The Journal of the Unitarian Universalist Association

Totem Salmon:
Life Lessons from Another Species
By Freeman House
Boston: Beacon Press, 1999. $25.00

Reviewed by Adelheid Fischer

Book Review November/December 1999

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Each autumn, adult salmon leave their far-flung Pacific haunts and log thousands of nautical miles to the coastline of North America. There they beat their way up rain-swollen rivers, surmounting unrelenting currents, boulders, and fallen logs to spawn in waters that sometimes are barely deep enough to keep their great muscled bodies afloat. 

And the fish don’t choose these streams at random. For reasons that continue to elude scientists, adult salmon find their way back to their natal waters. Over thousands of years of evolution this site-specificity has produced many different stocks of Pacific salmon, each sharing certain physical, behavioral—and quite possibly even genetic—distinctions. So differentiated were these stocks that coastal old-timers swore that they could tell them apart by tasting them.

Despite their reproductive challenges, thousands of strains of anadromous, or river-spawning, Pacific salmon once inhabited the coastal rivers of western North America, thronging streams in such numbers that historic accounts speak of frightened horses that would balk at crossing the fish-churned waters. Today, only a few hundred races have survived, and the number is falling. Since 1991, according to the American Fisheries Society, 214 stocks of salmon have been extirpated along the US West Coast alone.

One of the threatened survivors is a native race of king salmon whose home water lies in the Mattole River and its tributaries, located in one of California’s remotest regions, some 200 miles north of San Francisco.  In the late 1970s, when area residents learned that the salmon would likely become extinct without human intervention, they started a citizen-led project to restore the fish. In his book Totem Salmon: Lessons from Another Life Species, Freeman House, one of the volunteers, tells the remarkable  story of their effort, now two decades long and counting. 

House makes an unlikely narrator for the story. For years he worked in Pacific waters on a commercial fishing vessel. It was a brutal, dangerous occupation. Shipboard life was characterized by the adrenaline rush that accompanied the high-speed winching of nets in and out of the sea, where they swept through fishing grounds with frightening efficiency. The work degraded both the animal world and the human spirit: House spent his off hours—and the quick cash he earned—getting drunk in mainland bars. One day at sea, no longer able to bear the sounds of dying salmon thumping in the holds below his feet, he found himself below deck, ripping out the still-beating heart of an enormous salmon and swallowing it raw. Soon after, he left the fishing life behind forever.

House’s move to the Mattole watershed in 1980 resulted in healing reciprocity for both man and fish.  House brought with him a new environmental philosophy he helped shape in the 1970s while serving as manager of the Planet Drum Foundation, a San Francisco-based group that launched the fledgling bioregionalist movement. By learning from the lifeways of the plants and animals around them and studying the soils and hydrology, as well as the human history, of a place, bioregionalists hope to forge new, life-giving ties to the human and natural communities they inhabit. 

House has mastered the bioregional lessons of the Mattole watershed. He offers a compelling account of the life history of salmon without succumbing to poetic excess.  And without the New Age gushiness that characterizes so much contemporary writing about American Indian cultures, House discusses the salmon’s mythic as well as practical role in the lives of the region’s native people. 

But books about anadromous salmon abound. Why does the spirit of House’s book linger long after the last page has been turned?  Mainly because House doesn’t stint when it comes to laying out the obstacles the group had to face, from bureaucratic inertia at state natural resource agencies to decades of land-abuse by logging outfits.

Along the way, House and his fellow volunteers discover that incubating and releasing young salmon into the stream are not enough to ensure their recovery. They must heal a stream too damaged to support wild fish, a task that includes everything from moving boulders into a cold and dangerous river to mastering the tedious process of writing and submitting grant proposals. And just as their work has to encompass all parts of the watershed, they find it must involve every segment of the local community, including mutually antagonistic cattle ranchers and aging hippie homesteaders.

Despite their extraordinary efforts, however, progress has been slow and uncertain. The Mattole watershed lies in one of California’s wettest and most geologically active zones. Earthquakes or heavy rains can blast the river with great clumps of sediment that careen down steep slopes made especially unstable by careless logging in the past. Within minutes spawning grounds can be choked or passageways blocked for migrating fish. Volunteers patrol the river to repair what damage they can, but even so, salmon numbers rose to only an estimated 1,000 in 1996 compared to a low of some 200 fish in 1991.

Still the book offers hope to those too immobilized by environmental despair and species self-loathing to act on behalf of the natural world. The abundance of salmon, as House points out, once gave people an incentive for caring about the larger world that sustained it, forcing warring tribes to put aside their differences and work out complex harvesting practices that ensured that the sea’s  life-sustaining gift would feed people all along the river.  If the salmon’s abundance once helped people build stronger human communities throught more inclusive attachments to the nonhuman world, then, as House convincingly demonstrates, its scarcity might do the same for us today. 

Environmental writer Heidi Fischer’s natural history of the north shore of Lake Superior is coming out next year from the University of Minnesota Press.

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