Where’s the Hope?

A question—really two questions in one—came from a woman attending my most recent author event. It was about hope, specifically whether my research for Writer in a Life Vest made me feel hope about the Salish Sea and the climate crisis, or whether my study prompted hopelessness.

“Yes,” I replied.

That night at Third Place Books, all the chairs were filled with longtime friends, family, and a number of folks I didn’t know. I’d been interviewed by writer friend David B. Williams; he’d asked me to describe the book, we discussed the variety of essay forms I used, and he prodded me to talk about my stint as Writer-in-Residence on the Washington State Ferries.

David also asked me to read from the collection, specifically the essay “Salish Sea Account.” It’s one of the first pieces I wrote as I studied the 7,000 square miles that comprise the inland waters of the Salish Sea. The essay—inspired by the numbers that help define this vast waterway, the life in and around it, and the threats to that life—begins with an epigraph by Greta Thunberg:

Every single person counts. Just like every single emission counts.

Every single kilo. Everything counts.

The counting, accounting, and accountability I describe in the essay is grim.

76 Southern Resident Killer Whales (orcas) live in J, K, and L pods in the Salish Sea as of 2- 18-21, down from 86 when they were first listed as endangered in 2005. 

J-35 (also known as Tahlequah) is a 20-year-old orca whose newborn calf survived for only 30 minutes on 7-24-18.

17, the number of days Tahlequah carried the 400-pound body of her dead calf through the sea. 

1,000 miles, the distance Tahlequah traveled the Salish Sea with her pod while pushing her dead calf.

3 main threats to Southern Residents: insufficient salmon, toxic water, noise pollution.

4 dams on the Lower Snake River impede Chinook salmon migration to breeding habitat.

130,000 adult salmon and steelhead returned to the Snake River to spawn in the 1950s; in 2017, there were fewer than 10,000.

3.6 billion dollars (U.S.) spent by the Canadian government to buy Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline. The goal: to expand transport of low-grade. tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada, to refineries in Northwest Washington. 

times more oil tankers (each holding 25,000,000 gallons of tar sands oil mixed with volatile organic diluents, including benzene) will travel the Salish Sea if the Trans Mountain pipeline expands.

0 chance to clean up tar sands oil (diluted bitumen or “dil bit”) and protect first responders and marine life from toxic chemicals when tankers spill. 

I strived to end the essay on a hopeful note:

Countless—the efforts to pay our overdue debt to Tahlequah, her calf, and the Salish Sea.

Still, after I read the last word, many in the audience were gasping for breath. I encouraged everyone to inhale deeply.

David and I returned to lighter conversation, with him asking:

  • Do you have any secrets to share about the ferries? Not everyone knows passengers can walk onto the San Juan Islands’ Interisland route without paying a fare.
  • What surprised you while writing and riding on the ferry? A group of Mahjong players having their holiday party on the vessel.
  • What comes next after Hiking Naked and Writer in a Life VestRevising ten years’ worth of blog posts in my pajamas?

Even with the light-heartedness of my replies to David, the audience question about hope caught in my chest and took me right back to the distressing numbers in “Salish Sea Account.”  

I should have taken a deep breath before responding. It’s true, I do feel both hope and hopelessness about the health of the Salish Sea. That night, though, I wish I’d focused more on the Bright Lights for the Salish Sea I blogged about after attending the Salish Sea Ecosystem Conference in April. The audience probably would have been heartened to know about the students who named 2022-23 The Year of the Salish Sea. And I could have mentioned Seattle Times’ reporter Lynda Mapes’s optimism about growing unity to breach the Lower Snake River dams in an effort to increase the threatened Chinook salmon population. Next time someone asks me about hope, I’ll cite these examples and a few more:

  • There have been two births of Southern Resident killer whales already this year! On March 1, the Center for Whale Research confirmed that J37 (Hy’Shqa) gave birth to J59.  On April 28, there was more good news from various whale research organizations with a report of the first viable baby born into K pod since 2011.
J37 and her new calf. Photo courtesy of Center for Whale Research
  • Twenty-one young Americans filed a constitutional climate lawsuit against the federal government. They’re persevering to hold leaders accountable for decisions that threaten the planet and their future. Looking for hope and inspiration? Watch the documentary about their efforts.
  • The Grand Salmon Journey—4 women, 3 rivers, 3 endangered species of salmon, 1000+ river miles, 4 dams, 1 Stibnite mine, and 1 film—is underway. The women will ski and paddle the Salmon River, the natural migration path of salmon from the rivers of central Idaho to the Pacific Ocean. They’ll make a film about the journey, the salmon populations, communities most impacted by declining salmon populations, and the necessity to breach the dams for salmon recovery.
  • The Salish Sea is going plastic free! Plastic Free Salish Sea is taking a comprehensive approach to reduce the 8 million metric tons of plastic that go into the ocean every year. As this video explains, the Plastic Free Salish Sea program is doing that right here where I live.

Just as I was putting the finishing touches on this essay, I received notice of Gretchen Wing’s latest blog post,  If Hope Is A Muscle, Purpose Is Its Workout: Introducing Common Power. For years, Gretchen and I have been in a writing group, and we attend the same Quaker Meeting, so it’s no surprise when our writing topics mesh.  Wow, this post about a source of hope sure connected for me; I encourage you to follow the link to read it!

I’m feeling more hopeful now. Please let me know where you’re finding hope.


  1. Hello Iris,

    I finished “Writer in a Life Vest, Essays From the Salish Sea” last night, which I thoroughly enjoyed, and from which I learned a great deal! I really appreciate how you wrote from a knowledgeable, well-researched point of view, and yet a very authentic and human perspective, as well. I love how you combined vitally important information with some humor and fun, as well as a lot of hope and empowerment, by offering ideas and strategies for ways people can help care for the Salish Sea.

    I was at your wonderful event at 3rd Place Books (I’m Susan’s bff since college days), and I’m also the one who asked the question about hope. Your answer of “yes” absolutely resonated with me, as I can certainly understand how you see and feel hopefulness in many ways, and also concern and sometimes sorrow in others, and that those thoughts and feelings live together side by side.

    One other piece of your book that really touched my heart was your beautiful honoring of Tahlequah and her baby calf that she lost and carried for 17 days. Our first daughter was stillborn, and that loss remains with me everyday. I could hardly focus on anything else while Tahlequah was carrying her baby, and I was so grateful that her podmates were around her. I only wish her baby calf would have been given a name, but I am so grateful for all of the ways in which she has been honored and remembered. I loved reading about the remembrance ceremony on the beach that you attended.

    Thank you for your care for the Southern Resident Killer Whales, for the Salish Sea, for your beautiful writing, and for sharing yourself and your stories. It was really lovely to meet you.

    Lisa Proehl

    1. Lisa, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts about this post. I felt I had let you down when I didn’t include more about the hope I do feel, even amidst the despair. Thank you for letting me know how it struck you and for sharing your poignant story of your first daughter’s death. I’m so sorry for your loss. I can only imagine how Tahlequah’s journey resonated for you.

      I appreciate that you took the time to write. Your words mean a great deal to me. I’m so glad we met.

  2. Reblogged this on Wing's World and commented:
    This week, feeling the need for a continued dosage of HOPE, I’m handing the mic back to my friend Iris Graville. Who needs a baby whale? All of us! Take it away, Iris.

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