The Sturgeon’s Dream: A Libretto, Part Two

1,433 total words    

6 minutes of reading


Time Span: From the age of Enlightenment until now
Season: Summer

Notes: As the cacophony dispelled from different sources evokes the anthropogenic soundscape, the text echoes this notion: spells; nursery rhymes and poems; flowing pieces mixed with propaganda prompts; pure, detached narration.

Mood for the musicians: We also sometimes hear from far away a wind blow into sails, the rowing of wooden planks, sailors’ tunes from above the water trickling into the aquatic landscape.

Then we listen in to smaller parts, particles of DNA carried from the lands to the sea. A pine needle, some moss. Ashes from a woman burned as a witch, organic matter nevertheless. The sermons of the priests carry a hollow void, church bells echo from the coastal rocks. Further still, the vessels of the ferry lines add to the cacophony while the filamentous algae, thriving from the nutrients released by the nations around the bathtub that is the Baltic, overwhelms the bladder wrack, the nursery of so much that is alive here. We enter a loop: Thirty years it takes for the water to renew in the Baltic. The loop spins and turns until we listen to the salmon in the farms, enclosed and pumped up with antibiotics, hormones, swimming in their own feces. Their tension is transported through the music. Maybe in the distance some kids jump into the water, giggling, summer at the sea.

It is a dense and stressed soundscape. Toward the end of act 4, life is but a faint murmur. The ferry’s roar takes over. Only the monotonous, stringy algae remain, having overgrown seafloor, rocks, and pebbles. Not even the laughter of children can be heard.

Tony Cederberg, from the marine biology station Husö: “An aquarium can be cleaned, the ocean not. The world above looks healthy, but beneath it is not. Sometimes, when things get out of harmony, whatever kept the balance breaks and can never be restored again.”

Herring—one goes
Herrin_—one went
Herri_ _—five left, who is to say
Herr_ _ _—four letters, a temporary balance
Her_ _ _ _—one more deleted
He_ _ _ _ _—only two left
H_ _ _ _ _ _—the last one

One bone of herring
to be broken
to never replenish
this food now
is safe.

Food that turns
into ever more food
is wicked and evil
and must be

The witch is burned. Her salty tears stream into the salty sea. A bell rings when the funeral pyre is set ablaze. A wind lifts up the ashes and carries them out toward the open waters. One piece of ash, one tear of a woman burned alive, the sea stays calm, remembers.

Note: In Norse myth, the beast Soehrímnir is consumed nightly by the gods and rejuvenated every day. Witches might do this as well, replenishing food, usually herring. However, in fear that one would waste away if fed the same morsel again and again, folk tales describe the breaking of the herring bones when eating, as a form of precaution.

Stickleback, oh little fish
eating perch and pike as dish!
Stickleback, how your numbers climb
exploding more than fifty times!
Once cod, herring, perch, and pike
feasted on your fats they liked.
But as the humans fish them all
their numbers dwindle, quantities fall.
With no predators in sight
you now rule by day and night.
Each one of you eats snails, crustaceans,
which has considerable implications.
None left to nibble growing algae blooms,
ichthyologists agree, yes, this is the doom
for a variety of life we know
what a fatal tragedy, such a blow.

Note: The diminutive stickleback has never played the lead role in the ecological cycles of the Baltic Sea. This has recently changed, as scientists observe the recent explosion of stickleback numbers. Sticklebacks eat juvenile pike and perch, as well as snails and crustaceans, and they are in turn eaten by adult perch and pike, as well as cod and herring. Overfishing has led to dwindling numbers of stickleback predators, and while the stickleback still eats juvenile pike and perch, not enough of them make it into adulthood to keep stickleback numbers in balance. With more sticklebacks swimming in the Baltic, more snails and crustaceans are devoured who could keep the growth of filamentous algae in check. The bladder wrack and eelgrass patches, important habitat for freshly hatched fish, become overgrown with filamentous algae and even fewer herring can hatch.

This farmed salmon
turned filet-function fish
fed on dried pellets of other sea dwellers.

In the wild a fast-paced hunter,
here an aimless rounder, round-abouter
tight-knotted, twisted plastic fishnet barrier
two years unchanged, reduced,
then slaughter.

Amongst a multitude of kin, their plight is kept within.
Hello, brother, how many sea lice grow upon you, since we met?
Hello, sister, why’s your ear bone wonky, your spine so kinked?
Hello, cousin, is that seaweed growing in your wounds?

Beneath the farm, the sediment turns heavy, dead
spills over with each wave
in this antibiotic antechamber of the water column
these fish have ceased to stir, have stopped to dream.

Nine nations surround the Baltic Sea,
home to 85 million citizens.
Rivers, trees, birds or animals do not count
as people.

A good nation produces good food for its populace
at all cost.

Land into farmland to secure nourishment for its citizens.
To produce a bountiful crop is the highest goal of a nation.
Fertilizers and pesticides are to be used judiciously.

Runoff may be mixed into bigger bodies of water.

Eutrophication is a problem to be managed.
Algae bloom, fish kills, dead zones:
we are currently aware of these issues.

The water is perfectly safe to swim in.

Satellite photo of the Baltic Sea surrounding Gotland, Sweden, with algae bloom (phytoplankton) swirling in the water.[1]


Time Span: Now and future
Season: None

Notes: The cacophony from before slowly ebbs away. In act 5, the sturgeon appears again. A single female voice sings a folk song in a traditional tune about the dream of the sturgeon, that once started in a quiet sea. The voice sings of care and tenderness, of maintenance and stewardship. On loving what is, a sea filled with life. And how with life come possibilities. It urges: Without life around, the possibilities remain dreams.

In this scene we enter the dreamscape. It is a world below or within our world where we can connect to the creatures and hear them—something that is not possible in our world, as our means of perception differ so much. So when we enter the dream of the sturgeon, we are enabled to listen to them.

Under the last sturgeon moon
sturgeon dreams of river course
of languid waters and pulsing waves
a waterfall on rugged mountain.
Strength of body and intent
aligned for one last leap
a slight finned twist midair
as time stands still.
Sea below, shallows above—
sturgeon scales the cliff, where
jade pools mirror
what is and will be, while
just above the surface,
reflections of the wind.

Notes: In Chinese mythology, the Dragon Gate is located at the top of a waterfall. If a carp can climb the cascades and make the final leap upward, it may transform into a powerful dragon. In this libretto, we suggest that sturgeon may also transform if they reach the gate of heaven.

Sturgeons everywhere are at the edge of extinction. Throughout their two-hundred-million-year legacy, they have always mingled with one another, adapted. One lone lineage may contain the genes needed for the survival of all.

As the sturgeon falls into singularity
our busy hands tie fateful knots
make and unmake the tapestry of life
build livelihoods, discharge poisons, trawl the seas for fish.

What color to attribute to water
that lost its plankton lustre
and turned a brackish green
or should one think in other tongues
where green and blue are
but the same, an atmosphere of giving,

With life comes possibilities,
of change, of care and tenderness,
of maintenance and stewardship,
of ignorance, neglect,

While we trade one with the other, trade back again
and lose,
the sturgeon fades away
a turbid sea.

When the vessel of the dream has disappeared, who is the dreamer?
When the vessel of the dream has disappeared, who is the dreamer?
When the vessel of the dream has disappeared, who is the dreamer?

Visit “A Sturgeon’s Dream: A Libretto, Part One” for the the fist part of this two part series.

“A Sturgeon’s Dream: A Libretto” was created as part of the Åland Universe project by production ensemble Frau von da.

Photo Credits
Featured Image: Light trail of the ferry M/S Mecklenburg-Vorpommern on its way from Rostock, Germany, to Trelleborg, Sweden. Credit:© Radomianin, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.[1] Satellite photo of the Baltic Sea surrounding Gotland, Sweden, with algae bloom (phytoplankton) swirling in the water. Credit: European Space Agency, with modified Copernicus Sentinel data from 2019, CC BY-SA IGO 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

  • Michaela Vieser

    Michaela Vieser is a Berlin-based award-winning author of ten books, including the national bestseller Tea with Buddha. Her narrative work has appeared on Deutschlandfunk Kultur, BBC, FAZ, Geo, NZZ, Financial Times, Süddeutsche Zeitung, among others. Her features and documentaries have been nominated for the Bavarian film prize and the Grimme Preis.
  • Isaac Yuen

    Isaac Yuen's short fiction and creative nonfiction can be found at AGNI, Gulf Coast, Orion, Shenandoah, The Willowherb Review, The Pushcart Prize Anthology, Tin House, and other publications. A first-generation Hong Kong Canadian based in Berlin, his debut nature essay collection titled Utter, Earth: Advice on Living in a More-than-Human World, was published in April 2024.
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