or two other males cooperatively join him in sharing the nest and guarding it. Over 30 other species use the chub’s nest. They wait for the chub to spawn, attracted by the smell of the chub’s sperm, knowing it is a fresh, unsilted, nest. Some of these are endangered species. Because bluehead chubs play such a critical role in the river ecosystem they are called a surrogate species. No wonder they were given the Latin name Nocomis, which means Grandmother in Ojibwe!
Back at Big Mary’s Creek, Rachel, almost five, painted my fingernails and her face with colored river stone pigments.
The next day I went to the girl’s swimming hole at the creek to look for fish. Not seeing any, I sat on a stone/sand bar, where I drew on a large rock with the smooth colored stones. Beside the rock, just under the surface of the water, was a large mound of beautiful colored stones that I assumed was an underwater extension of the stone/sand bar. I stayed there looking at the fish–redbelly, rosyside and black nose dace–darting among the rocks. These and some bigger fish kept shooting in and out of the deep, dark recess created by a large overhanging boulder.
I continued walking up the creek, playing in each little waterfall, and standing chest deep in the pools, peering down through the clear, glassy water at the fish nibbling at my knees. I noticed that all the rocks and pebbles underwater were covered with a dull green algae and brown leaf detritus. I began to wonder if those colored pebbles, so clean and pretty, were a fresh chub’s nest, but I thought it was much too big.
I waded to the emerald green mossy rock ledge that spans the creek and reclined against it so that my whole back was cool in the rushing water, while my whole front was warm in the sun, and listened with both ears to the water tumbling down on both sides. Every time I’ve visited this spot I’ve noticed that this mossy-ledge waterfall and the pools above it feel palpably animated with a benign spirit.
After dinner I mentioned to Gerald that I saw a stone mound and wondered if it was a chub’s nest, but thought it looked too large. Like the wonderful teacher he is, he said, “Well, let’s go look at it.”
When he saw it he was excited. He said it was made by a big bluehead chub. (They can be up to 12 inches long.) He said they like to make them near an overhang so they can go in there for cover from even bigger fish, like trout. I told him that I realized all the other underwater pebbles and rocks were dull from algae and decaying leaves while these were clean. Like the wonderful teacher he is, he said to the student, “Good observing!”
In the morning several of us went back to that spot to try to catch sight of the fish spawning (they do it in the morning with the male thrashing around with several females), but we didn’t see any activity. Gerald said that the bluehead chub and a couple of the daces would be in the Eno River back home, too, a river that flows through the city of Durham, which people are working hard to save.
When I returned home I went to a class on the fish in the Eno. Riverdave, the resident naturalist, taught us to throw a cast net, and we caught and observed a quarter of the Eno’s 62 species of fish. I got to see the male bluehead chub up close in his breeding colors with his attractive red-orange upper fin and tail and yellow-orange lower fins. I saw the mating tubercles on his head that he uses to fight off egg predators, to stimulate females to spawn, and maybe to help push the larger stones into position. I saw his big lips and tried to imagine him wrapping those sensitive looking lips around such large stones in his suction mouth. A bluehead chub can move over 20,000 stones in those lips to make a nest. I wonder if my blue fish will carry stones in his mouth to make more nurturing and protective designs. These intimate contacts with the fish stimulated my desire to continue to support the community’s work to save this sacred urban river.
The following year at camp, which was again held in June, I went with Sharon back to the same spot in the creek with the overhanging boulder. She wrote while I sketched. Beside the big boulder we saw a fresh, clean mound of colored stones built up against some larger rocks that created a riffle. The male bluehead chub that built the nest was probably hiding in the pool back under the boulder. Large stonerollers with big mating tubercles on their heads (who may also use chub nests or build their own) cruised amidst black nose dace, while black and white patterned torrent suckers hugged the rocks below.
Male redbelly dace were wearing their brightest breeding colors—neon yellow fins with glinting, mercuric silver patches at the bases. The male rosyside dace sported ethereal blue heads and fins, bright yellow stripes down their backs, and red patches on their sides. Fifty or more of these small male dace, all facing upstream, were flitting around over the chub’s stone nest, constantly shifting positions, looking nervous, waiting for females to arrive. As females came the males rubbed up against them to spawn in a frenzy of thrashing and splashing.
Just then a slender juvenile northern watersnake slithered into position behind the seemingly preoccupied and unwary fish. Bluish between pink bands, it slid through the water with its pinkish-white mouth wide open, pursuing clusters of fish. The fish dispersed easily, blithely unconcerned, every time the snake charged, and then slipped right back into their waiting formations. We watched as the snake lunged at the fish, over and over again for at least an hour, catching nothing.
Periodically the snake stopped and rested its head on a rock, body draped limply behind in the water, for a minute or more, appearing to take a breather. We empathized with its apparent frustration until we noticed that rather than speeding up as it got close to the fish each time, the snake seemed to ever so slightly hold back.
Curious, we began wondering if perhaps the snake was just endlessly playing at catching the fish. Or if it was diligently practicing fishing even though it was not hungry. Maybe the water was just too cold for the snake to be fast enough to catch them. But, we observed, that wouldn’t account for that slight hesitancy just at the top of every strike.
The dace continued their extroverted mixing and mating while deftly darting away from the snake, which continued to approach and lunge repeatedly. Predator and prey, it seemed, were improbably engaged in dancing some bizarre rite of spring. We never did see the wary bluehead chub, but I’m sure he saw us.
On a more recent early June morning I went with a friend to sit on a narrow beach at the edge of a small creek near home to make a water honoring ritual. There in the riffles was a familiar collection of small fish darting about above a mound of clean stones. I felt a sense of friendship, knowing exactly what they were doing, and pride to see them here in this nearby, thankfully healthy, woodland creek.
Can we honor the therapeutic symbolism of water and fish while simultaneously addressing the condition of the rivers and fish around us? Do our children know how delightful a clean flowing stream feels? Do they get to experience, as Rachel so often did, the rich abundance of colorful fish in a healthy, living creek? We need the spiritually and materially nourishing aspects of nature alive and well within us and all around us.
When the inner wildness of my psyche provides nature imagery to help heal a subjective emotional need, and when that fantasy shows up in physical reality, it’s as if a door suddenly opens and I catch a glimpse of the deep underlying connection between inner and outer, human and animal, that is always there.
How did my psyche know that there are fish that move stones in their mouths, while my conscious mind did not? And that a stone-moving fish is blue? And that the stones he moves are beautiful colors? And that these fish are here in our local streams? Because there are unseen threads of connection between me and fish in the “world unconscious,” way below the “personal unconscious” and below even the “collective unconscious,” where psyche and world are one. Where I know fish and fish knows me. Where I and fish are one, no separation. Turns out it’s easier to experience than it is to explain.
I feel held within a colorful circle of river stones collected from inner fish images that feel timeless and spaceless and from outer fish experiences that link me intimately to the here and now of this spawning season in this bioregion.
The last drawing in this series was a Vesica Piscis that the blue fish made out of colored stones. This double “vessel of the fish” shows the shape of fish—symbols of fertility, birth, and creative rebirth—that are formed in the center when the circles of masculine and feminine and the circles of psyche and earth interlock and overlap.
Text and all drawings (c) 2021 Betty Lou Chaika
More of Betty Lou’s ecology drawings can be seen here.
Gerald Pottern, senior biologist, can be found at https://www.linkedin.com/in/gerald-pottern-32467a12
Naturalist Riverdave’s website is http://www.theborderlife.com/