"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 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."

You can find the book at: Totem Salmon - Life Lessons from Another Species
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