“Freeman House is a former commercial salmon fisher who has been involved with a community-based watershed restoration effort in northern California for more than 25 years. He is a co-founder of the Mattole Salmon Group and the Mattole Restoration Council. His book, Totem Salmon: Life Lessons from Another Species received the best nonfiction award from the San Francisco Bay Area Book Reviewers Association and the American Academy of Arts and Letters’ Harold D. Vursell Memorial Award for quality of prose. He lives with his family in northern California.”
This is the third lecture in this series. This series ran previously on this site in 2010-11, and is being rerun now because it’s the right thing to do.
This piece was first published in Orion magazine, May-June 2003. It received the John Burroughs Award for best natural history essay of 2003.
AFTERLIFE: On the great pulse of nutrients that feeds all of Creation
by Freeman House
with photography by Scott Chambers, 1948-2008
The world is our consciousness. It surrounds us.
As an industrial fisherman I’ve taken hundreds, perhaps thousands of salmon lives. I’ve also eaten them—roasted over an open fire, poached with dill sauce, smoked on alder wood, and baked with sweet pepper and tomato. I’ve pursued salmon in the wild for livelihood and food, worked with my watershed neighbors to insure their continued presence in my home river, and written books and essays about them. I am in part a man made of salmon, so it doesn’t seem strange to me now to be pondering their lives after death.
For several months, Scott Chambers’ photographs of salmon, dead after spawning on the Starrigavin River near Sitka, Alaska, have been spread out on my worktable, pinned over whatever blank spaces remain on the walls of my office, and perched on piles of books waiting to be shelved. Their undeniable beauty is not enough to explain their grip on my mind. Continue reading →
This is in Sitka. The wall is carved by Nick’s family. All Tlinkets of the Coho clan.
¡Activista! by Sonny Smith
The Lutra Canadensis
I went to Sitka (southeast Alaska), got off the plane and into the airport (bear heads, stuffed wolves, stuffed eagles), into Nick Galanin’s car (promoter of festival) and to his gallery (festival headquarters), took a brief walk to check out the venue (small French restaurant) where I’ll play solo songs (my bullshit) for an hour or so (dizzy on wine). Following this a brief gaze upwards (bald eagles, ravens), then a jaunt to the shore (through the Russian graveyard), past the local hotel (Ukrainian oil refinery worker housing), past the tasteless tourist traps (wolf pelt bras, photo-ops with stuffed bears), a feeble moment of rest from jetlag (plane tickets financed by local coke dealer), then to the harbor with memory of year before (almost knocked over on skiff by humpback whale), and rockabilly night in Haines (the local crowd never went to sleep, the bar closed at six), or what Jarred Galanin (fisherman, carpenter, musician) said when I took his Colt .45 out of the holster and asked him if this would fell a bear “save one bullet for yourself cause it’ll probably just make him mad”…
In Seward last year I ended up on a tour boat with White Magic (a band from Brooklyn). The captain of the boat nannered on in a non-stop monotone (and now to your right you will see an otter…) The 100 passengers were lulled into a catatonic gaze until we found our way to the pinnacle of the trip (an iceberg). An incandescent blue that exists nowhere else on earth. The guide asked all of us to close our eyes and focus our thoughts towards the iceberg melting. We were instructed to try and ‘make’ the iceberg crumble with our thoughts so we could spectate the grandeur of the falling ice. (Evil! Evil!). The diabolical ignorance of the tour boat captain represents the Alaskan money game in totality from corporate ‘trawlers’ (veritable genocide of the ocean floor), to the perennial blind eye of Exxon Valdez disaster residuals (Exxon never cleaned it up!), selling of water, oil, fish, game, all the way to the marketing of used tea bag Sarah Palin herself.
I’m told the land otter (Lutra Canadensis) is the trickster animal of the Tlinkets (sprawling Inuit tribe of southeast Alaska). Storied to seduce man into the woods on a camping trip say, and lead him in circles until he is disoriented and dies. Or the otter will take the form of an old friend coming to the aid of a shipwrecked fisherman, beckon him onto a boat (a mere illusion) where he falls into the water and drowns. I am told this is an obscure and seldom seen animal, but I say I witnessed thousands of land otters waddling off tourist boats (floating malls) to buy cheap reminders (canoe tchotchkes) of their great Alaskan non-adventure. Ergo land otter remains to seduce people far and wide into a spiritual drowning.
I have come here four years running and I still know next to nothing of this place. Nick put out a 7” record of mine; I am told he traded a skiff for the pressing. Nick, half-Tlinket, half-white, an artist who often appropriates the white man’s appropriation of indigenous art. Tlinkets have two clans, Ravens and Eagles. Within these are sub-clans: Whales, Toads, Slugs, Bears, Halibut… Nick is Raven. But he is an orphan, his mother is non-native and his dad is a bluesman, a Kaagwaantaan (eagle). It’s a matrilineal society (you take your mother’s clan). Ravens cannot marry Ravens. Eagles cannot marry Eagles. A rule widely respected still.
In Anchorage we played at a little club. Walking in, there was a stripper pole, but the bartenders were all unmistakably gay. Downstairs there was a hand written dress code obviously directed to hip hoppers (no sideways hats, no underwear showing). I could not make head nor tails of where this club was coming from. The club (just a theory) is a kind of default venue where anything out of the ordinary is relegated, anything non-mainstream is quarantined there; gays, blacks, small-time rock bands, hip hoppers, strippers, teenagers, us…
Jarred took us to a headwaters. The fish were jumping. A switch buried deep inside their atoms has clicked on; they will need to jump up the river to get to the fresh water. They are sometimes jumping before they even reach the climb to the fresh water. If they get to the fresh water it will diffuse into their system and they will turn grey and die. That is if they are not eaten by bears, humans, and eagles first.
With Breathe Owl Breathe, at a campground in Haines…
A bonfire on the beach in Seward. About seven or eight folks. They are talking about the trawlers, talking about the politics, talking about charter fisherman. The young people in Alaska know the game, at least the ones I’m meeting. One of them boxcar’d up here. One has become a little uneven. Spontaneously, he throws himself on the fire. He’s howling with laughter. He’s got a crazy look.
Later, a ferryboat taking our caravan to Juneau. It is raining. The man in the orange jumper suit guiding our van onto the ferry is speaking Russian.
Another time, the Mycea sail boat. I jumped in the water I couldn’t get back in. they threw a tug to save me. Why did I jump? The work of the Lutra Canadensis? The captain raised his five daughters on an island nearby…
The DJ in Juneau is having us on his show. He doesn’t know our music nor any music. He doesn’t care. He makes a joke of himself. Of everything.
We are traveling with a six-year-old named Wesley. He is Tlinket too.
Will we miss the ferry out of Haines? We are all looking for Nick’s uncle, he has disappeared with the truck, we are looking in ditches, at the jail, at his ex-girlfriends. We find him in the ferry terminal parking lot, asleep in the front seat.
There is a lady’s house we are supposed to stay at. But it’s covered in dog hair. It’s all covered in dog hair. Everything. She has lost to the pack. They rule her.
Back in Sitka I am leaving. I have fish to bring home. They only allow so much pounds on the plane so I stuff salmon in my underpants.