April 09, 2008
Come Back, Salmon!
When I moved to California in 1993 I quickly fell in love with one of the rites of summer: grilling fresh salmon. Ted took this ritual to another level, hosting salmon BBQs at his house complete with fancy sauces, cold rose wine, and friends.
Back then, salmon was cheap -- thirty or forty bucks would get you a whole one, enough for 30 or 40 people. Over the years, the salmon stock declined and the price increased, enough so that the size of the parties and the servings got smaller and smaller.
This year, salmon fishing has been banned from the California and Oregon coasts. There are no salmon BBQs. There are many reasons, some historic and some proximate. More than 150 years of logging has stripped rivers of their shade cover, heating up the water and clogging it with silt, boiling and suffocating salmon eggs. Mining has had a similar effect. And the need for water for agriculture has lowered rivers to levels that the salmon can't swim back up stream.
I'm not sure what's more depressing, the loss of salmon or the lack of public outcry about it. I would have expected Alice Waters and Michael Pollan to be leading marches on Sacramento and Washington by now. Bring back our salmon! Yes, it sounds foodie-elitist, but the truth is that salmon fishing used to provide thousands of jobs that are now gone. Put the fishermen and women at the front of the march. What a great pro-consumption and pro-jobs campaign that would be.
I've been bummed out about this all summer, but couldn't figure out what to say or do about it. Then, this morning, somebody emailed me asking what my take is on environmental education. If we are post-environmental, what does a post-environmental education look like? I had given a talk on the subject back in 2005 to the New England Environmental Education Alliance and when I re-read it just now I was reminded that the centerpiece of my talk was one of my favorite children's book, Bring Back the Salmon, which I used to read to my son and which invariably choked me up every time I did.
It's an inspiring story about how a bunch of kids in Washington state restored a local creek and brought back the salmon. For me it was a launching point into a meditation about environmental education. But now I hope it can serve as an inspiration for a future effort to bring back the salmon. I encourage readers who know about existing efforts to bring back the salmon to our rivers (and dinner plates) to comment here.
Here's the first of three posts on "The Dream of a Post-Environmental Education."
"The Dream of a Post-Environmental Education"
When my son Joaquin was four years old we visited a coastal Indian community in British Columbia. In the arts and gift shop I chanced upon a book published by the Sierra Club called Come Back Salmon: How a Group of Dedicated Kids Adopted Pigeon Creek and Brought it Back to Life. When I read it for the first time to Joaquin I was so moved that, by the end, I had tears in my eyes.
I picked it up again on Thursday morning to read on my flight from Oakland to Boston.
The book starts with a fifth grade teacher, Mr. King, at Jackson Elementary School in Everett, Washington taking his students to visit Pigeon Creek 20 years ago. "Scattered through it were bottles and cans, squashed Styrofoam cups, torn six-pack holders, old tires and a lot of other junk."
"What is this, anyway?" one student asked.
"It looks like a garbage dump to me," said another.
"No," said Mr. King. "It's a stream. It was a clear, clean stream when I was a boy."
"The members of the class stared at their teacher. They couldn't imagine him ever being a little boy, any more than they could imagine this muddy, trash-filled gully ever being a stream."
And thus the plot is set firmly around the power of imagination -- the human faculty that the Romantics believed was far more important than reason itself. The dream of Mr. King and his students is to adopt the creek and bring the salmon back. They start by cleaning it up.
Some of the people living nearby weren't exactly encouraging of Jackson School's Pigeon Creek project. "You're wasting your time," said one. "Bringing salmon back is nothing but a dream," said another.
Mr. King told his class, "To accomplish anything, you have to have a dream. Everything
worthwhile starts with a dream." They hauled out over 600 tires and cajoled the local parks department into helping them remove old refrigerators. But the next weekend Everett residents dumped more junk in the creek as they always had. The students realized that just clearing away the trash wouldn't be enough; they'd have to change people's behavior too. They used stencils to spray paint "no dumping" on storm drains; they posted signs; and they guarded the creek with their own bodies until would be dumpers got the hint.
Then the Port of Everett announced it would build a log storage facility on the Creek. "That'll block our stream!" said one. "What do they care? They don't even know about our Pigeon Creek project."
"We've got to tell them."
"Why would they listen to us? We're just kids."
"Even kids can make a difference."
"Mr. King says, 'You can make a difference?' That's what he always says."
So the fifth graders started to write letters - "a lot of letters." To the city council, the state
legislature, congressmen, the local media. The media coverage did the trick. The port said it would build the storage facility somewhere else. And the mayor and city council got a photo opportunity with the kids.
Something else happened. People living nearby began to help. A woman called the school after seeing that the creek was running muddy, which poses a danger to salmon eggs. A man who walked his dog by the creek picked up trash as he walked. And joggers chased after dumpers.The middle section of the book is dedicated to a wonderful explanation of salmon biology and reproduction. The kids create a large aquarium at school to breed coho salmon and watch as they grow from eggs to alevins to fry, baby fish. In May, 1985, they say goodbye to their salmon fry as they release them into the newly clear and clean creek.
"Do you think any will come back?" One child asks. Mr. King remained confident, even though many parents were not.
"My mother says it's more than likely than none will come back," said one child.
"My dad says it will be a miracle if any come back," said another
There were no signs of salmon by the fall of 1985. Nor by the fall of 1986. By then, hatching salmon in the school aquarium had become a staple activity for Jackson school fifth graders. But by the fall of 1987, Ryan Nolan, who had been in the third grade when the first fry were released, "burst into" class and shouted, "Mr. King, Mr. King, I saw a fish in Pigeon Creek!"
The classroom of children and Mr. King leapt for their coats and headed to the Creek. "There, resting on the gravely bottom, was an adult male Coho salmon... Its jaw, with its strongly hooked teeth, was almost fierce looking. Nearby, flipping their tails gently in the clear, flowing water of the stream, were two more returned salmon... 'They came back! They came back!' Students were shouting all over the school.
"The news flew through the city of Everett and beyond. The first of the Coho salmon raised from eyed eggs in a Jackson Elementary School room and released two years earlier had returned! In the next few days, ten more salmon made their way back. As they spawned, the rain fell on the clean waters of Pigeon Creek and on the awed faces of those who came to see. No fish had returned to Pigeon Creek to spawn for more than twenty years."
The story made national and international news, inspiring similar efforts as far away as Japan, which sent a class of children to learn from the Jackson School's successful experiment.