A constant theme of recent writing on food sustainability, slow food, local eating, and the low-carbon diet, is the disruption of traditional ties between our food and the seasons. With the modern Western diet, especially in urban areas, the supply of food is constant and almost everything is available at any time of year. The majority of people under the age of 30, we are told, cannot identify the months during which certain key vegetables are harvested. Tropical fruits are readily available in January, and flash-frozen seafood from distant oceans has largely changed the old axiom that one should never eat shellfish in months without the letter "R."
But, as with most tales of woe and decline, the "death" of the seasonal diet is much exaggerated. In British Columbia the seasonal diet has several major resonances, particularly the berry seasons (June-July for strawberries, July-August for blueberries). Farmers' Markets proliferate and individual farm stalls prosper in the busy summer months. Even though Richmond, the city where I reside across the bridge from "Vancouver proper," has more than doubled in population in the last twenty years, the ties to farming and the land remain strong. Perhaps as a function of the rise of the bourgeois that has accompanied soaring real estate prices and increased wealth, the ritual of buying local has retained its place in regular grocery shopping.
This is slow, steady, and largely unremarkable, but now and then a spectacular event occurs that really brings home how dependent we are on nature for our sustenance, and our insignificance in its mysterious workings. This past week in British Columbia a stunning announcement was made out of the blue; fisheries officials declared that the Sockeye salmon returns to the Fraser River are the largest in nearly a century (interestingly, around the end of the Edwardian era). This Globe and Mail story, rightly, describes the event as "one of Canada’s great scientific mysteries." A mystery because for the past several years the Sockeye fishery has been in great distress, with a recent moratorium on Sockeye fishing and despair over the future. The sudden bounty, and announcement of a 32-hour opening of the fishery, had local people almost giddy with excitement. Thousands of people have flocked to Steveston Village, just a short distance from my home and at the mouth of the Fraser River, to buy fresh fish straight from the boats - on which fisherman had worked through the night to take advantage of the opening. It is difficult to convey what West Coast Salmon means to British Columbians. It was and is an integral part of the diets of the First Nations population of our Coast, and a symbol of the natural bounty of our Province. The suffering of the fishery seemingly caused a bit of an emotional "funk" for the Province as a whole. This year, it seems, has been our year - the coming of age represented by the 2010 Winter Olympics, and the revival of one of our cherished industries.
I myself stood at the mouth of the Fraser River last night as the sun descended on a choppy sea. One could see fish jumping, beginning their journey upstream - if not first caught by the hundreds of anglers lining the shore. The event, like many unexpected streaks of good luck, was nevertheless tinged with a hint of sadness. For many years an event of this magnitude had failed to materialize. And now, with no explanation, no preparation, and contrary to the predictions of the experts, it had. But we all know it is as transitory as the seasons. What the future of the fishery holds is as mysterious as this year's 30 million Sockeye bounty. It reminds us of the changing of the seasons, the earth and the sea as sources of our food, and how in fundamental ways these connections have changed little since the Edwardian Era.