Remembering Freeman House

Remembering Freeman House

Remembering Freeman and When Restoration was Radical

By Ali Freedlund, Mattole Restoration Council


Seldom do we meet those remarkable souls who so alter the foundations of our perspective that we dare refer to them as Teacher. Freeman House was certainly one of those souls. He was the Doyen of Mattole restoration thought and therefore action. He realigned, in an elegant, delectable way, the lens we use to view the place we live. And it stuck. And it was far-reaching.

Freeman emphasized the need to engage all peoples in their places to reweave what had become a tattered tapestry of the land. Through his writings, speech, and humble presence, Freeman carefully constructed a manner of living in relationship with forest, river, and meadow. He not only studied the earlier traditions of local tribal peoples, but he launched a new and familiar way of honoring and implementing the work that the earth tells us needs to be done. He crafted homages to the ‘work’ as a model for generations. A longtime friend and restorationist, Bob Anderson, when asked what Freeman’s influence was, immediately replied, “Freeman’s gift was his ability to mainstream radical ideas.” Interesting that it was radical to muddle with spawning fish to increase their numbers or to negotiate the protection of an old-growth forest, or to out-slope rural ranch roads to decrease sediment, or to bring together disparate groups in a watershed alliance, or to cobble together conservation parcels in the middle of the watershed that would create a wildlife corridor from Humboldt Redwoods State Park to the King Range National Conservation Area. But in looking back, each one of these successes had been novel, and yes, radical for its time. Yes, Freeman knew that for true recovery to be sustained, it would take enlisting the people living in their watersheds to do the work, to take it on with gusto, and to align with the currents inherent in dynamic processes.

Freeman was an original founder of the Mattole Restoration Council (MRC) in 1983 in order to bring all the groups that were working in isolation in one watershed together to discuss projects, priorities, and philosophies. Originally a 13-member council of groups, in 1998, under his direction, the MRC metamorphosed into an organization that implemented a myriad of projects – much as it continues to this day. Any attempt to encapsulate the legacy he left our community, or to other restorationists, would never be deep enough, hallowed enough, or complex enough, all traits which he embodied completely. So I turned to his friends.

One of the original members of the Council and the founder of Sanctuary Forest,Inc., Rondal Snodgrass sent this offering: “Along the Mattole there were Up River People and Down River People. The salmon migration connected these two elements of river culture. Freeman spoke of us as “reinhabitors,” showing us that we were planted here for higher purposes. He demonstrated and taught us with elegance the deeper ecology of our new culture’s purpose. I have been an Up River Person emblazoned by headwaters, the old growth forests and watered spawning-ground streams. Freeman has been a Down River Person, emblazoned with estuary, forest, prairie, and river mouth. Together with many, many others, we joined heart, mind and spirit to weave these elements together. Yes, we continue. This present time calls us to praise Freeman, an emblazoned elder for us all.”

And from Jerry Martien, close friend and North Coast poet: “Freeman House’s theory and practice was essentially this: restoration and recovery can’t be done from the outside. Both for the watershed and the person, it has to come from within. Freeman always seemed to be speaking—and writing—and acting from the heart. He also listened from the heart, and was constantly conducting and sharing his own scientific and cultural education. To be formulated, spoken about, and practiced, he would insist, in the vernacular—in terms that express a local culture. He was a dedicated naturalist and a full-on advocate for salmon’s place at the center of that culture, in the Mattole and throughout the Northwest. He was also a Digger, and saw that theater and music, dance and poetry could express those priorities—again, from the heart—and so nourish person, community, and place. He gave himself to that task. In his essay “Afterlife” he provided his own memorial: The Earth will claim me as its own. Which I am.

David Simpson, a co-founder of the Mattole Salmon Group, writes:

“In the fall of 1981, over 40 residents of various parts of the Mattole, having been trained in the then-esoteric craft of salmon species and redd identification, pulled on waders and spread out over the valley. It was the beginning of what was no doubt the first systematic survey of the spawners of an entire watershed to be conducted exclusively by residents of that watershed.

It’s hard to recollect today that, back in 1981, these were far-out ideas and audacious acts. Even referring to the Mattole as a ‘watershed’ was new and mildly wonkish, but turning over the abstruse work of gathering accurate biological data that could help a wild species survive to a bunch of backwoods yokels like us? That was outright radical.

Freeman House, co-founder of the Mattole Salmon Group and the Mattole Restoration Council, was not exactly a raving radical. He had indeed participated quite willingly in cultural events in the 60s and early 70s that sorely challenged existing paradigms. By the time he joined us here in the Mattole, though, to help build the watershed restoration idea into one of the central social movements of our times, his relationship to his fellows was typified by a quiet dignity and an exceptional conscientiousness. These traits would prove essential to the job ahead. He was, of course, a grand writer. He was also a truly inspired watershed administrator.

Looking back, it’s reasonable to presume that when we started out, we had caught the salmon runs on a downswing and that this downward momentum continued, with a few aberrations both up and down, for over 30 years. The return of abundance—a river visibly full of salmon—seemed for much of that time a distant dream. Until, that is, the past two years and especially this year: a Mattole salmon surveyor’s delight. (See article at right.)

It was, propitiously, Freeman’s last year with us. The incredible body of work that started with the hatchbox program and those first spawner surveys may have finally begun to pay off. (Note I say ‘may’—our coho runs have not recovered  and the rebuilding of the Chinook population is still at a fragile early stage.) Freeman’s quiet but hard-core belief in the power of inhabitants of a place, a watershed—in us—to alter the course of history is turning out to have been of great consequence. What might have been another inevitable chronicle of decline and disrepair could turn out instead to be the first chapter in a celebration of renewal and recovery. And we, people of the Mattole, have played the central role. Thank you, Freeman and farewell old friend.”


Freeman was a watershed mystic—one who seeks, by contemplation and self-surrender, unity with the watershed. From his book, Totem Salmon:

“I walk in a world I have come to understand as mutable, ever-changing. My walk on the next morning carries me into streaming fog blowing off the Pacific into my face. The chill of it shortens my planned route and makes me wonder just how wide that line on that map that divides water from land should be.

The rolling hills around me seem still, but I know that they are not. All the land within my view is called by geologists an accretionary prism. In plainer language, the seemingly solid ground under my feet is made of rubble scraped off the Gorda plate as it dives beneath the North American plate. Such knowledge is occasionally enlivened by an adrenal rush that is a response to the rumble and roll of the earth, or by a series of sharp jolts that knocks the jars off the shelves in my home. It is the mountains around me rearranging themselves.

After a while, the movement of mountains rearranges the mind. I find in myself a new fluidity of response, a diminished sense of attachment, a more comfortable sense of humility. I am a different person than I was when I arrived in the valley. I may not be alone.”

No Freeman, you are not alone.

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