Plants, water, rocks, temperature, humidity, wildlife each place has a different mixture of these ingredients that slowly penetrate into the psyche of people who live there, inspiring the soul. The "spirit" of a place expresses itself in the art of people who are drawn to live to a place.
From northern California up into Alaska, the temperate rainforests along the Pacific Coast express a dramatic spirit of place thanks to rainfall measured in feet per year rather than inches, which grows huge green and brown trees covered in mosses and lichen.
Clearly, art in this bioregion is unique and dramatic among the native cultures of the Pacific Northwest especially the Haida, Kwakiutl, Tlingit, Salish with their totem poles, cedar plank longhouses, 50-foot canoes, white wool vests made from the fleece of mountain goats, and red and black capes covered with striking images of ravens, bears, orcas, and salmon sometimes made of buttons of shiny abalone shells.
It would not be right for a new culture to come in and blindly copy the native cultural art of a place, but the next generation can also embody the spirit of a place as their art arises spontaneously from the hearts and minds of people who also have taken root in the land.
Photographer Amy Gulick has recently published a beautifully illustrated spirit of place book, "Salmon In The Trees," (Braided River/ Mountaineers Books, 2010; 176 pages, $29.95) about the spirit of 16.8-million acre temperate rainforest Tongass National Forest, area in southern coastal Alaska.
This is a book filled with beautiful pictures and the eloquent voices an ecosystem of people who live in a wondrous world of rain, fog, huge trees and bears, streams teeming with salmon, fjords, and islands; people who want you to know why they love this place so much, and ask for your help keeping it safe.
Amy is the photographer. The tales from are from fishermen, scientists, artists, teachers, Tlingit Indians, Forest Service personnel, bush pilots, tour boat captains, and conservationists some of the better-known contributors are: Carl Safina ("Song for the Blue Ocean," "Eye of the Albatross"), Douglas Chadwick (long-time National Geographic contributor, and author of "The Wolverine Way"), and Brad Matsen (Jacques Cousteau: The Sea King," and "Titanic's Last Secrets"), as well as Ray Troll's wonderful sketches and the added element of anthropolgist Richard Nelson's CD with a streamside acoustical report on wildlife and their sounds.
Collectively they celebrate the spirit of the Tongass today, and make us feel and understand why this place is a national treasure regardless of culture.
The title, "Salmon In The Trees," is based on a unique aspect of the local ecology. Visiting the Tongass, the earth's largest remaining temperate rainforest 60 percent forested, 39 percent rocks and glacier and 1 percent water one cannot help but be enchanted by the trees which can rise up 200 feet and be 11 feet in diameter.
One reason why the vegetation is so thick and the trees are so big is that in addition to 85 to 250 inches of rainfall per year and the temperate climate due to warm offshore ocean currents, the soil is extremely fertile thanks to nature's wisdom.
Five species of salmon and steelhead spawn in 4,500 streams in the Tongass. This is one big reason why, eagles, seals, and black and brown bears are so numerous in these parts. Each year when the salmon come in to spawn, they bring with them bodies filled with nutrients of the sea that nourish the plant life along the streams. Seventy percent of the nitrogen in streamside foliage is from the ocean.
Bears help disperse the nutrients much farther. During the height of the salmon spawning seasons when streams are choked with fish, bears may catch upwards of 40 salmon in an eight-hour day. Not content with just catching the fish, the bears then carry their catch up into the woods and deposit them there.
Many of these fish they never touch again, but no matter. Upwards of 50 different vertebrate species including deer will nibble on salmon carcasses before they disappear into the soil, providing the original organic fertilizer.
About 70,000 people currently reside in the Tongass National Forest region, which incidentally is three times larger than the next largest National Forest, nine states and several foreign nations.
Once this area was a center of logging for large sitka spruce and western cedars, but fortunately pulp and paper logging from these parts has faded, along with clear-cutting that wrecked havoc on the local ecosystem. Today the sitka spruce and yellow cedar that are cut locally are more likely to be made into musical instruments, boats, or custom woodcraft; and the trees are selectively cut. Nonetheless, only 3 percent of the old growth remains.
Only 10 percent of the original logging work force of the Tongass remains on the job, and gold mining has waned and is primarily for recreationists, but what has taken their place to drive the local economy to go along with fishing, is people; a swarm of over a million tourists a year visit Ketchikan, most coming in on 40 cruise ships that make 500 stops a year.
Those who stay a little longer cannot help but want to fish. The sport fishing industry has become as important to the local economy as commercial fishing, which is no mean feat as 80 percent of the wild salmon caught along the Pacific Coast of North America come from Alaska. (And this fishery is certified as sustainable, incidentally.)
According to author/photographer Amy Gulick, "Southeast Alaska is a sportsmen's Shangri-La. You can literally eat your way through the region, from the ocean into the forest salmon, halibut, Dungeness crab, beach asparagus, seaweed, berries, mushrooms, deer, etc. It's easy to see how the Native folks developed one of the richest and most complex hunting and gathering cultures in the world."
In a way, you could say that the voices in this book are those of the placekeepers of the Tongass, seeking their own way to make a living, and yet not harm the beauty and abundance of resources that drew them here.
Working together, these are people who want to insure that the Tongass is a sustainable ecosystem, for fish, wildlife and people a challenge given the flock of tourists and the potential of climate change to raise the temperature in the ocean. They invite you to join them in their quest.
Contemplating the coastal temperate rainforest, and realizing the cycles it has already been through that brought in swarms of prospectors and then loggers, the arrival of this new stream of visitors brings its challenges. How do you keep people from loving a place to death is one of the biggest local issues.
The collection of stories in this book is reassuring. It seems like these folks understand the balance between use and protection, and how this translates into conservation only fitting as Teddy Roosevelt is the President who first set aside these parts as a national natural treasure.
I asked Amy why she wrote the book, and she replied: "We should view the Tongass as a rich intact ecosystem that provides to us, free of charge, things like clean water, fresh air, long-term employment, and an incredible array of food and ask ourselves 'how much should we leave?' in order to ensure it stays that way.
"The exciting part, and it's the whole reason I pursued telling the story of this incredible place, is that we have an unprecedented opportunity today to ensure that the most biologically productive areas stay that way. Through the remarkable connection between salmon and trees, our understanding of the ecosystem is greater than it's ever been. We now know that our actions on pieces of this rich ecosystem (clear-cut logging, overfishing, etc.), can affect and unravel the whole glorious show. But there's still time, and this gives me loads of hope."
Be forewarned: people who read "Salmon In The Trees" will feel drawn to visit this region, perhaps on a tour boat at first, but hopefully later, as a camper, perhaps staying at a resort to catch salmon, halibut and lingcod, or hunt deer; maybe staying in one of the 150 cabins in the Tongass National Forest that can be rented by us outsiders for $25-$45 a night.
Sprinkled among Amy's photos and the stories of Tongass residents are colorful drawings by another voice of place, Ray Troll. One of Ray's drawings especially caught my attention a man carrying a big fish on his back and what might be a motto for the spirit of these parts: Speak Softly and Carry A Big Fish.
For a special treat, this book comes with a video trailer that can be found on YouTube.
James Swan who has appeared in more than a dozen feature films, including "Murder in the First" and "Star Trek: First Contact," as well as the television series "Nash Bridges," "Midnight Caller" and "Modern Marvels" is the author of the book "In Defense of Hunting." Click to purchase a copy. To learn more about Swan, visit his Web site.