[Sunday Lecture] "Citizens and Denizens" by Freeman House

Citizens and Denizens

by Freeman House

Keynote talk for the first Carmel Watershed festival, 2004

I’ve been asked to talk on the subject of watershed citizenship. That made me want to know more about that word citizen, so I dug around a little. It’s been a useful exercise. The word originated as “denizen,” meaning ‘of a place.’ As urban life became more dominant, denizen evolved into “citizen” meaning city person. As nations rose, the word came to define who belonged inside the boundaries and who didn’t. The ancient Greeks reserved the rights and privileges of citizenship to wealthy men, and for most of Roman times, they were dispensed at the pleasure of the emperor. It wasn’t until the American and French revolutions that the notion of popular and participatory decision-making came to be associated with the word. So we can trace the concept from ancient tribal and ethnic definitions of who does and who doesn’t belong to “our” society, forward in time as it evolves toward more inclusiveness. But always there is the notion of boundaries….. In the natural world, boundaries are rarely so clear as humans have been able to make them. (What grizzly or salamander would have invented the rectangular grid? The boundaries of, say, Idaho represent the range of what?)

As the word is used today, “citizen” is the creature of the invented world, rather than a participant in unfolding creation, which is what a denizen might be.

The truly marvelous concept of participatory democracy was partially conceived in the American Revolution, and conceptually pushed a little further in the first months of the French Revolution. We need to remember that these new ideas were an invention of men in the thrall of the so-called Enlightenment. Philosophers like Bacon and Descartes, who were thrilled to think that men could control nature for their own purpose, drove the thinking of the Enlightenment. Another philosopher of the period, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, was the much more popular and widely read author. It was his ideas about the basic goodness and mutuality of the natural world that combined with the Enlightenment philosophers’ thinking to produce the bastard child, democracy.

So at the same time that we were moving in the direction of egalitarian society, we were also gradually removing ourselves away from thinking of ourselves as a functional part of nature. We have come to think of ourselves, rather, as being in control of nature—no matter how many earthquakes, tornadoes or floods we may have endured. In the end, citizenship is about who makes the decisions: about land use and zoning, how we care for and protect each other—a definition of we—inside some set of predetermined boundaries. There is generally an unspoken assumption that it is we humans who are making decisions for the natural world. Denizens, on the other hand, know without thinking that their own well-being depends on the health of the landscape surrounding, that those boundaries are rarely legally defined, and that each place presents is own range of opportunities and limitations. We will become informed watershed citizens only after we have become watershed denizens. How do we become denizens? How did we lose the knack? Where are the models?

I like to do a riff in the voice of a 10,000-year-old person talking for humans in the temperate rain forests of North America. We’ve been here for a long time—many thousands of years. And if you were listening to some generic person thinking like a species, outside of time and part of place, say this place, it might sound something like this:

When the last round of glaciers was melting, we were moving around in those hide-covered boats and with those tumpline burden-baskets. Damn. It was cold! Same time, the salmon were moving south as new rivers were shaped and exposed. Every time we saw the flash and wiggle of those fish going upstream, we’d say, “hah, this place could be someone’s home.”

We moved about, and then we settled, in groups separated by ridgelines, and shared most everything with our group. It wasn’t that we were any kinder than we are now; we weren’t. Generosity just seemed like the best strategy for survival. We’d been watching the other animals and there’s no question about it: they are generous as long as they’re treated with respect. As long as we behaved ourselves, the animals returned to feed us every year. It just made sense to treat each other that way, imitate the rest of the world. Over the years we learned that it made sense to extend those courtesies to other groups of humans nearby—then we wouldn’t be fighting each other all the time. And since we tended to settle near salmon rivers, we learned to take fish to eat in a way that guaranteed plenty would get upstream to spawn, and so that our neighbors upstream would have enough to eat also. There were a great many fish and only a few of us.

Before we’d go out to catch the salmon, we’d have big times; everyone was there. For days and days, we’d get reminded of how to behave and how we fit into the world. We’d come away knowing that if we didn’t act right the world wasn’t going to work right, and we’d come away with a belly full of salmon to prove it. We’d also learned how this year was different from the other years. The basket-makers would tell how the grasses were doing, and if the fires the women had set last year had done what they were supposed to do. The hunters would talk about the animal populations; we’d all remember out loud how much salmon we were able to dry and save last year. People would talk about the acorn crop that year. If there’d been a flood or an earthquake, that’d get added to the long narrative about us and about the places where we lived. In that way, all of us could remember years of feast or famine, the things that’d happened long before we were born. Given a few thousand years of that kind of repetition, a lot of people had a lot of intimate knowledge of their home river basins. Every year we expanded what we knew about the long term in our life places. Every year we came to feel more and more a necessary part of the place. We learned how to take care of places and keep things in balance. We settled in and stayed 10,000 years or so. Over time, we learned where and when to burn and prune, how to fish and hunt without robbing our children.

The great gatherings were a good place to meet lovers, too. But we were careful not to let our populations get larger than the place would support.

But in other parts of the world, populations were getting larger than their places would support and more of us began to pour into salmon country. We newcomers looked a little different but that wasn’t the important thing. We had different ideas about ourselves and about the world. After there were enough of us, we tended to cluster in groups, too, but we acted as if we were free agents, individuals who didn’t have to take care of each other or anything else. This attitude was supported by the tradition we’d brought of turning life into an invention called money and it was by money that we measured everything. There was so much stuff here that could be turned into money that it made us newcomers a little crazy. Besides the gold and silver, there were all those trees. And there were the salmon and all the other creatures in the water. We newcomers began to turn all that stuff into money as fast as we could.

Those of us who had arrived recently thought that the rest of us were something less than human and it got pretty nasty. Most of us who’d been here forever got killed or died off. All those thousands of years of information about how to live here was lost and the rest of us were stranded. We didn’t really understand where we were any more.

But that didn’t seem to matter so much for a while. We had efficiency on our side. We studied efficiency because that was the quality that turned stuff into money fastest. We put nets in the rivers that took all the fish. Those fish wheels were really something to watch when they spit those big chinooks into cannery barges. We cut trees right down to the riverbanks and then built cities there that used the rivers to flush their wastes away, very efficient.

Pretty soon, really soon when you think how long those systems of generosity had been working, the salmon weren’t coming back in the numbers they had been and the trees were being cut faster than they could grow. And we didn’t even have gas engines yet.

Right along with that big feeding frenzy, we set up a couple of other programs we’d brought with us. Science was one and centralized government was another. Science is efficient because it allows us to break the natural world into bite-sized pieces that can be studied separately and measured. That results in a lot of information pretty quickly. Unfortunately, it also allows us to think we know more than we really do—just because we’ve translated something into numbers. It took science a hundred years, for instance, to understand that salmon make their reproductive homes in specific rivers. Meanwhile, scientists were building hatcheries based on the idea that you could just move fish from one place to another and everything will be fine. In truth, those hatcheries did keep the fishing boats working for a generation or so longer than they would have without them. But not before they had done a lot of damage to the salmon’s natural intelligence. The runs kept on decreasing.

Once it was apparent to everyone that stuff was being turned into money too fast, we started to be call nature a resource base. Once nature became natural resources, it had to be managed, of course, and managers need to be experts. The land had been cut up by this time into huge areas called states and straight lines running right across a map separated the states. This created management units that were essentially unmanageable since they cut through life zones and watersheds that required different approaches. The experts have been trying to catch up ever since. Maybe their new computer models will help them. Aside from the fact that the money people have had a disproportionate voice in how the states conduct themselves, this helps explain why regulation to protect salmon and other natural wonders has always been about a generation too late.

Even now there are folks who think they can make it alone with the right combinations of property, power, and control. But there are also coming to be a large group of people who think that maybe wild abundance is worth nurturing and that the way to pursue that is through service, respect and mutual aid. And that’s where we come in.

Now it’s me and not that generic human talking. He or she is waiting to see how things go…

• • •

As I drove here from my home nearly 400 miles north, I thought about the watersheds I was driving through—how fragile they are, and for the most part how damaged. The waters of the Eel appropriated by the Sonoma Water District, the Russian polluted by vineyard toxins, each of their dwindling salmon populations denatured by the continuous introduction of hatchery spawn taken from faraway rivers. None but two of the creeks in Marin County free-running. And then the Bay Area, the Bay itself still poisoned with the mercury runoff of placer mining more than a century ago; the Delta starved for water by the insatiable needs of corporate farms, which through over-irrigation, are salinizing the very soil that is “feeding the world.” San Jose, with its tiny steelhead population holding on in the little creek that runs right through the city. Between San Jose and here I wasn’t always so sure which watershed I was driving through, but I was pretty sure that some of the same conditions were present.

But all that sadness was balanced by my amazement at what had happened with the inhabitants of those valleys over the last generation. In every drainage with which I was familiar, I knew of two or more restoration or conservation organizations that were working hard and effectively at reversing some of the conditions I just described. In the SF Bay Area alone, dozens of organizations and schools involve literally tens of thousands of people in the Sisyphean task of ecological restoration of the Bay and delta.

And I knew that I was headed for one of the fountainheads of the watershed restoration movement, Monterey Bay, where commercial and recreational fishermen had banded together more than twenty years ago to consider ways to improve freshwater habitat and adequate flows for their beloved salmon and steelhead. And look at us now! I have a list of twenty-five organizations represented here today, all focusing on some aspect of watershed health in a drainage smaller than 300 square miles, There are probably more than are on my list, just as I was sure that for each restoration group I knew about further north, there were probably two or three I hadn’t heard about yet.

• • •

Why this relatively rapid development? In those same 20 years, global environmental concerns have become an uninterrupted disaster siren. Our anxiety increases each day about our apparent powerlessness to do much about things like global climate change, ozone depletion, the health of the oceans, and on and on.

A whole lot of people seem to have come to a similar conclusion at the same time: if global problems seem too large for most people to grapple with (and how comforting by itself can an annual contribution to the Sierra Club be?) it is within our reach to assume some responsibility for our home places. Clean water is a good organizing principle, and so are native salmon and steelhead. A watershed of a certain size offers a reasonable scale of endeavor that’s a good fit for human visceral and mental capabilities—on both the levels of the individual and the community.
The watershed is a simple construct. Since water runs downhill, every drop that falls runs down one side of a ridge or another, and gathers into creeks and sub-drainages that eventually combine into a river system that gives the watershed its name. Most every person, urban or rural, consciously or unconsciously, has some visceral experience of their watershed each day—through glimpses of waterways or ridgelines that surround and infuse their local places. Further, watersheds organize themselves into a hierarchy of scales: spring to swale and tributary to river. The individual can approach the construct at any scale that suits their particular imagination or skill. The community can transform these individual relationships into a scale appropriate to its size and level of organization.

Two pairs of eyes are better than one. In fact two pairs of eyes are better than two, because in the complexity of any part of the natural world, any pair of eyes is going to pick up different patterns, different details. Combine those two sets of perceptions and already you have a new ferment that has a life of its own.

Watersheds are hydrological rather than biotic units, so there is still a lot of cause-and-effect happening out there. Water runs down hill and carries a lot of stuff with it. You don’t want to invest a lot of energy in shoring up a stream bank when half a mile upstream a massive landslide is poised to wipe out your work.

Therefore, watersheds require systematic attention and there is really no one better placed to do it than the people who live on or near the creek. And of course, once you begin such an engagement—once you have the experience under your belt of having built some stream bank armoring structures, or cabled in some large woody debris, or woven willow wattles, or planted some alders along trashed channels—your learning curve both individually and collectively is going to take a very steep turn upward. You’ll know more than the bureaucrats do in an amazingly short time.

Once you get to monitoring the biotic characteristics of the waterway, it’s an endless task and pleasure, and there is literally no one else that can take note of the changes from season to season and from year to year but the people who live here.

Do this with a group of comrades and neighbors for a few years, and an interesting thing begins to happen. Without thinking much about it, you’ll have become related through the landscape that runs through your lives. You’ll begin to take on some of the aspects of a single entity with many pairs of eyes.

I’d like to sum up by making a few claims on which I hope we can agree:

1) Watershed restoration is essential to our emerging identity as watershed denizens and citizens. There’s a point of no return in the destruction of natural processes and other creatures beyond which we’ll be living somewhere else, in a world entirely of our own construct. At that point any talk of watershed citizenship will be a moot point.

2) Watershed restoration is perhaps the most effective ways to learn the things we need to know to live in place.

3) Modern industrial humans have only been in these western coast watersheds for a little over 150 years. It may take that long or longer to restore any meaningful amount of what has been lost. Therefore, we must look to the arts and to the schools to provide the generational continuity that is necessary to our effort. Congratulations to all of you here today who are already working in that direction.

4) As citizens becoming denizens, it is an indication of the primitive nature of our progress that so many of our efforts are on behalf of a negative position. What not to put in the water, how not to treat the soil, particular things that must not be put in the air, or in the landfill. Necessary resistance, yes, but we need to shift more of our focus toward positive futures. What are the businesses and industries that might be called restorative businesses and industries—activities that put food on the table at the same time as they improve the health of the watershed? A model for this is the way in which organic farming improves the soil even as it produces our food. Our need to take food and shelter from the places we live is not going to disappear. It may be, in fact, that our most effective resistance to the negative aspects of globalization will be to increase our local self-reliance.

5) Sometimes we’re going to be working beside people, our neighbors, whose worldview and philosophy is different from our own. I’m sometimes asked what is the best thing I’ve learned from working at watershed restoration and I usually answer that I’ve learned how to listen. I’ve learned more from people that don’t agree with me than from people who do. The consensual process is not so much a political tool as it is a tool for community building.

It may be that the consensus process is to community building as public hearings are to democracy as prayer is to spiritual practice. The practice is demanding, the outcome is uncertain, but this is the work we must endure.

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.

We’re here today to celebrate that understanding. Celebration is an essential part of our work. In my home watershed there are not only several annual celebrations of the place, but each year the schools conduct an annual watershed week, during which all the curricula is organized around local phenomena. Then all the schools come together for a watershed day, a celebration. Each year, that day resembles more and more a gathering of watershed citizens on their way to becoming watershed denizens.

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

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