Even writing that headline, I feel the lilt and wash of the ocean in the language of the Salish, who consider the orca, qal̕qaləx̌ič in Lushootseed, their kin.
We show our own smallness, place a frame around an individual creature, when we name an orca in human terms. But somewhere along the line, people felt that this particular orca needed a name we could relate to. Tahlequah supposedly means “mother of waters.” J 35 suggests a science experiment, not just a study of existing conditions, and we have been conditioned to expect experiments to fail.
Of all the noise we were subjected to in 2018, the most important message we received was from Tahlequah. She brought her baby to full term only to have it die within a few minutes of birth. Those of us who have experienced pregnancy know that your body prepares you during the whole gestation for the miracle of being twinned somehow, divided so that you will have two bodies to care for until the little one is fully grown. I can imagine the surging hormones experienced by this mother orca as her calf was born and failed to thrive. What could she have done? Nothing. But she understands that the conditions humans have created in the Sound make it impossible for the near-shore orcas who depend on Chinook salmon for their food to survive. She carried that dead baby with her for seventeen days, until it fell apart, so that we would see her and it, and get the message.
While it is in many ways a series of humorous books, Douglas Adams got it right when he named one of his books “So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish” as the farewell message from the dolphins while departing from a future earth, no longer considered tenable by its oceanic inhabitants. As the dolphins desperately try to tell us that we are doomed, that we need to leave, we ooh and ah and applaud their apparent hijinks. We are incapable of understanding that we are not the only creatures on earth with an understanding of time, life, and mortality.
While there is ample evidence around us of global warming and impending disaster, we are aggravating this scenario with our willful inaction. A couple of months ago the governor of the state of Washington, Jay Inslee, rolled out some points to enhance his standing as a protector of the environment. This included some language about saving the orcas, but not an obvious one: take down the dams that are keeping Chinook salmon from reproducing. The Snake River was once their breeding ground, but fewer and fewer salmon make it past all the obstacles we have placed in their way. The Chinook are not reproducing, and the whales are starving to death. It doesn’t take summersaults, it doesn’t take naming orcas, to figure that out.
In spite of our reluctance to face the obvious, nature has been very forgiving. The dams on the Elwha River were removed a couple of years ago, and the natural life of the river is surging back at a miraculous pace. Its native salmon have been waiting almost a hundred years to return to their spawning beds. Just imagine! They had to return from the open ocean to the mouth of the river each year, only to be turned back by dams. Again. And again and again. But now they made it.
Can we save the Chinook? In my opinion, there is only one way to find out. Take down the dams. Ease up on the hatchery fish, which probably just compete with the wild salmon for scarce resources.
Almost unremarked, another orca died on January 28, 2019, after a short illness. Kayla was thirty years old, what should have been the half-way point in her life, when she suddenly sickened and died. She lived at Sea World in Orlando, Florida, which has been the site of many questionable practices concerning orcas.
“We shared our salmon,” wrote Jack Flander of the Yakima Nation in The Seattle Times (1/29/19), speaking for the orcas, “but you took more than your share,” leaving us little to survive on. “Our waters became polluted. Our infant mortality rate increased … Imagine what a brotherhood and sisterhood we could have shared. Now imagine that I am an Indian.”
With the paperback issue of my book, The Deepest Roots, I wish I had a more cheerful introduction to offer. But the same warning bells are going off as when I started this book. What’s more, the current administration has made the work that we do to conserve the environment even more difficult, and even more important.
Every person I interviewed for The Deepest Roots has a different story to tell, a different relationship with the land and the sea. Some of them are gone now, having passed their legacies on to younger farmers and fisher people. They are remembered with fondness, their penchant for barbeque, or having created fertile soil through sheer willpower.
Others have begun to engage with the land and the people in a more entrepreneurial fashion, looking to the eastern horizon and the inevitable population growth that will take place on the island. We wonder if our children will return, and what it will be like for them in ten, twenty, one hundred years from now. Will the salmon continue to wait for us?
This book has raised as many questions as answers, but people continue to approach me thoughtfully, usually with their own stories to share. I hope The Deepest Roots encourages you to see the place where you live with new eyes, and to see yourself as an active partner in its salvation and recovery. As storyteller Vi Hilbert would say, “Haboo!”
Kathleen Alcalá is the author of a collection of essays, The Desert Remembers My Name: On Family and Writing; three novels, including Treasures in Heaven; and a collection of short stories. She lives on Bainbridge Island, Washington.
To learn more about The Deepest Roots, buy your copy of the book today!