Salal: Listening for the Northwest Understory
November 4, 2013
Review By Theresa Kishkan
I live on forested acreage at the north end of the Sechelt Peninsula, surrounded by salal. I think of Gaultheria shallon as the signature plant of the landscape I have loved my whole life. The glossy leaves belie winter’s chill; the beautiful little flowers, along with salmonberry blooms, are harbingers of spring; the berries (more correctly, the fleshy sepals) are wonderful in pancakes and muffins (cooking them brings out their juice); and a drizzle of salal syrup topped with sparkling wine makes an intensely flavourful cocktail. In late summer, the winey smell of the berries makes a walker in this terrain particularly alert for bears whose dark and seedy scats are as vivid an indication as any of the season’s turning and salal’s importance in the food chain.
Laurie Ricou has written a richly important book about this quintessential plant of the northern Pacific coastal region. His earlier books, The Arbutus/Madrone Files: Reading the Pacific North-west and A Fieldguide to Dungeness Spit, revealed him to be that rare thing: a scholar in the tradition of John Evelyn, Gary Snyder, and Richard Mabey. At large in the natural world, and as alert to poetry as to chlorophyll, Ricou pursues his plant in all its incarnations, from seed to florist commodity to confiture to the rumour of wine. He visits people in all walks of life who have a connection with salal and he tapes their stories. In some ways this book is a fieldguide; it uses the apparatus of identification, habit and habitat, ecology, and notes on ethnobotany to acquaint the reader with salal. Yet on page 21 we are told, “To wander sideways, thus, from the topic of guidebook to writing the connection between ‘shining’ shrub, the surface where animal meets world, and the achievement of human art work, is to signal not only our resistance to being guided, but my sense of this narrative as a whole.”
Wandering sideways with this particular author is a pleasure. The terrain is uncertain but the encounters with horticulturalists, pickers, poets, and explorers make for fascinating travel. We enter facilities where salal is seeded for future groundcovers (and I am reminded of stately gardens in Britain where gardeners proudly show their beds of this homely plant). We learn how to snap a stem of salal where green meets brown and then how to bunch these stems to create a bale. We trace the plant backwards, in an older orthography, into the childhood of the poet Mavis Jones:
I gather memories like seashells
and set them in a box of scented cedar
wood. My fingers stain with berries
as I work. I hold my breath
and listen to the night.
Small creatures rustle under the shallal. (192)
And we share the excitement of botanist David Douglas, encountering salal for the first time in its native soil, on April 8, 1825: “On stepping on the shore Gaultheria Shallon was the first plant I took in my hands. So pleased was I that I could scarcely see anything but it”(147). The photograph on page 82 of his samples from the Fielding-Druce Herbarium at Oxford is particularly moving; the leaves and blossoms are intact, though a little worn, speaking their leathery durable name across the centuries.
There is plenty for all in this book. Those interested in regional history will find lots of it. Theories of ecoforestry and plant science will appeal to the Cartesians. Laurie Ricou wears his learning lightly but pleasingly, eager to share what he discovers but not resorting to difficult and obtuse jargon. He is playful but reverent, an inspiring combination. In choosing to let people tell their stories in their own words, he encourages a diverse and eclectic narrative. The lengthy bibliography attests to the care taken in pursuing salal across geography, through taxonomy, in and about poetry and fiction, and locating its position in coastal economy. If one thing is missing, it’s the glossy green of the plant itself. The illustrations are all in black and white, and although the cover image suggests something of the tone and texture of salal leaves, one wishes for example that Emily Carr’s “Wood Interior, 1932-35” on page 25 could have been reproduced in colour. Or that those unfamiliar with the plant could see the deep wine-dark berries, the delicate blossoms.
When we first moved to our land near Sakinaw Lake, we were surprised to encounter a Native woman from old Egmont in our woods, carrying bundles of salal over her shoulders. She told us this was good salal and that she had picked in these woods her entire life, earning pocket money she could call her own. I remember it as a moment when I learned something important about where I lived – that an ordinary plant could provide this kind of ongoing sustenance. Near the end of the book, Ricou comments that, “Travelling with salal, both moving through space and across the page with eye or pen, I have always been surprised at the connections a little-known shrub initiates…”(205). Read this book for those travels, those surprises, those connections. Savour the richness of the ordinary, the utilitarian, the wonder of arrival with David Douglas at “the long wished-for spot,” (148) which for many of us is right at the edges of our own backyards.