Book Review: Homewaters: A Human and Natural History of Puget Sound by David B. Williams

I was born in a hospital in Seattle and raised in the Puget Sound area of the state of Washington. In my childhood and young manhood I have fished for salmon and rockfish, dug for clams and geoducks, and confronted a black bear in a forest on the Olympic Peninsula. Then I took off on the road to find my voice as a writer and returned to this enigmatic area after living overseas for thirty-five years. Much has changed. The hospital in which I drew my first breath no longer exists, and gone are the days when it was possible to go salmon fishing and come back, as my family did, with the back end of the station wagon weighed down with a heaping pile of fish. One expedition like that a year would supply us with many months’ worth of salmon for freezing, canning, and smoking.

Having visited dozens of countries and observed a number of places renowned for their visual splendor, I can tell you with certainty that the Puget Sound region is one of the most beautiful spots on the planet. Homewaters takes a close look at the area, its first human inhabitants, and its non-human denizens with appreciation and even reverence. As I read this history, I became nostalgic as scene after scene of decades-old memories played on my inner cinema screen, but even readers who were not raised here can enjoy a close look at a fascinating and enigmatic region of the world.

The book begins with an interesting analysis of how various places in the sound were named by indigenous peoples and by European explorers. This is followed by a geographical description of Puget Sound past and present and then an overview of the history of the first human inhabitants, the various tribes that inhabited (and still inhabit) the sound, and the invasion of the area by Europeans. There follows an analysis of warfare between various indigenous tribes and military efforts to fortify the area against foreign intrusion. Another interesting section tells of the evolution of transportation on the waterways of the sound, starting with the well-crafted canoes of Native Americans, then the locally owned “mosquito fleet” of small ships, and finally the elaborate network of the state ferry system.

Up until this point, the main emphasis of the book has been the human history of Puget Sound. Williams then devotes several chapters to the unique denizens of the waters of the sound, including the vast underwater kelp forests, the swarms of herring, the deep-dwelling rockfish, the shellfish (primarily clams, geoducks, and oysters), the salmon, and the massive awe-inspiring orcas. Each of these chapters on natural history provides a before and after look, comparing past abundance with current depletion. The author makes a strong case for strict regulations to curb pollution and limit consumption of the sound’s edible inhabitants so that the ecosystem can recover from the ignorant greed and decimation of the past.

This is an entertaining book about a singular and beautiful part of the world. If you’re from the Puget Sound area, you’ll enjoy reading about your home turf. If you’re from anywhere else, you’ll thrill to a vicarious journey to a land of towering evergreens, fecund waters, and fascinating wildlife.

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