Kin to the Earth: Freeman House

Freeman House. Photo: Amanda Malachesky, used with permission.
Freeman House. Photo: Amanda Malachesky, used with permission.

Editor’s Note: It is with a heavy heart that we posthumously recognize Freeman House, restorationist and author, as our Kin to the Earth. A longer version of this tribute was originally published in the summer 2018 issue of the Mattole Watershed News.

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 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.

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. But in looking back, each one of these successes had been novel, and yes, radical for its time. 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 House. Photo: Courtesy of Mattole Restoration Council.
Freeman House. Photo: Courtesy of Mattole Restoration Council.

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. Any attempt to encapsulate the legacy he left our community would never be deep enough, hallowed enough, or complex enough—all traits which he embodied completely. So I turned to his friends.

Rondal Snodgrass, one of the original members of the Council and the founder of Sanctuary Forest, Inc., 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. I have been an Up River Person emblazoned by headwaters, the old growth forests and watered spawning-ground streams. Freeman was 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. This present time calls us to praise Freeman, an emblazoned elder for us all.”

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.

“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.

“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.”