J.B. MacKinnon | Orion | July 2013 | 12 minutes (2,875 words)

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The downside of harvesting wapato tubers is in the timing: late fall, when ice has glazed the water’s edge. I was in a small fishing boat on the Pitt River with the chief of the Katzie Indian Band, Mike Leon, and his wife, Roma. It was the big-easy stretch of the Pitt, where the mountain river softens into a hundred-mile-long valley that is home to nearly 3 million people, myself included. The landscape here is broad, rain-drenched, urgently green, with snowcapped summits filling all but the seaward horizon.

Mike cut the engine and drifted close to the shore of a slow-moving eddy. Then Roma slipped off her shoes and, in clothes she could have worn to the corner store, slipped overboard into frigid water that came up nearly to her armpits.

I followed her. And when I stopped hyperventilating from the cold shock, I turned to Mike, who sat dry in the boat. “You coming in?” I asked.

Mike laughed. The harvest was traditionally carried out by women. Who was he to mess with tradition?

There was a time when wapato (WAH-pah-toe, known to science as Sagittaria latifolia) practically defined the great riverine lowlands of the Pacific Northwest. The aquatic plant’s white flowers spangled the shallows; a study of the waters around Sauvie Island near Portland, Oregon, stated that the nineteenth-century tuber harvest from just that stretch of the Columbia River could have filled the larders of thirty-one thousand people. The Pitt is not so grand a waterway as the Columbia, but its oxbows and sloughs were once dense with wapato celebrated as “white and like fresh butter.” Today, Roma knows of perhaps a half-dozen small patches. After a tooth-chattering half-hour of stomping tubers loose from the riverbottom muck with our stocking feet (the better to feel our way), we’d harvested no more than two small handfuls.

The plant faded because people ceased to eat it. Though Lewis and Clark wrote that they were able to “live sumptuously on our wappetoe and Sturgeon” along the Columbia in 1806, the tubers did not hold as a foodstuff for later settlers arriving with their bags of seed potatoes, ready to recreate the familiar diets of the places they had come from. Until the last few years’ experimental harvests, it had been decades since even the Katzie had gathered wapato. Meanwhile, the wapato missed us: the plant actually benefits from harvest, which breaks up the root system and sends fragments floating downstream to establish new patches. Mike, Roma, and I watched it happen.


The environmental thinker Ray Rogers coined the term “double disappearance” to describe the phenomenon in which a species vanishes from the landscape and so, too, does our relationship to that species. The case of the wapato is just such an example, but the tally of losses doesn’t really end at two. Perhaps the finest wapato ground in the Pacific Northwest was Sumas Lake, just up the wide valley from the confluence of the Pitt River. With the spring freshet, the lake used to spread across fifty square miles of the westernmost border country between the United States and Canada. Then, in the first years of the 1920s, it was diked and drained to make way for settlers’ farms.

The draining of Sumas Lake was an unthinkable act to the indigenous Stó:lō (STAW-le) people of the area. They had harvested huge amounts of wapato from the lake’s ample shallows, the tubers also fattening canvasback ducks to a richness equal to the ones, praised by Mark Twain, that ate American wild celery in Chesapeake Bay. The canvasbacks joined rafts of other waterfowl, thousands of birds in every season, among them swans of such size that a single one was all a lone hunter could carry. Beneath their dabbling feet throbbed spawning salmon, and also eulachon, a smelt so rich in oil that a dried fish could be stood on end and lit like a candle. Then there was the run of round whitefish, thick enough in the feeder streams to be caught with a basket or even a bowl. The dead from all these spawning rounds fed sturgeon that could weigh as much as horses.

The Stó:lō called the first white settlers Xweilitum, “the starving,” because, unfamiliar with the land and its rhythms, they needed to ask for food despite the extraordinary natural abundance. When Sumas Lake was drained, it was not only the replacement of a rich ecosystem with a simplified landscape of farms and fields. It was also the trade-off of one way of eating for another, best explained, perhaps, by a former diking commissioner who said the lake had to be emptied “so that we could live, and not live like Indians.”

By that measure, we have certainly succeeded. With the abandonment of the wild as a place that fills our stomachs, not only local landscapes like Sumas Lake but whole regions of the continent were utterly transformed. The most dramatic example is surely the Great Plains, where tens of millions of plains bison have been replaced by 45 million cattle—a straight swap of buffalo steaks for beef burgers. Yet so much more had to change as well. Ninety percent of the tallgrass and shortgrass prairies, fueled by sunshine and watered by rainfall, was ultimately replaced by hard-grazed cattle range and farm-raised crops—often for livestock feed—that require fifty gallons of oil per acre and the irrigation of more than 20 million acres of land. With the vanishing of the bison began the slow fade of an estimated 100 million wallows that the pawing, rolling animals eroded into the grasslands, creating ephemeral water pools in the wet seasons and dust basins in the dry. As the wallows declined, so did the spadefoot and Great Plains toads that gathered to breed in them; so did the grasslands song of the western chorus frog; so did birds like the McCown’s longspur and mountain plover, the latter so fond of prairie balds that they’re now known to nest, with predictable risk, on farmers’ bare fields.

Without bison calves and carcasses to feed on, the plains grizzly faded not only from the landscape but also from memory. Gone, too, is the strange reciprocal relationship between bison and prairie dogs, with the bison mowing down the grass to make way for prairie dog colonies, which in turn improve the quality of forage for bison. The two animals’ fates were joined: wild bison now roam just 1 percent of their former range; prairie dogs number 2 percent of their former population. The buffalo bird, which once fed on insects spooked into the air by bison herds, simply came up for a name change. Today, it’s the cowbird.

The bison were wiped out for many reasons, among them simple greed, a naïve belief in the infinite abundance of nature, and scorched-earth tactics of war against North America’s indigenous nations. Read that history today, though, and nothing seems so disturbing, so utterly detached from reality, as the amount of wasted food. At the height of the bison hunt, skinned corpses, killed by both pioneer and Native American hunters, littered the continent. In 1881, hunts along the Yellowstone and Missouri rivers alone left behind 45 million pounds of meat and bone. Eighteen eighty-one was a good year to be a vulture.

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As a species disappears, it loses its relevance to human society in lockstep with our adaptation to its absence. Since the completion of America’s first transcontinental railroad in 1869, for example, it has been possible to order Atlantic oysters on the Pacific shore, and only the most dedicated shellfish lover will have tasted, or even heard of, the Olympia oyster—the only oyster actually native to the West Coast north of San Francisco. They’re small, about the size of a fifty-cent piece, but a tablespoon of Olympia oyster is said to have as much flavor as a cup of any other oyster meat. Overharvesting and pulp-mill effluent nearly eradicated the “Olys” by the early 1900s, and with them the vast beach reefs that filtered twelve gallons of water per oyster per day and sheltered the tiny crustaceans known as harpacticoids, one of the first foods eaten by newly hatched fish that also take cover among the shingled shells. The coastal waters are less polluted now, but the Olympia oyster has not recovered its former range or abundance. We are happy with our air-freighted bluepoints. We are happy with the non-native oysters that have colonized the coast.

The Olympia oyster has lost its broad constituency. Once, it had a place in local life as central as the dinner table; today, it’s an abstraction—another species that seems troublesomely meaningless to human ambitions, alongside the snail darter, the Greek red damsel fly, the Yunnan box turtle, the bizarre-nosed chameleon, and so on. Much has been made of so-called invasive or weedy species, which succeed on the coattails of modern society’s dominant trends—globalization, urbanization, habitat fragmentation. These are relatively new and usually damaging relationships between ourselves and other species, but they do, at least, serve to remind us that such relationships can exist. From that recognition, it is only the shortest leap to the awareness that older alliances wait to be rediscovered. The Olympia oyster awaits those who want to eat it. It is hungry for our mouths.

The wild plants and animals that used to feed us are akin to keystone species, which give structure to entire ecological communities. Wild foods were the tethers that tied us to whole habitats. Forget the taste of acorns and it becomes reasonable to fragment the unbroken oak forests that, besides people, fed tens of millions of passenger pigeons. Fish the shad into obscurity and there is less of a case to be made against damming the rivers of the Eastern Seaboard, or using them as dumping grounds for industrial pollution. Stop gathering the edible flower bulbs of the Rocky Mountains, and abandon the clearest argument against grazing those meadows to nubs. To stand in for such distinct foods of place, there will be, wherever you may roam, broiler chickens from Georgia, Texas beef, Idaho’s famous potatoes.

Whether or not a wilder way of eating can still help to sustain a world population of 7 billion people is a contentious question, but it is at least a serious one—in 2011, for example, the United Nations’ special rapporteur on the right to food reported that agroecology, or the pursuit of agriculture along ecological principles, is the best hope for feeding the future. Yet even that minority of people who maintain a forefront concern for the natural world tend to hew away from wild foods. So many ended in tragedy, after all. For every species that was simply excluded from mainstream consumption, like the wapato, or the devil’s claw in the American drylands, or the hickory nut in the Northeast, there are many more that were hunted into extremity in the name of human nourishment—a few as iconic as the bison, but most as obscure as the Eskimo curlew, the diamondback terrapin.

If we need a reminder of the dangers of our appetites, we need only look to the oceans, the last natural arena in which we as a global society still meaningfully “live off the land.” There, our recent history has been catastrophic; we’ve devastated species—the onion-eye, the roundnose grenadier—before most of us have learned their names, and rendered, by even conservative estimates, at least a third of fish populations “overfished” and nearly 20 percent probably beyond recovery. There are those, including some fisheries scientists, who now suggest that we should give up eating seafood, cutting off even this final connection to the wild as a place that bodily feeds us. Instead, we can live off of foods, whether captive catfish, factory-farmed pork, or gentle tofu, raised on land and seascapes wholly of our making that have replaced the more integral ecosystems of the past.

Where I live, though, five species of salmon rush from the sea into rivers to spawn. It’s possible they have never done so outside of the presence of human beings; indigenous stories still remember the fishes’ arrival after the ice age. In 2010, a study published in Ecology & Society examined the approximately 7,500-year-old record left by discarded fish bones in the Pacific Northwest and found “remarkable stability” in the use of salmon. The relationship was far from light-handed or bloodless: “Because salmon was such an important staple, the harvesting pressure was far higher on a per capita basis than today, and a much smaller population could account for catches approaching the magnitude of historic commercial catches,” write the authors of the paper. In the number of fish caught, then, the indigenous nations may actually have matched the excesses of the worst years of industrial fishing; it was only the depth of their association with the salmon, the precise timing and techniques of their fishing, honed into social codes over millennia, that apparently allowed them to do so much less harm. To take examples from the Stó:lō alone, sockeye salmon were the only species other than human beings that—or perhaps we should say “who”—were thought to have a soul, while the Stó:lō language includes 147 identified words associated with salmon fishing.

The relationship of people to fish physically shaped the land, with the discarded parts of the salmon enriching the forest, encouraging those subtle shadings of life we now clinically call biodiversity, and even feeding back to us in the abundance of plants like salmonberries. Today, at the end of this intertwined story, salmon may actually depend on being fished. While it is no longer possible to know for sure, one could argue that it would be as abnormal for a huge, historical-scale salmon run to reach the spawning grounds unfished as it is to hammer those same fish with industrial seiners; fisheries scientists speculate that so many breeding fish on the same river bottom could destroy the egg-laying redds through overcrowding. From this perspective, in the place where I live, eating salmon seems less a choice than a kind of imperative. It enters a moral realm not unlike the one between an owl and the mouse that it hunts.

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Our memory of that enduring relationship between ourselves and the landscape has faltered, but the land itself remembers. Earlier this year, I heard that a remnant of Sumas Lake still exists. In a sense, I already knew this. The Stó:lō still show the lake on modern maps of their traditional territory, as though the lake’s imprint somehow survived its material destruction. I had noted, too, one academic’s description of the lake as “currently nonexistent,” an enigmatic description that finds truth in the fact that, were the pumps that guarantee the lake’s absence to cease, the waters would soon rise again. Sturgeon are still sometimes seen swimming back and forth in front of the pump house.

I wanted to witness whatever fragment of the lake remained. It turned out to be a wetland, now given the name of Lakemount Marsh. Its quiet waters rest at the foot of a mountain that is remembered in Stó:lō mythology for remaining above water during a great flood in deep time; as Sumas Lake was pumped dry nearly a century ago, the astonished Stó:lō used the same word—kw’ekw’e’í:qm—to describe the way fish heads stuck up from the draining shallows. The heavy runoff from that mountain is the reason there is any trace of the old lake today, says Jeanine Bond, a Ducks Unlimited biologist who helps oversee the marsh. “It was probably the most unfarmable piece, would be my guess,” she says.

Lakemount Marsh is not Sumas Lake. To begin with, it covers only about one-fifth of a square mile. It’s an important wintering ground for waterfowl, but few birds choose to breed here the way they once did by the thousands. There are no salmon, no eulachon, no sturgeon; the main fish species is an invasive carp. When I mention the canvasback ducks that fed at the lake in the past, Bond gives me a look of surprise. “Really?” she says. “That would be nice to see.” She has no specific memory of ever having observed a canvasback here. Even the great mosquito hatch that happened each spring, and at its worst drove the local Stó:lō to live on stilt huts over the water until, in June, the air thickened with ravenous birds and bats and dragonflies, is unremembered. Bond can’t recall having ever been much bothered by bugs at the marsh.

At last, I ask about the wapato. Yes, says Bond, the white flowers still bloom above the surface of the water. Not too many of them, but they show up every summer. A year or two ago, her organization ran a dredger through the marsh to clear out the mats of cattail that build up because the water only drains through a narrow, manmade outlet. The following season, more wapato bloomed than Bond had ever seen before. An irony. In such an artificial place, a fragment of the wild had been patiently awaiting the human touch.

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From Orion magazine, July/August 2013. Subscribe here.