Jude Isabella, Salmon: A Scientific Memoir

If you wanted a keystone species for BC, the obvious choice is salmon. They're abundant, delicious, and miraculous in their eventual returns from ocean to the rivers of their birth, and above all that, they have the power to change the earth itself.

Over time, you see, the nitrogen in the decomposing bodies of thousands of salmon measurably changes the forests surrounding salmon-bearing streams. The trees are bigger, the plant communities are different, the undergrowth supports a larger variety in insect and bird species. Salmon built BC, not just its fishing economy but its very terrain, and they're still building it.

Mind you, Jude Isabella's Salmon: A Scientific Memoir is at pains to clarify that in honouring the salmon, we're failing to honour herring, eulachon, clams, and all the rest. Salmon records something like four years of research trips in BC that Isabella, a science journalist of some note and editor-in-chief of the brilliant new Hakai Magazine, had taken in the company of scientists of numerous stripes. Separate chapters look at clam gardens built maybe 5,000 years ago and maintained for centuries, at why we should be wary of focusing on the glamour of sockeye, and at intersections between fishery science and traditional ecological knowledge.

But I should say that as nerd-riffic as Salmon is, it's also a chatty, appealing book about the people engaged in figuring out the past and future of fish in BC, and about the kinds of places that most of us don't ever get to visit. Isabella has a great eye for character, and so this book has more in common with books like Terry Glavin's The Last Great Sea than it does with the academic work of the researchers she travels with.

As essential as salmon are to the story of British Columbia, and to the stories of the rich, complex cultures that developed here over the 14,000 years before European contact, they're only one essential species among many others, and that's one of Isabella's points here. An accurate portrait of BC certainly can be rendered through salmon, and Isabella has done a terrific job of illuminating the materials which would contribute to such a portrait, but it's only one portrait. If you follow her on Twitter, though, you'll see that she's keenly interested in other portraits, other materials, and other places -- I'm keen to see where else she takes her readers. Salmon is from Rocky Mountain Books, though oddly it's not in their very cool RMB Manifestos series, and they're to be commended for publishing this fascinating little volume.

Recommended for all shades of eco-nerds, fish-eaters, and place-lovers!


Popular Posts