“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 fourth 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.
This piece was first published in 2002 in River & Range.
GHOST IN THE SYSTEM
by Freeman House
for John Bennett,
the good dentist
On our raw homestead in the Coast Range, Nina and I were attempting to domesticate a half-acre at the edge of ten acres of upland coastal prairie. We had knocked up a six-foot chicken wire fence, all we could afford at the time, to keep out the many deer that browsed our prairie. The deer had a taste for the new strawberry bed and the young climbing roses we had planted along the fence line. The fence served little purpose but to delay the deer for a week or two until they had discovered how easily they could leap over the strange enclosure. Once they had defoliated the roses and mowed the strawberry plants, they would move on to nibble at the broccoli and lettuce, ever curious. We cut scrap two-by-fours into three-foot lengths and nailed them onto the fence posts at an angle upward and outward, stapled a couple of runs of baling wire around their top ends. The deer stayed on their side of the fence, until, inevitably, someone left a gate open overnight. Without fail one deer would wander in and rediscover her love of rose leaves. We would chase her out in the morning, flapping our arms and yelling. The deer would panic and throw herself against the fence in one place after another until she found the open gates and bounded off. Early on, we assumed that the panic we had instilled would teach the deer a lesson in territory, and that they would avoid our little oasis of green in the summer-dry California prairie. But deer are evidently quickly addicted to rose and strawberry leaves. Once these treats had been rediscovered, the same deer and her cohorts would examine our fence for weaknesses with the intensity of a junkie searching for a connection. Once we saw a doe flat on her belly wriggling under the chicken wire where it lifted nine inches off the uneven ground. For a few years, then, our garden yielded venison at irregular intervals.
The deer were not the only ones who looked on us as new arrivals who were provisioners of exotic snacks. They were the only one of our co-inhabitants on the prairie who shared themselves with us, however; we never developed an appetite for the moles and gophers and raccoons and ravens and quail and slugs who fed freely on our young gardens and orchards. We grew accustomed to the yowling nightly squabbles between the skunks and raccoons over our compost pile. (The skunks would generally win first access. The raccoons didn’t like their stinging spray any more than we did. The raccoons would back off until the skunks had taken their fill and then take their turn at the luscious kitchen garbage, after which they would move on to the strawberries which would have been ripe enough for us to pick on the very next day.)
But we adapted. We planted our artichokes in wire cages to protect them from gophers, having discovered yet another addictive relationship between the ubiquitous soil dwellers and the sweet roots of young artichoke plants. We captured raccoons and skunks in Have-a-Heart traps and trucked them to locations where we thought they might be happier. We covered our newly planted winter gardens with bird netting because the tender seedlings emerged from the ground at about the same time large families of young quail fledged and ranged the dry August prairie with enormous appetites for young greens. We planted more than we needed, coming to understand that if the other residents of the prairie were going to share their habitat with us, we would have to reciprocate by sharing our garden with them. The only alternative to such reciprocity would be to pursue the logical extension of the notions of human control and exclusively owned property. We would have to dig our whole garden area to a depth of two feet or so, cover the subsoil with welded wire to exclude the gophers and moles before putting the soil back to grow our now-secured vegetables and fruits. We would have to build concrete walls sunk an equal distance into the ground and extending eight feet into the air to keep out the raccoons and skunks and foxes and bobcats and deer. Then we would have to cover the whole area with some kind of mesh to keep the fruits and berries safe from a whole sky full of birds. Our fantasies stopped just short of erecting gun towers at the corners of the concrete enclosure. Reciprocity seemed a preferable choice to such a logical demonstration of our singular rights to this corner of prairie.
After seven or eight years, we were providing a lot of our own food, and were becoming comfortable with our new relations. Then, during one particularly dry late summer, some new critters showed up. The new vegetarian was nocturnal, and for a period of several weeks, invisible. But the damage it was doing to the garden and young orchard was dramatic and it had the potential for being terminal. Something large enough to break branches with its weight was climbing the young trees and girdling those branches that didn’t break. A couple of trees were girdled at their base, and the whole tree began to wither. Foot-wide lanes began to appear in our vegetable beds. It looked as if a tiny tractor had pulled a tiny mower through the beds. What plants weren’t gnawed down to the ground had been pushed over and broken at the base. Our garden began to look like the early stages of a miniature suburban development, with a road network laid out and bulldozed in preparation for new homes for very small people.
During this period, I was often away from home painting my dentist’s very full-sized suburban home in exchange for some reconstruction work on my mouth. I would spend several days in town scraping and painting the house, and then another day in his chair being fitted for the upper denture that he was building for me. My teeth had their own predators in the form of caries and the plaque they left behind; advanced gum disease had left me no choice but to avail myself of the benefits of industrial prosthesis at the hands of my excellent dentist, a man who in his spare time rebuilds World War Two US army vehicles, troop transporters for instance, and then ship them to Europe and uses them to drive his family across the terrains of old battles. If the man can reconstruct ancient machines and trust the lives of his family to their performance, he can be trusted to fashion my prosthetic teeth. Or so I reasoned. The long days of scraping and painting gave me plenty of time to reflect on my forty years of failure to understand and accommodate the wild processes in my mouth and to compare it with the difficulties we were having in adjusting to the wild processes in our prairie.
Nina had become accustomed to nighttime maintenance of the garden that, with my absence, had become her domain entirely. She had spent uncounted flashlight-lit hours picking snails off the tender vegetation. Now she began to patrol the garden with her flashlight at all hours of the night, looking for the creature that was wreaking havoc with our subsistence. For a while she found nothing; she was becoming depressed.
For other reasons, so was I. My abject surrender to the industrial technology being wrought on my mouth combined with day-to-day lessons in the real costs of voluntary simplicity—scrape, scrape; paint, paint; open a little wider, please—were beginning to tempt me with the logic of nine-to-five jobs which would pay for the dental bills as well as the prettily packaged food provided by Safeway. Food the production of which I knew perfectly well killed soil with its monocultural strategies, and was killing migrant farm workers with pesticides. Maybe industrial culture had gone beyond the point of no return. Maybe the choices we thought we had—to leave the cities in search of clean air and water and healthy food for ourselves and our children, to make do with a combination of half-learned skills and a talent to hustle the rest—maybe these choices were illusory, a sort of ghost dance available only to a privileged fringe group of the most industrially advanced nation on Earth.
After a couple of weeks, the house was painted and the day came when my denture was ready. The dentist, who hated to inflict pain, subcontracted extractions to a specialist in Eureka. All my upper teeth were extracted in 27 minutes flat. I drove back to Arcata to pick up my beautiful denture, which would give me a prettier mouth than nature had given, and one nearly as functional. Then Nina drove me home, as I was completely whacked on Percodan.
I was even more zonked on painkillers that evening, lying on my loft bed, too afloat in medication to gather even the concentration necessary to sustain the comfort of self-pity. Nina was in the garden again. She had finally caught a glimpse of our predator, and at first she didn’t know what she was looking at. Her flashlight caught the reflection of a pair of close-set red eyes. As she got closer, the eyes didn’t retreat, but continued to peer dimly at her out of a sweet face—a cute face, she told me later—surrounded completely by a spiky collar from which no limbs extruded. She approached the creature and still it didn’t retreat. Finally she shouted, and the animal turned slowly and waddled away like an addled drunk, directly through a bed of spinach. Nina had been so puzzled and disoriented that she had expected the thing to lift into the air and float away, some creature from another world. Once the light picked up its spiked silhouette from behind, however, she realized what she was seeing—a common porcupine.
Nina came racing up the ladder to the loft, her flashlight beam inscribing crazy zig-zags on the ceiling. “I know what it is,” she cried. “It’s a porcupine, and it’s out there now in the bush beans!” I didn’t think, but reacted, a player in some dream movie of the pioneer man protecting his family against the dangers of the wild. There was only one gun in the house, an ancient .30-.30 with bullets the size of my little finger. This is a John Wayne movie now but big, strong John is away on other business and it is toothless Gabby Hayes who is left at home to protect the women and children. I stumbled down the ladder from the loft and loaded three shells into the big gun. I picked my way out into the dark and with a flashlight held in my armpit took a wobbly bead on the reflected red eyes thirty feet away. BOOM!, the big noise of the gun ricocheted back and forth across the valley. The red eyes didn’t move. I fired twice more before the eyes turn slowly and moved off toward the fence line. I didn’t know if I’d hit my target or not as I returned to the house and shuffled back to my floating bed. The next morning we found the porcupine, quills extended, lying dead along the fence. We debated skinning it and eating it but decided not to. Porcupine flesh is half fat, we’d been told, and makes a disgusting food. We moved the carcass out into the prairie for the vultures to clean up, and filled a paper bag with its beautiful quills.
On many of the remaining nights of that exceptionally dry summer, we slept in the garden, partly for the pleasure of it and partly for security. Because our daughter Laurel was a baby, the gun was left inside so as not to frighten her. When wakened by the telling sound of a porcupine chewing its way through our tender vegetable beds, a sound like a small horse patiently reducing a mouthful of oats, more than once I leapt from bed quite naked and gave chase. The porcupine has one speed, a slow waddle, and my grunts and groans as my bare feet hit thistle and rock did nothing to move it faster. As I ran in the moonlit nights, I would pick up whatever was handy to throw at the creature—cobbles from the edge of the flower garden, pieces of firewood. On one of these atavistic excursions, I actually hit the creature with a heavy piece of tanoak directly enough to stun him. I finished him off with the blunt end of a kindling hatchet.
Only later, after I had read more about the earlier distribution of mammals, did I realize that I had been acting in the absence of the Pacific fisher, the porcupine’s only natural predator. In one of nature’s jokes, I had been unknowingly attempting to take on the systemic function of the fisher: replace its predatory skills, which are exquisite, with my own, which are not. And fences, it turns out, are not even in the same strata of reality as ghosts.
The amputee can occasionally feel the ghost of a sensation that seems to come from the place where the limb once was. The arm, or leg, or foot, or finger is gone, and so are its functions, but the nervous system does not immediately adjust to the loss. For a long time after the trauma, the amputee may feel signals from the absent limb; feelings of warmth or cold, a twinge, the painful numbness of the limb gone to sleep.
Each creature, each organism, has some functional role in the intelligence of the web of life out of which it has emerged. The local field of being we call the ecosystem must experience a period of adjustment when one of its organisms has disappeared—even if the disappearance has occurred over a period of time beyond a person’s memory. When people, accidentally or purposefully, experience engagement with their fields of being, the direct, ineffable sense of the ghosts of lost creatures may come visiting.
The ghosts are globes of emptiness bubbling through the neural pathways of life, nearly lost memories of the void left by some absent life form. Ecosystem absences can become a palpable presence, a weird stillness moving against the winds of existence and leaving a waveform perturbation behind. The lives of plants and animals must be full of such ghosts but humans are slower to see and feel, surrounded as we are by the noise of machinery, the buzz and hum of electricity. We need a tsunami of absence to get our attention. But on a dark night in a quiet garden, the ghost may find a voice in the human imagination. When a place is full of ghosts, the search for peace of mind can fill up with such perturbations.
The ghost of the Pacific fisher, a mammal the size and shape of a large weasel, is manifested in the form of 10,000 porcupines whose only effective predator is missing along with 90-plus percent of the ancient forests that were the predator’s home. The fisher has enzymes in its mouth and stomach that allows it to digest any quills that get in the way as it attacks the porcupine’s unarmored belly. Shy and nocturnal, its dark coat and sinuous quickness have made it invisible to all but the trappers who value its thick winter fur. The secretive creatures had denned in the large deadfall trees that cluttered the floor of the old forests. When the forests had been taken down, it was the custom for a long while to bulldoze the deadfall trees littering the forest floor into huge brush piles, which were burned. There may be fishers still hiding back in the depths of the fragmented remnant forest, but the fur-buyer hasn’t made his semi-annual tour of the river valley for over twenty years. In the absence of predators, the porcupine population has enormous fluctuations, explosions of growth followed by diebacks. Every seven to ten years or so, porcupines will seem to be everywhere, rolling through kitchen gardens like blind tanks, waddling inexorably along and across every roadway. During these years, road-killed porcupines litter the edges of the asphalt. The absence of the fisher becomes an active ghost the first time anyone says, “Sure seems like a lot more porcupines than there used to be, don’t it?”