'Homewaters' blends natural and cultural history of Puget Sound
A new book explores our complicated connection to the ecosystem we call home. We interview author David B. Williams about Homewaters: A Human and Natural History of Puget Sound, published this month by the University of Washington Press.
Long before the explorer George Vancouver began remaking the names and maps of our region, Puget Sound was known as “Whulge,” an onomatopoetic Coast Salish word denoting the sound of waves.
If you listen closely, the waves washing against the Puget Sound shoreline make a subtle sound. It is not the booming surf of the outer coast but something unique to our region. The quiet, persistent sound of an inland sea.
For the Coast Salish tribes, Whulge — spelled phonetically from the Lushootseed dialect — also meant the saltwater or “the salt” and ethnographers say it is both a place name and a way to describe a connection to the land.
It “was more of a concept than a defined location,” writes David B. Williams in his new book Homewaters: A Human and Natural History of Puget Sound, published this month by the University of Washington Press. It was “more of a way to delineate a relationship to place for the waterway’s Coast Salish people.”
This “relationship to place” is also central to Homewaters, which begins with the origin of Puget Sound’s many names and extends to all kinds of hidden facts and stories about the natural and cultural history of our region. The book examines our modern struggle to understand how we — a population of millions — now connect with “the salt,” and by turn, the kelp and forage fish and geoducks, the orcas and the salmon that come with it.
Whether it is Whulge, or Puget Sound, or its most recent moniker the Salish Sea, Williams has been writing about various aspects of our regional history for years. His earlier books focused heavily on Seattle, including most recently, Too High and Too Steep: Reshaping Seattle’s Topography, and Seattle Walks: Discovering History and Nature in the City. This is the first time Williams has tackled something on the scale of Puget Sound. He spoke with Encyclopedia of Puget Sound managing editor Jeff Rice. This is an edited version of a conversation that took place earlier this year.
EoPS: Let’s talk about some of the ideas behind your book. How did you manage to write about something as broad and sweeping as Puget Sound? How did you choose what to focus on and what kind of book did you hope to write?
DBW: For the last several years I had been writing primarily about the Seattle area and wanted to expand my geographic scope. I’ve lived here for most of my life and focusing on Puget Sound seemed like a logical next step. I then began interviewing people, biologists, ecologists, historians, and I would basically say to them, ‘I am thinking about writing a book about the human and natural history of Puget Sound, what does that mean to you and what are the issues that you think are important to tell the public, to convey in a book?’ [Editor's note: The author of this article was also interviewed during this process and is quoted in one section of the book.] Out of that I started distilling ideas and seeing where threads wove together.
EoPS: I was struck by the fact that there was a lot in this book that I didn’t know. I obviously live here in Puget Sound and spend a lot of my time thinking about Puget Sound, but there were many facts and stories in there that I had never heard before. You do cover critical issues — there is plenty in the book about iconic species like salmon and orcas — but it seems like you often chose to address areas that haven’t been written about as much. You look at species like kelp and Olympia oysters, for example, and lesser known indigenous history.
DBW: Absolutely. I knew for sure that I did not want to start a book about Puget Sound with the classic [in a mock formal voice] ‘Puget Sound was discovered by George Vancouver in 1792.’ I knew that that was not going to be a storyline at all. So, I wanted to go deeper into that history.
EoPS: Along those lines, you talk in your book about the importance of place names for our region. One of my favorite parts of this “deeper history” was an early Coast Salish word for Puget Sound.
DBW: Yes, "Whulge," meaning ‘the saltwater’ or ‘the salt.’ I was talking to someone who was a linguist who said that the verb form of it had to do with the sound of waves washing on shore. To me, obviously, it’s a beautiful image of the origin of a word. But there’s also the concept. This idea that it’s a way to explain a place and a relationship — that we are of the salt, that we are of this place. And those who live in other areas who don’t live on the salt are different from us. It’s not a cartographic term. It’s really a philosophical connection to place — that the salt and the land and us are all related, at least as I understand the word.
For a bit of background: In trying to find Lushootseed names I also wanted to make the point that when George Vancouver and his men sailed down what they labeled as Puget Sound in 1792, this was a landscape that already had many layers of names on it. These names were from people who had inhabited this landscape for thousands of years and obviously continue to inhabit it. I wanted to be able to describe some of the language that was used in contrast to some of the language that was placed on the land.
EoPS: There’s another great example of that in your book, the name “the place of squeaking.”
DBW: ‘The place of squeaking’ was [a Lushootseed word for] what we now know as Restoration Point on Bainbridge Island. It refers to the sound of the wind. Vancouver calls it Restoration Point in honor of the restoration of the British monarchy. It is the difference between a name that is sort of top down — a name imposed — and a name that organically rose in place. That, to me, really exemplifies the fundamental change in relationship to place that occurred when European settlers moved into this region.
EoPS: That relationship has always been complex, to say the least. Especially when it comes to destruction of the environment.
DBW: [European settlers] started to alter the ecosystem immediately. It wasn’t for many decades that we really began to understand what we were doing. It’s very easy to imagine coming out here in the late 1800s or early mid-1800s when the first settlers got here, and thinking it was inexhaustible. I mean, how could you cut down this forest? One of the densest forests on the planet? How could you decimate salmon when there’s billions of them going up the rivers and the creeks? Or harm the population of Olympia oysters? They just couldn’t conceive of it. Now that we understand so much better, that, to me, is where the tragedy comes. We know better now. We have to be better now.
And I think there has been a shift. When European settlers first arrived, their idea was focused on resource extraction. That was really the dominant story of Puget Sound for the first many decades. Maybe even for the first century. And we’ve evolved to the point where we now see Puget Sound as this amazingly beautiful resource. It’s a resource for the soul. For the spirit. And less so a resource to be extracted. I think that we are now trying to be better stewards because of that.
EoPS: At the same time, do you think that we are less connected to Puget Sound and the natural environment than we once were? How do you think that’s changed?
DBW: Yes, very much so. I think it’s an interesting conundrum in that early residents probably did have a more intimate connection through being out on the water fishing and harvesting shellfish and cutting the trees down. It was a relationship that was very intimate with the land. But it was a relationship that saw the land as something to be used. The irony now is that the people who are here, who are living in the Sound and are thinking about the idea of stewardship and respect for it, have lost that connection. That was certainly one of my goals in my book, to try and write stories in such a way that hopefully people would realize the deep interfingered relationships of this place. Not just between us and the landscape but between the species and the landscape, and then between the species and us. We can’t separate them. You know, the classic line, ‘you can’t pull one thread without unraveling all of them.’
EoPS: What do you want people to come away with when they read this book?
DBW: I think it’s several-fold. One thing is that this is an amazingly beautiful place. That’s not necessarily telling anyone anything new, but I wanted that to be a center part. I also wanted to show the incredible diversity of life that we are blessed by. There are so many incredible plants and animals here. I think part of it is that we look out at the water and see this blue surface and we forget that we can go down 900 feet in the Puget Sound and there is this incredible diversity. So, there is that fundamental aspect of appreciation for this place. The other part is for people to develop stronger connections to [Puget Sound] by knowing those stories, by reading of that past and thinking about how it affects their lives and the future. Ultimately the goal is that people will have that stronger relationship that leads to further protection and better stewardship of an ecosystem that we are all part of.
EoPS: Your book involves historical research but also personal experiences and observations. One of the things you did was to witness an entire tidal cycle. I guess when you are writing a book you have time to do things like that.
DBW: (Laughs). Exactly. Sit on a beach for 12 hours.
EoPS: Tell me what that was like.
DBW: Yeah, when I was out with people I was struck by how they talked about the tides, in particular when I was out with geoduck farmers. There was this idea that around us in the ecosystem is this incredible aspect of change every day, that the shoreline is constantly in fluctuation. I wanted to see what it would be like to sit on the shore somewhere in Puget Sound and just watch and see how the land grew and shrunk over time, over a tidal cycle, [which is] a 12-hour period.
I ended up going to Discovery Park. I purposely went on a day that would have a very low tide. I was able to just plunk my butt down on the beach and watch.
Maybe it is a metaphor for the world we live in that there is this constant change going on around us. By paying more attention we discover a diversity, a complexity that we didn’t realize was there. Yeah, it was one of the highlights for me, doing that. I look forward to doing it again. I love watching the tide.
EoPS: What is it about it that you love? What did you learn specifically?
DBW: One thing was that there’s just this constant change, and that species have adapted to this. That they are somehow able to survive in this changing world. It was also just fun to watch. I’m always intrigued by learning more, and I had not really paid attention before. The tide forced me to do that. That’s really the story of the book, to pay attention to the world that’s there that I take for granted. I didn’t realize this incredible diversity underneath that water, the incredible beauty. And yet when the tide came back in it was equally as beautiful and equally as diverse. I was seeing it in a different light now.
Homewaters: A Human and Natural History of Puget Sound is available from the University of Washington Press. David B. Williams has also written occasional articles for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.