The Fish in the Forest by Dale Stokes

The thoroughly engrossing story of the salmon and its science.

fish forest

Seven species of salmon inhabit the Pacific in strikingly diverse ecosystems–ocean, river and stream, forest–in California, Alaska, the Bering Sea, Japan, Korea and Russia. Research oceanographer Dale Stokes calls these territories the “Salmon Forest” in The Fish in the Forest, a loving study of the salmon’s place in our world.

Salmon may strike some readers as a potentially dull subject, but in Stokes’s knowledgeable hands, the singular story of this fish is utterly riveting. Pacific salmon are anadromous and semelparous (born in fresh water, they mature in the salty ocean before swimming back up rivers and streams to breed just once and then die shortly thereafter); they possess an internal compass and map, enabling them to navigate over thousands of kilometers to the waterways of their birth; they are temporally aware, following a timetable for their reproduction and death.

Stokes presents a good deal of hard science (such as the complex cellular interchange of ions that allows them to survive in both salt and fresh water), but all of it is easily understandable. He explains why salmon are a keystone species; their feat of bringing rich marine nutrients well inland and at every point on a complex food web; and the interconnectedness of every resident in the Salmon Forest. Doc White’s 70 color photographs are stunning, focusing not only on fish and forest, but also the species of wolf, bear and eagle that interact with the salmon.

Fans of the Pacific Northwest, trees, water and nature, and readers concerned with ecology or science, will find much to enjoy in this gorgeous and illuminating fish tale.


This review originally ran in the July 1, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 8 alevins.

7 Responses

  1. […] examples for you, so please be satisfied with The Drunken Botanist*, Euphoria, Wayfaring Stranger, The Fish in the Forest, Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, The Kind Worth Killing (by Peter Swanson, review to […]

  2. I agree this is an excellent book on the subject: I know of no other such thorough & deep treatment of the science of salmon, and by example the whole field of ecology. E,g, his description of the interconnectedness of ecosystems is so important & well done throughout the book, but especially in the “Salmon Forest” chapter.

    That said, I think his writing style and descriptions are not a “popular” approach and may be a challenge for the average reader (who it that, anyway?!) I would suggest your enthusiastic reception is more a comment on your own flexibility & capacity as a generalist reader, and less a guide for many readers.

    In any event, I hope many more people read this book! It contains knowledge that should be widely shared in our culture. Well done…

    • Thanks. It’s true that this is not a narrative or creative approach to the nonfiction subject – and I think it’s telling that you comment on that, when just a few decades ago this was by far the standard style, and a narrative style would have been remarkable! So yes, the reader has to bring a little motivation to the table, and then will find this a fascinating read.

  3. […] The Fish in the Forest, with its detailed explication of salmon + forest ecosystem interdependence, is significantly based on the research of Tom Reimchen, which documented bears’ role in spreading nutrients from salmon into temperate rainforest. Reimchen’s extensive observation and data collection was based in the Great Bear wilderness. […]

  4. […] response to my Edfro Creek “Fish in the Forest” essay, and this one belongs right up there with the other fish/forest books. Beginning with her own wonderful introductory essay, photographer Amy Gulick assembled a crew of […]

  5. I have completed a second reading of this book, for discussion with a group. I am gobsmacked at how newly compelling it is after merely 17 months, during which I admittedly have been reading other voices that link to this in myriad ways, in a network much like the “web of life” described here.

    I find the writing more approachable, approaching genius in effectively explaining so many concepts from biology, physics, geology, etc. Without grand exposition on evolution, the narrative provides rich examples of natural selection played out in the context of this living web. Explanation of concepts of ecology & ecosystem provide wonderful introduction into the language & mechanics of complex systems. And of course, the amazing world of salmon is opened wide open for those with interest. I have elevated it on my list of recommended books on such subjects.

    In a group of readers with mixed background and interest, it was fun to hear how each focused on particular chapters & subjects that appealed to them, each finding a path to treasure a new world at whatever level of detail they chose.

    • Glad to hear it. It was a good one, but my memory is more distant than yours & not refreshed. I do remember that he did a good job of that weaving together of so many parts of life. And I really appreciate your metaphor, that readalikes are the web of life. I’ve learned so much more by reading, and then by reading more, than I ever did in school.

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