illustration of woman in water with colorful tree roots
Illustration by Alex Aldrich Barett

The Age of Stolen Salt

Salt, writes Alexis Pauline Gumbs, is time.

Salt is an ancestor. Older than ocean, old as stars. Salt flows through your saltwater body even now like blood, as blood. Salt is nonnegotiable, necessary for the working of every single cell.

Salt is time. Evidence of how long since evaporation. Resident time of water in basins. Measured future for the preserved dead. Salt is first and lasting.

We live in the age of stolen salt, bottled sweat, preserved expendable flesh.

Some historians say salt grew up with capitalism. Or the preconditions of capitalism. Agricultural societies with domesticated animals disconnected by the wild symbiosis of salt had to actively seek out salt: thus trade, thus war, thus tax, thus all forms of distance and extraction. Going back to “the salt mines” has become a euphemism for extractive labor in general. But the violence is not only metaphorical.

Once upon a time, salt itself was money. Precious rock salt good as gold. They say the first salt war was about 6000 BCE at Yuncheng Lake in China. All the wood it takes to evaporate brine is partially blamed for significant deforestation in Europe. The European colonizers of the Caribbean stacked salt in their basements. Traded salt for human beings in chains.

My conscious relationship to salt belongs to the Caribbean Sea. Salt, invisible and holding me up as my grandfather teaches me to float on my back, look at the sky. Salt, harsh on my lips, ashing my skin after all day in the water. Salt, the smell of the ponds in Anguilla, the foam at their edges concentrated, thick like island snow. The realization that the thin strip of land my elders live on in Anguilla is between a salt pond and a bay that have known each other so much longer than we have. My people, like all coastal people, live on borrowed salted land. Someday soon the ocean will reclaim this part of herself.

When salt became something to sell instead of something to be, so did we.

Salt in the air that rots the wires out of the walls, the gears out of the cars, the coils out of the computers and phones. Salt, the history. First nonsentient export from Anguilla. According to my elder cousins, forced salt harvesting in the sun of Anguilla and other Caribbean islands caused generations of workers to go blind. Salt miners around the world dying of dehydration. Salt, the marrow of drowned ancestors cleansed, broken down to potassium at the bottom of the sea. Salt, the burning in my eyes. Salt, the stubbornness in my spit.

Audre Lorde writes, “I know the anger that lies inside me like I know the beat of my heart and the taste of my spit.” When salt became something to sell instead of something to be, so did we. Before this age is over, will we say the same thing about water? The same thing about air?

My unconscious relationship to salt has several brand names. The particular addictive potato chip, the delicious small cheese cracker, all the delectable crunchy vessels for salt that I keep next to me (most days not in a bowl, just the whole package). It’s the sound that accompanies the tapping of my computer keys while I continue to work through tiredness. Continue to focus through attention drifts. Continue to answer yes to capitalism.

If you asked, I wouldn’t tell you, but it’s salt that keeps me going, not coffee. The way sodium is the main positive ion in all the extracellular fluids in our animal bodies. The way those fluids make the communication, waste removal, and nutrition of all my cells possible. That’s my unconscious relationship to salt, right on the edge of my biological involuntary need for it in my system. But in a deeper place, under layers of fossil, I know that my worth, my salt, does not come from my participation in capitalism. My salt comes through ancestors whose sodium unconscious was teaching them to turn their feet back into fins or the other direction over millennia. And like the salt pond by the bay, I await reclamation of that part of me that still believes in separation.

There is no age of salt. But salt survives this age of theft, of fear, of never enough, where life has the character of salt. It stings. Sanitizes you. Makes you delicious on the outside. Keeps you. Dries you. Out.


Orion‘s Summer 2022 issue is generously sponsored by NRDC.


  1. and the awful–in its original meaning–irony of the drying up of the Great Salt Lake…treacherous humans! Thank you for this essay.

  2. growing up on the Salt nurtures you so you can’t get away from it.. my first 9 months in my mother’s belly, the Atlantic waves were my lullaby. by the time I was three, my Dad taught me to put the fish from his cast net in the bucket. “don’t mess with the crabs,” he warned me. but one small crab was getting away! I grabbed it and learned an early lesson. even as an old marine biologist I was wary of those crabs …
    Salt teaches us, preserves us, is in our blood and advises us. ashe me, I tell my children, and put me out in the sponge beds. that’s where I belong.

  3. This is just what I needed. Thank you for writing it, and sharing it with us.

  4. Salt always reminds me of the Great Salt Sathyagraha/Struggle by Mahatma Gandhi in India as part of the great Independence Struggle. Yet this wise, witty, sad and deep reflection on salt in its amazing forms is stunningly enlightening…All my appreciation to you, Alexis and of course Orion for reaching this wisdom to us…

  5. This also reminds me of the historical salt march of Mahatma Gandhi’s against the British empire and it’s imposition of salt tax.

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