Freeman House, Influential Restorationist, Dies at 80

by: Sara on 08/08/2018

Judith Plant, New Society Publishers co founder and author of Culture Gap and editor of Healing the Wounds, offers a tribute to Freeman House, author of Totem Salmon and founder of the Mattole Restoration Council, who passed away on July 23rd. Judith credits him, among others, with influencing her vision of bioregionalism.  Click here to download Totem Salmon, as it appeared in Home! A Bioregional Reader (originally published in North Pacific Rim, Alive, 1974). His work is still relevant today as low chinook salmon stocks have far reaching affects, including the starving of orca whales in the Pacific Northwest.

I probably first met up with Freeman, or at least his work in watershed restoration, in the Mattole valley in northern California, sometime in the mid-1980s. I'd never heard terms like rip-rap and hardly knew anything about salmon habitat.

My community in the Yalakom valley was a long way from the Mattole but it was there that my friends and I found out that we were not alone with our ideas of building a culture fitting to place. Freeman House, Peter Berg, Judy Goldhaft, Gary Snyder and many others were developing the theory and practice of  'bioregionalism,' or as Peter Berg more poetically described the concept, 'learning to live within the gifts and limitations of a particular place.' Through poetry, prose, dance, theatre, and sweat-on-the-ground, these creative and impassioned people gave voice to this profound idea. I remember driving around in Freeman's truck looking at streams while he talked  about the place, the people, and most especially about the salmon. In those days, in the Yalakom valley, we were up to our necks in forestry issues, ourselves fiercely working to stop the clear-cutting that ran rampant in our dry and delicate ecosystem. The destruction of salmon spawning habitat – some guys even washed their bulldozers in the creeks -- went hand-in-hand with the plunder of the forests. Freeman's work put it all together for us. 

We have lost a gentle soul, but the meaning of his life goes on and on.

Following is a piece about Freeman House's passing and his lasting legacy. Re-posted with permission. Originally appeared on the North Coast Journal on June 27th, 2018 contributed by Linda Stansberry.

Freeman House, Influential Restorationist, Dies at 80

Freeman House, author of Totem Salmon and founder of the Mattole Restoration Council, died Saturday, June 23. He was 80.

House was part of a cohort responsible for what is considered to be the "first community-based restoration effort in the state of California."

chinook Photo credit Pacific Southwest Region USFWS

Chinook in the Lower Tuolumne River. Photo credit: Pacific Southwest Region USFWS

David Simpson, co-founder of the MRC, recalls meeting House in the 1960s, when they both lived in the Haight-Ashbury district and were part of a group called "The Diggers," which Simpson described as "radical free form social workers." They wrote their own newspapers and provided free meals in Golden Gate Park for the scads of young people who had heeded Timothy Leary's call to "turn on, tune in, and drop out." House decided to start a salmon fishing collective and bought a boat he christened The Bare Minimum, which at one point he and Simpson used to ferry water to Native American protesters occupying Alcatraz Island.

House moved to the Mattole Valley from San Francisco in 1980, one of many who traded in the Haight-Ashbury scene for a back-to-the-land lifestyle. In his 2000 memoir Totem Salmon: Life Lessons from Another Species, he recalls


Freeman House circa 2000, at MRC headquarters.

standing in the doorway of his trailer next to the Mattole River on New Year's Eve 1982, listening to the Grateful Dead play at the Oakland Coliseum and then turning the music off to listen for the sound of a king salmon "struggling upstream." King or "Chinook" salmon were considered to be doomed at that time, House wrote, with logging and earthquakes combining to bring sediment into the streams, warming the water. House would go on to help form the Mattole Watershed Salmon Support Group and, in 1983, the MRC. The groups, formed of locals dedicated to the concept of "bioregionalism," would go on to do intensive work in upslope restoration, restoring native grassland and helping maintain the Chinook population by use of weirs, trapping spawning salmon to fertilize and incubate their eggs. The organization also trained local people to count spawning salmon and carcasses, quantifying the diminishing return of the species. 

"Freeman was a man of incredible integrity," Simpson says. "When he took on a project he knew it was important. [The project] may have been born but it wouldn’t have reached the maturity it did if it weren’t for Freeman."

Seth Zuckerman, who also worked with Simpson, recalled that when he first met House in the 1980s, the family was living in "one or two heated rooms of an otherwise drafty barn," while House pursued his work on the water.

"When I asked him about that, he said, 'The little house can’t be in order until the big house is in order,' [i.e., the watershed.]," Zuckerman said.

According to Simpson, this year marks the biggest return for Chinook salmon in the Mattole watershed since 1981.

Dates for a memorial for House have not yet been finalized. He is survived by his partner Nina Blasenheim and his daughter, Laurel House. You can read more about his life and work in a 2000 cover story in the Journal, found here

Editor's Note: In the interest of full disclosure, Linda Stansberry is a board member with the Mattole Restoration Council.


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