Saving Salmon through Community Science and Public Art
By Britt Freda and Jen Lindsay
Hans Nelson’s woodshop teemed with stacks of salmon. One hundred and fifty 18” cedar salmon cutouts, 3 original designs, each crafted by hand. I learned from Hans that he grew up “in an enclave called Fishtown at the mouth of the Skagit River.” Many decades later his art still thematically focuses on trees/wood and on waves/water and I am reminded with each of Hans’s stories that collaborative partners come to a project for a reason. This wood and water artist, who once lived at the mouth of a significant salmon spawning river that spills into the Salish Sea, is here not just because he’s a talented woodworker, he’s here because his story is a piece of this circle.
At the end of January 2021, I sent Hans three designs for the salmon templates: one, looking up—the optimist or the surface feeder, the second, curved down—energetic as though leaping up stream (we must do hard things), the third—the neutral perspective. Students will choose their own form, their own point of view. This feels relevant in a time when our country considers insurrection and potential evolutions for our future. The collaborative designers of our project have chosen cedar as the material we will work with inspired by interdependence and overlapping circles of Venn diagrams and cycles in ecosystems— 5th graders understand that we are all connected.
On day one of our “activism-art” portion of the project, a student makes the conceptual connection and reminds us “the salmon who have spawned die in the rivers and their decomposing bodies feed the cedar along the banks, the cedar trees protect and nourish the streams where the salmon spawn, where the next generation of salmon hatch.” Connection made from previous science workshop to this moment with wood and paint. Steeped in the specifics of right here, in and around the Salish Sea, our artistic and written, public messages are the outcome of an interdisciplinary response to, and expression of, “big” science ideas—webs of life and earth systems—combined with advocacy. In early spring, a place-based science, virtual field trip of Judd Creek— led by Bianca Perla and Maria Metler of Vashon Nature Center— brought 5th graders close up to a small sampling of the more than 137 species depended on salmon including humans. On their screens, students were able to get an up-close view of the stream invertebrates salmon eat. They learned how local organizations like the Land Trust and King County are working to help reverse 200 years of human impact to salmon by restoring stream habitats. And later by playing “Survive the Sound,” they discovered multiple human-created barriers salmon face on migration journeys from the Nisqually, Duwamish, and Skokomish rivers, to the Salish Sea.
In the collaborative creation of this public art piece, of cedar + salmon, we hope to tell a powerful story through art making as messaging, as a vehicle for stewardship and advocacy. Writer, Scientist, Professor and Citizen Potawatomi Nation, Robin Kimmerer, writes that to become “indigenous to place” is not to “appropriate the culture of indigenous people” but to “live as if we’ll be here for the long haul, to take care of the land as if our lives, both spiritual and material, depended on it. Because they do.”
“Listen to the cedar,” I say. “We are all learners and we are all teachers. Today the cedar is our teacher. With your graphite pencil trace the stories of the cedar, trace the lines of the grains of the wood. No, you don’t have to trace every single line, only the ones that call to you. Listen. Feel. Learn, as you press into the surface. Discover how the wood is softer near the grain and firmer where the line is dark. Find the knots. Search for the circles and swirls.” Just like the salmon’s decomposition feeds the cedar and forest floor, the cedar salmon brought to life by each student feeds the health of ecosystems present and future.
“Mine looks like water,” someone says.
We draw dots representing the nares and outline gill covers, dorsal fins, caudal fins and adipose fins (because all of our salmon are wild). We flap our own pectoral fins and wiggle our pelvic fins. Fish anatomy is fun. Next, three colors of paint. First black, then red. According to Melonie Ancheta in American Indian, Magazine of Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, “Black and red are the two oldest paint colors worldwide; there is no way of knowing exactly how far back the use of black goes, but red from red ochre has been used for at least 100,000 years around the world. Its use [has been documented] on the Northwest Coast for at least 4,000 years.” Lastly, we add the white of light as we talk about the natural camouflage coloring of the salmon. A student explains to the class that “a predator swimming below looking up at the light-colored underbellies of salmon would see the same color as the light sky and these prey fish would blend into the background.” Another student tells of flying predators from above, eagles and osprey, and the dark backs of the salmon blending into the colors of the ocean or mottled shades of the river bottom.
A thread runs through these moments: how are we teachers and learners? How are we stewards, collaborators, and advocates, using what we know now and still wonder about salmon as connected to water systems and cycles, land and peoples, past and present? The kernel of this project, initially conceptualized as a weaving together of several lines of inquiry, a way to humanize, localize, and place a science curriculum— to give it place-based meaning, connected to the land we are on, and a part of— that is, a part of a larger and multi-layered story.
We cannot talk about interdependence and salmon made of cedar, as advocacy art and story, without talking about the Coast Salish people who have inhabited and stewarded these coast lines from time immemorial. The sxwebabs (swiftwater people) are the first peoples of the island on which we live. They were forced to relocate in 1856. To my knowledge, no known direct descendants of the sxwebabs currently live on Vashon, yet I love discovering more diversity in the ecosystem of this classroom when we learn a few class members and teachers have Native ancestry. In her classes Jen Lindsay connects what we learn about the sxwebab, the Duwamish, and the Puyallup to a larger “timescale”— one that acknowledges both past and present, as layered and shaped through power dynamics between and among individuals, communities, and institutions. In and around the Salish Sea since time immemorial through modern day— native inhabitants and activists such as Billy Frank Jr., teach us about relationships and struggle for human and “more than human” (e.g., plant and animal species) rights to land and cultural thriving.
As we delve deeper into knowing about our “watershed address” and about the First Peoples histories, presents, and sovereignty, and land upon which we live today, all of us in the project become more attuned to the idea that interspecies; that is all human and “more than human” rights and thriving, are interconnected and whole dependent upon our ethical responsibility to the earth systems that sustain us. This project is a moment in evolving understanding of ourselves and rests upon a non-linear, non-hierarchical network of collaboration and stories “across land, plants, animals, and human communities across a time scale.” It is a kernel for now as ethical decision makers with responsibility. The messages resonate deeply with 5th graders and their grown-up teachers — those there every day in the classroom, plus a visiting artist, scientists, and our local water commissioner.
Not strictly “social studies” or “science” or “art” this 5th grade project, spanning the course of the school year, demanded that we—as facilitators of the learning— “un”compartmentalize and seek intersections across and between nature, culture, field base science, identities, and complex socio-ecological systems in order to intertwine the human and the “more than human” more deeply with place. In doing so, we intentionally dismantle hierarchies and blur boundaries, what the “Learning in Places” project terms “rhizomatic” to signal a growing network of roots without an explicit center (http://learninginplaces.org).
Fortified by layers of interdisciplinary learning, we gather our tools and paint from our moment in time, from our individual perspectives, to raise awareness through art. “Guess what? 5th graders,” I exude. “Your voices are important now and they are important to the future. This project was made possible as a part of the Clean Water Act enforcement program. A group of people called the Puget Soundkeeper’s Alliance works to enforce federal water quality laws against serious polluters. That means Puget Soundkeeper’s Alliance and The Rose Foundation for Communities and the Environment believe community-based efforts to protect or improve water quality in the Puget Sound are important. They believe the work you are doing, together, is important! We are all learners and we are all teachers. Our community is listening to what you and your salmon have to teach!”
On Wednesday, May 19, 2021 we have planned to gather, in person, in small groups, outside in what once was a dumping ground, overgrown with invasive species but is now—thanks to the restoration work of Vashon Nature Center and Vashon Center for the Arts— a healthy, meadow where the eastern headwaters of Judd Creek originate. Judd Creek is the largest salmon spawning stream on our island which is located in the south end of the Salish Sea. Details matter. We’ll bring our renditions of salmon together, in a public art installation in the Heron Meadow east of Vashon Center for the Arts, and later in a partner installation at the Vashon Heritage Museum.
When we step back to see our collective school of salmon, we see lines and circles connect and overlap. Some of our salmon have words painted into their patterns “save us,” “save the salmon,” “Interdependence,” “HOPE,” “love,” “HELP!”
“Are any other kids in the United States doing this salmon project?” a student asks.
“Nope, just you! Just the Chautauqua 5th grade on Vashon Island,” I respond. The student beams with pride. The flutter in my heart, again, reminds me—we are all connected.