“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.”
That’s the biographical note for Freeman House on the Lannan Foundation website. We would add that earlier in his life, Freeman edited Innerspace, a mid-1960s independent press magazine for the nascent psychedelic community; presided over the marriage of Abbie and Anita Hoffman at Central Park on June 10, 1967; and was a member of both New York City’s Group Image and the San Francisco Diggers.
This is the first lecture in this series.
WILD HUMANITY: People and the Places That Make Them People
by Freeman House
Revised in November 2001 from a University of Montana Wilderness Lecture delivered in April 2001
Richard Manning writes in Inside Passage: A Journey Beyond Borders, “…people should cease drawing borders around nature and instead start placing boundaries on human behavior…we should begin behaving as if all places matter to us as much as wilderness. Because they do.” We have not only set wilderness apart from our everyday lives; we have also made a distinction between human life and the very concept of wildness. The effect of this questionable distinction is to put a most dangerous limitation on our potential for adaptive human behavior. As Manning continues, both our parks and our culture set “a line between utility and beauty, sacred and profane. This line is destroying us, as it is destroying the planet.”
A few months ago I heard Florence Krall summarize her late husband Paul Shepard’s life work in a single sentence: There is an indigenous person waiting to be released in each of us. Our genome is “the sum of an individual’s genetic material, a product of millions of years of evolution” (Shepard 1998). The human genome is as wild as the ecological systems out of which it evolved. Basic comfort as a human being requires a conscious interaction with the more-than-human aspects of the textures of life surrounding, just as an infant needs the touch of other humans to thrive. Wild animals can survive for a while in a zoo. Contemporary humans are trained for survival in the zoo of an abstracted, objectified, and commodified world.
The genome demands, writes Shepard, that our cultures constitute a full and rewarding mediation between ourselves and the ecosystems within which we live. By this tenet, our genome, the structure within which our rational processes are embedded, is requiring of us that we recover our niches in particular ecosystems. Strong and mysterious language: the genome demands. It suggests that we are impelled to engage the health of our watersheds and ecosystems as a first step in our search for sanity—for ourselves, for our communities, and for our species.
The title of this series is the poetics of wilderness, but I’d rather be talking about the poetics of the wild. Because it’s among my assumptions that “wilderness” is a social and political construct, while the word “wild” is best used to describe the essential organizational structure of Creation; that Creation is a wild unfolding; and that we humans (as well as all our co-evolved life forms) are both expressions and agents of that unfolding.
Given these premises, it is quite possible that the self-satisfied technological advances of the last 500 to 5000 years of so-called civilization may not represent the pinnacle of evolution we encourage ourselves to believe they are. A good many of the cultural assumptions of modernity are, in fact, more easily understood as a temporarily successful construct of denial in the face of the finally unmanageable power of Creation. Wild Creation is full of dangers, and worse yet from the perspective of global capitalism, it’s unpredictable! So we try to set ourselves aside from it. It’s as if, knowing that we’ll damage our eyes if we look into the sun, we deny its existence rather than simply indulging ourselves in the pleasure of its warmth on our faces and backs. But the body is wiser than the logical mind because our bodies have been shaped by the wild. The body always returns to luxuriate in the sun’s warmth.
Let me back up a little and define the way I’m using the word “wild.” As I’m using it, the word describes not individuated phenomena, but relationships complex enough to be self-generating, self -regulating, self-correcting, with no need for external regulation. By this definition, the experience of the wild is available to us at every waking—and sleeping—moment. (For the world of dreams is most certainly a wild world.) Any cubic foot of living soil is a wild phenomenon. So is the human autonomic system. One of the handiest reminders I have of my individual relationship to the wild is to imagine what a terminal mess I’d make of things if I tried to take charge of my own breath and heartbeat. The process of broken bones healing is wild. Grass pushing up through the cracks in the sidewalk is a wild resurgence.
The life work of the human ecologist Paul Shepard suggests that as a species, our physical and psychic evolution is in much the same state as it was during the Pleistocene, when we were small bands of people learning how to live in geographical ranges limited by glaciation. The deepest sources of our comfort as contemporary human beings, says Shepard, are the same as they were then—25-50,000 years ago. Physical evolution proceeds at a much slower rate than our social and technological innovations. So here we are in the twentieth century zipping around physically at 700 miles an hour, and mentally at the speed of light. But the human identities that lie within our individual chromosomal structures are still seeking comfort in small communities of fellow beings, and our senses, which we have been taught to mistrust, are still capable of taking the things we really need to know from the cycles of the seasons, from the way the weather moves, and from the behaviors of the other creatures around us. Our senses are restricted to what we can see and hear and feel on our skins and in our guts. If we are able to regain our trust in them, we will find that our organs of perception are not a terrible limitation, but the most reliable informants of a true rationality. That’s who we are, no matter how successfully we insulate ourselves against discomfort—against seeing and feeling—in our day-to-day lives. We’re only at the very beginning of understanding ourselves as a species occupying every niche of the planet, but we’ve a million or so years of experience in learning how to live as tight communities in knowable places. This condition describes the source of our confusion at the same time as it provides some hints at how to work our way out of it.
It’s an artificial conceit to imagine any wild system in isolation from another. Again the living world is a complex of nested relationships. In order to experience our wildness, we need every other living creature (most of which our analytical minds are unaware), and especially (this is the aspect most often missing from discussions like these) other humans. And we need each other in particular configurations that are only partly a matter of choice. These are difficult concepts for Americans in particular. Modern American culture encourages us to confuse identity with individuality.
For almost all of human time, we humans have known who we are and how we fit into the natural world. There has always been a thread in the fabric of societal or tribal behavior the function of which is to keep those relationships straight—the old nature religions and the tribal ceremonial lives that preceded them, for instance. That part of our collective consciousness has atrophied (but not died) over the last few hundred years. But we have traditions that go back to the beginning of time, if we can find them, that support the work we’re engaged in now—of regaining that balance, that benign participation in the natural world.
Wild humanity takes its cultural cues from specific places and from the conglomerations of weather and rock and life forms that constitute a place. This complexity has a great deal to do with the multiplicity of cultural patterns in the deep past. In deep time, cultures have differed from each other as places differ. Conversely, those human and hominid cultures have affected the evolution and structure of places for well over a million years. Let me give you a single concrete example from my home region. Until 150 years ago, the people in my region actively cultivated the wild community (of which they considered themselves a part) so that it would produce an optimum amount of acorn, deer and salmon. Fire was used to maintain the health and productivity of oak groves, and to limit the invasion of other species, as acorn was a winter staple. Significant parts of the plant community were effectively arrested at a point of succession that best fed both humans and other omnivores. Fire was also used on upland prairies to augment the occasional lightning-induced blazes on which prairie ecology depends. Regular burning enhanced the forage for deer that became food for humans and bunchgrasses that became baskets. Salmon production was maintained largely by ceremonial self-regulation of human consumption. Aboriginal people maintained an annual harvest of salmon in the same range of numbers as the peak catches of the industrial fishery around the turn of the twentieth century.
There has been no way to consider people and places separately until the last few moments of evolutionary time. If we are to re-wild our human attitudes and endeavors—which I believe is the challenge of our time—then we are going to need to re-examine the relationships between people and places. If, as Peter Berg has said, our job is to “learn to biosphere”—biosphere as a verb—it is likely that we’ll do our learning in creeks and mountains and meeting halls close to home, and from the deep history of our home places.
A paradox of “doing biosphere” is that it is done for the most part in one small place at a time. In my own place, a 300-square mile watershed in northern California, the effort to maintain a hugely diminished native salmon run quickly evolved into an examination of human relationships to the land and waters. Here, the search has revolved around the salmon native to the river that runs through our lives. It is fortunate for my community’s endeavor that it has been enlivened by this planetary pulse of wildness. Salmon live the great proportion of their lives outside our place, roaming the vast North Pacific before returning to our little crease in the Coast Range of California. While salmon motivated us to examine our own behaviors on the land, it required of us at the same time to ponder our place’s relationship to the biosphere. But while our minds roamed abroad, the daily work was practiced in the waters at our feet and on the lands between our eyes and the horizon.
Coincidentally it came to seem like the size of the watershed is of an optimal scale for this sort of undertaking. The place is small enough so that there is a possibility of maintaining communication paths between human and more-than-human residents. But it is a little too large for an individual to experience and understand viscerally. Such understanding requires a resident community of people intentionally seeking out its secrets and sharing their individual discoveries. Beginning with the perception that populations of native salmon were diminishing at an alarming rate, a handful of local practitioners invented a backyard hatchery system to augment reproductive success severely limited by a damaged river. Before a season had passed, it became obvious that they were engaged in no more than a holding action, and that the larger work required a generations-long strategy to hasten the recovery of salmon’s freshwater habitat. The numbers of restoration workers grew; streambanks were armored; large woody debris was cabled into place to create complexity in waterways that had been simplified by floods; trees were planted upslope in the tens of thousands. We learned from our mistakes as well as from our successes.
But these projects, if isolated from our daily economic practices, were likely to perpetuate themselves as mitigation for extractive practices carried on as if there were no tomorrow. As I have elaborated on this notion elsewhere:
As we became more skilled in repairing damaged areas, we became aware of the danger of becoming the sources of cheap janitorial services for corporate industry or others who might be opening up new wounds even as we were attempting to heal the old ones. It was not enough to become expert in putting back together what had been torn apart. Unless we adopted the cause of local ecological reserves, unless we tried to educate ourselves against destructive land use practices and tried to prevent them when education failed, unless we helped establish new small-scale resource extraction industries rooted in the ethic of ecosystem health, we were in danger of becoming Roto-Rooter persons for a dysfunctional society. If we practiced environmental restoration out of the same short-term assumptions that had created the disturbances in the first place, where could we end but as apologists for new deserts? Even the Roto-Rooter man tells the homeowner to stop pouring bacon grease down the toilet! We are now concerned with the cultural content of the next 150 years because our experience tells us we must be. (House 1999)
The goal of creating a sustainable future in a resilient place incorporated itself into the project of restoring some of the historical watershed and ecosystem functions.
That goal involved communicating successfully with our neighbors—to study the challenge of treating each other as interrelated functions of a wild and healthy ecosystem. This challenge was only partially addressed by the publication of regular newsletters mailed to every resident and landowner in the watershed. Inevitably, restorationists were pushed to deal directly with landowners, resource professionals, and environmentalists who were in the habit of communicating with each other through remote centralized resource agencies or in the courts. The solution to this problem turned out to be taking our disagreements to the field. A forester could more easily see the good sense of reconsidering a stream crossing if the conversation was held at the site of the crossing. An environmentalist convinced that all forestry is bad forestry might experience an epiphany if walked through a functioning forest that had been selectively cut once in each of the three proceeding generations. We were discovering that the land itself speaks a language through which all factions can sometimes communicate.
It could be that there is only one discussion of the wild that is of any use to those of us who are neither professional philosophers nor literary critics. That discussion is about how to rediscover a sense of the wild that includes human communities that are both ecologically and economically functional, first in a regional—and only then in a global context. Mitch Tomashow argues, correctly, that all ecological systems ultimately have a global context. My experience tells me that while the science of ecology teaches us to think in the context of biospheric relationships, it is in unique places that we live those relationships.
Pre-conquest North American cultures illustrate these rules of discovery more readily than most. Even a cursory study of those cultures reveals how closely traditional practices are related to specific landscapes. But we Euro-Americans read the cultural history of North America as a series of absolute discontinuities. We suffer a cultural disconnect in the continuous story of humans on the land in North America. Rebecca Solnit, in her lovely book Savage Dreams: A Journey into the Landscape Wars of the American West spells it out:
Histories of conquest are stories of disjuncture, and the great curse of Euro-American history is its shallowness, its failure to take root in a place so different from its place of origin. There are other countries which have absorbed their conquerors, but the States can’t absorb an immigrant population which can’t remember where it is or who preceded it to the place. It is the conquerors and invaders, not the conquered or invaded, who have lost their roots, their ties, their sense of place. Amnesia is one potent means of overcoming the traumatic dislocation of the conqueror: Rather than lacking a personal past in a particular place, the amnesiac lacks any past…. The inability to remember the past becomes the inability to imagine the future, and it is not surprising that a country with a ten- or hundred-year past can’t make wise decisions about the long-term future (Solnit 1994).
By functional human communities, I mean functional in an ecological sense, functional in a regionally secure economic sense, and functional in meeting the deep psychic needs of our individual humanity. We need to recover ourselves, our brilliant human species, as reciprocating parts of ecosystems, as humble participants in the processes of Creation. We are at an impasse that, although we have philosophized our way into it, we cannot think our way out of it. We can only act our way out of it as we invent contemporary indigeneity.
We have little choice but to begin these explorations at the level of the place-based community—for a number of reasons. It’s fairly obvious that different ecosystem communities require different forms of reciprocity. What is not so obvious to our modern minds is the fact that no one person—indeed no one discipline of exploration—is adequate to the comprehension of the complexities of place. We are able to acknowledge that each individual perceives things a little differently, but we find it difficult to imagine these differences as atoms of perception each of which are necessary parts of a whole. The Quaker slogan that “each person holds a piece of the truth” is another way of saying this. Quakers have also found a way of integrating this phenomenon into consensual decision-making, a highly sophisticated communal practice of listening that in many ways resembles the traditions of some native North Americans.
Paradoxically, our search for a more fully human life may best be pursued through acceptance of our limitations as humans. I have already touched on the notion that no one of us can claim the truth. Let’s take a step further and see what happens if we question the dominance of the intellect.
The utility of separating out our unique capacities for abstraction and analysis was clearly articulated some time ago by philosophers like Francis Bacon and Rene Descartes—and they were correct. To ignore sensations that cannot be objectified optimizes our human ability to use the fruits of the Earth for the benefit of the most ambitious among us. And so it has come to be.
The law of unintended consequence has always been with us, but nowhere in our long, long history can I find a larger example than the consequences of this rationale. We have slowly removed ourselves from direct experience of our Earthly fields of being—at first so slowly as to be unnoticeable. But with the explosion of the industrial revolution a scant 200 years ago, it is as if we have stepped into a machine that has the quality of isolating us from Earth at an ever-increasing rate of acceleration. We haven’t yet discovered where the brake pedal is, even as the Earth disappears around us.
It is my experience that direct engagement with natural processes through work in “restoring” them can return us to a sense of our vastly larger human capabilities. The whole being experiences life through his or her senses and applies the uniquely human facilities of complex memory and analysis to evidence received that way. But in order for the rational faculty to do its specialized work, the majority of sensual perception must be filtered out or set aside. The human animal experiences nature through its senses—as what lies between our eyes and the horizon; the evidence of our noses within an extremely limited olfactory range; the evidence of our ears and a slightly expanded range of hearing. This is just the way that humans are, the point to which our genome has evolved.
The champions of the isolated intellect seem to hate this phenomenon; we tend to treat the fact that we perceive things rather than conceive them as a dreadful limitation to be overcome. I would like to suggest that we are in the process of abandoning the futile notion of overcoming the limitations of bodily perception, and treating them once more as the sophisticated tools they are. My own experience with these insights has been in the context of 20 years of work in a field called—rather arrogantly—ecological restoration. They have allowed me to see that watershed restoration can be an exercise through which we might learn to practice our re-integration in the natural world. As we size and clean gravel for streamside salmon egg incubators, or wrestle living salmon out of their waters, or plant trees in deforested landscapes close to home, we are gaining more information than the rational mind can process; we are gaining the beginnings of relationship.
The number of social and ecological challenges that not only can but must be dealt with at the level of the bioregion turns out to be large. Questions of water quality and distribution, food security, ecosystem integrity and biodiversity will, unless they are addressed from within bioregions, result at worst in certain regions becoming sacrifice zones for other ones. At best, centralized management of local phenomena results in over-simplified and impractical one-size-fits-all prescriptions. When we arrive at the challenges that extend beyond the bioregion—acid rain, say, or ozone depletion, or free trade–we may be identifying the context for inter-regional organization and exchange rather than the need for centralized global governance. We may also find that regional action is better than no action at all. Rather than react to national foot-dragging on the question of climate change, the Northwest Center for the Environment and others have begun to build a regional strategy to reduce greenhouse emissions. Strategizing at this scale leads people to hopeful action rather than into the despair that attends “thinking globally.”
Even such seemingly intractable challenges as human population may seem less uncontrollable when imagined in the context of the local. Kirkpatrick Sale, in Dwellers in the Land: The Bioregional Vision, writes “…to come to know the earth fully and honestly, the crucial and perhaps only and all-encompassing task is to understand…the immediate specific place where we live. … the limits of its resources; the carrying capacities of its lands and waters; the places that must not be stressed; the places where its bounties can be best developed; the treasures it holds and the treasures it withholds—these are the things that must be understood” (Sale 1989). The anthropologist Sherbourne Cook has developed a model of California aboriginal populations before contact that reveals scores of unique cultures maintaining populations very close to local carrying capacity over hundreds of years. If true, this is one of the most elegant achievements in the history of humans. What social mechanisms can have driven such stability other than the personal and social internalization of the knowledge of what the land holds and withholds?
This talk has wandered a long way from its original notion of a wild humanity encoded in the genes. The last fifty years have been as hard on humans as humans have been hard on the planet. We have witnessed industrial civilization carry us right up to the edge of our common existence—and we have suffered from the experience. Industrial civilization sometimes seems to have its own separate consciousness laid over on top of the consciousness that is life. Global capitalism has developed its own powerful and automatic mechanisms for its own perpetuation. It resists our efforts to reform it with utter disregard for our lives or any of the trillions of others that we might hold precious. One of its mechanisms has been that to some degree, each of us has internalized some of those deadly behaviors, assumed responsibility for them, confused industrial behavior with our own behavior, and with human behavior in general. As we have been repulsed and sickened by the killing excesses of industrialism and global consumerism, we sometimes come to loathe ourselves. Human species self-loathing may be the most dangerous thing on Earth, since we have the capacity to take too much of the rest of life down with us. Better we invent social behaviors that lead to richer human lives. Better to remember Florence Krall’s encouragement: In each one of us, there is an indigenous person waiting to be released.
Cook, Sherbourne F. 1978, “Historical Demography” in Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 8, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C.
House, Freeman 1992, “Dreaming Indigenous” in Restoration and Management Notes, 10:1 (Summer 1992)
– 1999, Totem Salmon, Beacon Press, Boston
Manning, Richard 2000, Inside Passages: A Journey Beyond Borders, Island Press, Washington D.C.
Sale, Kirkpatrick 1985, Dwellers in the Land: The Bioregional Vision, Sierra Club Books, San Francisco
Shepard, Paul 1998, Coming Home to the Pleistocene, Island Press, Washington D.C.
Solnit, Rebecca 1994, Savage Dreams: A Journey into the Landscape Wars of the American West, Sierra Club Books, San Francisco
Tomashow, Mitchell 2001, “A Biosphere Natural History” in Orion, Autumn 2001