Hope is a Baby Orca
A Thanksgiving message
In the summer of 2018, I grieved, with millions of people around the world. Our collective sadness focused on a twenty-year-old mother, Tahlequah, one of a dwindling number of orca who regularly visit Puget Sound. On July 24, Tahlequah had given birth to her second child, a daughter, who died within thirty minutes. For the next seventeen days, she carried the six-foot-long body of her dead offspring on a journey of more than one thousand miles. Finally, Tahlequah let her calf go. Our hearts broke.
Then, two years later, in September 2020, whale researchers announced Tahlequah had given birth again. The healthy and precocious boy calf, dubbed J57, was born in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, after an eighteen-month gestation. To paraphrase Emily Dickinson, “Hope is a baby orca in Puget Sound.”
I am by nature an optimistic person but I also became hopeful while working on my new book Homewaters. Hope came in my discussions with biologists whose work to better understand animal life histories is helping lead to better ways to manage the Sound’s inhabitants. For example, biologists used to think that rockfish (27 species occur in Puget Sound) had short lifespans, akin to salmon, but now we know that rockfish live for more than a century. This has led to fundamental management changes, such as improved habitat protection and a fishing ban, which are giving the fish the decades biologists now know are necessary to rebuild rockfish populations.
I further find hope in knowing that this place runs in the veins of the animals. By this I mean that the Sound’s plants and animals have evolved unique adaptations specific to the region’s geology and ecology. Perhaps the most famous are our salmon, who are well-known for returning from the ocean to their natal streams. In the 2010s, they illustrated their homebody DNA by returning to the Elwha River after two dams that had blocked the river for a century were removed. As one biologist told me, the salmon “were able to return now because they have been doing this for thousands of years.” What we have to do is give our wild residents the opportunity to realize their potential.
One way that we have begun to create this opportunity plays out in our changing relationship to the natural world. For most of the post-settlement history of Puget Sound, residents viewed the region as a place to exploit: oysters, coal, salmon, trees. But in the past few decades, people have become more focused on sustainability, respect for other species, and stewardship. They recognize the fragility, beauty, and resilience of the Sound and have been working toward what Wallace Stegner called a “society to match the scenery.”
I also see this changing relationship through Native people continuing to become more important players in ecological and political decisions. I know I was not alone in drawing inspiration from how Tribal groups helped stop the largest coal port ever proposed in North America and upheld a court decision calling for the removal of hundreds of culverts that restricted access to salmon habitat.
Because of societal, scientific, and governmental changes, Puget Sound is in better shape now than it has been in its recent past. We have enacted new laws and regulations that have led to a cleaner and healthier ecosystem and we are no longer harvesting fish at unsustainable rates or allowing factories to pollute as they once did. Instead, we are now looking at ways to preserve and restore habitat. I, and certainly the activists and scientists I spoke to, are not naïve enough to think that we can restore Puget Sound to what it was before the arrival of Europeans but they say that they are inspired by the abundance of the past, the potential for further recovery, and the resilience of species such as salmon and rockfish.
The hope that I gained through my increased understanding of the human and natural history of Puget Sound is not of the wishy-washy, “I hope I win the lottery” sort. My hope goes hand in hand with hard work. It may require that each of us needs to change, that we recognize and acknowledge that we have a role to play, and that we are part of the problem, as well as part of the solution.
I have also begun to reconsider the phrase “Nothing I do makes a difference.” I, like many people I know, have long been daunted by it, by thinking that no matter what I do, it has little impact relative to the big polluters and consumers. I have found by simply turning that phrase around and saying “Everything I do makes a difference,” that I feel more empowered.
As a member of my community, I am deeply connected to what’s around me. I can make it better. I won’t always do what’s right but I can work toward that goal of a better place. I know that it won’t be easy. It will take money and commitment and courage and knowledge. But I also know that I can draw inspiration from the adaptations of the more-than-human species that live here, as well as from the humans who are doing good work. For all of that I am hopeful.
Thanks to all for being part of my community and for your kind thoughts and great comments regarding this newsletter and Homewaters. Please be well and be safe.
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