The pandemic has illuminated an ugly truth: the systems we have built can’t address fundamental threats to our existence. It appears that a civilization sitting on the edge of a precipice — gazing at biological extinctions, authoritarian technologies, economic inequalities, eroding soils and climate change — can only marshal the inertia of a couch potato watching Netflix.
The U.S. writer David Wallace-Wells has identified the malady:
“a widespread cultural conviction that keeping your cool and trusting the political and social status quo is preferable to a radical response, any radical response — in all ways, at all times, and in the face of all kinds of threats.”
So what can we do to preserve the good and beautiful things of this world?
How do we move away from an artificial realm where engineered scenarios are posited on screens to one that respects meaningful work and frugal living in real places?
Salmon Nation offers a radically old idea (living locally), but dresses it in new clothes on a fancy digital platform launched last year during the pandemic.
It begins with this declaration:
“A changing climate and failing systems demand new approaches to everything we do. We need to champion what works for people and place.”
And that is assuredly a polite understatement of things.
Salmon Nation, funded in part by the U.S. NoVo Foundation, wants to encourage conversations about what ought to happen on this well-watered landscape — instead of what can be extracted from the Pacific Northwest for the global economy.
It also hopes to spark change by spotlighting stories about what works locally, and thereby plant seeds for change across hill and dale. (An online Festival of What Works attracted thousands of digital visitors last November. A real-world version will happen when the pandemic allows.)
At some point a Salmon Nation Trust will raise serious capital to serve as an accelerator of economic development that must have public or nature benefits. The website favours the term “regenerative development.”
I called up Ian Gill, one of four founders of the project, and we got talking. Gill, whose byline occasionally appears in The Tyee, owns a bookstore on Granville Island and is a journalist.
“Basically what we are doing is putting meat on the bones of bioregionalism,” said Gill of Salmon Nation.
And more: “What we are trying to do is actually learn to live like a bioregion.”
Salmon Nation the bioregion, including 50,000 kilometres of undulating Pacific coastline, looks like a bizarre sea horse on a map, stretching from Alaska to northern California. It even dips into Idaho.
Over several decades that swath of territory has been called many things including Cascadia and the Left Coast, but Salmon Nation calls it what it is: a special geographical home for life-pulsing rivers and the iconic, miraculous fish who swim them.
The region’s distinct forests and diverse coasts are now home to a $1.5-trillion economy of 35 million people in two countries — many of whom really don’t know much about where they reside. Few realize the whole region once ran on salmon energy and fuelled the richest of Indigenous cultures. The area is now almost entirely dependent on fossil fuels and hydropower.
But what still knits this geography together are five species of salmon that navigate its winding rivers. Every year the returning flow of spawning salmon steadily enriches the forest with nutrients secured from the ocean.
Without the presence of these mythical and highly-endangered fish, the region would become another artificial landscape conquered and re-engineered by globalism.
The big question, says Gill, is how we change this corrosive consumptive economy to one that actually accords with nature.
“Until we change that, we can’t change anything.”
One way to do that, suggests Gill, is to cultivate the ingenuity of rural people or what Gill calls “edge communities.”
He says “they are already living in the future by being small, regional and less dependent on global supply chains and less reliant on fossil fuels and more reliant on regional agricultural producers.”
The kind of innovation and risk-taking we really need, says Gill, is “not going to happen in the centres of power.
“Premier John Horgan doesn’t want to change the way of the world,” he adds. “Nor does Justin Trudeau. They are not interested in system change. They are the system.”
In fact history has repeatedly shown that change mostly gallops from the hinterlands; it rarely emerges from a place like Ottawa or Washington, D.C.
I asked Gill for an example of the sort of change Salmon Nation wants to encourage and he quickly provided one: Cairnspring Mills. It’s a micro-flour mill that started in 2016 in the Skagit Valley near Burlington, Wash., 125 kilometres southeast of Vancouver, B.C.
Its owner, Kevin Morse, used to work for the Nature Conservancy but yearned for something more tangible. Now Morse mills fine grains from local farms in the Skagit Valley for local bakers. During the pandemic, when people rediscovered they could actually bake at home (imagine), it experienced a 500-per-cent increase in sales.
But the mill is a tale of resistance as well as innovation:
“Cairnspring Mills is the first craft mill in the country that makes fresh milled flours from local grain and offers it to home bakers and professional bakers both here and across the United States,” said Morse to a Seattle paper.
Micro mills, like micro brewers, are the antithesis of the global economy and its cult of bigness. At one time more than 20,000 local flour mills populated the United States. They supported local farms, tantalized local bakeries and enriched local communities. Today, five corporations control most of the milling — all done in big facilities in the name of efficiency.
A renaissance in local flour mills in B.C. would not only improve farm income but provide better food security for everyone. These community enterprises would also provide more meaningful local employment and help to deindustrialize agriculture so it once again respects the realities of soil, energy and place.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise, but Salmon Nation partly derives its inspiration from Donella Meadows, an environmental scientist and early systems analyst.
She and several Massachusetts Institute of Technology colleagues sounded the alarm about resource depletion with the book The Limits to Growth in the 1970s. Lots of people believed the accuracy of Meadow’s modelling (we are now living the outcome), but no country choose to act on it — just like climate change.
Meadows thought that if you wanted to change a system, you probably had to rename it. Hence Salmon Nation, which wants to change how you think about place as well as offer you more convivial ways of living in the Pacific Northwest.
To my mind, several things about Salmon Nation recommend some deep exploration — even though I’m not really a joiner of any kind.
For starters, it is not carbon-centric. The environmental movement has fixated on carbon and the myth of a “clean energy future” to its eternal detriment.
Many now assume that we can turn around the Titanic by turning off its diesel engine and switching to an electric one. The idea of consuming less energy or living smaller lives rarely hits the radar.
As such the movement has abandoned what traditional rural or “edge” communities have always espoused: respect for place, frugality and small solutions.
Blessedly, Salmon Nation also doesn’t talk about saving the planet. Nobody can save a planet, but everyone can make a difference in their home communities. Like the agrarian critic Wendell Berry, I believe that we should abandon the hubris of planet saving, and start to “live savingly” in the places that we call home.
Wouldn’t it be remarkable if initiatives like Salmon Nation demonstrated to the rest of the world how spending less, burning less and travelling less in a rainforest made people saner, healthier and more present to themselves as Wendell Berry might ask? And restored the forest?
And wouldn’t it be remarkable if we conserved our rivers and changed our bad forestry practices (the scale is still demonic), and if salmon returned in abundance to our most northern rivers?
Salmon Nation offers ordinary people possibilities that our failing status quo will not: a diversity of actions and ideas that we can take up in our daily lives without waiting for the future to arrive in the form of policy.
The importance of such messages should not be underestimated because life is rarely linear or predictable.
The late Irish mystic John O’Donohue tells a lovely Celtic tale about salmon and the unpredictability of life in his book Anam Cara.
Long ago, a fellow known as Old Finn learned about a certain salmon that ate the falling nuts of a hazel tree. This salmon possessed the knowledge of the world.
Old Finn learned that if he caught and ate that salmon, he would become a great poet and have second sight, gifts that were once valued in ancient times.
So Old Finn prepared himself for the day he would eventually catch that magical fish and become the world’s greatest poet. Seven years went by, and then one day he netted that great salmon and prepared to eat it.
Running out of firewood, the wise man asked his assistant to continue cooking the salmon. He warned him not to burn or eat the fish and then ran to fetch more kindling.
The day-dreaming assistant spied a blister on the fish’s skin, grew alarmed and pushed it in with his finger. Then he instinctively sucked the burn along with the oil of the salmon.
And so the wisdom of the world and gift of poetry passed onto the assistant, proving that the linear path many of us pursue for most of our lives can be dead ends.
The same goes for any inattentive civilization.
And that is why we need organizations like Salmon Nation to remind us of possibilities other than those proscribed by the global machine.
For as Indigenous cultures in these parts have long understood, the ancient salmon nation that energized our rivers has demonstrated that life is a trilogy: a gift, a sacrifice and a cycle.
Teaser photo credit: By Bureau of Land Management Oregon and Washington – Coho Spawning on the Salmon River, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=45542771