Climate change and crabapples

The Pacific Northwest’s climate is changing, and those changes are affecting cultures closely aligned with the land.


Victoria Wyllie de Echeverria, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Oxford, began studying Pacific Northwest climate change through the lens of a fruit harvested by 37 Native cultures from Alaska to Oregon: the crabapple. Now, she’s expanded to ecological changes on the Pacific Coast in general and is interviewing dozens of Alaska Native and Canadian First Nation elders to get a cultural, historical perspective on changes.

What it comes down to, she said at a Sealaska Heritage Institute presentation — she is a visiting scholar at the institute — is that every region has animal and plant species that are notably important to the people of the area. In Southeast, some of those species might be salmon, halibut, blueberries, salmonberries, herring and deer. In coastal British Columbia, First Nation peoples also regularly harvest crabapples.

In Kake, Hoonah and Juneau, people have told her crabapples were something their grandparents used, Wyllie de Echeverria said.

Ecologically, the plants are important because they tend to grow near water, she said. They can stabilize banks or decrease erosion. They also provide food for humans and for animals and have traditionally been important in trade, as food, in medicine and in mythologies.

In her Master’s research, she found unpredictable weather has sometimes made crabapples more difficult to harvest. The sweetest variety (though Western science recognizes only one species, the people of Hartley Bay name five different varieties) grows close to the water and in some places is dying off.

Wyllie de Echeverria is trained as an ethnobotanist, which means she studies how people interact with plants. Now, she’s expanded to ethnoecology — how people interact with, look at, and use ecosystems.

For her broader Ph.D. work, she’s done 16 interviews in Hoonah, nine in Kake, and planned nine in Juneau. She also planned Ketchikan, Hydaburg, Klawock, Prince Rupert, and other communities.

Some elders have told her about glacial melt and less floating ice; less snow, (though some years have had heavy snow); unpredictable weather; warmer air and water temperatures; higher tides; and glacial rebound.

Some new species have appeared, or patterns have changed. For example, small migratory birds might stay for the winter. Some moose have moved from the mainland to islands like Chichagof and Prince of Wales, say Hoonah and Kake residents. In some cases, they were moved by people; in some cases they swam there themselves. Some people have seen tropical fish.

More species have declined than disappeared, Wyllie de Echeverria said, adding that deer, salmon and herring have declined in many places.

Those changes mean people are no longer sure exactly when to harvest certain species, or how much of that species there will be.

Wyllie de Echeverria’s research is ongoing; she plans to address linkages between cultural and biological diversity, how cultures and species change and adapt together, how those changes might continue, and how local people can adjust, according to the abstract of her research.

“(Some things are) hard to put a monetary value on,” she said. “(Money) doesn’t look at people’s interaction with the land. It doesn’t look at the reciprocity of people taking care of the land, and the land taking care of them.”


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