the museum of americana

a literary review

Mark Kurlansky’s Salmon: A Fish, the Earth, and the History of Their Common Fate—Review by Editor Ann Beman

While poet William Blake saw the world in a grain of sand, best-selling author Mark Kurlansky perceives it in the life cycle of a fish. The latest book by the author of Salt, Cod, The Big Oyster, and Milk, among other global food histories, Salmon deep-dives into the natural and cultural history of a creature that serves as faithful and fateful metaphor for the planet. 

Armed with exhaustive research, the author makes a convincing case for salmon as epic heroa creature battling insurmountable obstacles in an increasingly hostile if not downright poisonous world. “As classicists know, it is tragedy that produced heroes,” writes Kurlansky. “If the salmon is a heroic figure, that is in part because of its unstoppable tenacity.” 

In chronicling the tenacity of these anadromous fish, who navigate both ocean and river in their quest to reproduce in the same watershed in which they were born, Kurlansky goes to bat for the beleaguered salmon, an animal intertwined with human history. “There is something miraculous about the seasonal return of the salmon,” he writes. “Most every salmon-fishing culture, from Asia to Europe to North America, has some ritual attached to the first salmon caught in the new run.”

Kurlanksy prefaces chapters with epigraphs by various poets, philosophers, novelists, explorers, naturalists, biologists, and even the Bible. These thoughtfully curated quotes, verses, and lines set the tone for each chapter and further underline the correlations between salmon and human. Chapters delve into the ancient history of salmon fishing as well as the post-industrial histories of fishing, hatcheries, fish farming (aquaculture), and fly fishing. Lenses focus on practices that have existed in indigenous cultures throughout the globe. The focus moves to explore the evolution of salmon fishing in places such as Alaska, the Pacific Northwest, New England, Scotland, England, Europe, Japan, and the Kamchatka Peninsula. Turns out, we’ve been messing with salmon for a very … long … time. And the author proposes a stout list of actions for us to save them. In sum: “If we can save the planet, the salmon will be all right.”

Salmon is a gorgeous, gorgeous book, its photography on par with nature documentaries or a Patagonia clothing catalog, which is no surprise, since the volume is published by Patagonia Books. The author also includes two dozen recipes for various preparations of salmon and salmon-adjacent foods (hello, Beer Bread baked in an Alaskan fisherman’s cabin). These recipes serve as cultural artifacts, documenting a tradition among peoples across the globe. As Kurlanksy shows us, the salmon deserves this. The heroic fish deserves the weight and heft and beauty reflected in the art, photography, and insight of these pages. “How many species do we lose when we lose a salmon? And how many others do we lose from losing those?” This is a book worth reading to inspire us to ask these worthy questions, and to act before we’re forced to mourn the loss.