Most of the time, I feel lucky to grow up today. At 24, my grandmother was already a wife and a mother. At 24, my mom was still living at home, as her family assumed she would until marriage. At 24, I should—at least according to modern expectations for young adults—have already flown far away from the nest. And I did, for a time. Yet due to a pandemic and an expired lease, I’ve been living with my parents—like so many other millennials—for the past 10 months, working remotely from my childhood bedroom, lapsing into my moody teenage self, and sometimes, when trying to distract myself from my lack of a plan for moving out, watching videos of salmon.
These are not your typical charming animal videos of ferrets befriending pigs or dogs bopping into mirrors. Instead, my YouTube history is teeming with aerial footage tracking droves of salmon as they swim thousands of miles upstream to the rivers where they were born. Overlaid with dramatic instrumentals and David Attenborough–like voice-overs, the fish launch themselves up waterfalls, leapfrog fish ladders, and even fly over dams with the help of “salmon cannons.” Sockeye salmon, long and red like chili peppers, dye the rivers a deep red; pink salmon break the surface of the water with their humped backs. Hook-jawed and googly eyed, salmon are far from beautiful. But these days, I can’t help but find them inspiring and clarifying in the way I think about growing up and leaving home.
My thing for salmon began when I read too much about them for a college assignment, a project I talked about so much at the time that my friends gave me salmon birthday cards and salmon hair clips and a hard time for ordering salmon at restaurants. But it’s not the fish I loved so much as it was their story. Almost all salmon species complete a migration that’s epic in scope: Salmon trek from rivers to the ocean as adolescents, only to come home, years later, to spawn in their home rivers, sometimes just yards from where they were born. People travel to watch their homecoming. Poets pay homage. And thousands of videos of the journey grace the internet.
Take, for example, this Nat Geo Wild video, “The Salmon’s Life Mission.” A soothing Scottish voice sets the scene: On a thunderous autumn day in Scotland, when the water level is high, Atlantic salmon prepare to swim upstream to their home rivers. “But there’s a problem,” our narrator warns. The salmon, loitering at the base of a waterfall, must travel up. “It’s a game of persistence and luck.” Cue the violins. Salmon jump out of the water, pumping their bodies as if swimming through the air. “Although they fail time after time, their desire to push on is so strong they never give up,” our narrator says as one salmon succumbs to cascading water. The strings swell, the drums surge, and then a single salmon leaps, once more, out of the water.
“Why I feel emotional watching this….?” one viewer comments. “This is motivating af,” another adds. The appreciation continues: “Nature teaches us what is most important in life, love and children.” The salmon, after all, are taking on this journey for the sake of their offspring, whose eggs can survive only in the shallow waters of highland rivers.
It’s easy, with videos like this one, to cast salmon as characters in their own bildungsroman. Teenage salmon “smolt” and adapt their bodies for the challenges of the saltwater real world before traveling with their peers to the big, wide ocean. There, they grow up, change colors to attract mates, and return home to settle, having babies next door to where they were raised. Anthropomorphizing salmon in this way is comforting. It gives into an ideal that we want, and often expect, for ourselves—that there’s a natural order to growing up, an inevitable path toward adulthood.
Yet salmon migration isn’t as neat as this tale suggests. One video soundtracked by an inappropriately perky fiddle captures dozens of bears stationed along an Alaskan river during a salmon run, ready to pounce. Suddenly, a bear gallops away the from others, a salmon clasped in its mouth like a chew toy. Between natural and man-made obstacles (such as dams and warming waters), in some cases just under 1 of every 100 salmon survive the journey back. And while environmentalists work to aid the process, particularly for endangered populations, the salmon’s survival comes down to luck and physical strength—success that goes unrewarded considering that some species die after spawning. Salmon migration is not a family reunion or sacrifice for a better life. It’s a natural cycle, devoid of any agency, that assigns all salmon, generation to generation, the same course.
The more I watch these videos, sitting at a desk in my parents’ bedroom, at times mildly panicked that I don’t have a five-year plan never mind a five-month one, the more I realize that comparing salmon’s journey to humans’ entirely misses the point. What distinguishes us from other animals is our ability to make decisions that sometimes move us away from the rest of the pack. Growing up and forging our own path has never been as linear as it is in the animal world—nor should we want it to be. My grandmother was settled down at 24, yet she broke away from tradition when she emigrated from Italy at 13 and never returned. She wanted her daughter, my mom, to live at home until she met a nice Italian boy, and yet at 26, my mom moved out and later married an Irishman. And while I thought I’d be living on my own by now—a conventional indication of capability and maturity—the pandemic upended all plans, granting me instead a seemingly unnatural, but lovely, period with my parents. Again.
As I watch videos of the animal kingdom, its subjects following their prewritten paths, I realize the very autonomy I crave is found in the way I can choose to reroute the path to adulthood. There’s no one natural order to growing up, and only once I release myself from that expectation do I understand that I can be making progress even if, for now, I remain in one place, the most familiar place. Deciding to live at home for now—and, moreover, letting myself be content with that—might be the most adult decision I’ve made yet.