[Sunday Lecture] "More Than Numbers: Twelve or Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Watershed" by Freeman House

photo by Jim Korpi

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; married 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 piece was first published in the Spring 2001 edition of Northern Lights. It is also featured in the 2010 anthology Working the Woods, Working the Sea: An Anthology of Northwest Writing, edited by Jerry Gorsline and Finn Wilcox and published by Empty Bowl Press of Port Townsend, Washington.

You can download this ‘lecture’ as a convenient text-only PDF for $2.00, payable via PayPal, credit card or debit card. Click here to go to the order form. A link containing the PDF will be emailed to you upon payment.


Twelve or Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Watershed

by Freeman House

(with apologies to Wallace Stevens)


It was evening all afternoon.
It was snowing.
And it was going to snow.
The blackbird sat
In the cedar-limbs.

It’s December again and curdled aluminum cloud cover extends all the way to where it kisses the iron of the ocean horizon. At its mouth, the river runs narrow and clear. If you’ve lived through many winters here, the sight is anomalous; normal December flows are more likely bank to bank, and muddy as corporate virtue. A storm had delivered enough wetness around the time of Hallowe’en to blast open the sand berm that separates the river from the sea all summer and fall. The salmon had been waiting and they came into the river then.

All through November and December the jet stream has been toying with us, diverting Pacific storms either to the north or south. The fish have been trapped in pools downstream, waiting for more rain to provide enough flow to move them up 50 or 60 miles to their preferred spawning habitat. By now many of the gravid hens will have been moved by the pressure of time and fecundity to build their egg nests, called redds, in the gravels in the lower ten miles of the river. Come true winter storms, too much water is likely to move too much cobble and mud through these reaches for the fertile eggs to survive. The redds will be either buried under deep drifts of gravel or washed away entirely.

I have committed the restorationist’s cardinal sin. I have allowed myself a preferred expectation of the way two or more systems will interact. For the last two winters, steady pulses of rain have created flows that were good for the migrating salmon, carrying them all the way upstream before Solstice, but a desultory number of fish had entered the river those years. This year, from all reports, the ocean is full of salmon, more than have been seen in 20 years. So I have allowed myself the fantasy of a terrific return combined with excellent flows.

I know better than to hope for conditions that fit my notion of what’s good. Perhaps as a reaction to my wishful thinking and its certain spirit-dampening consequences, I am suffering from a certain diminution of ardor.


When the blackbird flew out of sight,
It marked the edge
Of one of many circles.

I am suffering from diminished ardor. As I look out the window on the hour-long drive to Cougar Gap [1], I am seeing the glass half-empty. As my eyes wander the rolling landscape, they seek out the raw landslides rather than indulging my usual glass-half-full habit of comparing what I’m seeing with my memory of last year’s patterns of new growth on the lands cut over 40 years ago.

It’s one of the skills you gain in 20 years of watershed restoration work—to see the patterns in the landscape and be able to compare them with a fairly accurate memory of what was there last year. I’ve come to believe that I have restored in myself a pre-Enlightenment neural network that interprets what the eyes see, what the ears hear, what the skin feels in terms of patterns and relationships rather than as isolated phenomena numeralized so that they can be graphed. It’s a skill given little credibility in the world of modern science, but it’s deeply satisfying nonetheless.

Among the raw scars on the landscape to which my eye is drawn today, some are the result of human activities and some are the natural processes of a very wet, earthquake-prone, sandstone geology. Their patterns don’t change that much from year to year; the soil that would allow them to recover rapidly has been washed off the steep slopes and into the river. It’ll take hundreds if not thousands of years for that soil to rebuild itself. It’ll take generations for the mud in the river to be flushed out to sea.

These are patterns with cycles longer than the individual human life. It’s satisfying and useful to be cognizant of them, too. Such knowledge tempers our human tendency to want to fix—read tamper with—everything in sight.

I’m beginning to feel better. Thinking about numbers has made me realize that it’s numbers that have been getting me down.


A man and a woman
Are one.
A man and a woman and a blackbird
Are one.

Numbers have been getting me down. Twenty years of this work. The numbers of returning salmon decreasing each of the first ten of those years. The numbers creeping upward during the second decade so that they stand now at close to the point where we began. The rational insistence of the agencies and foundations who pay for our projects that we quantify our work—numbers of fish, miles of road and streambank treated, numbers of trees planted, the percentages that have survived. Our numbers have looked good enough so that our little community-based watershed restoration organization is anticipating a half-million dollar budget in the next fiscal year. Abandoned roads will be decommissioned; managed roads “storm-proofed” to make them less constant conduits of mud into the waterways; trees grown from locally gathered seed will be planted; with luck, more wild salmon will be captured, their eggs fertilized and incubated, and schoolchildren will release the juvenile fish back into the wild. A number of local jobs will be generated. Similar budgets have provided me with an office job for the last two years. High on my job description is the mandate to keep that cash flow coming. I have been successful enough, and I’m really a little old to be planting trees or hefting rock, but after a while there comes to be something demeaning about pursuing public funds for a living.

While there is an increasing number of $50-75 per hour professional scientists and consultants involved in watershed and ecosystem restoration, any work that involves moving heavy things around or getting wet and dirty is still done by volunteers or locals working for 10 to 20% of those amounts.

Some of the amateurs go on to become professionals, make a career of it, but most of the practitioners are satisfied with the rewards of an ever-deepening relationship to the places where they live; by the sense that they are returning some small part of the enormous gift of Creation; by a growing knowledge that humans are capable of reunion with the life systems that support them. At its best, the work is an act of love, of communion, and as such delivers its own rewards. “Work is work,” writes Jim Dodge, “but it’s a pleasure to sing for one’s supper when the song itself provides sustenance.”


O thin men of Haddam [2],
Why do you imagine golden birds?
Do you not see how the blackbird
Walks around the feet
Of the women about you?

For most of the 20-plus years that Rochelle has lived in her country neighborhood, the most logical expectation has been that the industrial timberland owners who owned the remaining old growth forests nearby would liquidate their inventory. The most efficient and cost-effective way to turn those trees into timber is by clearcutting, a practice that leaves the steep lands barren under the driving rains of winter. Often, topsoil needed for the recovery of vegetation will end up in the streams, choking salmon habitat.

Rochelle had experienced the prospect as a piercing sadness. It had become clear to her that if corporations couldn’t be held responsible for damage they inflicted on the lands they managed, then it was the responsibility of the resident landowners to resist that damage, and in the event that the resistance failed, to plan and implement a strategy for the recovery of the land and waters. The land means everything to Rochelle, and she quietly assumed that her neighbors, surrounded by the same beauty, would eventually come to the same conclusions. It may or may not be possible to stop the corporate practices, she reasoned. One certainly is compelled to try. But if you take the long view, the land itself can become the context and rationale for cooperative management strategies assumed by people who live on the land. Cooperative because natural succession proceeds at the level of the landscape and ecosystem rather than within the boundaries of property. When people live on damaged land, they can learn to act like watershed paramedics. As the land recovers, their management can begin to resemble preventative medicine. Some of the people she talked to were interested in small-scale sustainable timber production; others could not imagine a chainsaw in their hands biting into a living tree.

Rochelle had been talking to the crankiest bunch of individualists I can imagine, and it has taken a lot of persistence and patience. But now, with the recent purchase by conservation buyers of most of the industrial timber lands in the area, including several thousand acres of old growth, her slow work is consolidating like ripening cheese. There are enough landowners talking cooperative conservation-based land management that, together, they might quilt a mosaic of wild and well-managed lands.

The road on which we’ve been traveling was one of the log-haul roads pushed in on the cheap 40 or more years ago. Like most logging and haul roads cut in that frenzied boom time, it had been designed, if that is not too grand a word, for one-time use only and then abandoned. There is a spaghetti-like maze adding up to more than 2,500 miles of such roads in this 300-square mile watershed.

Later, in the 1970s when large ranches were being subdivided, developers “improved” the roads, adding as few culverts as county codes would allow them, and called them “access roads” to the parcels that were being snapped up by back-to-the-landers. The improvements proved to be less than adequate in terms of the large amounts of sediment they bleed into the waterways each winter. The far larger numbers of abandoned roads periodically hemorrhaged landslides and stream-crossing washouts during the wettest winters. At a rate frighteningly rapid in terms of geological time, the topsoils were sliding off the slopes, where they were needed to grow stabilizing vegetation, down into the streams where they were choking salmon habitat. The watershed was slowly bleeding to death.

In 1989, the local watershed restoration group had inventoried catastrophic earth slides in the basin and found that 87% of them were related to roads. Some ten years later, state and federal funding agencies had begun to think in terms of watershed economics. Wouldn’t it be more cost-effective in the long run to stem the chronic flow of sediment into waterways than it would be to apply band-aids after the bleeding had begun?

Everyone involved—the state, the feds, the community groups, the professional consultants—knew that cost-effective didn’t necessarily mean cheap; there probably wasn’t enough money in the world to put to bed or upgrade all the roads that had been carelessly built in the American west in the last half-century. But the local group had been waiting for such an opportunity for a long time and jumped into the scramble for limited funds with a grand ten-year plan to inventory all the roads in the basin, tributary by tributary, prioritize the largest bleeders, and launch detailed plans for storm-proofing the active access roads and remove the abandoned stream crossings that hadn’t yet blown out.

It is one of Rochelle’s day jobs to enlist the cooperation of neighboring landowners in the three basins surrounding her place. It seems to her like a win-win-win opportunity. Not only will landowners get otherwise unaffordable work done on their properties, they will in the process become well educated about road maintenance. Soil, water, all the myriad creatures including humans, will benefit. Both terrestrial and aquatic habitats will become more productive and the very need for restoration projects might gradually dwindle.


Among twenty snowy mountains
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.

As usual, I get lost on the way to Rochelle’s place. Where the county pavement ends there begins a maze of muddy roads, pushed in hastily and on the cheap 25 or so years ago. It’s easy to get confused unless you thread this maze every day.

When a few ranches were subdivided in the early ’70s, a little land rush was inadvertently created. There were at that time in American history an extraordinary number of young people who had come all willy-nilly to resist the institutionalization of primary experiences like birth and death, and providing one’s own food and shelter. I have no idea why so many people seemed spontaneously to develop the same actualization of this resistance. But like lemmings, tens of thousands of urban people moved “back to the land” to test a faith unsupported by any evidence or personal experience that they could provide for themselves and each other and thus reclaim their confidence as humans.

Rochelle is one of the survivors of the hegira, as am I. She’s been singing the song that provides its own sustenance for a good part of her time here. After the clearcuts and fires of the early ’80s, she and her community planted tens of thousands of streambank trees, trees that have grown high enough now to cool the water again.

A gorgeous fireplace and chimney, hand built from rocks of many shapes and colors, stands eerily alone in her yard. A few yards away, the newer house sits unfinished. It’s the third house Rochelle has built in this country. The first, on another property a mile or two away was burned to the ground in a fire that was supposed to be controlled. The insurance money moved her on to this place, a little larger at ten acres. The house that surrounded the beautiful fireplace fell down in an earthquake in 1991. Her husband Thomas is always busy. Whenever I visit he has little time for small talk. Often I’ll just catch an occasional glimpse of him moving from task to task. This year, the third house will be expanded to include the pretty fireplace that was the heart of the second.

Up until a year ago, Rochelle’s ten-acre parcel was surrounded by industrial timber lands. A good part of that had been cut over carelessly in the ’80s, but large parts of it were still untouched. The piece directly upstream of her, the parcel that protects the steep headwaters of the creek that runs near her place had worried her. Back when the timber market was steady and before the feds had reduced the cut in the national forests, Rochelle had approached the local corporation that owned the headwaters of her stream, and for a small fee had obtained a piece of paper that gave her last bid should the parcel come up for sale. At the time, neither Rochelle nor the timber company imagined that it would ever come to anything.


At the sight of blackbirds
Flying in a green light,
Even the bawds of euphony [3]
Would cry out sharply.

We get out of the truck and step into drizzle, after another five miles of rough road into a wilder terrain. I want to see a certain view. Rochelle wants to look at a certain road. We are at one of the higher elevations near the eastern ridge of the watershed. Despite the drizzle, we can see nearly a hundred miles to the south, and 20 miles to the west (though it seems much further), where the horizon is the ridge that rises straight up out of the Pacific on the other side of it. I bathe myself in the prospect before me, thinking “mountains and rivers without end.” Close in, the landscape breaks itself into the natural mosaic of prairie and forest that characterizes the region. Further into the distance, the mosaic fades into a wash of greens and upland prairie browns, differentiated by the deep green of Douglas-fir and the celadon green of tanoak.

Although we can’t see the ocean, we can get a sense of the weather system coming from it, which is changing its nature before our eyes. Under the overcast, the colors are faded, but where there are breaks in the cloud slurry, sunlight pours down to make blazing splashes amidst the gloom. Where the light cuts through columns of mist, it breaks into discreetly defined rays, like signals from the gods.

You can look at the view spread out below us and imagine that it is uninhabited, or inhabited only by a community with bear and cougar at the top of the food chain. I know better. Parts of the land are uninhabited by humans, and those parts are managed either by state and federal agencies or by industrial timber corporations. The inhabited part, more than four-fifths of the land laid out before me, is privately owned by ranchers or back-to-the-landers or outlaws or some combination of the above: new indians, new cowboys, dope-growers, new scientists, old pioneer families, traditional rednecks, environmentalists, new rednecks, vegetarians, treeplanters, and check here for other. Because I have been down many of the roads in this part of the watershed and have talked to the people at the ends of them, I know that the region closest to us is mostly populated with second and third generation ranchers and more recently arrived agricultural outlaws. Both groups call themselves environmentalists while being practitioners of the most conservative sort of private property rights, each group for different reasons. I tend to be slightly more sympathetic to the ranchers, who are more honest about their espousal of John Locke’s 18th-century philosophy of property and pride.


Icicles filled the long window
With barbaric glass.
The shadow of the blackbird
Crossed it, to and fro.
The mood
Traced in the shadow
An indecipherable cause.

Economies develop or devolve according to their own rules. Most of the private industrial timber lands in Rochelle’s neighborhood have been purchased by conservation buyers in the last two years to be preserved for public management. The previous owner was a local corporation with a mill too large to be adequately supplied by its own too-small land base. When, due to protection of the Northern spotted owl, cheap timber from the national forests had become less readily available, the local corporation found itself competing for logs on the open market with larger corporations that could afford to underbid them.

At the same time, a local environmental group was successfully challenging in court each one of the local corporation’s logging plans. The company saw the long window of time opening up to swallow it. The corporation—mills, lands, and all—was put up for sale. Other organizations, some of which included Rochelle, started raising money in an attempt to outbid the same larger corporation that had helped run the smaller one out of business.

The effort attracted the attention of an international forest preservation organization that was looking for a project that would establish its presence in North America. These several thousand acres of old growth Douglas fir, scattered between a state park on the east and a national conservation area on the west looked like a winner. The international org developed its strategies around the philosophy of the Wildlands Project, which recognizes that even if every unexploited area in the developed world were put out of bounds to economic development immediately, there still wouldn’t be a large enough land base to do more than slightly slow down the rate of the extinction of species. The Wildlands Project has demonstrated the need for “corridors” between the pristine “core areas,” places where human activity is limited in favor of their uses by other species. The theory is scientifically sound in the abstract, and presents a conservation strategy simplified enough to have gained a significant number of adherents in centralized government land management agencies. The purchases were going to require a great deal of money, a large part of it public funds.

Combine the word “corridor” with public funds and the result may or may not make for viable wildlife habitat, but it will certainly create the expectation of public access to places where the human presence had heretofore been minimal. Public funds had been used for the acquisitions, generating a vague expectation on the part of the state that at some time in the future, some kind of trail would exist through the reserves. Among the locals who lived on parcels separating the newly acquired forests, a fully-fleshed and well-defined paranoid expectation bloomed: many hikers in expensive REI gear, closely followed by uniformed rangers on the lookout for illegal activities of all kinds.

Up until the point at which the purchase was secure, the international forest preservation organization had acted in a fashion in keeping with the techniques and strategies of most centralized organizations working from high-minded and abstract principles. The climate of political expediency can intensify in direct proportion to the numbers of acres, or dollars, at stake. Soon, the end of preserving big parcels of undisturbed habitat was justifying the means of describing the landscape as if it had no human residents. The needs and concerns of the locals had been treated as an irritation. The situation had been described to funders in such a way as to make it legible and attractive to them, ignoring the potential social problems locally.

To its enormous credit, however, the international forest preservation organization did not stop with the acquisition and leave someone else to deal with the social fallout. Following Rochelle’s lead, the fundraisers not only recognized the potential of local interest in reinhabitation, but also developed a program that begins to address two of the outstanding flaws in the Wildlands Project strategy.

Once beyond the grandeur of the Wildlands Project vision, it becomes apparent that the challenge is much more complex than arrogant lines drawn on a map. Each biome—each microclimate, in fact—presents a complex knot of relationships that requires exact knowledge of two functions or features of locale where a “corridor” might be located. What are the requirements of each plant, animal, or community native to that particular fold of the planet? Based on that knowledge (which can best be gathered by resident humans with help from professional ecologists), what kinds of economic activities are harmonious with those needs? Until the second question is answered, one doesn’t have much to say to the people who inhabit the “corridors” one might be proposing.

The international forest preservation organization researched other sources of money and mounted a stewardship initiative in the area of the new public wildlands. The skills of half a dozen local organizations, whose local expertise had been gained by systematic immersion in this unique biome, were put at the service of the people who lived in the area, providing information and experience needed for a cooperative effort in conservation-based land management. The group that had worked on salmon restoration for 20 years would train people to gather credible data on water quality and aquatic habitat. The sustainable forestry outfit would teach people to think about timber production in the long term and conduct workshops in fuel load reduction in the brushy forest effulgence that follows clearcutting. A local land trust would teach conservation easement potentials to those who had no interest in commercial production. The watershed council that had worked for 15 years to reduce sediment flow into the waterways would systematically inventory poorly constructed and abandoned roads and seek public funds to help land owners repair or decommission them. Another local organization that concerns itself with the needs of terrestrial creatures would teach people how to track and identify their animal neighbors. The 20 square miles of sub-drainages and its human inhabitants began to understand itself as a reciprocally functional unit.

The road Rochelle shows us is like a highway compared to the rutted roads we’ve traveled today. The State Parks Department, one of the public agencies involved in managing the newly protected areas, built the road in the last dry season. It is two lanes wide and well-graveled and it connects the assumedly private roads behind us with land recently acquired by conservation buyers, assumedly for the protection of wildlife. “Parks,” as the state agency is known, has a clear mandate to provide recreation for work-weary Californians. A draft land use plan being circulated by the Parks Department shows blue circles designating proposed campsite developments right on top of the largest population of northern spotted owls yet identified in the protected area. “Looks like we’ll have to protect the land from the protectors,” says Rochelle. She’s received no clear answers to her inquiries about the Parks’ intentions, but she has managed to get a spur road closed for the winter with yellow plastic signs to protect against the spread of sudden oak death syndrome.


He rode over Connecticut
In a glass coach.
Once, fear pierced him,
In that he mistook
The shadow of his equipage
For blackbirds.

Sudden oak death syndrome is a plague that has appeared to the south of us and is spreading. It is a fungus, Phlotophthera, currently believed to be water-borne, that rapidly kills tanoak, black oak, and coastal live oak. Three counties to the south, whole mountainsides present the grim panorama of standing dead trees, kindling for some catastrophic future fire. It has also been discovered to infect huckleberry bushes, another vector for the spread of the disease. It’s been identified in nursery rhododendrons in Germany and the Netherlands and central California. Students of algae tell us Phylophthera is related to the fungus that caused the Irish potato blight of the last century. Journalists remind us of the chestnut blight of the last century, which along with opportunistic cutting, eliminated that species from eastern woodlands. Two unconfirmed sightings of the disease have been made in the park to the east of where we are standing.

Some climatologists, using computer models, have projected that an increase of two degrees Fahrenheit in the global temperature will destroy the redwood forests nearby.

Six thousand or so years ago, during a warming cycle, salmon colonized rivers further and further to the south as the glaciers receded. Our little river is close to the southern extreme of that range. Salmon have a rather narrow temperature range in which they can flourish. As air temperatures rise on the planet, the ocean will heat up, and so will rivers. The range of the salmon will retreat back to the north where the waters are cooler. Russian scientists call the likely effects of climate change “ecosystem reorganization,” unpredictable, chaotic. Watershed restoration? What can the words mean in a time of plagues and climate change? How shall we go on? What shall we restore?

These are not new questions. How could we have avoided asking them as we devoted ourselves to our tiny watershed during the same time as the larger world gave us Chernobyl, Bhopal, AIDS? Global warming had hit the news around the same time we had begun work to enhance the spawning successes of our precious wild salmon. We have never for a moment known if we would succeed. But we have known that for any success to be enduring, changes would not be measured in numbers of wild creatures so much as in human attitudes toward the wild.

Plagues are a symptom of the human economies being institutionalized by treaties like NAFTA and GATT, which create supra-national institutions that move us closer to what Wendell Berry calls the total economy. In the total economy there is no value but in personal wealth, no form of measurement but in numbers. In a total economy, a marriage contract would be framed in deliverable ergs of sexual energy, hours of homemaking; profit and loss statements would take the form of tangible property including children. What’s clean water worth? A salmon run?


The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.
It was a small part of the pantomime.

Protection and preservation of “pristine” lands is no more than half a strategy. If the lands between the preserves are understood as economic sacrifice zones (which they will be until they are described otherwise), whose army will defend the preserves 50 years from now? The accommodation of wildness in the inhabited lands between the preserves is essential to the viability of the preserves themselves. Once a community of humans begins to understand itself as a functional part of the landscape, and learns how to act that way, then the protected lands can be understood as sacred. Watersheds are more than museums with wild lands hanging on the walls.


The river is moving.
The blackbird must be flying.

After another short haul in the truck, we can see a column of smoke. As we get closer, Rochelle grows positively gleeful. We pull into an opening in the doghair forest with an old homestead cabin in the middle of it. Two burn piles smoke and occasionally blaze up nearby. At least two chainsaws snarl away out of sight on the hillsides rising up steeply around the homestead. From a distance, the work site looks like an anthill. A steady stream of people is pulling sections of green slash larger than themselves down wet out of the woods and onto the smoky fire.

I recognize one of the brush-pullers. I know her by her forest name, Velocity. The name fits. Velocity rarely stops moving and if there is another human nearby, she’s likely to be talking enthusiastically. “Isn’t this great?’ she cries. “We’ll have two acres fireproofed by the end of the day.”

Velocity is a forest defender, one of 20 or so who have set up an encampment some 15 miles to the north in order to resist the liquidation of the largest stand of undisturbed old growth Douglas-fir in the watershed and in the state. A rotating crew of 20 or so maintains the encampment, a trespass its residents call a free state. Legal ploys to stop the cut have failed and the young people will try to hold off the contract loggers while another group of residents looks for the money to purchase the forest.

Velocity had arrived in the watershed a couple of years earlier, when itinerant practitioners of non-violent civil disobedience were defending the same forest. That time, the courts had agreed with the protesters. Both during the earlier defense and the current one, the occupation had been augmented by legal blockades on public roads by residents of the valley. After that success, other activists moved on to other crises, but Velocity and two comrades had settled in the valley, recognizing the power of neighborly protest. They had found a place to live, grown gardens, performed odd jobs, and waited for the next move on the forest.

This time around the blockades are larger and the free state has a different demographic. Many of its residents are young people who have grown up within 20 miles of the threatened forest. As residents, they have been encouraged over the years to become watershed paramedics, and they have independently intuited the cautionary words of the brilliant restoration ecologist Daniel Janzen: “An increasingly competent medical profession should not promote participation in potentially lethal acts.”

Formulists of watershed restoration have a slogan: preserve the best and restore the rest. The formulas were developed on public land where decisions about “saving the best” could be part of administrative policy. I’m not sure the scientists who invented the catchy mnemonic phrase would recognize this local iteration of their excellent strategy. Preservation may be only half a strategy, but it’s the first half.

Because the law requires the loggers to stay off the dirt roads for two days following a rain, a skeleton crew can maintain the free state. Today some forest defenders are taking advantage of the respite to earn a few bucks working on a fuel load reduction project.

This forest was cut over 30 years ago. Because it was cut before the law required replanting, and because of the aspect and microclimate of the slope, the site has grown back in a thick tangle of tanoak and coyote brush. The straw bosses are the guys with the chainsaws. One of them is Rochelle’s husband Thomas who is smiling broadly. He describes the work of the day: to remove the highly flammable brush in the understory of the second growth forest. Thin some of the spindly oaks to encourage the stronger trees to grow faster and straighter and to allow more sunlight into the grove so that the dominant Doug-firs can grow again. Cut the limbs up as high as the saws will reach, and burn them. When the next wild fire burns through here, there’ll be a better chance that it will burn slow and cool and won’t be able to leap to the crown. Salvage a little firewood while you’re at it.

The other sawyer is an old friend. Drawn to the valley for its opportunities in restoration 15 years ago, Dave has become a new age gyppo logger, pouring months of work into resurrecting a self-loading log truck that had been abandoned in the ’50s. He works at small logging and thinning jobs, promoting the promising new market in sustainably harvested California hardwoods. He has built a home out of lumber he has milled himself on a homestead carved out of a rehabilitated logging site. He is inventing a life and raising a family in what he hopes is a system of coherence, with the lands and waters surrounding as the binding medium.


I was of three minds
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds.

Jack Turner writes in The Abstract Wild that he believes ecological restoration to be a passing fancy. I think it more likely that it will turn out to be something else, incorrectly called ecological restoration, and resembling more the restoration of our relationship to the places where we live.

Ecological restoration is a natural process occurring wherever there has been ecological perturbation. When a clearcut is allowed to recover according to the dictates of local natural succession, it is ecological restoration. In a Doug-fir forest, the system may recover to the point that timber can be taken from it again in 60 to 80 years. It will take four times that long for the forest to recover its mature complex of flora, fauna, and habitat. When human inhabitants gain adequate knowledge (preferably through immersion) of the eccentricities of local natural succession, they may begin to take actions that hasten it toward more diverse and mature stages of development.

The truest value of this work called watershed restoration is measured in relationships that are difficult if not impossible to turn into numbers. Like new and ever-deepening relationships with portions of the landscape, or another species. Like the coagulation of relationships with neighbors, which as they thicken begin to resemble the chaotic stew of community. What is restored is some aspect of watershed and ecosystem function. More importantly, we’re rediscovering our own human species function as a natural part of life systems. This definition of ecological restoration cannot realize its potential except as it is practiced in community vernacular life. It should not be confused with the science of restoration ecology, which will likely endure as what William Jordan has called “experimental ecology,” carefully controlled and isolated from human economic activity. We will continue to need the insights and methodologies of science, but if we allow the practice of restoration to become the exclusive domain of professional consultants and centralized government agencies, we will have lost its greatest promise, which is nothing less than a redefinition of human culture. It is equally possible for a fully professionalized concept of ecological restoration to become part of the price of doing extractive business as usual, a form of systematized mitigation that is one more cipher in a total economy.


I do not know which to prefer.
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendos,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.

Sometime in the mid-’80s, I was occasionally offered the shelter of a retreat cabin at a Cistercian monastery near a remote watershed restoration work site. I enjoyed these respites, both for the calming simplicity of the cabin, and for the opportunity to chat with the abbess, a wise and elderly Belgian woman. Once, when one of those plague signals had just erupted on the world—Bhopal, perhaps, or Chernobyl—I found myself in a state of despair. What was the sense, I asked her, of pursuing this difficult work in the face of a social order disintegrating so rapidly that it may well mean the end of the world?

“What does it matter?” she answered. Her Flemish consonants sound like a stream working its way around an obstacle.

“Say you know the end of the world is coming tomorrow morning. How do you want to face it? With a clear mind and an open heart, yes? Now, say the world isn’t going to end. How do you want to wake up in the morning and approach your work?” She pauses for effect, but not long enough for me to answer.” “With a clear mind and an open heart!” She beams. “End of the world or not, same answer. Go on with your work.”

I know noble accents
And lucid, inescapable rhythms;
But I know, too,
That the blackbird is involved
In what I know.

(“Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” by Wallace Stevens)


1. Names of persons and places have been changed.

2. Stevens scholar Jim Dodge notes that Haddam is the name of a town in Connecticut, the sound of which struck the poet as euphonious.

3. A bawd is a procuress of prostitutes. Euphony is “the quality, esp. in the spoken word of having a pleasant sound (OED). Wallace is speaking of sweet-talking hustlers here, or perhaps of poets in general. He then separates himself from the crowd with the non-euphonious (to my ear) phrase that follows, “to cry out sharply.” I hear the cry of the Western raven, a very black bird.

Language will always fall short of describing the beauty of nature, no matter how skillful the speaker. We are attempting to describe Creation form within Creation, one of the binding paradoxes of the human condition. By extension, to call our rehabilitation efforts “ecological restoration” is to hubristically claim a power equal to that of evolution itself. There is no such thing as ecological restoration, except in controlled experiments carefully kept free of random human cultural effects, which more properly describes the science of restoration ecology. The rest of us amateurs (“practitioners of love,” according to Stephanie Mills) living deep within the variables of diverse human ambitions can only hope to put ourselves into the picture in a way that we hope to be coevolutionary. Dennis Martinez uses the phrase “eco-cultural restoration” to describe his work among first peoples, recognizing that the renewal of indigenous cultural practices must be accompanied by the rehabilitation of the indigenous landscape. We newcomers are practicing something else. In my better moments, I like to think that we may finally be discovering a culture appropriately based on the constraints and opportunities of the diverse places in North America.

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Categories: "Sunday Lecture" series by Freeman House, Freeman House | 2 Comments

About Jay Babcock

I am an independent writer and editor based in Tucson, Arizona. In 2023: I publish an email newsletter called LANDLINE = https://jaybabcock.substack.com Previously: I co-founded and edited Arthur Magazine (2002-2008, 2012-13) and curated the three Arthur music festival events (Arthurfest, ArthurBall, and Arthur Nights) (2005-6). Prior to that I was a district office staffer for Congressman Henry A. Waxman, a DJ at Silver Lake pirate radio station KBLT, a copy editor at Larry Flynt Publications, an editor at Mean magazine, and a freelance journalist contributing work to LAWeekly, Mojo, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Vibe, Rap Pages, Grand Royal and many other print and online outlets. An extended piece I wrote on Fela Kuti was selected for the Da Capo Best Music Writing 2000 anthology. In 2006, I was somehow listed in the Music section of Los Angeles Magazine's annual "Power" issue. In 2007-8, I produced a blog called "Nature Trumps," about the L.A. River. From 2010 to 2021, I lived in rural wilderness in Joshua Tree, Ca.

2 thoughts on “[Sunday Lecture] "More Than Numbers: Twelve or Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Watershed" by Freeman House

  1. Pingback: [SUNDAY LECTURE NO. 7] “DREAMING INDIGENOUS: One hundred years from now in a northern California valley” by Freeman House | Arthur Magazine

  2. Pingback: [Sunday Lecture] "Forgetting and Remembering the Instructions of the Land" by Freeman House | Arthur Magazine

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