The Most Noble Estuary: David Williams on the Making of “Homewaters”

Homewaters began with a simple idea: Write a book about the human and natural history of Puget Sound. I didn’t know exactly what this would encompass but knew that I wanted to focus on the landscape where I have lived for most of my life. I had a few vague ideas: the three forts (Casey, Flagler, and Worden) at the Sound’s northern entrance; something about Albert Bierstadt’s ferocious painting of Puget Sound at the Seattle Art Museum; the ferry system and the mosquito fleet; and, of course, geoducks.

I knew that more stories were out there, so I began to reach out to friends and colleagues. Over the next six months I interviewed scientists, tribal members, and historians. My standard opening was that I was working on a book about the cultural and ecological history in Puget Sound, and I wanted to know what stories they thought were important.

What stood out for me in these interviews was the passion everyone expressed for this lovely body of water: It is a “beautifully complex ecosystem.” The Sound is a “unique waterbody whose beauty is hardly rivaled.” It is a “microcosm of ecological issues everywhere.” The abundance of the Sound made “us some of the most complex and wealthy people; we didn’t need to migrate.” I also learned that six-gill sharks will eat anything on the bottom, that as herring go so goes Puget Sound, that salmon are narcissistic, and that no one has a handle on kelp slime.

Based on these interviews and my interests, I put together a proposal to address people, plants, and animals and how history could help modern residents understand the present and think about how to pursue a future Puget Sound that is healthier for its human and more-than-human inhabitants. My interviews also impressed upon me the idea that I should focus on overlooked species, such as herring and kelp, which are critical to the ecosystem.

The press accepted my proposal, though they were less than enthusiastic about my title “The Most Noble Estuary.” Two and a half years later, in June 2019, I turned in my manuscript. It totaled 76,184 words with 14,054 words in endnotes. And it had a new title, “Breaking the Surface,” which once again was met with a less than enthusiastic response. Not until another round of editing did we come up with Homewaters.

The main highlight of working on Homewaters was the field time I spent with researchers, which resulted in me filling seven five-by-eight-inch notebooks, by far the most for any book I have written. During my writing journey, I was treated to five types of fresh oysters, some harvested just hours earlier, and given a geoduck pulled up from water sixty feet deep in Agate Passage. (The other geoducks harvested that day traveled more extensively, being overnighted to China.) I crisscrossed Admiralty Inlet, luckily on a calm-water day, in a fourteen-foot Zodiac searching for herring; tagged along as researchers pulled up invertebrates from the Sound’s deepest location (930 feet off of Point Jefferson); and rode all of the Sound’s ferry routes, including several I hadn’t known existed. I also dropped a notebook in the water, was brutally pinched by a mean old Dungeness crab, was confronted by machine-gun-toting nuclear-submarine-protecting Coast Guardsmen, and got stuck on a sandbar with three biologists for several hours when we failed to notice how rapidly the tide was ebbing. I enjoyed every moment.

The other exciting aspect of the book was my dive into history. The Sound has a relatively short written story; not until 1792 did Europeans reach the waterway. But the x̌ʷəlč, as it is known in Lushootseed (pronounced as whulge in English), has a very deep record of human habitation, which stretches back at least 12,500 years, only a couple thousand years after a great ice sheet had rewritten the landscape and then retreated to the north. One of my goals was to weave together these story lines and to explore how the different people who called this place home have responded to the landscape and the more-than-human inhabitants, as well as to each other. 

Of all the books I have written, I am most proud of Homewaters, in part because of its themes of connection and caring. My primary goal is always to write in ways that allow people to develop better connections and relationships to the place they call home. In Homewaters I added a call to act by writing in a manner that I hope encourages people to think more carefully about their actions and their impacts on the health of Puget Sound. I wouldn’t call the book an activist manifesto, but it sends a message that it is up to the residents of the Sound to continue working to improve the waterway for everyone. And based on the people I met and the stories I learned, I truly believe that we are ready to work toward this goal.

David B. Williams is a naturalist, author, and educator. His many books include the award-winning Too High and Too Steep: Reshaping Seattle’s Topography and Seattle Walks: Discovering History and Nature in the City. Homewaters: A Human and Natural History of Puget Sound is available now.