Reviews/Interviews Editor Ann Beman interviews Mark Kurlansky about Salmon: a Fish, the Earth, and the History of Their Common Fate, which deep-dives into natural and cultural history to chronicle the harrowing yet awe-inspiring life cycle of salmon and the long list of environmental problems that threaten them.
What incited you to write Salmon: A Fish, the Earth, and the History of Their Common Fate?
I realized that the salmon’s struggle is a perfect metaphor for the earth’s deforestation, bad farming, pollution, bad energy, climate change—all attacking salmon. And salmon is such a magnificent animal on par with a lion or a wild horse.
I found the chapter about the former American tradition of New England salmon fascinating. What is your definition of Americana? How might it apply to this book?
I suppose it is American culture and commercial salmon fishing, fly fishing for salmon, cooking and eating salmon, these are all very American things. And Americans had original peoples whose entire way of life was centered on salmon, so what could be more American.
The concept of ritual struck me as particularly salient—both for human culture and the evolution of salmon. Talk a little about ritual—for the fish, the planet, and your own writing.
We definitely have rituals in the way we fish and the way we eat and the way we treat the wild. But that is uniquely human. Biology tells us that animals do nothing out of ritual; it is always about enhancing the chances of the species survival. Purely pragmatic.
The word ‘culture’ in the context of salmon is a fraught term, as it can refer to the cultural significance of salmon across the world and also to the farming of salmonids. How do we celebrate one while questioning the other?
It’s two different uses of the same word. Aquaculture has nothing to do with culture. It is using the word in the sense of biological growth. The other culture goes back to your question about ritual. We tend to develop a lot of rituals to form a culture and such a culture might develop around fish farming as well. Too soon to tell.
You’ve included recipes in the narrative. This shows a tradition among individuals and whole cultures across the globe of eating salmon. What was your intention with the recipes? Are there any that didn’t make the book? What is your favorite salmon recipe?
There are many other salmon recipes. But I use these because I think they tell things about the culture. They are important artifacts. My favorite recipe is catch a sockeye fresh from a cold river. Gut , scale, and filet it. Place skin down on a very hot grill for only a few minutes while tossing some salt on it. There it is. The best. Always whole or filet. Never steaks.
You’re an avid fly fisherman. How has your passion for fishing influenced this book?
Fly fishing is all about learning about the fish. So fishing has helped me to understand. The work on the book has also made me a better fisherman. If I go somewhere by a great river and talk to someone, I have to come back with my rod and fish it. Can’t help it. It’s like salmon swimming upstream. No thought involved.
What was your process for writing this book?
It’s like any of my books. I go everywhere I need to go, talk to everyone who knows something, see everything there is to see. Then I go home and write.
Do you listen to music when you write? And/or is there any musical tradition attached to this book in any way? If Salmon had a soundtrack or a theme song, what would it be?
I never listen to music while I am writing because it imposes someone else’s rhythm. I want to find the rhythm of the story I am telling. Salmon has its own song, and every river sings its own song. It’s unmistakable and often quite loud.
You’ve written a middle grade nonfiction book, Bugs in Danger: Our Vanishing Bees, Butterflies, and Beetles. Might there be a middle grade version of Salmon?
I would like to do a YA book on salmon. I think kids would like it.
What’s next? For this book? For you as an author?
My next book is about the history, culture, and attraction of fly fishing.
Mark Kurlansky (www.markkurlansky.com) is the New York Times bestselling author of Havana, Cod, Salt, Paper, The Basque History of the World, 1968, and The Big Oyster, among other titles. He has received the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, Bon Appetit’s Food Writer of the Year Award, the James Beard Award, and the Glenfiddich Award. His articles have appeared in a wide variety of newspapers and magazines, including The International Herald Tribune, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Miami Herald, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times, Time Magazine, Partisan Review, Harper’s, The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Audubon Magazine, Food & Wine, Gourmet, Bon Appetit, and Parade. He lives in New York City.
Photo credit: Sylvia Plachy