Insights from a climate oasis

Author Kathleen Alcalá on learning to become an activist.


Author Kathleen Acalá on Bainbridge Island in Washington.
Jovelle Tamayo

“Ultimately, if we can’t make sustainability work on Bainbridge Island, blessed with an abundance of resources, how can we expect it to work anywhere else?”

Kathleen Alcalá spent six years seeking answers to this question, hitching rides on fishing boats and tramping through vineyards and greenhouses. Her long graying hair disheveled by the wind, she knelt alongside clam diggers on the chilly beaches of Bainbridge Island, Washington, where she and her husband have lived for the past two decades, in a quiet home sheltered by Douglas firs. What she found on Bainbridge was a rich, deep history of food production nourished by the wisdom of generations — from the first inhabitants, the Suquamish Tribes, to the immigrants who came to farm and fish this small woodsy island 10 miles off the coast of Seattle.

Alcalá, who has master’s degrees from both the University of New Orleans and the University of Washington and a BA in linguistics from Stanford, appears serene in the face of climate change. She’s focused on action instead of hand-wringing, and believes that the collective knowledge of various cultures can help us protect temperate, water-rich regions like her island home, allowing them to remain habitable for as long as possible, by as many people as possible.

A novelist and author of the new nonfiction book The Deepest Roots: Finding Food and Community on a Pacific Northwest Island, Alcalá looks to the earliest island residents for clues about how to approach rising temperatures and vanishing snowfall. “The Suquamish understood what was going on with land and food and climate change around them,” she says. “They knew there were cycles much bigger than any individual lifetime.”

The history of farming in the U.S., she points out, has its own cycles, and we have long relied largely on immigrants to cultivate and harvest our food. Bainbridge is no exception. Croatian refugees and Native Americans have tended the fields. First Nations people from Canada came to pick berries, and Japanese Americans farmed until the government forced them into internment camps after Pearl Harbor was bombed.

Kathleen Acalá harvests carrots from her community garden plot.
Jovelle Tamayo

Across the world, Alcalá says, people try to designate an “other,” a scapegoat for social and political issues. “This has happened to the Mexicans over and over in the Western United States,” she explains. “They tend to be more marginalized because it’s easier than owning up to the things that the people in power have done. Even in our politics today, it’s really fear-mongering, it’s this notion that we should be afraid of these people.”

The island’s farmers and fisher folk, with their wealth of knowledge in land and water-use management, are the primary subject of Deepest Roots. A self-described “middle-aged author with a bad back,” she studied those who tended the land before her and gleaned wisdom from neighbors who raise chickens, bees, sheep and heirloom vegetables, even while battling developers to preserve farmland. Inspired, she began to coax her own broccoli and zucchini plants from a rented raised bed. She became political, winning the battle to save a landmark neighborhood fir. And she acknowledged her responsibility to help prepare her community for the inevitable influx of people seeking arable land when heat and drought devastate other parts of the world. “We’re not trying to exclude people from where we live,” she says, “because I think that’s exactly the opposite of what needs to happen.”

Migration away from economic hardship and starvation to a more promising area of the world is nothing new, she reminds us. “Get to know your neighbors. Even if you don’t share their politics, you might really need each other at some point.” As an example, she cites partnerships between farmers and suburban Seattle homeowners that transform front-yard lawns into luxuriant rows of cabbages and lettuce and beans, which are then donated to meal programs and food banks. A nonprofit learning center called IslandWood brings Seattle schoolchildren to Bainbridge; photos show rapt students gazing into pond nets and plunging their hands into compost bins. Alcalá wants to create a similar sea-to-table program, allowing students to observe fishermen and women at work and enabling schools to serve seafood that kids have helped harvest. “And I’d really like to see pea patches and farm areas created closer to schools and homes,” she adds.

Researching her book, Alcalá says, has turned her into a crusader for sustainability. Simply reading about the subject, she observes, is passive. “It’s another thing entirely to give up an evening to go to a city council meeting and try to have input into whether or not we set aside land for agricultural use as opposed to development,” she says. “My hope for this book is that people will come for the scenery and stay for the activism.”

Melissa Hart is the author of two adult memoirs and the YA novel Avenging the Owl. She’s happiest roaming Oregon’s forests and rivers with her husband, 9-year-old daughter and their adventurous rescued terrier.

High Country News Classifieds