By the time you read this story, what it describes will probably have disappeared under the waves.
This is how it was supposed to be – and how it was before.
From time immemorial, as the saying goes, the people of what is now Washington and British Columbia cultivated the sea with a type of environmental engineering called clam gardening.
By the time the Europeans arrived here, the practice was lost.
“It was stolen from us,” Swinomish Tribal Senator Alana Quintasket told KUOW. “All of our teachings, all of our practices, our connection to this place, our connection to each other, our connection to all living beings was stolen from us with settler colonialism.”
Quintasket stood in the mud where Skagit Bay becomes Kiket Island.
“We are working hard to restore those practices, to bring those teachings back, and to restore our relationships,” she said.
A few dozen people wearing work gloves and rubber boots gathered on this small island about 50 miles north of Seattle during one of the lowest tides of the year.
“We’re starting to build the rock wall for our clam garden,” Quintasket said.
A clam garden – a traditional, indigenous way to boost shellfish production – is believed not to have been built in the United States for nearly 200 years.
Rock by rock, this muddy gathering is a game-changer.
As burly men struggle to push carts of rocks through the mud, adults and children form a long line to the water’s edge. Each link in the human chain twists at the waist to give a heavy stone to the next person until they approach the emerging wall. Conversation and laughter abound.
“We’re going over boulders,” said Marcia Julius de LaConner, a Swinomish Tribe historical curator and tribesman. “It seems to make more sense than all of us going back and forth.”
If you’ve ever heard the tribal saying “when the tide goes out, the table is set”, then you have an idea of the importance of seashells to indigenous cultures in this part of the world.
“It’s definitely part of who we are,” said Julius, who was helping build the wall with his three children. “Our lives run better when we can eat our traditional foods.”
Gradually, 33 tons of hand-carried rock coalesce into a wall about knee-high and nearly 200 feet long. It arcs along a contour line 2 feet below typical low tide. Most of the time, the wall will be submerged, invisible to visitors to the Kukutali Reservation, co-managed by the Swinomish Tribe and Washington State Parks.
Over time, the sturdy but porous structure should capture sediment from the upland side and expand the shallow, gently sloping habitat for things like butter and littleneck clams.
As with any backyard garden, ongoing maintenance—in this case, removing rocks and algae from clam-growing areas and digging into the sediment with sticks to aerate it—will help ensure a harvest. productive.
Clam gardens grow four times as many butter clams and twice as many littleneck clams as beaches without terraces, according to a study of dozens of former clam gardens around Quadra Island, British Columbia. Young littleneck clams planted in the centuries-old terraces grew almost twice as fast, making more local protein available to shellfish harvesters.
Michael Wilson of the Pauquachin Nation on Vancouver Island came from Canada to help.
“The seaweed, the crabs, the clams, the oysters, everything comes right behind his wall, and he’s protected, and he’ll be more nutritious than when there’s no wall here,” Wilson said.
In British Columbia, a few First Nations, as Aboriginal groups are known there, have rebuilt clam gardens, traces of which had survived centuries of disuse.
“We wanted to have as much food as possible for our people,” Wilson said.
The members of these First Nations share their expertise and their muscles on the other side of the invisible and watery border with Washington.
“These teachings have been with us for thousands of years. The government didn’t want us to do this,” said Woody Underwood of the Tsawout Nation on Vancouver Island.
Carbon dating has shown that some clam gardens near Vancouver Island are as old as the Egyptian pyramids: 3,500 years or more.
Between forced resettlement and other human rights abuses, Canadian governments have nearly eradicated this ancient practice.
“In Canada, we were colonized by the plow,” Underwood said. “They wanted to make us farmers.
Underwood says it’s been a long time, but Coast Salish people on both sides of the border are bouncing back.
“So seeing us here today, guess what? Not only have we survived, but we are thriving,” he said.
“I’m just grateful that my children were able to be here and witness and be part of what will be here for generations to come,” Julius said.
It is unclear how soon all rock hauling on Kiket Island will benefit Swinomish regimes.
It takes about three years for a butter clam to reach a harvestable size, according to Marco Hatch, a marine ecologist at Western Washington University and a member of the Samish Nation.
“What we’re doing here is something that hasn’t been done in living memory, which is building a clam garden from scratch,” Hatch said. “So we don’t really know how long it takes for these sediments to fill in or what it’s going to look like.”
On the beach, the long chain of rock smugglers looks like an old-fashioned bucket brigade to fight a fire.
But it’s more like a rock brigade to fight climate change.
Pieces of crushed seashells are expected to wash up and pile up behind the wall.
They can locally neutralize some of the carbon dioxide that makes seawater more acidic and less hospitable to shellfish, as well as overheating the planet.
“We stand with our sea loved ones in times of crisis,” said Quintasket, Senator Swinomish. “It’s not just about climate change anymore. We are in crisis mode, and there is only a little work we can do to support their household to ensure they survive with us.
While the ecological benefits could take years to materialize, the human benefits have already begun.
“Our people getting to know each other is as important as the restoration work we do,” Underwood said, “because we are restoring our culture.”
The Coast Salish were cut off from many of their relatives and natural resources after the Oregon Treaty of 1846 drew a zigzag border between the United States and Canada halfway between Vancouver Island and the North American mainland.
“It’s more than just moving stones and building a wall. It brings back who we are as Coast Salish people, as Indigenous people to this place,” Quintasket said.
Quintasket says one of the biggest benefits of muddy manual labor has been working with tribal relatives across that saltwater border.
“It brought nations together that hadn’t been brought together for generations, you know?” she says.
Some walls divide communities. This unites them.