Category Archives: book

The Fly Tapes: Episode 3

Recently I had the pleasure of talking with Jason Rolfe, a writer and fishing guide who uses fly-fishing as the put-in to navigate an ever-changing stream of words, art, and ideas through a variety of mediums. In addition to guiding and taking shifts at my local flyshop, Emerald Water Anglers in West Seattle, Jason operates the Syzygy Fly Fishing web site, runs a podcast called The Fly Tapes, and is the impresario behind Writers on the Fly, a traveling reading series that combines tales inspired by fly-fishing with visual art, music, conservation, and beer (not necessarily in that order).

In episode three of The Fly Tapes I talk to Jason about salmon culture, the recent release of my book Upstream: Searching for Wild Salmon, from River to Table, and the writing life, among many other  topics, in a wide-ranging conversation that might as well be taking place in a drift boat deep within a basalt slot canyon.

In related news, this week kicks off the second annual Cascadia Tour for Writers on the Fly, with readings/happenings in Bend (11/14) Portland (11/15), Seattle (11/16), Bellingham (11/17), and Vancouver, BC. (11/18) I’ll be at the PDX gig this Wednesday with several other esteemed writers, artists, conservationists, and moon-howlers.

The Wall Street Journal Reviews UPSTREAM

wsjDear Readers, I’d like to share The Wall Street Journal‘s review of Upstream with you in full as it isn’t available online without a subscription. The review, by David Profumo, appeared in the weekend edition, June 24.

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Chinook, sockeye, coho, chum, humpback, steelhead—they sound like a lineup of heavy metal bands, but these are all species of the Pacific salmon genus Oncorhynchus, a charismatic tribe of silvery migrants once so prolific that they were used for fertilizer and dog food but are now, in places, so embattled that some fragile populations face extinction. In the words of Langdon Cook, author of this invigorating book, “They’re dissolving into fable.”

At the heart of “Upstream” is a journey—the oldest shape in literature. It follows the precarious odyssey of these fish that are born in freshwater streams, swim down to feed and mature in the ocean, then run up again to spawn just once, and die. This is known as anadromy (eels, which do the reverse, are catadromous), and salmon’s dramatic life story has captivated the imagination of many peoples in the Northern Hemisphere, eliciting wonder at the salmon’s powers of endurance and giving rise to fluvial myths and seasonal ceremonies that persist even though the heyday of great abundance is largely gone.

In tracing the history and life cycle of these iconic creatures, Mr. Cook embarks on a series of his own journeys—14 nicely episodic chapters that explore how and where such fish still survive in the modern world, despite the threats of logging, dams, the diversion of running water for domestic and commercial uses, overfishing, and climate change. It is a saga that has been told before but seldom with such immediacy and panache.

“Upstream” covers a lot of ground. We begin in a high-end Seattle restaurant, where the season’s first, greatly prized king salmon are being prepared for table. They hail from Alaska’s Copper River, where the annual catch is carefully monitored, but elsewhere the situation is becoming dire. Along the Columbia River in Washington, “harnessed for power” by the Grand Coulee Dam, 1,200 miles of spawning grounds were closed off and a 10,000-year-old tribal havesting spot obliterated back in 1957. Today the salmon runs on the Columbia are augmented by hatchery fish, pale imitations (“an illusion that everything is okay,” in Mr. Cook’s words), but if you want the real thing, you will have to buy it beneath the Bridge of the Gods, from Native American netsmen who are the only people licensed to catch wild chinook there—a source of continuing controversy.

As he visits other waterways that have similarly become part of engineered landscapes—the Golden State’s Sacramento River is “on life support,” the Snake River in Oregon and Idaho has been “handcuffed” by dams and is thronged with newly prolific predators—the author encounters a spirited cast of characters that includes foodies, eco-warriors, sport anglers, local bureaucrats and zealots of every stripe, all of them passionate and often at loggerheads with one another over the use of fresh water, the lifeblood of every region. From the remote gill-netting community of Cordova, Alaska, to British Columbia’s fabled Kispiox River, “Upstream” charts numerous conflicting attitudes toward the sharing of natural resources.

Even the existence of hatcheries is contentious. In a lively chapter titled “The Ballad of Lonesome Larry,” Mr. Cook describes the painstaking efforts of scientists at Idaho’s Eagle Fish Hatchery to sustain a sockeye run that has to migrate 900 freshwater miles and surmount eight hydroelectric dams. This certainly appears a heroic undertaking by all concerned, but some purists regard reared salmon as “zombies” and “clones” that merely dilute the gene pool when funds would be better applied to habitat preservation in the “strongholds” where wild populations are hanging on. There seems to be precious little agreement.

Throughout these sorties, Mr. Cook is a congenial and intrepid companion, happily hiking into hinterlands and snorkeling in headwaters. Along the way we learn about filleting techniques, native cooking methods and self-pollinating almond trees, and his continual curiosity ensures that the narrative unfurls gradually, like a long spey cast. One arresting example is his description of the reef-netters on Lummi Island, in the Puget Sound. Here entrepreneur Riley Starks has revived a traditional practice of luring sockeye salmon down an avenue of ropes and colored ribbons to the waiting net, where they are individually handled, thus avoiding any wasteful bycatch. The fish taste better, too, because they are “untainted by a stressful death,” whereas salmon caught with gill nets “might spend hours, or maybe even an entire night . . . hanging dead in the net.” There are now fewer than 100 reef-netters working anywhere, none of them Indian. “Upstream” may bristle with fins, but the human factor is a crucial aspect of each journey.

As well as being a gastronome and a naturalist, Mr. Cook is a passionate angler. Homo piscatorius tends to see the aquatic world with a sportsman’s peculiar intensity, and he is good on the beauty and “otherness” of his elusive quarry. On Washington State’s Drano Lake, he drags plug baits and cranks in a hatchery-bred 12-pounder; from a secret “honey-hole” in Oregon, he lands a fine 20-pound king salmon with guide extraordinaire Guido Rahr. In the penultimate chapter (“Herding the Pinks”), he joins a flotilla of die-hard aficionados on Labor Day fishing Seattle’s industrialized Duwamish River in pursuit of the often despised little “humpies,” or pink salmon, despite the trash compactors and barge traffic. (This type of urban angling is becoming a global cult: In April, I was fly-casting to catfish just upstream of the Ponte Vecchio in downtown Florence.) The chapter ends with a kid triumphantly yelling, “I’ve got one”—a phrase, as Mr. Cook says, “as old as language itself.”

With a pedigree that includes Mark Kurlansky, John McPhee and Roderick Haig-Brown, Mr. Cook’s style is suitably fluent, an occasional phrase flashing like a flank in the current. One stream is described as sauntering languidly, like “an elderly flâneur out for a morning constitutional”; a spawning king has “pectoral fins working like frayed Chinese fans.” For all its rehearsal of the perils and vicissitudes facing Pacific salmon, “Upstream” remains a celebration. Given half a chance, nature is resilient, like a thistle muscling up through tarmac. This is not a work of eco-worship, but early on in his book Mr. Cook observes, “Our planet, the only one known to have life on it, is nothing short of a miracle.” Could we please have that entered in the minutes?

—Mr. Profumo is the fishing correspondent for Country Life magazine in the U.K.

Upstream On Sale Today

upstreamMy new book, Upstream: Searching for Wild Salmon, from River to Table, goes on sale today. Pick up a copy at your local indie book store, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Apple iBooks. It’s also available as a free audiobook with an Audible trial.

The timing of the book’s release has been known for more than a year, but we couldn’t have predicted the socio-political atmosphere it would land in. Wild salmon have survived all manner of tectonic tumult through the ages, from fire to ice, in part because of their genetic diversity and legendary resilience. The human-caused upheaval of land use, economics, and politics is more recent. Even more recent is the acrimony and partisanship that gets in the way of people coming together to solve problems.

Wild salmon face myriad problems today—and so do we. Most of their problems are our problems. We are tied to these fish like no other, and taking a closer look at our relationship with salmon strikes me as a worthy pursuit, especially in light of current events.

A big thank-you to everyone who helped me see this book into print as well as my many readers and supporters. I sincerely hope you enjoy Upstream and find passages that stay with you.

Monday, June 5, I will talk about the book and show slides at Town Hall Seattle, 7:30 pm.

New Book on May 30!

upstreamI’m pleased to announce that my new book, Upstream: Searching for Wild Salmon, from River to Table, will be released on May 30. The official book launch will be at Town Hall Seattle on June 5. The night before, on June 4, I will host a four-course salmon dinner at La Medusa restaurant in Seattle with the Field Trip Society, featuring Copper River salmon freshly caught by my friends at Drifters Fish in Cordova, Alaska. Both events are open to the public.

Back to the book. For the past several years, I’ve been chasing salmon—and those who love them—across the greater Pacific Northwest, from the agricultural valleys of California to Alaska’s wild rivers to the inland mountains of Idaho. Along the way I picked nets with commercial and tribal fishermen; snorkeled spawning beds with fisheries biologists; visited the kitchens of salmon-obsessed chefs; and casted a line with hardcore anglers.

Our relationship with these magnificent fish goes back thousands of years in North America, to the arrival of the first humans on a formerly unpeopled continent. Now the question is whether this bond, so vital for so long, will continue.

Here are snippets from early reviews:

From Kirkus: A tale of a species on life support and the ramifications for people, nature, and place… Exposing striking human-salmon parallels, these stories tell of settlement and cultural clashes, of life cycles and migrations, of deforestation and industrial agriculture, of racism and gentrification, and Cook skillfully illustrates the interconnectedness of it all. Seeking the wild in a landscape fraught with man-made alteration and annihilation, the author interrogates the nature of wildness, posing urgent, provocative questions… Blurring boundaries and complicating the oversimplified, Cook provides a moving, artfully layered story of strength and vulnerability, offering glimpses of hope for growing humility and reverence and for shifting human-nature relationships.

From Publishers Weekly: In this insightful book, Cook clearly outlines scientific information, giving details on the salmon’s life cycle, distribution, preferred habitat, and physical appearance. But the focus here is less on facts and research and more on how “Pacific salmon culture in North America is a dance between fish and humanity.” Cook connects with chefs, fishermen, ecologists, fish wranglers, reef netters, Native Americans, and countless others to get their perspectives on the state of dwindling salmon stocks and the impact on them of fish hatcheries, commercial fishing, dam building/removal, and wildlife conservation. In the end, Cook acknowledges that salmon’s recovery, just like its demise, will come from people…this work is a great place to learn what needs to done—and an entertaining view on the positive and negative connections humans have with the natural environment.

From Library Journal: Cook deftly conveys his love of nature, the beauty of the Pacific Northwest, and the delectable eating provided by fresh caught wild salmon…passionate and well-written.

From Booklist: Cook’s salmon travelogue easily appeals to anglers, salmon eaters, nature lovers and everyone in between. The Pacific salmon is a great American fish, and by writing about it with such care and curiosity, Cook establishes its ecological importance and tells a great American story.

Mushroom Fever

millmanSome of you in warmer climes are already out there, scouring the woods for the favorite fungi of spring. Morel fever is back, exacting its toll once again. No doubt legions of mushroom hunters are walking around right now at this very moment with stiff necks and eyeballs ready to pop out of their heads. But for the rest of us, we can only wait in anticipation for such symptoms.

Or settle back into the armchair for a vicarious thrill.

I’ve been traipsing through Larry Millman’s new collection of fungal vignettes, Giant Polypores & Stoned Reindeer, to keep the fever at bay. It’s the sort of off-season reading we all need on occasion: a reminder that somewhere, someone is enjoying our favorite pursuit, and soon—soon!—we will be that someone.

Millman brings a visceral appreciation and a traveler’s erudition to the mushroom hunt. He forages among the headhunters of Borneo; takes a trip to northern Siberia in search of Santa’s favorite shroom; and journeys to the opposite pole in his imagination, where the mushrooms of the mind take on epic proportions. One of his well known articles, “Notes on the Ingestion of Amanita muscaria,” is included here, with the memorable line: “Larry is drinking a beer, and he says he can relate to the bottle, that the bottle can relate to him, and that the two of them are actually enjoying each other’s company.”

In “The Thrill of the Hunt,” Millman diagnoses the fever as much larger than a quest for mere edibles, illustrating that it may not even require a walk in the woods. His beat-up Chevy Nova’s back seat carries a variety of mold and rust passengers. A friend’s brassiere is filled with inky caps. Should you find an owl pellet, he advises, “look at it closely: there might be an Onygena species growing on it.” The essay concludes with a visit to a touristy spot in Death Valley, California, where, against the odds, he stumbles upon “a group of stalked puffballs lifting their heads proudly to the bright desert sky.”

In other words, we are surrounded by the kingdom of fungi. Open your eyes—and your mind—and you might cure that fungal fever in the most unlikely of places. Millman’s new book is an entertaining and informative panacea for all that ails us mushroom hunters.

For those of you in the Seattle area, Larry Millman will be speaking at the Puget Sound Mycological Society on May 13, 7:30 p.m.

New York Area Slideshows

sisters2For all my East Coast readers, I’m bringing The Mushroom Hunters back to the New York area in the first week of March. I’ll be giving slide presentations at three mycological societies in the Tri-state area: the New Jersey Mycological Association in Basking Ridge, New Jersey; the Connecticut-Westchester Mycological Association in Purchase, New York; and the New York Mycological Society in Manhattan.

If you’re a member of any of these organizations, I hope to see you there. If not, maybe this a good opportunity to think about joining one and delving more deeply into the kingdom of fungi. Becoming a member of a mycological society is the single best way to learn about edible mushrooms.

I’ll be showing slides and telling stories about the hidden economy of wild mushroom harvesting, from patch to plate—the pickers, buyers, chefs, and others who make up this little known wild food chain, with its echoes of the Gold Rush and free-wheeling frontier-style capitalism.

Here’s more information on my upcoming slide talks:

March 2, 1:30 p.m. New Jersey Mycological Association. Somerset County Environmental Education Center on Lord Stirling Road in Basking Ridge, NJ.

March 4, 7:30 p.m. Connecticut-Westchester Mycological Association. Friends Purchase Meeting House, Purchase, NY.

March 5, 6:30 p.m. New York Mycological Society. New York Horticultural Society, 148 West 37th, 13th floor, Manhattan.

2014 Pacific Northwest Book Award

I’m excited to share the news that The Mushroom Hunters has won a 2014 Pacific Northwest Book Award! Some of my favorite writers are past winners; my head is spinning…

A sincere and heartfelt thank you to all those readers and bookstores across the region for their support. I’ve been overwhelmed by enthusiasm for the book, and it goes without saying that this has been a dream of mine—to journey deep into nature’s secret garden and come back with a story that resonates with a wide audience—so I’m incredibly grateful.

I’d also like to acknowledge two arts foundations that provided financial support at critical junctures, enabling my “boots-on-the-ground” research in far-flung places: Artist Trust and 4Culture. The work they do to promote the creative process cannot be overstated.

On Saturday, February 8, at 7 p.m., I’ll be at Elliott Bay Books in Seattle for the award ceremony. Elliott Bay is my local. It’s where my first book event was held, and I look forward to coming full circle for this occasion. Hope to see some of you there!

Signed Gift Books

mushroom_hunters_gift_cover Give a signed copy of The Mushroom Hunters to the readers on your holiday gift list! I’m happy to inscribe, sign, and mail books. The cost is $25 for the book, including tax (a discount on cover price), plus $5.60 to ship each copy priority mail with 2-3 day delivery, for a total of $30.60.

Contact me at finspotcook AT gmail DOT com with mailing address and recipient name, and I’ll send you PayPal instructions. No gift wrap. Hurry while supplies last and there’s still time to send priority mail.

Everyone knows Santa loves mushrooms… Happy holidays!

Seattle Book Events

well_readTwo pieces of good news: The Mushroom Hunters was just short-listed for the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Awards (thank you local indies!), and my first TV interview will be broadcast on the PBS show Well Read. Admittedly, I didn’t sleep much before the interview (and I had a frog in my throat, the first cold of the season), but the 30-minute conversation flew by in a blink, and I thoroughly enjoyed talking with host Terry Tazioli, who is smart, curious, and an all-around good guy.

I’ll be staying close to home through the remainder of 2013, with plenty of readings and slide talks planned for the Seattle area. If you’re curious about edible fungi or the hidden subculture of mushroom pickers and buyers, stop by one of these events:

Next Stop, the Big Apple

newyork1The West is now home, but I never pass up a chance to revisit my childhood roots and plug into the electrical current that is New York City. On November 21, at 7 p.m., Slow Food NYC is hosting me for a slide presentation in Brooklyn, at Fitzcarraldo restaurant, and I guarantee a good time for all.

The picture above was snapped a few years ago from the inside of a wild mushroom delivery van as it hustled several hundred pounds of Oregon chanterelles from Newark International Airport to the finest restaurants in Manhattan and Brooklyn. You can’t research North America’s fast-and-loose wild mushroom trade and not visit the most fabled eateries on the continent, where fungi have been elevated to a place among the top ingredients in a chef’s pantry. I write about my time in New York in a chapter titled “Ingredients as Art,” a phrase borrowed from Sam Sifton’s 4-star review of Del Posto in The New York Times. President Obama happened to be in town to light the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center, and Occupy Wall Street protesters had just been evicted from Zuccotti Park. As always, electricity was in the air.

If you’re in the New York area and you’re curious about the wild mushroom trail—and the colorful characters who make their living on this itinerant, informal circuit—then come on by, have a beer, and stay for the presentation. I’ll be showing slides and talking about the book.