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on October 2, 1999
From "Totem Salmon - Life Lessons from Another Species" by Freeman House -
"My straining senses slow down the sound so that each of its parts can be heard separately. A hiss, barely perceptible, as the fish muscles itself right out of its living medium; silence like a dozen monks pausing too long between the strophes of a chant as the creature arcs through the dangerous air; a crash as of a basketball going through a plate glass window as he or she returns to the velvet embrace of the water; and then a thousand tiny bells struck once only as the shards of water fall and the surface of the stream regains its viscous integrity."
"I flick on my headlamp and the whole backwater pool seems to leap toward me. The silver streak that crosses the enclosure in an instant is a flash of lightning within my skull, one which heals the wound that has separated me from this moment -- from any moment. The encounter is so perfectly complex, timeless, and reciprocal that it takes on an objective reality of its own. I am able to walk around it as if it were a block of carved stone. If my feelings could be reduced to a chemical formula, the experience would be a clear solution made up of equal parts of dumb wonder and clean exhilaration, colored through with a sense of abiding dread. I could write a book about it."
And here it is.
The Mattole River, where this story takes place, flows from the northwestern tip of California's Mendocino County, first a dozen miles northeast and then about sixty miles northwest through remote rural Humboldt County to its mouth at Petrolia. What keeps the river from reaching the Pacific Ocean any sooner is the King Range rising precipitously from the "Lost Coast", a stretch of beach frequented only by hikers and the occasional small plane.
Getting to the Mattole from the freeway is at least an hour's drive on winding country roads. This area, like much of Humboldt County, was logged in the fifties and sixties, and in the late sixties and seventies a substantial portion of it was sold to urban refugees, "reinhabitants". Over the next three decades, quite a few of them committed to the task of restoring the watershed to health. Two of these were David Simpson and Freeman House who together conceived and founded the Mattole Watershed Salmon Support Group. "Totem Salmon" tells the story of this work.
Salmon are an indicator species. Their health, as a population, closely tracks the health of the watershed to which they return. If you want to know how well a river valley is doing in the Pacific Northwest, look at the salmon runs, if there are any left. The principal enemy of the salmon is silt, produced by erosion usually from badly built roads and culverts, and from logging. Salmon need clean gravel in the streambed for eggs to survive and hatch. Well forested valleys with little erosion provide the best stream habitat for hatching and rearing salmon.
In 1950, before logging, it is recalled by the older Mattole valley residents, that, when they were running, "you could walk across the river on the backs of the salmon". In 1980, before restoration work began, the runs were down to perhaps 200 fish. More, those fish were the last wild salmon run in the state.
Looking back after reading the book, one could see the first phrase, "I am alone...", as a key to the work. Rooted in an explicit sense of self, spiraling out through sensory subtleties of immediate nature, to the larger cultural complexities, Mr. House melds what are usually seen as distinct worlds into a coherent portrait of a personal and multi-species reality. Like the salmon traversing the several worlds of ocean, river, air and creek, the personal, philosophical, cultural, historical, administrative, ecological, and cosmic threads are finely woven into a narrative yielding a shimmering presence of spirit and nature.
The book is a deeply enjoyable memoir of a long personal relationship with salmon. Along the way we see the history of the Euro-American relationship with this species, and that of the Native-American people who were here managing these watersheds long before. We learn of the state and federal administrative context of salmon management and the history of our, first, ignorance, and then, study of the anadromous species and their rivers. In clear and moving images, and with affection and humor, we see the people on the Mattole River who have joined hands for eighteen years to rescue this last wild run of salmon from extinction. Lastly we see the hopeful results and the tenuous circumstances of their work.
We might expect it to be a text for salmon restoration, and while the specifics are there they are widely scattered throughout the book. More attention is given to the wider question of how we got here, and how we can get through this to a more wholesome, rooted, and appreciative life in our particular place. If it is a text -- and Mr. House would say it is not -- it is a meta-instructional one, showing a way to become a people who will do the right thing for the watershed and thus for the salmon. The personal explorations in the book demonstrate by example the message beneath the text: by immersing ourselves in the reality of our local valley we can rescue both the health of our watersheds and our sense of ourselves. In the end, we see that they are the same journey; the salmon reflect to us our understanding of self and place.
The epilogue quotes Paul Schell, Mayor of Seattle, "Ironically, as we work to save the salmon, it may turn out that the salmon save us."
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on December 17, 1999
The book is a first-person account telling the story of a group of people who have dedicated themselves to rehabbing a river, a watershed, and saving some special strains of wild Pacific salmon stock. They decided to use salmon-hatchery technology (and other procedures) as a way to learn from the native salmon, rather than to introduce non-native species to their river. Freeman House is a truly impressive thinker and writer. His engaging intelligence is not just wide and deep, like a rockclimber his awareness gets into some unfamiliar and little-explored crevices of life - nature and human nature. House and his cohorts are questers who may ultimately discover something as important as did William Harvey or Sir Albert Howard. I'm tempted to call the book a riveting read, but the experience is warmer than that metaphor implies. It's hopeful. A strangely wise book.
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on December 25, 2013
This is a very good read, spiritually thrilling. We are now (winter 2013/2014) praying for much needed rain on the North Coast in Calif. Thank you for writing this, Freeman House. I plan to write more of my thoughts after finishing book!

The book is just fantastic. I"m still reading. I was arrested way up in the Mattole years ago in non-violent protest with several others since this book was written. We were charged with trespassing and resisting arrest. Many challenged the snow conditions without adequate cover and with police taking their clothing. They hiked up miles to protest the sacrifice of old growth in the Mattole. It was a few years after book came out--during the aftermath of the terrible Hurwitz' exploitation years. The Headwaters Deal saved old growth in the neighboring Elk River headwaters but the Mattole was to be logged instead. Hurwitz owned Pacific Lumber since his unfriendly takeover of the company). A real "taker", he logged rare old growth here like fire. The logging regulations were systematically broken. The company under Hurwitz was pushing the limits. The fines were a slap on the hand (after the fact). Citizens had to find out about the plans (painstaking & difficult) and bring harmful, illegal timber harvest plans into question wherever they could find them. The government could not. It would have to rubberstamp them for lack of funds to investigate them ALL (so many at once). A lot has happened with the Mattole since Totem Salmon was written. To see film of the protests high in this remote area of the Mattole please go to "mangoprotest" channel on the site, "you...." where there are citizen generated unpublished films. Its an amazing film, filmed by one of the protestors over months of protest in the harsh conditions high above the Mattole River, then edited.
I'm suffering from eyestrain & need UV protection screen for my (wide screen) pc. Reading with motrim. Ouch! My excuse why I haven't finished reading book. This book rates as a real classic among books written by naturalists. It is much more moving & riviting than the Loren Eisley books, which are more academic (Eisley, a professor of anthropology). Not biased, its clearly more earth-connected and less philosophical. I live nearby-- in Arcata near the Mattole--an hour's drive south, SE to where you turn off from HW 101 and leave civilization. You drive through Humboldt Redwoods State Park, and up and over the ridge to look out to the Mattole watershed (and ocean beyond). I live close to the Mad River, which has a fish hatchery. This river is a neighbor to the Mattole, like the Elk of Headwaters fame. The Mad River supplies water to the largest area of habitation by humans in this area. It must have been a great river but the water is pumped out in large amounts. There are at least 2 dams on it, just not sure as it is highly exploited, and not much talked about. This book is so moving. It is mostly new to me. Freeman should write a sequel, letting us know how its going. I particularly love the parts about the salmon. I read some to myself while in church this morning, since it is a source of spirituality, at least for me.
It might help to include one negative thing, though. I bought it from an Amazon used dealer. It's cover was very bad with an ugly rip and rumpling on the right edge of the front cover. However, it was very fixable! Used index cards to reinforce the outer edge from behind after cutting out all the rumpled part. Now I will use an index card to reinforce any paperback cover that is becomming bent. It is a much more ergonomic experience to read with the 2 cards taped on the outer edge and across the bottom (taped to the back of the front cover).
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on December 3, 2000 an environmentalist from both the non-profit, agency and barefoot,dreadlocked worlds I really appreciated this book. The author brings out the complexity and poetry of the technical, natural and spiritual mosaic involved in watershed work in the northwest (and eveywhere for that matter). For anyone who has ever (or even never) been through similar experiences that the author describes, it brings shivers up the spine with the descriptive imagery and his obvious intimacy with the Mattole. I highly recommend this book.
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on June 19, 2000
I read a lot, but I almost never pin my husband down to read him sections of a book. When I was reading Totem Salmon, I couldn't help it. I kept saying, "Listen to this one." I owned a home in the Mattole River Watershed in the late 70's and early 80's. I was amazed at how well Freeman House captures the essence of the area and the people without caricaturing either. Over and over he writes a few sentences which really "get it right" in explaining the landscape, the weather or the people of the area. This is not an easy "how-to" book on bringing back the salmon, but it brings out why it is worth the effort for as long as it takes.
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on June 23, 1999
This is a must read for those people of the West who are actively engaged in watersheds and the recovery of the salmon. Freeman House was at the forefront of actions many others are only beginning to experience. His story serves to guide, enlighten and inspire those who have committed their lives to the restoration of the natural world order and who struggle to find a sense of "place". If you share a connection with the earth, this is a book for you.
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on January 2, 2015
I have lived in this community and among these restorationists – as both academic observer and citizen participant. I have witnessed their aspirations and challenges, their persistence and small but necessary achievements. For these reasons I am grateful to be able to use Freeman House's elegiac and excellent book in my course in applied ecology at Sonoma State University.
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on May 5, 2014
This title should be standard reading for any person interested in sustainability. It is equally as adept at framing the interconnectedness of the planet as any other popular title.
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on November 10, 2015
One of the earliest books documenting the connections between human beings and other species.
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on February 16, 2015
Great thankya thankya!
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