Saturday, December 10, 2011

Chuckanut Bay Silverweed

The frosty leaves of Silverweed (Argentina egedii)
Yesterday Katrina and I went to Chuckanut Bay to harvest Pacific Silverweed (Argentina egedii).  We packed our yew wood digging stick and binoculars, and set out on the cloudless day for Mud Bay.  Mud Bay is on the North end of Chuckanut Bay and has marshland where Chuckanut Creek and a smaller, nameless creek that drains Chuckanut Village enter the bay. 

Five years ago Nancy Turner got me excited about Silverweed while discussing a potential research project for my Master’s Degree that would involve close work with Kwaxsistalla, a Kwakwaka’wakw elder and Clan Chief.  Before moving to Victoria, I searched around Bellingham for a place to experiment with Silverweed and found it growing in the Chuckanut Village salt marsh.

Silverweed roots resting on my digging stick
The roots of Silverweed might not seem like the best candidate for a food plant: they are only about as thick as a pencil, are difficult to harvest because they often grow entangled with the woody rhizomes of rushes, and have a bitter flavor.  However, those observations are based on “wild” Silverweed.  Native Americans living on the coast between Washington and Alaska carefully cultivated and weeded garden patches every year to increase the size and abundance of Silverweed and other root vegetables like Spring Bank Clover (Trifolium wormskioldii).  Flavor was also improved by harvesting the roots in the fall, and storing them until the winter when they were an important feast food.

At work in an estuarine salt marsh
Returning to the marsh now and harvesting Silverweed, I realize how much Kwaxsistalla has taught me, and how much more there is to learn.  My thesis experiments only tested the effect of tilling and weeding on Silverweed abundance over a very short time period.  I didn’t have time to explore how long-term harvesting alone may be enough to eliminate less disturbance-adapted vegetation.  Before leaving the Chuckanut Village salt marsh, I couldn’t help but drive a few stakes in the ground that I tended so that I can return and monitor the ecological impact of my meal from the marsh.

I wanted to show Katrina one of the places that Garry Oaks (Quercus garryana) still grow so we went further around Mud Bay to Woodstock Farm.  A few Garry Oaks cling, desperate for sunlight, to the rocky shore of the bay.  I recalled how I recently learned from a Lummi woman that their word for the Chuckanut Mountains means “fires in a line.”  Perhaps the name is an indication of an Aboriginal fire history that would have favored Garry Oaks over the now dominant Douglas Fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii).  A few pit house depressions and a shell midden exposure around the root ball of a wind-thrown Fir were further evidence of the previous productivity of Mud Bay.  It is easy to see the destructive nature of clear-cut logging, but what of the destructive nature of human inactivity….  Fire suppression and fallow gardens choke the biodiversity of this place.
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