Totem Salmon
by Freeman House
Beacon Press,
1999, 228 pages

In the wake of the federal government’s much trumpeted decision in March to confer threatened and endangered status upon nine salmon runs in Washington and Oregon, Northwesterners will need to reevaluate their relationship with this once mighty species, a cultural icon as well as biological keystone. An ideal beginning would be to delve into Freeman House’s Totem Salmon: Life Lessons from Another Species.

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In his beautifully crafted first book, House relates the story of his northern California community’s salmon restoration effort, the Mattole Watershed Salmon Support Group, which was birthed in 1978 and lives on today. The book also offers a wealth of knowledge — biological, historical, mystical — about the salmon and their remarkable life cycles.

House guides readers through his home territory, up the Mattole River and its tributary streams to the remote spawning grounds of the Mattole King salmon, one of the last remaining purely native salmon runs. We’re with House as he wades waist-deep in cold, rushing water, under a setting sun and a rising storm, struggling to pull ashore an elaborate handmade apparatus that catches salmon alive so their eggs can be collected for incubation. Later, we listen in on community meetings convened to forge common ground between newly settled hippies and entrenched ranching and logging families. We witness the financial and political hurdles that confront watershed residents who have made a commitment to helping the salmon survive. Throughout, we get a glimpse of the passion that drives them to press on in their efforts, devoting thousands of hours of their time.

Perhaps most memorably, House communicates the mystery and wonder of salmon, which travel hundreds of miles out to sea and then back, finding their way home with exacting precision to the stream where they were spawned — a display of remarkable genetic intelligence simply not understood by humans.

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House, a former commercial fisher, displays a rare talent for storytelling. His language is romantic and forceful, penetrating and graceful. His book, though local in scope, is broad in reach. No matter where your own watershed falls on the map or what species reside there, you’ll find that House’s words resonate as he writes about strengthening community, developing a bioregional ethic, and doing one’s part to preserve what’s left of the wild.