"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 watershed, like much of southern 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 is 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."