Totem Salmon: Hunting the River’s Ghost

I picked up Freeman House’s book, Totem Salmon: Life Lessons from Another Species, earlier this summer while vacationing in northern California, knowing it would make for some excellent autumn reading.

salmon_Issaquah WA hatchery_jimapicsThis time of year, the ghost of salmon fill the streams. There are old stories of creeks and rivers so full of spawning salmon that horses shied from crossing, the surface of the water transformed into a churning mass of slick, muscular bodies. It’s hard to imagine that kind of overwhelming fecundity today, when a wild salmon run is a rare thing to witness even in the heart of Salmon Nation. Urban development, logging and overfishing have left a legacy of devastated landscapes, with many of the rivers and tributaries of the Pacific Northwest stripped bare of protective forest cover, polluted with runoff and clogged with silt. Still, there are a few places left where salmon can be seen returning to the freshwaters of their birth, and these sites often draw small crowds of salmon enthusiasts during the fall and early winter months to cheer on the salmon’s upstream journey.

Starting in November, I’ll be volunteering again as a Salmon Steward at a local city park where wild coho and hatchery-stock chum are the celebrated guests of honor, straggling home by the hundreds to lay their eggs among the pebbles of Piper’s Creek. This will be my second year working as a nature guide for park visitors. My first year left me feeling awed and overwhelmed by the complex history of human-salmon relationship — I could usually answer people’s general questions about salmon biology and behavior well enough, but I still felt like a newcomer to the Pacific Northwest, without the deep roots in local natural history that afforded some of the other volunteers their incredible insight into the evolving interactions between humans and the surrounding landscape that I was only just getting to know.

I cracked open House’s Totem Salmon this month hoping to brush up on some of my fishy facts and local history, but what I discovered was a book with a great deal more to give. House is a beautiful storyteller as well as an experienced conservationist, and his work reflects not only the careful eye and practical mind of a hands-on community activist, but also the raw heart and brutal honesty of someone madly in love with the natural world.

totem_salmon_bookcoverTotem Salmon is a meandering journey through the natural history of the Mattole River watershed in northern California, with particular focus on humanity’s changing relationship with one of its keystone inhabitants, the Pacific salmon. The structure of the book in many ways mirrors the homeward journey of the salmon itself, from the depths of a shared ocean of experience back towards the headwaters rising from the heart of a unique landscape.

House begins his story immersed in a sea of intensely personal memories, dwelling with reverence on the events of one lonely New Year’s eve and his intimate encounter with the living land. His reflections are at times almost mystical, as he examines the sacred ambivalence of such encounters. In one of my favorite passages, he writes:

King salmon and I are together in the water. The basic bone-felt nature of this encounter never changes, even though I have spent parts of a lifetime seeking the meeting and puzzling over its meaning, trying to find for myself the right place in it. It is a large experience, and it has never failed to contain these elements, at once separate and combined: empty-minded awe; an uneasiness about my own active role both as a person and as a creature of my species; and a looming existential dread that sometimes attains the physicality of a lump in the throat, a knot in the abdomen, a construction around the temples. They seem important, these various elements of response, like basic conditions of existence. I am smack in the middle of the beautiful off-handed description of our field of being that once flew up from my friend David Abram’s mouth: that we are many sets of eyes staring out at each other from the same living body. For the instant, there is a part of that living body which is a cold wet darkness containing a pure burst of salmon muscle and intelligence, and containing also a clumsy human pursuing the ghost of a relationship.

As the story of this New Year’s eve unfolds, House leads the reader up various tributaries and tangents to explore the many different factors that have contributed to the salmon’s precarious existence today — from the waves of ranchers and loggers moving into the area, to the sometimes misguided efforts of environmentalists to impose federal regulations without sufficient understanding of the needs of the local ecosystems.

The story of the Mattole River watershed is not the story of Piper’s Creek or Puget Sound. One of the unexpected treasures of House’s book is the chance to see the unique dynamics of a particular community in conversation with the surrounding landscape, and how that relationship matures over the decades. House’s skill as a writer is evident when he manages to make even the most frustrating tangles of bureaucratic red-tape into compelling storytelling. There is a spirit of perseverance and cooperation that runs through his accounts of the obstacles faced by organizations like the Mattole Salmon Group and the Mattole Restoration Council, and he writes with a healthy sense of perspective — along with a hearty dose of hope — that I especially appreciated as a volunteer in my own local community, all too familiar with the fear that our attempts to fix overwhelming problems are too small or ineffective to make any real difference.

Throughout these lessons of overlapping histories and shifting cultural trends, House remains rooted in those basic questions: What do these things mean for us and our relationship with the earth? What can we learn from our past mistakes? What wisdom will we discover when we look at the world through another species’ eyes? Like all great books, Totem Salmon offers no definitive answers, but instead invites us to discover our own deep wisdom when we begin to look at the world with new eyes.


Photo Credit: “Issaquah WA hatchery,” by jimapics (CC) [source]

Alison Leigh Lilly
Alison Leigh Lilly nurtures the earth-rooted, sea-soaked, mist-and-mystic spiritual heritage of her Celtic ancestors, exploring themes of peace, poesis and wilderness through essays, articles, poetry and podcasting. You can learn more about her work here.

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