On a shore of Bainbridge Island, a rock with ancient Squamish petroglyphs, Haleets, offers wisdom from the past and simultaneously issues warnings to its human population about the looming possibility of an irreversible climate crisis. In The Deepest Roots: Finding Food and Community on a Pacific Northwest Island, Kathleen Alcalá weaves in her personal meditations on Haleets as she tells Bainbridge Island’s story through the theme of food production with archival research about the island’s historic communities, interviews with people who are involved in food production, social commentary, and personal narrative. Alcalá also includes elements of religious history and spiritual practice in her writing, which bring a refreshing perspective on food and food production that shows readers a deep sense of interconnectedness.
I recommend this book for Cascadian graduate students studying practical eco-theology. Through the book, graduate students are given an interconnected history and glimpse into the interlocking systems of support and oppression that are endemic to the Cascadian region. These systems are core considerations of ecotheology. The book’s format is easily accessible, which also makes it a great text for Christian community groups in Cascadia wanting a book that covers racism, capitalism, regional religious history, ecology, chronic illness, agriculture, and community. As this book review shows, Alcalá’s work is important for Christians in Cascadia who need a model for how to love and relate to this place.
Kathleen Alcalá is a fantasy author and a resident of the island since the 90s. Because of the intersections of Alcalá’s identity, this book has a sub-focus on indigeneity, religion, and spirituality in her examination of Bainbridge Island’s historic and current foodways. Alcalá’s family history is the source of those threads in the book. She is of Mexican descent and has Ópata (an indigenous people from the Southwest U.S. and Northern Mexico) heritage from her maternal grandmother. Her father and grandfather were ordained Methodist ministers and she had both a Catholic and Protestant upbringing, but she more recently converted to Judaism and is a member of the Kol Shalom Reform Jewish community on Bainbridge Island. Her rich ethnic and religious background and troubling hereditary health issues allow her to ask questions about life, specifically a well-lived life, from varying perspectives.
What sets her book apart from similar offerings about ecology and agriculture is her ability to retell stories in a way that interprets and includes faith and spirituality with a critical and hospitable multicultural consideration, as well as her imaginative proposals for a thriving community. This is something I wish more Christian pieces were able to accomplish. Alcalá is not beholden to dogmatic parameters, and, thus, can weave freely through varying analytical and reflective tones due to her social locations.
Themes Engaged by The Deepest Roots
Alcalá tackles themes of survival, connection, ceremony, and ritual in Bainbridge Island’s food culture throughout the island’s human history. Life in community and communal practices look different in 2022 than they did even 50 years ago, and by examining how history has played out on the island, Alcalá chooses to look at food as an embodiment of the human condition. In the same way taking communion isn’t simply about eating bread or wafers and drinking wine or grape juice, foodways hold significance both in their symbolism and provision. Alcalá takes a similar line of thinking as she investigates the local food culture on Bainbridge Island.
The theme of survival holds an apocalyptic intrigue in the book, but Alcalá poignantly complicates this theme by interrogating the history of systemic racism on the island. This includes stories of the formation of Indipinos (Filipino and Squamish mixed-race families), Japanese families that were interned during World War II, immigrant Croatian fishing families, Latino migrant workers, retired white couples who moved to the island, young intern farm hands, and current food producers—grocers, farmers, and restaurant owners—on the island. The book feels a little like a time-travel field trip exploring how different groups of people lived and survived on the island. Alcalá intersperses interviews with descendants of previously ostracized communities and food producers on the island with what she found through archival materials to construct a layered anthropocentric story of Bainbridge Island that starts with the pre-colonial Suquamish and Squamish tribes and ends with the current reality of the overdeveloped island in 2016 (when the book was published). Tackling the question of human survival through the lens of food and all that’s connected to it on Bainbridge Island reveals a human story that is still unfolding.
The Deepest Roots is relevant to Christianity in Cascadia because telling stories that make explicit connections between creation and human impact is important, even if the focus of the story is not obviously on the Creator or divinity. The Deepest Roots engages ecological care, hyper-local community, pluralism, and profound storytelling that holds both pain and hope for survival, and it is an investigation into a salvation of sorts. The salvation imagined is one that is dependent on human care and not simply on the divine.
In Religion at the Edge: Nature, Spirituality, and Secularity in the Pacific Northwest, Paul Bramadat proposes the framework of reverential naturalism, a way of physically being in a particular geography, for Cascadians’ connection and participation with the natural world across faiths and religion, or lack thereof. For more details on that book, read Seth Thomas’s review. In The Deepest Roots, Alcalá beautifully demonstrates reverential naturalism (albeit not centered on Christianity). Yet, Alcalá’s narrative framework is a method of storytelling that ecologically minded Christians can adapt when engaging their place of residence and when contending for its thriving—land and creatures—from a multicultural and pluralist standpoint.
The Importance of The Deepest Roots
The Deepest Roots models a way of engaging stories and histories that highlights interlocking social politics through fundamental subsistence: food. Readers will find that the foodways touch on spirituality, culture, history, place, and story. Alcalá’s narrative examination reveals more than just what is eaten; it also reveals how that connects to beliefs and hope, and how those ideas are lived out. At first glance, the book seems like it will be about agriculture and local growing practices, but as you continue reading, it’s clear Alcalá is unpacking larger questions about the human condition and human impact that are relevant to practicing Christians concerned about climate justice in this place.
Cover photo credit: Jonathan Kemper