Have you ever been so filled up with the wonder of a place that it wants to spill out as a song? Well, here is the songbook. I imagine walking through a forest and pausing to read these illuminating pages aloud to a listening cedar or a dipper. There are field guides that help us to see, and to name, and to know; Cascadia Field Guide does all of that and more. This is a guide to relationship, a gift in reciprocity for the gifts of the land. – Robin Wall Kimmerer, author of Braiding Sweetgrass
Fuzzy. Cute. Moving, rolling, swimming, chomping, grooming with energy to beat the band: Sea Otter. Otter is famed for incredibly dense fur, clever use of stones as utensils, and a critical role in nearshore ecology. Otter eats slow-moving fish and invertebrates like crabs, clams, mussels, snails, and importantly, urchins, who would otherwise graze down young kelp fronds. In this way Otter tends and nurtures Cascadia’s kelp forests, their own refuge.
Sea Otter had been long hunted locally by Indigenous people for food and fur, then when Vitus Bering’s ships headed east from Russia in the early 1700s, fur traders instantly saw rubles. Otter was known as “warm gold” in Europe and China, where demand for the fur drove colonialization of coastal Cascadia and exploitation of this being and the people who knew Otter’s habits best.
In recent years, Sea Otter has rebounded in Cascadia with the help of Humans who relocated Otter from healthy Alaskan populations to more southerly locales. Not all people celebrate this return, though, because in the absence of Otter, commercial fisheries for crabs and clams have developed. How will Otter and Human find balance in the future? Stay tuned. Part of the balance will be determined by the cleanliness of our waters: Sea Otter, because they keep warm through fur, not fat, is incredibly sensitive to oil pollution.
But let’s return to Sea Otter backstroking along, unfurred forepaws held up out of the chilly water, round face peering around. Look closer: Does Otter’s nose have scars? If so, you are probably looking at a female, as mating rituals involve violent chomping. Adorable Sea Otter is not sweet—at least not in Human terms. The largest member of the weasel family, Otter has some decidedly feisty traits. Males will bite females on the nose to induce estrus (sometimes they’ll even kidnap pups if a female’s attention is not keen enough), and Otter will harass other beings for no discernable reason other than amusement. Still, seeing a pup nestled on mom’s chest, both napping as they bob in Bull Kelp fronds, makes even the grouchiest grouch soften and sigh, Awww.
That HERACLITEAN SUMMER and a GLIMPSE of GRACE
Ravaged miniature ocean, and you |otters, bobbing like flotsam.
Parched inland, we hardly deserve you. |Lightning strikes its book
of matches. Coyote, deer stepping |from ragged forest hems to find all
aflame. Gunmetal horizon a |box of dust split open, smudged, smoke
blankets, a cloak of ash. Another |year of masks, chokeholds and held
breath, insurrection, collapse. Star-|fish hands pressed to glass, passing
as touch. That anyone’s alive at all, |a miracle too easily dismissed.
Elegant sentinels, otters, |you’ve sniffed extinction. Next? Keystones
in the eco-arch, rich carbon sinks |you balance by existing despite us,
our poisons, our infatuation |with six-pack yokes. Whiskered, lithe, you
fluff silvering cheeks, grin, cradle, |nurse, cuddle, groom. Trust wide seagrass
fronds wrapped to stave a pup’s |drift toward predatory mouths, dive
beside sleek cormorants, bubble |canopies, bladders, blades, to forage, a
favored rock tucked underarm. Braid |understories of golden rope, stipes,
stems, shafts of fin-threaded light. |Snouts lifted, bead eyes toy-bright, tuned
to skies whirling with snowy egrets, |herons, gulls. You lie back into the sea’s
breathing, reach for paws of |strangers clutched close on both sides, ride
swells together, your raft salvation |beneath whatever weather comes,
though we’ll be long gone. And this |other ocean, wheeling stars, pricked
archer, seven sisters, Orion’s |belt, Hydrus, both dippers, Libra’s scales,
so cold, far-off, unfathomable, |always, and never ours at all, but yours.
Raya Friday is a member of the Lummi nation whose tribal lands are situated on the edge of the Salish Sea near Bellingham, Washington. She was born and raised in Seattle where, from an early age, she focused most of her time and energy in the arts. Since 1995, she has worked primarily in glass. Friday earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Alfred University in New York and, while there, started working at the renowned Corning Museum of Glass first as a technician and later as an instructor. Friday returned to the Pacific Northwest to be close to the land and community she loved. In 2019, she decided to return to school to pursue a humanities degree in Indigenous studies in the Native Pathways Program at Evergreen State College, where she is currently still a student. The intention of Friday’s work is to explore how the unique and haunting vocabulary of glass can amplify and encapsulate both the historical and contemporary issues of her community.
Header image, Eastern Rivers Cluster, by Justin Gibbens, from Cascadia Field Guide.