Not Worth a Dam

Mill Valley Public Library interviews author Mark Kurlansky about his new book on salmon.
A merit badge for patrons that volunteer with SPAWN or Mill Valley Streamkeepers

Ten years ago I read a book called Salmon in the Trees I found on my grandmother’s bookshelf and quickly became fascinated by the ecological relation between forest and fish – and the eagles and bears that help spread the nutrients around. The following year, PBS aired the documentary Running the Gauntlet highlighting the dams of the Columbia River and their impact on salmon populations. Since then, I’ve hoped for a book like Salmon: A Fish, the Earth and the History of Their Common Fate by Mark Kurlansky. The book covers everything I craved – engaging descriptions of the common species of salmonids, the history of industrial influence on their habitat, an analysis of the problems when humans try to manage nature and all of it presented with the recognition of the biggest threat to salmon today: climate change. 

Salmon is a beautiful book full of photos and recipes to support all of the well written words that convey the urgency to respond to climate change. Mark Kurlansky has authored dozens of books – including novels and children’s books – but is best known (I assume) for his international bestseller Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World published 22 years ago. In between the publication of Cod & Salmon, Kurlansky published World Without Fish and The Last Fish Tale, both of which address precisely what their titles imply. Fans of Cod will enjoy Salmon (the books that is) for its similar approach to write a biography of a fish. The common fate of cod and salmon is that humans have decimated their populations but in Salmon, Kurlansky hits home that despite all prior destructive actions against salmon, climate change is the biggest threat to salmon. If the salinity and temperature of water change as rapidly as scientists anticipate, then there will be no habitable space for salmon. 

The library where I work has a creek running behind the building that was once a vibrant salmon spawning habitat. Because our library wanted to examine climate change at the local level, it made sense to us to literally look at our backyard and spend a month addressing climate change in the context of salmon. Our library selected Kurlansky’s book for our Read it and Weep reading challenge months before it was published by Patagonia because we had faith the book would be just as engaging as Cod. We were right. It’s worth noting Patagonia also produced a new documentary on salmon titled Artifishal, which is accessible to everyone on YouTube, which was the title we planned to screen before the pandemic hit. 

In our interview, I ask Kurlansky to revisit some of the 25 lessons from his book Nonviolence and ask if they apply to the human relationship with salmon. Maybe I’m just a sucker for lists but I really appreciate the 25 lessons from the book as they apply to mankind and I couldn’t help thinking about them in the context of salmon too. In addition to the ones we discuss in the interview, Lesson 23 (Violence is a virus that infects and takes over) made me think of overfishing and Lesson 14 (All debate momentarily ends with an enforced silence once the first shots are fired) made me think of the debates surrounding dams and hatcheries. Lesson 20 (Wars do not have to be sold to the general public if they can be carried out by an all-volunteer professional military) made me think of salmon viewed only as a food source for mankind with fishermen as the willing paid participants in the role of the executioner. 

Perhaps it is inaccurate to think of the history between homo sapiens and salmonids as violent. Our ignorance and indifference has been more destructive to salmon than our intent to harm them. Will those same flaws prevent us from saving salmon and ourselves from climate change?

Andrew Murphy of Mill Valley Public Library