[SUNDAY LECTURE NO. 8] “Forgetting and Remembering the Instructions of the Land” by Freeman House (1996)

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. 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 delivered as the Rufus Putnam Lecture at the Ohio University, April 24, 1996. Parts of this lecture have been published in Martha’s Journal and in Raise the Stakes.

Forgetting and Remembering the Instructions of the Land: The Survival of Places, Peoples, and the More-than-human

by Freeman House

I: Forgetting

Maps are magical icons. We think of them as pictures of reality, but they are actually talismans that twist our psyche in one direction or another. Maps create the situation they describe. We use them hoping for help in finding our way around unknown territory, hoping they will take us in the right direction. We are hardly aware that they are proscribing the way we think of ourselves, that they are defining large portions of our personal identities. With a world map in our hands, we become citizens of nations. We become Americans, Japanese, Sri Lankans. With a national map in front of us, we locate ourselves in our home state; we become Ohioans or Californians. Unfolding the road map on the car seat beside us, we become encapsulated dreamers hurtling across a blurred landscape toward the next center of human concentration. Even with a topographical map, the map closest to being a picture of the landscape, we are encouraged to describe our location by township, range, and section—more precise, more scientific, we are told, than describing where we are in terms of a river valley or mountain range.

When Rufus Putnam’s Ohio Company acquired its part of the Northwest Territories, the first thing General Putnam did, perhaps before he had even seen all of it, was to draw squares on a map—townships, quarter-sections, long sections. Putnam was, after all, a surveyor and a land developer. Those blue lines on maps that are now yellow with age set in motion a process of systematic forgetfulness which may just now be reaching its culmination. As precisely as if he were using a scalpel, the general was separating the new human inhabitants from the sensual experience of their habitat. The new lines brought with them a quality of perception, one that randomly separated waterways from their sources. They fragmented the great forests before a single tree was cut.

If the landscape was a radio, in 1787 the volume began to be turned down on the channel that had carried the messages of the other creatures and the plants and the winds and waters full blast for thousands of years of ’round-the-clock broadcasting. People had been living in southern Ohio for millennia before the good general arrived, and there is every indication they were able to hear what the landscape was telling them. They experienced themselves as a part of the landscape that lay between themselves and the horizon. The landscape and the other creatures in it had a voice within their hearts and minds. Their maps were in the form of stories that carried down through the generations information about where and when the food plants were at their best, information about the seasonal migration routes of other species — species that might be important for either food or communion. The stories told of seasonal cycles — planting times, flood years, birth control. But as far as we know, no maps. And most certainly no maps with straight lines on them.

President Jefferson would soon instruct his surveyors the length and breadth of the enormous Louisiana Purchase to do the same thing—and with the best of intentions. Map it; divide it up by township, range, and section. It was a management problem. Breaking up the nearly unimaginable breadth of the newly acquired lands into tidy grids would make possible their orderly occupation by the yeoman farmer democrats who resided at the heart of Jefferson’s vision for the new world. This was the first step into bringing order to a sprawling wilderness, spreading its use peacefully among a rapidly encroaching population in a society where the engine of order was commerce. Political thinking of the time (as it still is) was driven by John Locke’s idea that the primary function of government is the protection of property. If the government was to have something to govern, it needed to turn all that land into property.

The technique had its benefits. Smaller grids provided for the establishment of instant towns and villages, centers of commerce and transportation. The larger grids, for sale at a dollar an acre, provided space for pioneer trappers and farmers to provide the amenities necessary for the growth of a new society. American civilization established itself with startling efficiency and rapidity. The previous inhabitants were startled right out of a culture that had evolved for thousands of years in equilibrium with the life processes surrounding. Too often, they were startled right out of their skins.

But the system had unanticipated side effects which we are only beginning to understand in the last 30 years, as we have discovered something called the environment. The same practical necessities which brought pioneer farmers to an intimate familiarity with the soils, micro-climates, and wildlife within their own fence lines allowed them to forget the continuity of life processes beyond the boundaries registered on plat maps—the parameters of life we now call ecosystems and watersheds. The parcels could be bought and sold, in the process acquiring an abstract identity separated from their function in the landscape. The wealth of diversity and particularity that is the very definition of any piece of ground in the natural world is forgotten, subsumed by its description in terms of commercial value.

Civilization progressed, as civilization believes it must do. First canals, then railroads allowed townspeople to forget their dependence on the provision of country people nearby. Hardly settled, the individual farmer-democrat proved in many cases to be a less-than-efficient means of extracting wealth from the land. Coal and iron and oil and wood pulp transported to the burgeoning industrial centers proved to be the more efficient fuel for the engines of commerce. Farm culture was replaced by industrial culture with the same startling rapidity that farm culture had replaced indigenous life. The farmers moved west until the west filled up. Now great industry was the pride and the strength of the nation. The need to dispose cheaply of the wastes of industry caused us to forget the cleansing and nurturing functions of our waterways, caused us to forget that air was the very breath of life. (I am told that one-third of Appalachian streams no longer support more than a tiny remnant of their original life-forms.) New industrial agricultural techniques based on mono-cropping caused us to forget that the health of soil is the blood of sustained culture. (We are not the first civilization to forget all these things. The history of civilization is littered with corpses: Mesopotamia, ancient China, Greece, and the Mayans have all preceded us.)

In the late 19th century, in the same decade that Frederick Jackson Turner proclaimed the end of continental frontiers, the corporation was born. Laws were passed that allowed states to license corporate entities. Now personal identity and responsibility that had been tied to a landscape, however fragmented by industry or ownership, could be assumed by an entity that relieved its participants of responsibility for their actions. Corporations have an address, but they don’t necessarily live anywhere. The bigger they are, the more profitable they tend to be. The bigger they get, the further their headquarters become removed from their resource bases. Now American people have spent a hundred years pursuing job opportunities from one place to the next, rather than looking for a place to settle. The landscape between urban centers has emptied itself of small farmers and whole regions have come to be seen as resource colonies. When the resources are exhausted, the corporations abandon the colonies. With the establishment of the NAFTA and GATT treaties, corporations have become global and their power has begun to replace the power of national states. The jobs we’ve been chasing around are disappearing as richer resource colonies, untapped markets, and cheap labor is discovered abroad.

Any one place can be understood as expendable by entities that live nowhere. If the picture of Appalachia as a resource colony, argued so convincingly by Helen Lewis as long ago as 1970, is a true one; if the picture of the Great Lakes region as a rapidly eroding industrial base is accurate; then the decline of America to the status of a third world country may well be our future. And the phrase “third world” has always been used to describe populations who are not in control of their own destinies, whose economies are controlled by powers beyond their influence.

The lines on the map have little meaning now except in real estate deals, but the process of forgetting our connectedness to our landscape has left us stranded—surplus people in hurt places—places we have allowed to become severely damaged without taking the time to know what they require of us if our children are to continue living here. We haven’t yet learned how to support, defend and live within the larger systems that support us, an oversight that will become increasingly painful until we determine to do something about it.

More important than the fact that farmers have left their farms, that miners have moved on to Alberta, is the fact that living systems within the tidy squares have been simplified to the point where they are hardly recognizable. The magnificence of creation matured to a state of profligate abundance has been reduced to tiny fragments. Last week I visited Dysart Woods near Belmont, Ohio. When I was told that at 40 acres it represented one of the largest stands of the same climax forest that had once covered the whole Ohio basin, I felt as if I were seeing a once-great library reduced to one book with half its pages ripped out.

II: Remembering

I need to take time here to examine the meaning of a couple of words. My lightening encapsulation of the recent history of capitalism may have led you to believe that I am trying to convince you that commerce itself is somehow evil. Such an assumption would be a denial of the fact that trade seems to be as old as human history. Excavated mounds in the Mississippi basin reveal trade items arriving from places as widely separated as northern Wisconsin and the Yucatan peninsula. The urge to travel and to exchange goods seems to be as old as human mobility. What is evil is the concept that has engulfed us in the last 25 years called The Economy, capital T, capital E, a manufactured reality with the end goal of convincing us that our primary role as humans is that of consumer. Tom Jay, in his essay “Familiar Music…” puts it this way. “The word consumer derives from a Latin word consumo which meant to spend everything, to destroy utterly, to destroy by fire. [As] late as 80 years ago, consumer had negative connotations. We used the term to describe a selfish and wanton sort. The change in the word’s usage testifies to a changed society. Now spoken English surely lives with commerce estranged from local culture.” The Economy, capital T, capital E is code for “you’ll never be happy until you have unlimited access to stuff.” It’s code for “you are the center of the world; the Earth exists to provide for your most elaborately imagined desires.” “The Economy” has raised the concept of individualism to the status of a religion whose rituals are advertisements constantly assuring us that the way to heaven are by way of the path of accumulation.

In the same essay, Jay takes a look at the word market, which derives from the Latin merc, thus merchant and merchandise. Merc is closely akin to the word merces, which pertains to the price paid for goods or labor, fair value; and the word merere: to earn, to deserve. The words merit and mercy arise from the same sets of roots as market and merchandise.

Following Jay’s lead, I took down my Partridge’s Origins, and looked up the word economy. Economy originates with the Greek oikos, meaning dwelling place, and nomos, to distribute. Oikos has the derivatives oikein, to inhabit, and oikoumene, the inhabited world.

The word economy, small e, connotes the flow of goods in an inhabited place, a particular community, informed by the criteria of merit and mercy and true value.

*

The challenge I would like to put before you tonight is the task of reclaiming our local economies and cultures from “The Economy” and its built-in strategy to create a global monoculture of consumers. I will claim that the first step in this process is one of remembering the self-sustaining strategies of our local ecosystems, which are the sources of any real definition of wealth. Once we have begun this process of remembering, we will find that the instructions for the reclamation of our human destinies lie in our direct perception of the self-regenerating processes of the more-than-human landscape surrounding. Everything we need to know about how to live can be drawn from the lessons of the forests and soils and streams—if only we know how to look. The opening lines of Thomas Berry’s book, The Dream of the Earth puts it truly. “We are returning to our native place after a long absence, meeting once again with our kin in the earth community.”

Global corporatism has institutionalized our forgetting of the natural world. We are inundated with what editor Marcie Darnovsky calls a propaganda environment, within which most of our educational systems and popular media are totally enmeshed. In response to this onslaught, the environmental movement has initiated a campaign aimed at putting in place regulatory responses to corporate excesses. And this campaign has had some notable successes. But ultimately, state and federal agencies cannot deliver regional renewal. The natural inability of institutions to give up any of their hard-won power is reinforced by the fact that most nation states have been subsumed by the strategies of global corporations. States have become large and active players in the propaganda environment. If we are to gain control of our destinies as inhabitants of functional ecological systems, it will be because we have empowered ourselves as we remember the opportunities and constraints of living places—and learned to resist their sacrifice to global consumerism. Such a transformation can come from nowhere else than from the inhabitants who extend their identity to living regions, lovers of place. Writer Stephanie Mills has great faith in the vernacular skills of peoples who have discovered their imbeddedness in locale. She has deconstructed the French word amateur to describe such people—ama-teur, she says—practitioners of love.

Philosopher Thomas Berry has spent his life demonstrating that the crisis confronting us is not a crisis of politics or economics, but a crisis of cosmology. Berry tells us we need a “new story.” Berry’s new story instructs that the earth has emerged out of a cosmos ever in the process of creation. That same creative process has organized itself into life, and in the last few moments of galactic time, life has grown to include a human species with the explicit function of bringing self-consciousness to the great living organism of the Earth. The primary function of humans, according to the new story, is to articulate and celebrate the processes of creation. The manifestations of creation most available to human perception are the highly differentiated communities of life that Berry and others call bioregions. It is the inter-relationship of the living and inanimate aspects of these bioregions that we are called upon to remember.

Kirkpatrick Sale, in Dwellers in the Land: The Bioregional Vision, writes “…to come to know the earth fully and honestly, the crucial and perhaps only and all-encompassing task is to understand the immediate specific place where we live. … The limits of its resources; the carrying capacities of its lands and waters; the places that must not be stressed; the places where its bounties can be best developed; the treasures it holds and the treasures it withholds–these are the things that must be understood.”

Once we have committed ourselves to this sort of remembering, we will find ourselves engaged in a process that social activist Peter Berg and ecologist Raymond Dasmann have called reinhabitation. “Reinhabitation means learning to live in place in an area which has been disrupted and injured through past exploitation….It means understanding activities and evolving social behavior that will enrich the life of that place, restore its life- supporting systems, and establish an ecologically and socially sustainable pattern of existence within it. Simply stated it involves becoming fully alive in and with a place.

I live in a place that has perhaps 50 years less industrial history than yours does, and somewhat more of the original fabric of life is left, though tattered. Nevertheless, my own processes of remembering have taken some work. I have found that doing my remembering personally and privately doesn’t get me where I want to go. I have discovered that the reconstruction of inhabitory mind (an ultimate goal of reinhabitation) is a collective process, as is any economy of place. The wisdom of the group is a far more powerful thing than the sum of its individual components. Further, I have become convinced that it is not possible for a single mind to comprehend the life processes of even an area as small as my 300 square mile watershed. Neither will our collective minds ever arrive at total comprehension of the system that contains it. But a human community striving to act out its perceptions of the instructions of the land can at least hope for a growing resonant wisdom.

Because human comprehension of the ambient landscape is limited to its sense organs I have found it useful to seek smaller increments of creation as the context for my remembering. The watershed lends itself to these limitations of human perception perfectly; it is a visible hydrological container of all our coexistent life forms; it is what lies between our eyes and the horizon. As if to accommodate the varieties of human skill and energy, the watershed breaks itself into ever-smaller increments–river to creek to swale. We can pursue our remembering on any scale that fits.

Because the situation demands it, and because it is by nature a community endeavor, watershed restoration is one powerful path along which to pursue our remembering. My own northern Californian community has undertaken to restore enough habitat to insure the survival of one of the last native Chinook salmon runs in that state. This effort has resulted in direct and visceral instruction about how to design our land use practices so that they are resonant with the needs of this magnificent fish with which we are co-evolved. We have put ourselves in a position so that the salmon are able to teach us the things we need to know to live in place. The tons of rocks moved and the tens of thousands of trees planted and the hundreds of thousands of juvenile fish released into the wild no doubt add up to some kind of achievement. But the real benefit for those engaged in the work has been the ineffable growth of a deeply felt sense of the regenerative powers of nature. And if we stay at it long enough we gain an experience of the particularities of natural succession in our home place that is as much a part of our lives as is the growth of our own children. Over time, this experience has led us to understand ourselves not so much as crisis managers—or managers of any sort—but more like what Aldo Leopold called “plain citizens of the land.”

And we have discovered that the magic of maps can be used for our own purposes, which are to relocate ourselves in our natural habitats. When we use maps as a tool for remembering, we find ourselves in watersheds, on estuaries, in mountain ranges, rather than in townships and sections. We can use maps in the same way that aboriginal cultures used stories. Our own handmade maps of salmon habitat, land use history, and watershed configurations, when distributed to every resident and landowner, have had the effect of ritually reanimating a native landform that had become totally abstracted. Such mapping can also translate into a real element of local self-empowerment. By re-organizing available data in the context of natural areas and adding the element of vernacular observation, in a surprisingly short time you will know more about your home than either extractive industries or regulatory agencies do.

By involving schoolchildren in our projects, and by working in our schools to move the study of biology and ecology out of the classrooms and onto our local landscapes, we are giving students a sense of science that does not have the effect of dislocating them. Hopefully, they are learning some of the skills that will allow them to stay.

*

The cycles of boom and bust that typify any resource colony have broken the continuity of local knowledge that is the hallmark of any sustainable culture. When the mill and mine operators leave, whole generations of inhabitants move on too, and the thread of continuity is lost. But in every case, a few of the most inventive and adaptive residents—the ama-teurs, the lovers of place will stay on. Any effort at remembering will include seeking these folks out and learning their home-based economic skills. In Appalachia, the Foxfire books are not so much a collection of quaint folklore as they are survival manuals. Any place that has the good fortune to have access to the surviving informants of indigenous culture will find their processes of remembering vastly accelerated.

But as the twentieth century draws to a close, our North American landscape is so fragmented and our threads of cultural continuity have been cut so often that we will need the universities to establish methodologies and tools which accelerate the collective memory of our lost landscapes and our places in them. We are going to need a generation of helpers whose job it is to help us find our way home. Agronomist Wes Jackson, who directs the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas has written recently that American universities offer only one major—upward mobility. This is another way of saying that institutions like Ohio University are located neither in Appalachian Ohio nor Great Lakes Ohio, but tend to be nodes in the network of the propaganda environment. In his book Becoming Native to This Place, Jackson suggests that learning nativeness become a national priority. “…the majority of solutions to both global and local problems,” he says, “must take place at the level of the expanded tribe, what civilization calls community. In effect, we will be required to become native to our little places if we are to become native to this place, this continent.”

Jackson goes on to suggest that that colleges and universities develop an undergraduate major called “homecoming.” I thought this might be an excellent place to give some thought to just what such a curriculum might look like. Most certainly, it would be intensely interdisciplinary. It might, in fact, obscure forever the Cartesian boundaries that break our worlds into atomized objects of study. Because our minds have become fragmented, so have our habitats. Because our habitats are so fragmented, the emerging disciplines of restoration ecology and conservation biology will play a large role in such a curriculum, providing information essential to new schools of resource management. Conservation biology teaches the absolute need for the expansion and connection of wild habitat. The practical applications of a developing science of restoration ecology may give us the skills to reconnect the patterns of the land.

Combining the two emerging disciplines should result in resource management schools given over to extractive economies that are restorative, as organic farming is restorative of the soil. The College of Business should become part of the Department of Geography. The mappers would find themselves mapping interesting new territories: land-use histories—industrial and non-industrial—that would demonstrate what’s gone and what’s left. Maps might emerge that would reveal the treasures the place holds and the treasures it withholds—maps which could provide guidance for the development of new place-based industry.

The Departments of Anthropology and History would combine to produce a Ph.D. thesis on the environmental history of every eco-region in North America, and then go on to every river basin. (I have only lately become so intensely aware of the degree to which most of our centers of human population are cities without memory. All of our suburbs and most of our cities have grown so quickly as to totally obscure the living world beneath the parking lots. I recently visited the town where I went to high school—a farm-to-market town of 2,500 people then, a sprawling suburb of 63,000 now. I went there to try to reconstruct the memory of the wild salmon that ran in the creek that ran through the middle of town when I was young. I found that in only 30 years, the memory of that aspect of the true nature of the place was almost entirely gone. I came to think of the memory of those beautiful pulses of wildness as being like a prayer flag that had hung in the wind and weather until the signs that gave meaning to the flag had faded to near invisibility. Every region needs its environmental historians — not so much to tell us a sad story as to let us know what there is to be reclaimed.)

As well as providing rational forums for examination of quickly shifting paradigms, The Department of Philosophy would devote itself to the practice of phenomenology as outlined in David Abram’s The Spell of the Sensuous. Abram’s book returns to us the ability to converse with nature through our organs of sensory perception. Students of the natural sciences would practice their new arts in the fields and forests adjacent to the campus, learning to trust the data provided by their eyes, ears, and breath.

As for the watery sciences—hydrology, aquatic biology, water resources, et cetera—perhaps the students should be issued wetsuits to pursue their studies phenomenologically. But above all, they should be exposed to intensive training in the use of plain language, so that they might learn to demystify the facts that water runs downhill, that it must be kept clean, and that it tends to carry with it whatever lies in its path. With any luck, exposure to good language may free the students to communicate the basic poetry to be found in everything that water is and does, and the basic tragedy of its contamination.

The Department of Economics (if not disbanded altogether) would become part of the Department of Ecology, and would devote itself to ecological auditing on a regional scale. One example of such auditing comes to us from the University of British Columbia, where regional planners Mathis Wackernagel and William Rees have come up with a concept called the ecological footprint. They are developing computer models that audit the throughput of energy and materials used by humans in any geographic region—and then calculate the geographical area required to support such use. So far they have calculated that the contemporary lifestyle of the Fraser River Valley, where UBC is located, requires an area nine times its size to support it. It would be interesting to see what this sort of analysis told us about Appalachia, or the Hocking River watershed.

While I will continue to want some doctoral theses in environmental history, I would suggest that a great deal of post-graduate work might best be practiced informally with immersion in real places alongside inhabitory people struggling to regain control of their destinies. The practice of homecoming is forever site-specific and there are whole worlds of particularities to be learned in each an every place. Some of the successes of the work to build a more-than-human community in my own place have come about because of our attraction for action-oriented graduate students in the sciences. In some cases they have stayed on, becoming ama-teurs at the same time as they have become intensely pragmatic professionals.

*

I’ll return home now and continue my explorations of community and place. Should the scholars I have described ever show up, they will bring with them skills that will hasten my own homecoming, and yours.

Meanwhile our struggle to remember continues in the form of a conversation with the creation as it is, for there is no separate world. To paraphrase Wendell Berry, “…A [culture] using nature, including human nature, as its measure would approach the world in the manner of a conversationalist….It would not proceed directly or soon to some supposedly ideal state of things. It would proceed directly and soon to serious thought about our culture and our predicament. The use of [a] place would necessarily change, and the response of the place to that use would necessarily change the user. The conversation itself would thus assume a kind of creaturely life, binding the place and its inhabitants together, changing and growing to no end, no final accomplishment that can be conceived or foreseen.”

References

Abram, David. The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-than-human World. Pantheon Books, New York, 1996

Darnovsky, Marcy. “The Propaganda Environment” in The Propaganda Review, Vol. 1 No. 1, San Francisco, 1988

Berg, Peter and Raymond Dasmann. “Reinhabiting California” in Reinhabiting a Separate Country. Planet Drum Books, San Francisco. 1978

Berry, Wendell. What Are People For? North Point Press, Berkeley. 1990

Berry, Thomas. The Dream of the Earth. Sierra Club Books, San Francisco. 1988

Jackson, Wes. Becoming Native to This Place. The University Press of Kentucky. 1994

Jay, Tom. “Familiar Music: Reinhabiting Language” in Connotations, the Journal of the Island Institute, Sitka Alaska. Vol. 3 No. 2, 1995-96

Lewis, Helen. “Fatalism or the Coal Industry” in Appalachia: Social Context Past and Present, ed. Ergood and Kuhre. Kendall/Hunt Publishing Co., Dubuque, Iowa. Third Edition 1991

Mills, Stephanie. From a reading at the Humboldt State University Nature Writer’s Conference, University of California. Unpublished. 1988

Sale, Kirkpatrick. Dwellers in the Land: The Bioregional Vision. Sierra Club Books, San Francisco. 1985

Silverberg, Robert. Mound Builders of Ancient America: The Archaeology of a Myth. New York Graphic Society, Greenwich CN. 1968

Wackernagel, Mathis, and William Rees. Our Ecological Footprint: Reducing Human Impact on Earth. New Society Publishers, Gabriola Island, B.C. and Philadelphia. 1996

Previously in this series:

1. “Wild Humanity: People and the Places That Make Them People”

2. “Restoring Relations: The Vernacular Approach to Ecological Restoration”

3. “Afterlife: On the great pulse of nutrients that feeds all of Creation”

4. “Ghost in the System”

5. “Silent Future: Rachel Carson and the Creeping Apocalypse”

6. “More Than Numbers: Twelve or Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Watershed”

7. “Dreaming Indigenous: One hundred years from now in a northern California valley”

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