[SUNDAY LECTURE NO. 2] "RESTORING RELATIONS: The Vernacular Approach to Ecological Restoration" 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 second lecture in this series. This series ran previously on this site in 2010-11, and is being rerun now because it’s the right thing to do. Last week’s lecture is available here — “Wild Humanity: People and the Places That Make Them People”.

RESTORING RELATIONS: The Vernacular Approach to Ecological Restoration
by Freeman House

This piece is based on a keynote talk presented to the 3rd annual meeting of the Society for Ecological Restoration, California chapter, in Nevada City CA, May 1994. It was published in Restoration and Management Notes, Summer 1996.

A couple of years ago, I read a very well-written book that tried to convince me that wherever humans touched nature, nature became un-natural, its beauty and wildness spoiled .The book took notice, correctly I think, that human influence on the landscape had become universal. The writer, Bill McKibben, drew the conclusion that because of this, the end of nature was near. The name of the book is, in fact, The End of Nature (McKibben 1989). Like many environmentalists, McKibben is a passionate man, a man who grieves for injuries to nature. But during the time of writing, he seemed also to be a man who had swallowed most of industry’s argument for the inevitability and (indeed!) naturalness of its destructive behavior in regard to natural systems and human communities. If you accept these arguments—some of which are that economies must grow; that the efficiency of mass production legitimizes its brutalization of human life and and the destruction of natural systems; that mere appetite is the ruling element in human behavior—then McKibben’s conclusions must be correct. If humans are such a sport of nature, if their behavior can only be anti-nature, and if humans are everywhere, then nature must surely be on its way out. It is as if we lived somewhere else altogether than in the ecosystems which provide us with all our needs.

But in fact, humans have always been immersed in ecosystems. And for most of the time we’ve been on the planet, with the exception of the the last few hundred years, humans have behaved as if they were immersed in ecosystems. [1] The paleolithic hunter fails to find his game and returns to counsel with his people. How has their behavior strayed from the path of ample provision? The pre-industrial neolithic planter burns brush, saves seed, collects dung. Alongside deep frugality in the home exist the exuberant public indulgence in great monuments that were observatories of planetary movement, and the devotion of large amounts of time and energy to ceremonial observances of non-human processes and presences in the landscape surrounding. Throughout the industrial age, ecosystem behavior has endured even though its practitioners have been pushed back to the most marginal of land bases.

It is important to understand that behavior which rises out of ecosystems—life lived by immersion—has never been passive but diligently active: symbiotic, reciprocal, deliberately manipulative, and creative. Dennis Martinez, the pre-historian of the restoration movement, has shown us that the indigenous peoples of North America—and by extension elsewhere—have always been an interactive element of the landscape, effecting their own long-term survival with management practices so extensive that ecosystem function was affected (Martinez 1993). This is another view altogether of human relationships to nature. Rather than objectifying nature as a resource base functioning only to provide human wealth and comfort, such cultures express themselves as interactive parts of the natural systems around them. In such cultures, individuals are able to perceive themselves as having no greater (or lesser) a function in ecosystem process than algae, or deer.

Most of us have forgotten how to act this way. Over the recent few hundred years we have been encouraged to forget. There is, in fact, a whole educational industry structured for the purpose of convincing us that our primary identity is as consumers. The question is not how to mourn nature, or how to isolate and protect its tattered fragments, but how to re-engage it and thus rediscover our native wit and adaptive genius. And we will find, I believe, that this rediscovery is possible, but only ever in one place at a time. If we are to re-immerse ourselves in our larger lives, if we are to regain our extended identity, it will be through the portals of individual ecosystems and particular places.

I have no doubt that the environmental restoration movement has the potential for being one of the essential pathways on which to pursue this evolutionary diplomacy, this restoration of our relationships with all the myriad creatures. Ecological restoration holds out the hope of providing us with the information we need to enrich our existence while reducing our numbers. It may hold out the only hope of keeping some ecosystems alive long enough to learn the things we need to know in order to live in them. With only a hint of grandiosity (which I am willing to provide), one can claim that the ecological restoration movement represents the most significant shift in human consciousness since early experiments in agriculture. But this potential can only be realized if the environmental restoration movement becomes a vehicle for the broadening of environmentalist strategies of the ’70s and ’80s from the political into the cultural arena.

In order to fulfill these promises, we must devise strategies that are at least as powerful and inclusive as the strategies which have dislocated human cultures and caused the destruction of ecosystems. We need to find ways to integrate the practice of ecological restoration with the only population that can carry those practices forward into local custom: the inhabitory communities of particular places.

Movements need leaders, theorists, and experts, but leaders and thinkers and experts do not constitute a movement. The organizers of this meeting have established as a high priority the consideration of the professional restorationists’ relationship to community-based projects, and I can think of no more pressing concern. In the service of this goal, I’d like you to help me think about the vernacular approach to environmental repair.

For the restorationist, the concept of immersion translates into the question, “How shall we re-enter the ecosystem?,” a question for which there is no simple answer. It would be easy to stay with good old ecosystem science, which is by definition at once everywhere and nowhere. But ecological existence occurs one place at a time: wherever we happen to be eating, shitting and technologizing at the moment. Moreover, ecosystem wisdom, if that is what we aspire to, accrues most often out of a single place over a period of time. Such knowledge is not something we can wait for passively; ecological wisdom will not accrue in the rocking chair on the porch. We can only aspire to ecosystem wisdom through daily engagement and experience, with all the attendant risk of making mistakes. And that could be more or less a description of the challenges of environmental restoration at these early stages of its practice and development. Bill Jordan, the poet of the restoration profession, says, “[This work] puts the restorationist back in the landscape the way that Henry Thoreau wanted to be in the landscape…not just as an observer but as a functioning, participating member of the land community.”


In the course of my work in the Mattole watershed of northern California over the past 15 years, I’ve been trying to understand how ecosystem wisdom expresses itself in the human community. The picture I get, throughout human history and prehistory, is that ecosystem wisdom expresses itself through the vernacular, through local custom and taboo, through the ways that people act collectively and daily in response to the opportunities and constraints provided by their local ecosystems.

Let’s look at this word vernacular for a moment. A few definitions from the New Webster’s: One: Native or originating in the place of its occurrence or use, as language or words, as opposed to literary or learned language. Another: Native or peculiar to a place, as a style of architecture. Another: The common language people use every day. Vernacular relationships explain why there are so many native languages in California. Vernacular cuisine is the recipes that grow out of regional and seasonal availabilities of certain foods. My wife and I learn more about local weather patterns hanging out the laundry than we ever could from computer models or textbooks. And this is vernacular education.

An important survival mechanism of vernacular culture is its use of story. Vernacular culture maintains its continuity through keeping its stories alive, a sort of enduring gossip. All cultures invent ways to pass on the collective memory in order to maintain a continuous sense of themselves. When the stories of vernacular culture are replaced by the cunningly crafted televised myths of consumer culture, then local people will tend to lose the direct sense of relation to local places. Engagement in environmental restoration can re-orient inhabitants to locale, but only if open communication is considered as a primary element of any ecological restoration process. In our local watershed rehabilitation work, we try to think ahead fifty years or more, a span of a couple of generations. Since less than five percent of the local population is actually engaged in the restoration work (and many of us are getting on in years), we feel compelled to keep the rest of the inhabitants informed through occasional newsletters, reports, and studies which are sent not only to our supporters and subscribers, but to every one of some three thousand watershed resident and landowners. This kind of contact with the community needs to be part of the budget of restoration programs. Without it, ecological restoration fails to realize its potential for social transformation. With open and regular communication, our neighbors can come to realize themselves as a recovering population in a recovering ecosystem and the new local story acts to recruit the young as self-identified participants in an emerging culture.

We need to remember how we came to be doing this work, and we need to be doing our remembering in public. We need to keep alive the memories of the large mistakes that can result from human management. Like the stories of the 1955 and 1964 floods in northwestern California. During the period between the end of World War II and 1964, enough vegetation had been logged off so many of our steep sandstone hillsides that when two 100-year storms occurred in just nine years, the very nature of the river systems was changed as enormous amounts of topsoil slid into the waterways. By 1978, native salmon populations were in such steep decline as to make necessary the population enhancement programs initiated by the Mattole Watershed Salmon Support Group. One of the first tasks of the small restoration group was to convince the inhabitants of a new story, a new picture of ourselves that fit the new circumstances. The subsistence fishery that had made life so attractive in the valley for uncounted generations had become inappropriate and maladaptive. The pursuit of wild protein that had once had so minor an impact on the bountifulness of natural provision now had the potential of destroying a native salmon run entirely. Not only had it become necessary to work tirelessly to reverse this trend, but we needed a new story about our relationship to this totem species. We were no longer feeder and fed, but participants in a process of reciprocal recovery. [2]

It is crucial to any ambitions for the restoration of the watershed to keep these memories alive. If our collective memory is lost, then the consequences of our work will disappear in the next round of economic boom—which in our case would be when the next generation of timber is ready to be felled. When the Civilian Conservation Corps planted millions of trees in Texas and Oklahoma to combat the dust-bowl effect in the thirties, the effort worked. The trees took and began to hold the soils in place against the summer winds. Now, a little over a generation later, many of those same trees have been cut to make space for the great circular irrigation systems that are pumping the Oglalla aquifer dry. The CCC workers had all gone home to other places.

You know the wind will blow again.

We have as much to learn from the long-term failures of such projects as from their short-term successes. Generational continuity is built into restoration programs when local workers are the ones doing the work and planning. In our place, a generation of schoolkids has now had the experience of releasing native salmon fingerlings into the wild each year of their elementary schooling. This activity will reside in their memories as normal behavior, a different sort of norm in their relation to nature than their parents experienced. In Plumas County in the Sierras, high school kids are performing monitoring and evaluation of restoration projects for the Army Corps of Engineers and the EPA as part of their classwork. Such experience will not only move them toward immersion in the processes of their Sierra home, but may provide skills which allow them to stay there.

The stories which arise from individual experience are powerfully transmuted and gain broad dispersal through the work of artists. In our own small 300-square-mile valley, we have begun to think of the song, dance, and theater inspired by the restoration movement to be as important as the habitat rehabilitation work itself. When the audience becomes participatory, there emerges a theater of celebration such as the day-long festivals held by by the reinhabitory and indigenous peoples of the Olympic peninsula honoring of the return of the salmon, sponsored by the community restoration group, Wild Olympic Salmon.

Local knowledge provides the field of being in which fluid and flexible responses to changing ecosystem conditions are possible. Ranchers grow grass, foresters grow trees, farmers grow soil, and restorationists attempt to understand the relationships between human economic practices and ecological well-being. There can be no more effective body of knowledge to inform our response to particular places than the cumulative experience of first peoples, on-the-ground resource managers and local inhabitants. At home, our Mattole Watershed Alliance has been able to effect watershed-specific salmon sportfishing regulations, has conducted stock-specific negotiations with commercial fishers and has influenced the ways county work crews dispose of landslide spoils. The effect of such local face-to-face diplomacy is to institutionalize the goals of ecological restoration. When deepened by an enlivened sense of local history and engagement, local knowledge will work to produce economic practices that are ecologically benign or in some cases practices that improve the health of ecosystems just as organic farming tends to improve the health of the soil. Our region has given rise to the Institute for Sustainable Forestry in Redway, California, an organization devoted to the development of silvicultural practices which might be called restoration forestry. Industrial foresters and restoration groups in the Mattole watershed are developing a track record of cooperative silvicultural planning which recognizes the super-erodibility of Mattole soils and the anomalies of rainfall which are the norm here.

Above all, the vernacular provides us with what may be the only milieu in which we might hope to achieve the goal of self-regulation by ecosystem-based human populations. Local custom is the cumulative experience of daily practice, comfortable and rarely questioned. Regulation from the distant capitol, on the other hand, always inspires resistance. So if the health of our ecosystems depends entirely on regulation by the state, I think we are in deep trouble. [3] Jerry Gorsline has written that successful human culture is a semi-permeable membrane between humans and nature, with information flowing in both directions (Gorsline 1974). It is in effective local culture that we will find the mechanisms that keep both our ecosystems and human communities thriving. It may be our job to imagine how to restore this efficacy to local cultures, how to restore relations between inhabitant and locale.

The conquest and resettling of the North American West occurred just as the industrial revolution was reaching its climax. Western culture has often been more an expression of the need by industry for enormous amounts of raw materials than it has been a response to the actual landscape. Euro-American culture has not been in place long enough to develop cultures that are based on ecosystem wisdom. Too often local custom revolves around the feedlot, the open-pit mine, the milltown, rather than the magnificent wild vistas that presented themselves to the new settlers. Wallace Stegner was recognizing this phenomena when he said, “the basic problem [of living in the West] has constantly been how to reconcile what you do to make a living with how to save the country you make a living from.”


The theme I would like to address here is the most effective relationship between the professional restorationist and the community-based restoration movement, to imagine a menu of possibilities that might play a part in a broadly based strategy for reinhabitation. For the sake of discussion I would suggest that the genesis of both the profession and the popular movement can be traced back to some of the efforts by a single individual; the former to the establishment of the prairie restoration project at the University of Wisconsin by Aldo Leopold in the early forties; and the latter to the ongoing efforts of the Leopold family at their Sand County farm (Leopold 1949, Mills 1995).

Practitioners of the movement tend to work through grassroots organizations with their roots deeply entwined in the soil of local culture. They tend to be self-educated generalists who over time accumulate a body of practical and place-specific knowledge about how things work in their landscape. Most often organized within the confines of a particular natural area, a watershed or an ecosystem, their work moves naturally in the direction of integrated holism. It is impossible to spend long hours under difficult conditions trying to re-establish critical elements of damaged habitat without becoming acutely aware of the of land-use practices which led to the damages they are attempting to repair. Anger over such practices quickly gives way to a rudimentary ethical challenge: how can we continue to practice this livelihood without engaging the local economic practices which have caused the damages?

The ecological restoration profession is important to the movement because it is science-based, and science provides the tools essential to our ability to learn from our trials and from our errors. The professional is most often supported by academic, government , or corporate entities and is constrained by the perceived goals of his or her employer. Controlled experiments on public lands, mitigations for corporate developments, and university research are of enormous value through the addition of generalized information about ecosystem recovery processes. But the such work can function in isolation from the landscape-scale habitat needs of the actual wild creature populations. Rarely are such projects designed so that their discoveries and accomplishments can be integrated into local cultural and economic practices. The pursuit of objectivity leads some otherwise excellent scientists to ignore the common sense of vernacular experience.

Our own experiences in the Mattole watershed offer some clues as to how these parallel paths might converge. Time after time we have found that the love of place motivating our work was not adequate to the challenges of proactively engaging and participating in the natural recovery processes surrounding us. We did not know how to do geomorphic mapping; we weren’t sure how to initiate credible wild population counts over time; we needed more information about fluvial processes and sediment budgets. Whenever we queried experts working for government or academic institutions, we most often received an enthusiastic response and found it nearby, usually from overworked field scientists who traveled on their own time in order to teach us what we needed to know—from Redwood National Park, from the county extension office, from the Redwood Sciences Lab of the U.S. Forest Service, from the Cooperative Fisheries Unit at the Humboldt State University, from the Bureau of Land Management, and from private consultants. We were then able to use our new knowledge, not only to implement specific habitat rehabilitation projects and watershed restoration planning, but to give our neighbors the information they need to judge how their daily practices are helping or hindering the recovery processes we are hoping to enhance. Lately, we have had some success insinuating ourselves and our goals into some of the planning and practices of some of our corporate neighbors.

The complementarity of our efforts will continue to grow if we can remember to ask ourselves the questions posed by Jamie Sayen. “What is the relation of restorationists to a restoration project? Are we outside the ecosystem tinkering to repair it? Or are we working to restore human culture into a restored ecosystem?….The ultimate goal of restorationists should be to put ourselves out of business” (Sayen 1989).

The generalists and non-professionals who make up community-based restoration groups need your professional expertise, but you also need our locatedness to realize your enormous potential to effect and protect the evolutionary processes of the biosphere. The marriage of objective science and participatory vernacular science—or more practically, perhaps, a live-in arrangement between the restoration profession and the restoration movement, may produce the offspring who, if they don’t exhaust us with their demands, will guide us home and teach us how to live there.

*** *** ***

1. It is important to note some of the exceptions to this rule. Archaeologists provide us with numerous examples of cultural experiments following the neolithic period when—due to dimly perceived combinations of technological arrogance, urban-centered hierarchies, and population expansion—locally-based human societies have disappeared after exhausting their ecosystem bases. Mesopotamia, ancient Greece, the Mayans, to name just a few.

2. In 1978, the notion that “poaching’ was no longer acceptable behavior was a difficult pill for local residents to swallow. By 1995, the practice had become uncommon. Due to efforts by a broad-based coalition of watershed residents, the California Fish & Game Commission in 1991 made the Mattole River out of bounds for legal recreational salmon fishing.

3. For the time being, regulation by the state will continue to play a critical role in the health of the larger landscape, if only because of the state’s creation of corporate autonomy. More and more, corporations don’t live anywhere at all and so cannot be expected to assume ecosystem-based responsibilities. Now, with the adoption of the NAFTA and GATT treaties, the balance of power between states and corporations is in question. It may turn out that our last ditch defense of ecosystem integrity will need to be carried forward by a citizenry organized as NGO-like entities within bioregional configurations.

Gorsline, Jeremiah and L. Freeman House. “Future Primitive” in North Pacific Rim Alive!, Planet Drum Foundation, San Francisco, 1974. Anthologized in Andruss et.al., Home! A Bioregional Reader, New Society Publishers, Philadelphia PA, 1990

Leopold, Aldo. A Sand County Almanac (Outdoor Essays & Reflections), Oxford University Press, New York, 1989

Martinez, Dennis. “Coyote, Science, Fire & Indians,” in Winds of Change, vol. unknown, 1993

Mills, Stephanie. In Service of the Wild: Restoring and Reinhabiting Damaged Land, Beacon Press, Boston MA. 1995

McKibben, Bill. The End of Nature, Random House, New York. 1989

Sayen, Jamie. “Taking Steps Toward a Restoration Ethic, ” in Earth First!, May 1, 1989. A version of this essay appeared in RM&N xxxxxxx. Yet another version has been anthologized in Andruss et. al., Home! A Bioregional Reader, New Society Publishers, Philadelphia PA, 1990


One thought on “[SUNDAY LECTURE NO. 2] "RESTORING RELATIONS: The Vernacular Approach to Ecological Restoration" by Freeman House

  1. Pingback: THE WORK | Learning to Live Here

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