New book explores how we shape Puget Sound — and how it shapes us

In ‘Homewaters,’ author David Williams looks at how humans have shaped the natural environment of Puget Sound, often at the environment’s expense.

A ferry crosses Puget Sound on Thursday, Oct. 15, 2020, as seen from West Seattle, Wash. (Jovelle Tamayo for Crosscut)

When naturalist and author David Williams decided in 2016 to write a book expanding his usual research beat from the natural and human histories of Seattle proper to all of Puget Sound, he realized how much he had taken for granted the impact that local water bodies have on our lifestyles, and how we influence them in turn. 

“I have long been focused on land-based issues,” Williams says of why he pursued his new book, Homewaters: A Human and Natural History of Puget Sound, now available for preorder. “I needed to take heed of all the people who have lived here, how they have related to the landscape over the millennia, and how their stories could provide a better understanding of the conditions now shaping the lives of modern residents,” Williams writes in the book. 

The Seattle-based author has written multiple books over the past few decades dedicated to Seattle’s hills, stones and the relationship animals and people that live on and among them have with them. Homewaters is a sweeping exploration of how a place shapes lives. It begins with glaciers and volcanoes carving up Puget Sound, and examines early Native communities’ relationships with their environment, colonial exploitation of natural resources and efforts to better understand how keystone and emblematic species like salmon, orca, rockfish, herring, kelp and more are enduring the conditions of the Sound today.

Since Williams began writing four years ago, climate change has given his work new importance and the novel coronavirus has narrowed most people’s lives to a few blocks around their homes, leading more of us to realize the value of nature right outside our doorstep. 

Crosscut spoke with Williams to get a better sense of the importance of human connections to our environment and how we relate to that environment may affect our capacity to turn things around. 

This article has been lightly edited for clarity. 

How have people’s relationships (especially non-Native people’s relationships) with the Sound changed since you started your research a few years ago? 

It’s a shift from viewing the Sound as a resource to be exploited to a resource to be appreciated and to become better stewards of. And I think that's reflected in the [status] of the place, in the sense that I think the Sound is arguably in better shape than it's been in decades. Not to say that it's in great shape — but I think for the last couple decades, we've been headed in this direction of improving and being better stewards. And I think we're at this point now, where I think we need to pull back and think about the bigger picture of the Sound: Do we want to move forward, or let it fall back to the way it was? And I wanted to take that broad approach and not just focus on the two species that everyone does [in the book]. There's three standard storylines: You always hear about Puget Sound, salmon, orca and how George Vancouver discovered it in 1792. I wanted to break out of those themes.

Conservation has been a driving cultural force since at least the 1960s, but the pandemic and climate change have made more people concerned about their immediate environment. What are some of the ways that relationship has degraded? 

I think one of them is the relationship we have with these natural resources. One of the things that I found really interesting in what people have done in archaeological research is to look at Indigenous people's relationship with salmon over time. They never overexploited it, they had a relationship that was based on respect, reciprocity and stewardship of the resource. And I think we all too often view our resources as something just to be taken advantage of when we don't have a relationship with them. 

I think, also, that we don't have connections to place: We're just not out there as much. And so developing that relationship, having a stronger connection, getting out on the Sound, understanding the stories, to me, are things that we have lost over time. We don't realize how amazingly abundant life was in this area — we're just working to get back to levels [of environmental health] that are always a pittance compared to what they were. And so I think if we can acknowledge these — the amazing bounty of this place and work toward it, recognizing we’re never going to get back to it — we can have that as inspiration for restoration, for stewardship, to try and head in that direction.

Why is it so important to understand how our landscape and waterways were formed?

Geology helps us understand some of the challenges of this place. The Sound was carved by ice and water to create a certain topography. When you compare Puget Sound with Chesapeake Bay, the average depth, I mean, it's like dozens of feet there and the average depth here is 200 feet, which has created a place that has a much greater diversity of organisms; the deepest spot in the Sound is 900 feet deep. 

It also means [we can understand how] problems [arise]. For instance, things settle into the Sound because of its great depth. Pollutants are eaten by smaller organisms that normally would sink down and disappear into the bottom. And then you have the [ocean current] circulation issues. Geology is essential because it really does have a daily effect on evolution in the Sound. It has an effect on how pollutants move through the Sound. It has an impact on how species moved through the Sound. And then we've got the whole surrounding landscape of the mountains and their impact on this body of water.

There are a lot of discussions these days about the need to rename some of the most important topological features in our region, like Mount Rainier. How do the ways that we name things and our purposes for doing so reflect our relationship with landscapes? 

Hundreds if not thousands of names have been applied to the landscape in Lushootseed, the language of the Coast-Salish Indigenous people in this region. And many of those place names — from what I've been able to read, and I claim no expert knowledge — often deal with relationships to place: places where I can get water, places of a narrow current, places where beavers are. They’re reflective of a relationship that's based on knowledge and I think also respect for the landscape. 

We started to see immediately, with the first Europeans to come in here, their relationship was based on ownership claims. I mean, it’s in the first name that we have, "Puget's Sound" — this apostrophe S, or possession sound, because it was the day that the British claimed possession for it — despite the fact that there were, you know, people who'd lived here for 10,000-plus years, since time immemorial. So I think it helps us understand the ways that people view the landscape, and moving from a relationship based on reciprocity to a relationship based on ownership or money.

You’ve noted that bluffs and the way we’ve protected our homes around them from coastal erosion epitomize non-Native Puget Sound residents’ relationship with their environment. How is that so? 

It has to do with the armoring of shorelines: We can't leave nature alone. We're always looking to change nature to make it better for ourselves [in a shortsighted way]. We've now learned that armoring is not good; it just creates more problems. Bluff erosion is critical. We think, “Oh,bluffs erode, that's bad. Erosion is bad.” No, because the source of the sediment in the Sound are the bluffs, and that sediment and the building up of beaches is essential for salmon, for sand lance, for the small fish like surf smelt that live there and are critical forage fish. Which, if you don't have forage fish, you don't have salmon. If you don't have salmon, you don't have all the relationships that revolve around it. 

I was just talking to someone about armoring the other day and this sort of irony that people want to live on the water now, and they want to have this great recreational ability and to be able to entertain their friends — and the people who do that are often the people with a fair amount of money, because you need that to live on the shoreline. And they're also the people who are often very good-hearted, very green, very environmental and, yet, they still armor and, like, what's the disconnect there? We all have hypocrisy in our lives. We can't get around it.

What are some of the biggest lessons history has taught us about what not to do when we're thinking about changing our communities to be better serving towards us?

Maybe this is not a historical lesson, but it’s a lesson we're learning more and more. We as individuals are part of the story. We have this tendency to look at resource exploitation from an industrial point of view. But we also each have an impact. We all drive cars … with copper that's coming off our brakes and ... dust that's coming off tires. We're all part of it. And that’s not to say that we're all going to change overnight. But just to think about our own actions, I think, is a really important thing.

I really wanted to write a book that offered hope. I mean, you could easily do a book that’s just about how everything sucks in the Sound, how we've destroyed everything. But I also think that we have the potential to make change that's positive.

People are doing a lot of restoration, particularly in the world of shellfish. We see it with groups like Puget Sound Restoration Fund, restoring Olympia oysters; we're seeing people doing better science on kelp, and understanding its importance, realizing the connections between kelp and salmon, kelp and rock fish. I love the example of the Elwha, with salmon all of a sudden heading back up the Elwha, and the herring are doing better there. 

I think there's a resiliency in these animals. And that resiliency is due in part to their relationship to place that they have developed over time. They’ve adapted to this place — there are salmon that are specific to Puget Sound in the life history, there are herring specific to Puget Sound. Several biologists have said to me, if we give them the chance, they can respond. We just need to give them the chance.

One of the amazing things over the last 20 or 30 years in the Sound is that tribal biologists are getting out and applying lessons that are based on a connection and a relationship to place. So we're seeing it with the [Swinomish] tribe’s proposal to build clam gardens, which is one of, if not the oldest, evidence we have for aquaculture in this area. [It] goes back several thousand years, and people are going, “‘Wow, that worked. OK, what can we learn from that?” How can we benefit from what people did and tried over time and honed to a way that is all about being good stewards?’ 

You’ve noted that many people these days, yourself included, lack awareness of natural rhythms, like tidal changes — a lack that isn’t necessarily good or bad, but one you’ve pushed yourself to address. Has your relationship with the Sound changed as you’ve become more aware of some of its less conspicuous mechanics? 

It's miraculous that the world changes so much every single day. I realized that the beach is this incredible, amazingly dynamic ecosystem where I can, in a 12-hour span, see a totally different world and that to me is just magical. And it just gives me a deeper feeling…. Maybe it's a love of this place. I mean, that's really what I got out of it. I’m more fascinated by it. 

Natural history frames my world. I want to protect it because I know that there are these great stories out there, these great animals and plants. To go and see something like a bunch of gulls swarming, [before you’re like] “Oh, they're just gulls swarming,” but then realize, “‘Wow, no, directly underneath them there could be thousands of herring.” I mean, how cool is that? And I just think, wow, I want to be able to see that. I want others to be able to see that and make that connection that things are not isolated. 

After decades of looking into people's relationships with place, what do you think are things that stand between people and the nature around them?

What we're doing right now, [speaking over Zoom]. And I'm not being facetious. I mean, I just think the electronic world has made it so much easier to not be outside. And even when [people are] outside, they're on their phone. It always sort of surprises me, seeing people running with headphones. I can't imagine doing that, because I love to be able to hear what's out there.

I just got back from my run, and I looked just over our house and there was a crow sort of flying around. And it was doing that classic crow swoop. And as I looked more closely, it was like, “Oh, of course, there's the red tailed hawk there.” Which is why the crow’s bobbing. So it's taking that time to slow down and be more observant and not be in a rush. So much of what walking around is, is just being open to possibility. And being willing to ask questions and being willing to go places you don't go. 

And I get it. I mean, there's a lot of barriers in terms of fear. I can speak as the most privileged person in the world because I'm a white guy, and I can do things that other people can't: That's a barrier for many. And I’ve seen [white male] biologists out there, or I read natural history writing from Barry Lopez, Robert Michael Pyle, John Muir — white guys out there doing stuff. And so I had inspiration from that. And people who aren't white don't always have that inspiration. It's great that we're starting to see more [coverage of] people of color and women who are showing the way and making it easier for people. 

You talk a lot about how ecosystems have changed over time, especially because of climate change. Based on your research, have we reached a point where the ways we've affected our ecosystems are so irreversible that we simply have to adapt? 

That's a big question. I think yes and no. There is so much concern about the warming of the oceans and of the Sound — those are issues that we have to figure out how to deal with. But I also think we need to acknowledge the Sound’s resiliency. 

But we do have to change. We're never going to go back to what it was pre-1850 or 1830 as a sort of a marker year. I think we have done enough change to the ecosystem that we have to change, too. We're going to have to adapt to a new world around us. It means giving up stuff, it means slowing down, it means being aware of [how we dispose of] objects.

How does the way that you see people reacting to the geographical limitations of the pandemic make you think about the capacity we have to improve our relationship with the landscape?

I've talked to a variety of people who are just realizing what's out there around them that they've taken for granted and that they hadn't noticed. I think [the pandemic] is forcing people to be aware of what's around them, to be more aware. 

I've always thought Puget Sound is beautiful as long as I've lived here. But I’ve realized it's just incredibly beautiful. This is an amazing place. Under the surface [of the Sound] is this incredible array of life. Why do I have to go to, you know, Tahiti, when I could find some really cool story just crossing over to the peninsula?

Pre-order Homewater through University of Washington Press or local bookstores.

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