[Sunday Lecture] "The Case For The Watershed As An Organizing Principle" by Freeman House

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 eighth lecture in this series. Previous lectures are available here: http://www.arthurmag.com/contributors/sunday-lecture/.

The Case For The Watershed As An Organizing Principle

by Freeman House

[I’ve rarely given a talk in circumstances more alien to my life experience. This talk was presented a roomful of county and state bureaucrats charged with implementing a five-county wetlands protection and restoration effort. The five counties were the southwestern-most part of California, stretching from Santa Barbara to San Diego, a part of the state that makes me feel like I’m in a foreign country. As if to accentuate the weirdness, the luncheon was held at Sea World, a theme park in San Diego.]

I’ve had quite a bit of time to puzzle about what qualifies me to be here. I feel a little like a visiting diplomat or more accurately, an anthropologist dropping into a whole other culture. Up in the backwoods of northern California, where I come from, we tend to think of ourselves as living in Alta California. Los Angeles and San Diego seem like another place, although they shouldn’t, considering that the voters around here determine a lot of what goes on in the state of California. Which is where I live regardless of the fact that it’s much easier for me and my comrades to think of ourselves as part of the Klamath Province.

I have worked at watershed restoration for 20 years, but in a drainage where there are no dams, and where there are still three species of a wild salmon population holding on. An eighth of the land base is managed benignly by the federal government as the King Range National Conservation Area, another eighth not so benignly by corporate timber interests, and the rest is held either in ranches or private smallholdings. It has a human population density of less than ten folks per square mile. Not too many similarities. And most of the people in this room probably know more about wetlands biology than I do.

Since it was a book I wrote that inspired the organizers to invite me and the book, Totem Salmon, is mainly about attempts to invoke a new (or rather very old) kind of community identity that lives within the constraints and opportunities of the place it finds itself, that’s what I’ll go ahead and talk about.

It could be my best credentials for being here today is the fact that I was born in Orange County. The earliest memories are of my first five years spent at my grandparents’ home in Anaheim, pre-Disneyland. Set in the middle of town, I had two acres to run in haphazardly planted to oranges and lemons and avocados, and for a long time that Edenic space was my model for paradise. Each weekend, we’d drive in my grandfather’s 1935 Buick sedan for maybe ten minutes to a local farm to buy our week’s supply of eggs and milk and vegetables. When we extended our drive to visit Aunt Florence in Pomona, we drove through 60 unbroken miles of commercial orange groves, another image of paradise. I’m revealing my age when I tell you that the air was wonderful, the light incredible.

Since then, I’ve learned something about the settlement of contemporary Anaheim. The existence of Anaheim is entirely dependent on 19th-century amateur efforts in social and physical engineering. Hard as it may be to believe when trying to find the freeway exits to Anaheim today, it was largely settled in the 1860s by polyglot groups of urban utopians who had few of the skills required for the kinds of agriculturally-based communitarian paradigms they were pursuing.

One thing was clear to all of them, however, and that was that their dreams were dependent on importing water to the arid lands they hoped would support them. One of the groups, composed mainly of German mechanics in San Francisco, collectively purchased 1,165 acres sight unseen, subdivided it into 20-acre farmsteads and appointed a certain Mr. Hansen to supervise the construction of a ditch seven miles long. That ditch diverted water from the Santa Ana River along with 450 miles of subsidiary ditches that delivered the precious water to each parcel. Thus the name of the place: Ana for the river on which their venture depended plus heim, German for home. The work was done with picks and shovels by local Mexican-Americans, and was finished in three years, during which time no one of the blue-collar workers laid eyes on their future paradise. Each of them was supporting the effort to the tune of about eight dollars a week, a considerable sum in the late 1850s.

By 1872, some 50 families had moved onto their improved allotments and they had prospered in a modest way. According to journalist Charles Nordhoff, by that time not one of them had failed, and only one of the original settlers had abandoned the effort: “Their vineyards gave them an annual clear income of from 250-1,000 dollars over and above their living expenses; their children have enjoyed the advantages of a social life and a fairly good school. And, finally, the property that originally cost them an average of $1,080 for each is now worth five to ten thousand dollars.”

It was no doubt that increase in property values that undermined the original communitarian ambitions of the group; by the second generation the market value of the parcels had become so strong a temptation that it undercut the idealistic ambitions of its founders and the community contract was dissolved.

I find this story striking for its parallels to some of the massive challenges facing southern California today. The success of the modern human venture here depends on water diversion. The success of the Anaheim mechanics was achieved outside and prior to government subsidies or regulation. Both the successes and the failures of this geo-social experiment were grounded in market forces and the utilitarian ethics of the 19th century, and the same is true today. And both its successes and failures are most fruitfully discussed in the context of community identity.

I’m going to venture the notion today that the successes and failures of the ambitions in this room will be determined finally by that same issue: community identity.


Here’s some good news from my point of view. This gathering, come together for the purpose of regional ecological planning, offers a measure of hope for human co-existence with the living landscape. Your selection of wetlands as a first line of defense is a good one. The charismatic blooms of biodiversity in these rich places, and the calm beauty they provide readily translates, in the local citizen’s mind, into something worth saving.

Coastal wetlands represent an endpoint in hydrological processes, and as such their need for restoration represents symptoms rather than causes. But wetlands hold a more primary position in emerging concerns over ocean health, in that they provide nurseries for ocean-going fish and pelagic birds. There is growing evidence that the reduction of Southern California wetlands to less than 10% of their former abundance is directly connected with the crash in rockfish populations off shore. I’m told that half of the species listed as endangered or threatened depend on wetlands for some portion of their life cycle. Some one-third of them spend their lives there.

So targeting wetlands is smart. The placement of coastal wetlands at a terminal location in terrestrial hydrobiology and at a primary location in ocean ecology gives them the metaphorical quality that is a primary test for any ecological analysis or activism. Any project that has ecological wholeness as its goal should have the quality of a doorway that leads the participant deeper into whole systems.

But while the coalition represented here establishes a potential matrix for regional planning, in actuality the current plan is a series of opportunistic and disconnected projects, driven by local expediency and money. While I wish for the success of these projects, the bad news comes in three parts:

First, our initiative is around a hundred years late. Opportunities for wetland recovery have been reduced to the point where as long as that is the extent of our goals, our best hope is to create a series of high maintenance ecological museums.

Second, the success of every one of these projects will do little to slow the decline in biodiversity unless they are linked to the systems that maintain them, the upland watersheds. That’s not news to you; it’s a large part of your agenda today.

And third—this is the daunting part—the restoration and maintenance of watersheds is unlikely without a massive shift in cultural values and community identity on the part of a significant portion of the resident population.

Let’s consider each of these points separately, because each one of them has some good news associated with it.

As for being 100 years late, the good news is a bit like weak tea. We’ll have to live with the thin solace of the slogan “better late than never.”

Those same qualities that make wetlands so attractive to the ecological activist also draw the attention of the most potent economic forces in Southern California, the development interests. Mike Davis describes subdivision developers as exhibiting “active malice toward the landscape.” Since Mr. Davis has his own active malice toward developers, this phrase needs a little discussion. It’s not that developers hate life; on the contrary, they will claim to be providing the infrastructure of the American Dream to the maximum number of people who can afford it. One of the more attractive options of the American Dream is a home of your own with a view of the living waters.

The problem for a developer is that wetlands do not arrange themselves properly for the accommodation of high-end homes. They have tidal flows; they are disorderly and muddy. So for 100 years and more, developers have been relentlessly draining and leveling wetlands, at the same time as they have been successfully advocating the massive importation of water that has resulted in something like a quarter of the surface water in the continental US being consumed in Southern California.

Acknowledging that we arrive on the scene a little late, let’s not make the same mistake about the future. Given the enormity of the task at hand, any five-year plan must include looking forward five or six or seven generations. We’re going to have to invent methodologies that pass on what we learn to succeeding generations in such a way that it enlists their enthusiasm in ever-larger numbers.

As for the upland watersheds, I can do no better than to quote from the background paper in front of you: “The long-term health of coastal wetlands cannot be assured without a commitment to upstream watershed management and restoration.” This is where community identity begins to play a role. Who is going to perform this watershed management and restoration? Who is going to perform the “long-term monitoring and maintenance” also identified as a need in your background paper? Who will supply “the additional data or information needed to better understand and implement these regional goals?” If there’s any single message I want to leave with you today it’s that that “who” must include the people who live in those watersheds.

The good news here is that there are already in place coalitions of community-based watershed groups in Los Angeles, Santa Barbara and San Diego Counties. If these folks aren’t currently represented on your citizens advisory committees, they should be enlisted immediately.


It is my experience both personally and socially that community identity is among the largest confusions common to Americans. What community-based watershed councils offer is the possibility of adding the places we live in as one of the organizing factors of that identity, along with the usual class, ethnic, career, and hobby alternatives. We live in a nation where the majority of people don’t know where they are. How could it be otherwise among people who move once every three years?

I live in a place where people move around much less frequently. But one of the unqualified successes I can claim for the watershed council I’ve worked with for 20 years—the Mattole Restoration Council—is that every resident and landowner in my valley not only understands themselves as a Mattole watershed resident, but if they have been reading our newsletters and other publications, they know more about that watershed than most of the scientists and state bureaucrats who concern themselves with it. And they own that knowledge, because they have generated a good deal of it in the form of scientifically credible data.

Both the California Department of Fish & Game and the federal Environmental Protection Agency have developed aquatic habitat monitoring protocols for non-professionals—protocols that work. In Plumas County in the northern Sierras, a very effective non-profit organization is charged with implementing one of the few county ecological restoration plans in the state. Not only do they keep significant numbers of otherwise unemployed loggers at work year-round on projects, but they have trained students in the public schools to monitor various parameters of stream health—data that is used by the Army Corps of Engineers. You can bet that those students don’t think of the sciences as boring, abstract, or remote.

In my own watershed, native summer steelhead have long been assumed to be extirpated. It took some time for the Mattole Salmon Group to convince the US Fish & Wildlife Service to actually go out into the waters and see if this was indeed the case. Once convinced, the government scientists depended on Maureen Roche, a retired emergency room nurse, to lead them to the most likely places to look. Maureen had been conducting her own underwater surveys with scuba gear for a good part of the Salmon Group’s 20-year history of monitoring salmon populations. And guess what? For four years in a row, surviving remnants of that population have been found, big, slow creatures oversummering in the pools that remain deep enough to stay cool throughout the summer. And that information has added to my community’s sense of hope for the future.

You can generate large amounts of tremendously valuable information using the skills and passions of local residents, but an extra effort is necessary to prevent that information from becoming dusty files in the basements of some state or federal bureaucracy. That’s why the Mattole Restoration Council has been sending bi-annual newsletters to every resident and landowner in the valley—whether they ask for it or not—for over 15 years. In this way, the work of a relatively small proportion of the population quickly becomes a resource for community ecological identity and pride.

When a docent volunteering for the Alameda County Parks Department found a single remnant steelhead in industrialized Alameda Creek, a tributary of San Francisco Bay, it was a subject of discussion in the local media for weeks.

Which brings us to the topic of that massive shift in community values and identity that I mentioned earlier. The longer we throw the catch phrase “ecological restoration” around, and as projects proliferate around the world with this name, more and more people, professionals and plain citizens alike, are coming to the realization that we’re actually talking about something else. If we are truly seeking an abundant future and fulfilling human lives, then what we may need to set our sights on is the restoration of our heritage as a human species.

This may be the wrong audience for talking about personal articles of faith, but the advantage that a luncheon speaker has is that he’s out of here after lunch. The faith that keeps me going is the belief that such a large part of our human social prehistory has been organized around a worldview that makes human satisfaction inseparable from the health and abundance of the immediate landscape. California aboriginal peoples in particular—among the most culturally diverse populations the world knew at the time of contact—tended to organize their tribal identities within watersheds. So much of our time on the planet has been organized around similar world-views that the cultural aberrations of the last 500 to 5,000 years of civilization are but a blink of evolutionary time. So much of our time on the planet was spent in communion with the local landscape that I believe we all walk around with the genetic imperative to recover that intimacy. That no true fullness of being is available to us until we recover that intimacy.

If those sentiments strike a chord with you, you can think about them further with the help of thinkers like Paul Shepard, Thomas Berry, and Gary Snyder and through the models of ecological activists like Wes Jackson and Gary Nabhan.

The good news in this sentiment is that the pursuit of this genetic imperative is not your job if you’re employees of government agencies! Centralized governments can be effective in repressing cultural growth, but it is not within your power to create or recreate culture.

But you can support the efforts of the people involved in local culture building, and community-based watershed councils are the most effective manifestations of the effort today.

I can think of few places where it is as difficult to maintain such a long view, so firmly embedded are the most potent economic interests, the development industry. And you are also dealing with the state’s largest voting block, whose decisions are still largely driven by property values, doubtful notions of prosperity, and a political system where large decisions are made within the context of two-, four- and six-year elected terms of office.

But I’m predisposed to think of the literally thousands of homeowners associations in Southern California as crude expressions of this innate desire for local cultural identity. While this movement is burdened with a distressing history of racism, xenophobia, and tax-dodging, a remarkable number of them have, in the last generation, been infused and enlivened by environmental analysis. Where might it take us if we think of those thousands of homeowners’ organizations as incipient watershed councils?


It is likely that in the coming generation our efforts are going to remain encapsulated in isolated projects, and as long as they are supported by public funds the majority of them will occur on public lands. So it becomes a pressing concern that we give some thought to how these projects can inform that necessary cultural shift. Put more practically, our projects may or may not succeed in improving the quality of habitat in isolated experimental sites. But how can we perform them in a way that allows us to maximize the cultural information inherent in their successes and failures and realize what may be their greatest value, which is social transformation?

I worry as much as anyone in the room about bringing money to the particular projects in which I’m involved. But 20 years ago, there was little or no public money to worry about for projects in environmental restoration, and my local groups were driven by necessity to bring people to the projects. Now, after 20 years of doing this, we’ve gained some skills in scrambling for our part of the public pie, but we have never abandoned the goal of involving people in projects close to their homes. There is a reason for this, and it was discovered as we went along. People engaged in restoration projects, especially if they are working with neighbors, are exposed to two extremely effective learning mechanisms. One is the instruction inherent in direct contact with the processes of the living world, which proceeds all willy-nilly, in a nonlinear and unquantifiable way. But when people work with their hands moving rocks, planting trees, handling salmon, there is absolutely no doubt that their relationship to their home places begins to change in subtle but enduring ways. The second great benefit gained when working with neighbors is that people begin to engage in the habit of collective learning and shared insight. Everyone sees slightly different things in the living landscape, and when those ways of seeing are shared while in the landscape, we discover the beauty and necessity of shared knowledge as an essential element of community identity in a shared ecology.

Along with a rapidly growing part of the educational professions, we’ve learned that our larger project is multi-generational, and that formal learning plays a very important part in it.

Seventeen states have taken the initiative toward reorganizing curricula around environment. (California is not among them.) But that can begin to happen piecemeal as watershed councils help local public school teachers to understand how they can meet state standards and get the kids outside at the same time. In Southern California, if your program is to become truly forward-looking, I’d plead with you to make your educational programs bilingual. Any effort at building ecological community identity must also be an effort to include every member of that community.

To end, I’d like to leave you another quote from Charles Nordhoff, written in 1872 to demonstrate that some things never change. He had this to say about the efforts of Mr. Hansen in early Anaheim:

“Now this was an enterprise which any company of prudent mechanics, with a steadfast purpose, might easily imitate. The founders of Anaheim were not picked men. I have been told that they were not without jealousies and suspicions of each other and their manager, which made his life often uncomfortable, and threatened the life of the undertaking. They had grumblers, fault-finders, and wiseacres in their company, as probably there will be among any company of 50 men; and I have heard Mr. Hansen, who was their able manager, declared that he would rather starve than conduct another such enterprise.”

I’m sure you recognize those grumblers and wiseacres as well as I do. But I have an ulterior motive for hoping you don’t let them get you down. If you persevere, you will not only be serving your home, but mine too. Because if you fail, those developers are going to show up in my neighborhood. So I wish you the very, very best.

Categories: "Sunday Lecture" series by Freeman House, Freeman House | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

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.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s