Being Part of Place

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Everglades, Big Cypress Swamp
Everglades, Big Cypress Swamp

Standing thigh-deep in the swamp, I watched an alligator swim toward Fred. My tripod was set up in the water, and we’d been standing in the same spot, in silence, for several hours. Using his small walking stick he gently tapped the gator, frighteningly huge to my eye, on the snout. It slowly turned and swam away.

Fred was my guide, and this was our first trip together. I’d made several trips to the Everglades to photograph, and had finally given in to the fact that I had to be in the water to photograph a place that is all water. I try to learn what the books have to say before I begin photographing in a new place. But I don’t want to be ‟guided.” I was very lucky to find Fred. He’d lived in Big Cypress for over fifty years and seemed to understand what I have learned: that if I am quiet I can sometimes be part of the place.

But I don’t want to talk about the Everglades. Despite efforts by the Miccosukee tribe and many conservation organizations, it is a sad story, with no sign of political will or anything remotely resembling a land or water ethic. Surely we need a better story today. I want to talk about some places and cultures that embody the ethics that have not prevailed in the Everglades. It is the strength and the gentleness of native traditions and cultures that draw me to the landscapes I photograph. Those traditions and cultures live—or lived—with an understanding of the direct connection between the health of the land and the health of the human community.

After the Everglades, my next two projects took me to Washington’s Elwha River valley and to Bhutan. Both places gave me opportunities to photograph and, more importantly, opportunities to witness ways of life based on preservation of land, water, and community.

The Olympic Peninsula in Washington is land which is defined by water. Shaped by water, continually re-shaped by water, surrounded by water, it receives in some places, up to 170 inches of rain a year to support its old-growth forests. That rain feeds a multitude of rivers on the peninsula that empty to the west, into the Pacific Ocean, or to the north, into the Strait of Juan de Fuca. These rivers support salmon species, which depend on the rain to send a pulse of water allowing them to move upstream to spawn.

Lake Mills, above Glines Canyon Dam, Elwha River Lake Mills, above Glines Canyon Dam, Elwha River

The Elwha River is one of many rivers with its source in the Olympic Mountains of western Washington. The Elwha is not the most spectacular of the peninsula rivers. The drainage seems delicate when compared to the Queets or Hoh, the larger rivers that flow west through rain forests into the Pacific. Until two dams were built on the Elwha in the early 1900s, the river was distinguished by legendary salmon runs. Those dams however, provided no fish ladders, so the migrations ended.

I lived on the Olympic Peninsula and over a period of years packed into Olympic National Park where the headwaters of the Elwha are, spending many weeks camping along different sections of the river. The sounds of a river, from placid ripples to a pounding roar, are welcome and mesmerizing. Intact river systems are fairly raucous places, but in this valley some of the cacophony was missing. Except for the sound of rushing water, the valley was strangely quiet because much of the life that belongs on a river was not there.

The Lower Elwha Klallam tribe—people for whom the salmon have great cultural and spiritual significance—live near the mouth of this river. The wholeness of the salmon’s life cycle is seen as one with the wholeness of life. Science affirms the importance of allowing the salmon to complete the pattern of their journey—to swim up the Elwha, to spawn, and to die. When that was not possible the Elwha people lost their primary food source, as did the black bear, eagle, cougar, river otter, raccoon, skunk, mink, and weasel. In fact, more than one hundred species of wildlife are known to eat salmon in and along that river during one or more stages of the salmon’s life cycle. Birds and wildlife carried salmon carcasses away from the river, and the nutrients from the carcasses fed the riparian forest. Without the fish, the health of the forest suffered. In addition to preventing the passage of fish, the dams also stopped the downstream flow of sediment and wood. Sediment is essential to a salmon’s nest building and spawning, and the in-stream wood provides good hiding spots, predator protection for the fish. Without the wood and sediment, the insect larvae, worms, snails, and crayfish that live at the bottom of the river and are food for birds and small mammals could not survive. Sediment is also needed to replenish the nearshore (comprised of shoreline, lower river, and estuary, and extending out one hundred feet from the low-tide zone) and the beaches at the Elwha estuary. Starved of sediment, the nearshore deteriorated. The beaches eroded, eelgrass beds died off, and the population of herring diminished. Nearshore is also a critical environment for otters, birds, and juvenile salmon transitioning from the freshwater river to the sea, where they spend their lives until returning to spawn.

Salmon have a natal stream; they ‟know” that to spawn they must return to the river they came from. For a century, generations of salmon that had their origins in the Elwha gathered at the Lower Elwha Dam, bumping ferociously against it in an effort to get upstream and spawn. In August 2014, after a century of living with the dams and two decades of negotiations, the Lower Elwha people were able to see the last pieces of the dams removed. Now the salmon can pass, and the river is coming back to life. Fish move upstream and spawn, huge schools of herring and smelt collect near the estuary, and with sediment moving downstream, aerial photographs show a startling rebuilding of the beaches at the mouth of the river. Above each of the two dams, where before the dams there had been a narrow river channel, large reservoirs formed that drowned all vegetation. With the river returned to its original channel, and the land that had been inundated exposed, the land is being revegetated with native plants.

Lower Elwha Dam, Elwha RiverLower Elwha Dam, Elwha River

At this moment in this country, this dam removal—which has unbound a river and returned it to wild—is the best good-news story I know. The patience and perseverance of the Elwha people demonstrate what a lived water ethic might look like. In my conversations with them, they explained what they and their ancestors had lived through and that they had never forgotten that the dams must come down.

The Klallam people were moved from their ancestral lands and promised 3,600 acres along the Elwha River. In 1936, after both Elwha dams had been built, the Lower Elwha Tribe were given only 372 of the 3,600 promised acres by the mouth of the river to be used as their reservation. In addition, through a series of legal decisions beginning in 1889, when Washington became a state, and despite existing treaty rights saying otherwise, it was illegal for Indians in Washington to fish until 1974. In 2003 a matriarch of the tribe told me about seeing her mother arrested after being “caught” smoking salmon. Even before the Lower Elwha Klallam were recognized by the U.S. government as an official tribe in 1968—while it was still illegal for them to fish—they worked to get the dams removed. A biologist for the tribe explained to me that they consider themselves “protectors of the salmon. We are like family to each other, and we need each other.” They never ceased work on restoring the salmon’s life cycle, and never saw that cycle as separate from their own lives.

By holding to the importance of an intact river system and always passing that intention to the next generation, the Elwha people showed what an inclusive vision looks like. While they had never been listened to before or consulted on any matter about the river, they illustrated precisely what collaboration and the work of allies can do. And within that process of dam removal—work involving a tremendous amount of research and science—they were willing and able to address ethical and spiritual questions about water—the intangible, unquantifiable, values of water. The effort was one of great faith. When I talked with tribal biologists before dam removal, they weren’t sure what the results of removal would be. The Elwha people knew there was no certainty, either optimistic or pessimistic, about what removing the dams would accomplish.

Elwha River at Goblin Gates 

The dam removal process began with lawsuits by the tribe—lawsuits that were joined by the Seattle Audubon Society, Olympic Park Associates, the Friends of the Earth, and the Sierra Club. When it was agreed that the dams would come down, the work of dam removal became a collaborative effort among many agencies including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Geological Survey, the National Park Service, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the National Marine Fisheries Service.

In his essay about Elwha dam removal, Charles Wilkinson, Moses Lasky Professor of Law at the University of Colorado, writes:

One can hope that broad public involvement will be coupled with an enrichment of our language about water. Our rivers are too diverse, they offer us too much, to be bound up in the bland, confining language of water development. The rivers bring into our lives beauty and joy and contemplation. They inspire us. We feel reverence and wonder and spirituality toward them. They, and the life within them, have their own intrinsic worth. They deserve an ethic. When we speak of rivers, would it not increase the accuracy of our discussions—even the accuracy of our statutes and regulations—to use a broader language and a more inclusive vision?[1]


While the Lower Elwha people lived in an isolation not of their choosing, the small Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan did choose to be isolated, only beginning to open their country to visitors at about the same time as the Elwha were recognized as a tribe. The country has gradually become known to the world because of the extraordinary protection that restriction has provided for Bhutan’s land and culture.

In 1999 I made my first trip to Bhutan. What drew me were stories about a country of more wilderness than cultivated or developed land, with a government that considers protection of those lands fundamental, and a population with reverence for all life.

Kuri River, Thrumshingla National Park Kuri River, Thrumshingla National Park 

The ancient Buddhist and Bon practices that are still alive in Bhutan teach this reverence. More than one-quarter of Bhutan’s territory, covering all its major ecosystems, has been protected. Habitat for plant, animals, and wildlife is extensive and tremendously varied. The Himalayas rise from dense subtropical forest at 700 feet along Bhutan’s southern border with India to 24,000-foot peaks, well above tree line, where Bhutan meets the Tibetan plateau. Bhutan is the exception to the deforestation that has been the rule in the Himalayas, and broadleaf forest habitat, once widespread throughout the region at mid-elevations, now thrives only within Bhutan’s borders. The forest is key to the country’s rich biodiversity.

Between 1999 and 2005 I traveled in Bhutan, spending seven months there altogether. My travels were quite different from those of tourists. I traveled as a guest of the government, and this status gave me considerable freedom to travel to more remote parts of the country. I spent time in nunneries, with village families, and I was able to camp. These connections were essential to my understanding of the land and of the Bhutanese people and their relationship to the land.

Shepherds, Phobjika Valley. Shepherds, Phobjika Valley

I went on a series of treks away from the one major road that runs through the middle of the country. There are no maps and often no trails for these treks, so I always had young Bhutanese guides. Most villages can only be reached by walking, and to get to the more remote villages we often walked four or five days. On every trek we met people moving animals or supplies, or taking crops to trade or sell, and no one ever passed without stopping to talk. The conversations were so animated, spontaneous, and lengthy that it seemed these people knew each other intimately. Sometimes they did, but more often not; generosity of spirit, openness, and love of storytelling is simply the way throughout Bhutan. No one passed without an exchange, and when walking in the same direction, the conversations sometimes went on for miles.

There are people in Bhutan intent on protecting and preserving Bhutan’s tradition and culture. Like the Lower Elwha Klallam, they seem able to live without the certainty of an outcome. Dasho Karma Ura, the President of the Center for Bhutan Studies, explained the Bhutanese attitude about the uncertainty of that country’s future, saying, “In this sociologically interesting period in which we live, we await the outcome of our current choices and look to see what the world will become.” He talked with me about Bhutan’s guiding principle of Gross National Happiness, (GNH):

The goal of GNH in terms of governance is also collective happiness, as opposed to individualistic or private happiness. From a GNH point of view, the most important thing is that the individual should not achieve happiness no matter what the cost to society—either to humans or to other beings. If you achieve your happiness by passing negative consequences on to others, collective happiness is not possible. The understanding of what humans need to be happy is quite comprehensive in GNH. Equally comprehensive is the range of capital that we should value and cherish. GNH, as you can see, addresses development at two levels. At one level, it addresses material needs on the physical realm. It also addresses the inner realm—the intangible, since wellbeing also accrues from the intangible.

Dasho Karma Ura also spoke about the Bhutanese Buddhist way of life that has resulted in the incredible biodiversity of the country:

From a Buddhist point of view, we as people are prone to illusory focus, leading us to behaviors and choices that cause our life course to deviate from happiness. The teachings enjoin us all the time to be aware of that fact. We come back to the realization that although individuals may strive for happiness by their own effort, the fact remains that if the government does not create macro-conditions and policies which cultivate happiness, the individual’s chances of succeeding are lower and narrower. Take the domains of environment, community relationships, good governance, health, education—all of these are very important to our satisfaction and happiness. These things are influenced by public policy; if public policy is wrong, our chances to realize wellbeing or happiness are greatly decreased.[2]

A Bhutanese judge I talked with in Thimphu cautioned me, “We are human; we have the same troubles, the same problems.” But I continue to see Bhutan as a “geography of hope.” As the country opens itself to the world, those relentless pressures that wear on native cultures, wilderness, and humanity across the globe are at work. While those forces build, Bhutan is further refining its policy of Gross National Happiness, and fish are now running up the Elwha.

Tang Valley, BumthangTang Valley, Bumthang

Photo credits: Copyright 2017 Mary Peck. All rights reserved. Used with permission of the artist. Minding Nature Vol. 10, No. 2 cover art by Mary Peck as well.

[1]. “Prisoner of History, Harbinger of Hope,” in M. Peck, Away Out Over Everything: The Olympic Peninsula and The Elwha River(Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2004).

[2]. “Tradition and Culture in Bhutan,” in M. Peck, Bhutan: Between Heaven and Earth (Santa Fe, NM: Merlin Press/Phoenix Art Museum, 2011).

  • Mary Peck

    Mary Peck has been photographing landscape in various parts of the world for over forty years. Her work is held in many collections, including Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris; Art Institute of Chicago; Museum of Fine Arts, Santa Fe; National Museum of American Art, Washington, DC; Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Texas, Austin; and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
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