- Homewaters: A Human and Natural History of Puget Sound by David B. Williams
Aimed at a general readership, David Williams's Homewaters is, as the subtitle promises, a multispecies history of the Puget Sound. Williams begins with the long arc of human events, segues to watery ecology, and finishes with current events. Both his strengths and weaknesses flow from a methodology that relies more on conversations and field trips than on literature and archives. If the results sometime lack nuance, he at least tells readers where he gets information, a refreshing transparency among authors who too often pose as oracles. Homewaters is well written and honest but hardly transformative, and therein lies its failings—Williams yearns for change. He opens with trauma, using a widely reported story of an orca [End Page 121] death to define the stakes. Having lost "our" connections to nature, "we" cannot recognize our hand in this tragedy, but Williams's distillation of this problem as "our actions, their lives, our lives" reveals the circularity of his project (p. xi). This is really about "us," yet the few lines he devotes to unpacking that "us" illustrate the limits of his vision.
Homewaters gains momentum slowly. The first half is a slog through regional history. There are interesting bits on military history, but these chapters mostly truck in caricatures. The rise and fall of fisheries devolve into a morality play of greed, corruption, and stupidity. The history of maritime transportation leaves Indigenous peoples stuck in the past, forever paddling canoes while newcomers embrace motorized craft. It reads like an apartheid narrative of modernity. The second half is far stronger; Williams's prose is more engaging when he dives underwater. Kelp multiply into many species, each with a distinct niche and history. Herring are a single species, but their many subpopulations reveal the challenges of managing fisheries even in a seemingly confined space. Geoduck clams and rockfish carry surprising lessons about the temporality of marine life. Over and over readers learn how much biologists and oceanographers still struggle to gain basic information about the Sound's physiography and ecology.
The lessons in the second half are interesting and instructive, but the conclusion reveals why the first half is not an aberration. The nuance Williams devotes to nature is never equaled when discussing our species. He tends to toggle between dichotomies of good and evil—or at least irresponsible—individuals, and vague nods to a homogeneous collective, especially when invoking the first-person plural. The rhetorical deployment of "our," "us," and "we" is a literary crutch, an axiomatic assertion that we are all in this together, but this has never been true. A sizable literature now details how environmental experiences in the Salish Sea are sliced and diced by race, class, and gender. There is no unifying experience. Ecological opportunities and costs map an asymmetrical geography of social power. Williams's big picture is sadly myopic. The Salish Sea was resettled via violent dispossession, its waters toxified by a century of industrialization. Thus, when he argues that "modern-day residents of the Sound are less likely to view the water and surrounding land from an economic perspective … than from the perspective of recreation, science, and stewardship," he is either immensely naïve or intentionally ignorant of how tourism and recreation have extended the history of dispossession into the current century (p. xiii). When Williams claims a "better understanding of these relationship between wild species and places" helps "strengthen our connections to our homewaters and to those other species that live below the beautiful blue surface," he bares the limitations of his environmental imagery (p. 187). In fact, poor and Indigenous residents have intimate ecological relationships with the Sound through their fish and shellfish diets, and, as a result, they run greater risks of consuming persistent organic pollutants. Mothers are more likely to pass toxins to their infants through breast milk, and their children develop physical and intellectual deficits at higher rates than the children...