Bainbridge Island author Kathleen Alcalá wonders about the sustainability of our local food resources.
If needed, could the people in your region support themselves with locally grown food?
That’s the basic question Kathleen Alcalá of Bainbridge Island takes up in “The Deepest Roots: Finding Food and Community on a Pacific Northwest Island” (University of Washington Press, 358 pp, $28.95). The book’s explorations, though, are far broader: She’s not putting herself on a larkish 100-mile diet, but trying to examine her community’s past and future in a bigger way through history lessons, interviews and personal experience.
As one farmer told her, when she asked if she could trade labor for food in case of a future food shortage, “Oh, man. How do I answer that? If you were friends and family, we would share, on a short-term basis. On a long-term basis, I don’t know.”
The author of “The Deepest Roots: Finding Food and Community on a Pacific Northwest Island” will appear at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 10, at Book Larder, 4252 Fremont Ave. N., Seattle; free, reservations suggested (206- 397-4271 or booklarder.com).
Alcalá’s own background is well-suited to ask how her island home has been affected by human migration, Native traditions, hard times and the culture of food.
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She’s lived in the Northwest for more than 20 years, but was raised in Southern California, the child of Mexican immigrants raised during the Depression, with a grandmother who was half Opata Indian. She’s also the author of three novels, a short-story collection and a book of essays.
Her explorations, sparked by health concerns, should be of particular interest to Bainbridge Island residents for its illuminating stories of one-time strawberry farmers, of Japanese-American residents sent to internment camps in World War II, of the Bainbridge “Indopino” culture created when Filipino men married First Nations women, and how politics and development are still changing and challenging the peninsula. One interesting fragment is learning that Town & Country Market, a major grocery with deep roots on Bainbridge, “would be out of food within one day if off-island supplies were cut off.”
The issues Alcalá explores are relevant beyond Bainbridge’s boundaries, though, from the meaning of a homeland to the questions of who has power in the modern world and who has responsibility.
After all, as she notes in her introduction, “Bainbridge simply provides a microcosm of the choices we will all have to make as members of the human race.”
There are arcs and themes in her story, from the life cycle of wild salmon to the ancient petroglyphs carved on an island boulder, but “The Deepest Roots” is not tautly plotted; we’re traveling on a journey with Alcalá rather than being driven to a destination. She digs for geoduck, visits farms, grows a garden, recalls the foods of her own past, meets the man who saved a century-old walnut tree from development by threatening to chain himself to it.
Sometimes I felt that I was too much of a fly on the wall of her conversations — I wanted her to edit details that seemed extraneous and synthesize her research rather than quote websites and interviews at such length. The scattered practical advice on sustainability reads more like lecture notes than a practical guide (sample: “Children need to know early on where their food comes from, and who grows, harvests, and prepares it.”). Other times I just enjoyed the stream of information on issues that are crucial but rarely explored at this level. The stories have the effect of coming to the reader as they came to the writer, raising as many difficult questions as they answer.