UW News

June 28, 2023

New faculty books: Story of oysters, Cherokee oral history, moral contradictions of religion

Three book covers on a wooden table.

New faculty books from the University of Washington include those from the Washington Sea Grant, the Department of Political Science and the Department of American Indian Studies.

Three new faculty books from the University of Washington cover wide-ranging topics: oysters, the moral contradictions of religion, and Cherokee creature names and environmental relationships. UW News talked with the authors to learn more.

Updated ‘Heaven on the Half Shell’ a ‘love letter’ to oysters

Oysters are a beloved food in the Pacific Northwest, but many people don’t realize what it’s taken to bring this bivalve from tide to table. “Heaven on the Half Shell” dives into this very topic, providing readers with insight into the diverse history and communities involved with all things oysters

The book was written by MaryAnn Wagner and Samantha Larson of the Washington Sea Grant along with author David George Gordon. Originally published in 2001, “Heaven on the Half Shell” has been updated and republished two decades later by UW Press.  Double the length of the original, the new version includes an additional chapter as well as more photos and text.

“Over the course of 20 years, it needed a lot of updating,” said Gordon. “There was originally no mention, for example, of ocean acidification in the book. That is probably the biggest confrontational point nowadays, but it wasn’t on the radar then. I felt it badly needed some updating, and I’m glad that the Sea Grant people agreed with me.”

The story of the oyster “includes a lot of social history, environmental history and the development of what we know as the Pacific Northwest,” Larson said.

“One big focus that we had on this new edition was really elevating our treatment of the tribal history and carrying that history up to date with how important many tribes are in terms of owning and operating their own shellfish farms today,” Larson said. “That’s another slice of history that can be told and looked at through this kind of unique perspective.”

Apart from oyster history, the book also provides readers with a behind-the-scenes look at modern-day oyster farming and recipes for how to enjoy oysters after the harvest.

“The ways that we’ve been eating them in the past and the ways that we’re eating them now are different,” Wagner said. “I personally wanted to document that and show how it changed over time and the different faces that have contributed to those recipes.”

The oyster farming industry has evolved since the book’s initial publication, with environmental changes like ocean acidification and rising temperatures causing new issues for farmers. But the underlying theme of the book and the main requirement for a thriving oyster industry remains clean water, Gordon said. The Pacific Northwest still has pristine waters in many places and a growing population that understands its role in the industry.

“This book is basically a love letter to the oyster,” Gordon said. “And it’s great, because I’ve always felt that in order to get people motivated to protect the natural resources, you have to get them to love the environment.”

For more information, contact Wagner at maryannb@uw.edu, Larson at larsonsa@uw.edu, and Gordon at david@davidgeorgegordon.com.

Mark Smith’s ‘Right from Wrong’ reveals moral contradictions of religion

It seems harder and harder in today’s world for people to come together to respectfully debate an issue, consider alternative viewpoints and reach a consensus. But such a process is vital to determining how we will function and progress as a society, Mark Smith argues in his new book.

In “Right from Wrong: Why Religion Fails and Reason Succeeds,” published by Prometheus Books, Smith tackles religious and secular approaches to establishing a moral code. He underscores contradictions in the texts and challenges the defenses of Christianity – a form of theology known as apologetics.

“One major part of my book explores how pious members of book-based religions grapple with scriptures that any modern person would have difficulty swallowing,” said Smith, a UW professor of political science. “If the text justifies genocide, or defends patriarchy, or requires capital punishment for minor offenses, how can the believer respond?

“If you’re absolutely convinced that God is good, and that a set of scriptures captures his speech either through inspiration, as in Christianity or directly as in Islam, you’ve got to reconcile any challenges you face.”

Smith proposes that a process of inclusive deliberation is a more thoughtful, rational basis for establishing objective morality and the means of working together in community. He points to what is today a practice widely recognized as immoral – slavery – and prohibited around the world. But it took centuries of heated debate (and a civil war in the United States), as well as the spreading of abolitionist views through the printing press, and the stories and speeches of formerly enslaved people.

Today, Smith said, the shrinking of traditional media and the rise of social media often keep people from engaging in meaningful discussion.

“You can curate what you read, watch, and listen such that you never have to hear from people with contrary views. Social media, for its part, rewards those who preach to the choir.  By doing so, you attract likes and followers. Anyone who tries to engage with the ‘other side’ gets quickly dismissed as a traitor to the cause,” Smith said. “The result is that we have many siloed conversations that rely on distortion and straw man tactics rather than true deliberation across lines of political difference.”

But it’s still possible, Smith said, among people of all faiths, or no faith.  He writes in the book’s conclusion: “No person has all the answers, but if we put our minds together, we can make progress on even the most difficult moral questions.”

For more information, contact Smith at masmith@uw.edu.

Exploring nature through Cherokee creature names

In “Cherokee Earth Dwellers: Stories and Teachings of the Natural World,” Christopher Teuton, professor and chair of American Indian Studies at the UW, explores nature and the world through Cherokee creature names, environmental relationships, traditional stories and philosophical discussions with fluent Cherokee speakers and knowledge keepers.

Published by UW Press, the book provides a unique perspective of the world we live in by bringing together decades of oral history. The creature names – Cherokee words for the natural world, including birds, animals, edible plants, reptiles, amphibians, trees, insects, plants and fish – were collected orally from elders over a 30-year span by Hastings Shade, the late Cherokee cultural leader.

Loretta Shade, Hastings’ wife, and their son, Larry, shared the collection with Teuton and said they wanted to publish. Written in collaboration with the Shades, “Cherokee Earth Dwellers” documents more than 600 creature names.

“As we went over the collection and looked through all these different names, and all the stories that are attached to the creature names, we realized this is more than just something like a dictionary,” Teuton said. “It’s actually a Cherokee ecology through words and relationships. And so, we began to work together and reached out to other elders to get their input on the project and to reflect on the collection created by Hasting Shade.”

This community-driven collaboration was written “with the goal of creating a work of art and a work of language, revitalization and cultural revitalization that would be valued by all Cherokee people.” Teuton hopes it can be used as a resource by people studying the Cherokee language as it includes spellings, pronunciations, meanings for various names and stories told by traditional storytellers in the community.

“This book can teach about the natural world and about traditional ways of understanding oneself in relation to the relatives that we have among us —plant relatives, animal relatives, fish relatives,” Teuton said. “All the different creatures of the natural world with whom we have relationships, dependencies and reciprocal engagements with.”

For more information, contact Teuton at teuton@uw.edu.