CHIMACUM — For Sara Mall Johani, this spring brings fresh gifts.
The 75-year-old sculptor has just published a book that’s been years in the making, a paperback that spans decades inside its 28 pages: “Mine, Your, Nobody’s: My story of Wild Olympic Salmon.”
A photo of a sculpture bares its teeth on the front cover: “Grandmother Salmon Digs a Redd in the River of Time” was created by Johani’s late husband, artist and poet Tom Jay.
He died in 2019 at age 76, and Johani has written an account of their collaboration: Wild Olympic Salmon, an organization that set out to celebrate and restore the keystone animals.
Wild Olympic Salmon was born in Chimacum some three decades ago with the first big salmon festival, a shindig at the Tri-Area Community Center park. Luminaria lighted the way to the tents, yurts, displays, storytellers, drummers and bonfire entertainers.
“All were welcome and they came,” Johani writes.
“Young, old, farmers, loggers and new agers … WOS board members came as Salmon People dressed in formal attire,” while salmon masks, banners and decorations were everywhere.
“It was truly remarkable to see the community inspired to act for a common cause,” she notes.
Into the 1990s, Wild Olympic Salmon connected with tribes from across the North Olympic Peninsula.
Johani calls the native people our “watershed ancestors,” teachers of how to live with these lands and waterways.
When the Tribal Canoe Journey arrived in Lower Port Hadlock, “neighbors and friends came heavily laden with huge bowls of food. Generosity prevailed,” Johani recalls in her book.
This slender paperback, which the author kept at $10, was made in collaboration with artist and designer Kerry Tremain of Port Townsend. Ever since she held the finished book in her hands, Johani has marveled at how it turned out.
“It feels like a gift to me that this can live and be out in the world in such a beautiful form,” she said.
The back cover bears quotations from both Jay and Johani.
“Once you’ve worked to restore salmon habitat, it becomes sacred turf,” Jay wrote.
“For thousands of years, the native people of the Northwest Coast honored the salmon in legends, totems and paintings. We’ve tried to return its spirit to the artists,” responds his wife.
Johani and Jay met in the 1970s when he was working at the foundry at Fort Worden.
“I came along, and he said, ‘Do you want to pour with me?’”
Johani’s first thought was, no way, can’t do that.
But her second thought, “Oh, yes I can,” had her pouring bronze with this man.
“That was our first act together,” she remembered; “we turned out to be a good team.”
She and Jay were together 42 years and raised their son Dru in Chimacum. Now 41, he’s a writer. He’s also in some of the photographs in Johani’s book, along with the works of art she and Jay created to bring public attention to the native salmon population.
Wild Olympic Salmon played a powerful role in the restoration of Chimacum Creek. The organization also produced “Tracking the Dragon,” a community quest game designed to educate local people of all ages.
“We felt like we were doing our real work,” Johani said.
“You can learn so much from our watershed ancestors: the people who really know this place.”
The map of East Jefferson County looks just like a dragon, Johani noted. She also writes about the Chemakum story of a young warrior, Quarlo, who befriends a dragon named No-qui-klos.
The dragon “teaches essential living lessons to the community,” based on Nature’s rules, Johani writes.
“Upon assimilating their harsh lessons, a lasting peace was possible.”
Johani’s place, surrounded by tall trees and deep-green ferns, is peaceful — and productive. Inside her studio are the bronze sculptures she has dreamed up and made real: a swimming polar bear cub, a “Pine Angel,” the “Truth Fairy,” a golden snail with a woman’s sprightly expression and “Matriculation,” in which the meadow maiden sees her future self, the meadow matron.
Near the center of the table is “She Who Tames Herself,” a sculpture of a muscular horse and a graceful woman walking alongside.
Taming herself “is what I’ve done,” Johani said.
Jay’s iconic sculptures of part fish, part bird “Witnesses” keep everyone company, too.
Though a self-professed introvert, Johani enjoyed a busy day last month at the Port Townsend Food Co-op artists’ alcove, where she did a book signing.
“I thought I’d take a chance. What the heck?” she’d thought when she booked the space.
Johani quickly sold 50 copies and is now considering another alcove appearance and an event at Chimacum’s Finnriver Farm & Cidery.
“I didn’t want Wild Olympic Salmon to disappear into the mists of time,” she said.
And in her book’s end note, the author adds that the group was “a spirited and inspiring experiment that may have saved our lives.
“I was one of those. Tom was another,” she said.
Jefferson County senior reporter Diane Urbani de la Paz can be reached at 360-417-3509 or [email protected] news.com.