[SUNDAY LECTURE NO. 6] “More Than Numbers: Twelve or Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Watershed” 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 sixth 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 the Spring 2001 edition of Northern Lights. It is also featured in the 2010 anthology Working the Woods, Working the Sea: An Anthology of Northwest Writing, edited by Jerry Gorsline and Finn Wilcox and published by Empty Bowl Press of Port Townsend, Washington.



MORE THAN NUMBERS

Twelve or Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Watershed

by Freeman House

(with apologies to Wallace Stevens)

1.

It was evening all afternoon.
It was snowing.
And it was going to snow.
The blackbird sat
In the cedar-limbs.

It’s December again and curdled aluminum cloud cover extends all the way to where it kisses the iron of the ocean horizon. At its mouth, the river runs narrow and clear. If you’ve lived through many winters here, the sight is anomalous; normal December flows are more likely bank to bank, and muddy as corporate virtue. A storm had delivered enough wetness around the time of Hallowe’en to blast open the sand berm that separates the river from the sea all summer and fall. The salmon had been waiting and they came into the river then.

All through November and December the jet stream has been toying with us, diverting Pacific storms either to the north or south. The fish have been trapped in pools downstream, waiting for more rain to provide enough flow to move them up 50 or 60 miles to their preferred spawning habitat. By now many of the gravid hens will have been moved by the pressure of time and fecundity to build their egg nests, called redds, in the gravels in the lower ten miles of the river. Come true winter storms, too much water is likely to move too much cobble and mud through these reaches for the fertile eggs to survive. The redds will be either buried under deep drifts of gravel or washed away entirely.

I have committed the restorationist’s cardinal sin. I have allowed myself a preferred expectation of the way two or more systems will interact. For the last two winters, steady pulses of rain have created flows that were good for the migrating salmon, carrying them all the way upstream before Solstice, but a desultory number of fish had entered the river those years. This year, from all reports, the ocean is full of salmon, more than have been seen in 20 years. So I have allowed myself the fantasy of a terrific return combined with excellent flows.

I know better than to hope for conditions that fit my notion of what’s good. Perhaps as a reaction to my wishful thinking and its certain spirit-dampening consequences, I am suffering from a certain diminution of ardor.

2.

When the blackbird flew out of sight,
It marked the edge
Of one of many circles.

I am suffering from diminished ardor. As I look out the window on the hour-long drive to Cougar Gap [1], I am seeing the glass half-empty. As my eyes wander the rolling landscape, they seek out the raw landslides rather than indulging my usual glass-half-full habit of comparing what I’m seeing with my memory of last year’s patterns of new growth on the lands cut over 40 years ago.

It’s one of the skills you gain in 20 years of watershed restoration work—to see the patterns in the landscape and be able to compare them with a fairly accurate memory of what was there last year. I’ve come to believe that I have restored in myself a pre-Enlightenment neural network that interprets what the eyes see, what the ears hear, what the skin feels in terms of patterns and relationships rather than as isolated phenomena numeralized so that they can be graphed. It’s a skill given little credibility in the world of modern science, but it’s deeply satisfying nonetheless.

Among the raw scars on the landscape to which my eye is drawn today, some are the result of human activities and some are the natural processes of a very wet, earthquake-prone, sandstone geology. Their patterns don’t change that much from year to year; the soil that would allow them to recover rapidly has been washed off the steep slopes and into the river. It’ll take hundreds if not thousands of years for that soil to rebuild itself. It’ll take generations for the mud in the river to be flushed out to sea.

These are patterns with cycles longer than the individual human life. It’s satisfying and useful to be cognizant of them, too. Such knowledge tempers our human tendency to want to fix—read tamper with—everything in sight.
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LET’S BE PERFECTLY CLEAR

Study: “Higher social class predicts increased unethical behavior” (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences – Jan. 26, 2012) (via Joseph E. Stiglitz)

“Secret Handshakes Greet Frat Brothers on Wall Street” (Bloomberg News – Dec. 22, 1013)
“Sigma Alpha Epsilon has sent almost 3,000 men into finance, according to resumes on LinkedIn, which shows no other industry employing more than 1,800…”

Jarvis Cocker – “Cunts Are Still Running the World” (2006 – featured in the film Children of Men)

Well did you hear, there’s a natural order
Those most deserving will end up with the most
That the cream cannot help but always rise up to the top
Well I say, “Shit floats”

If you thought things had changed
Friend, you’d better think again
Bluntly put, in the fewest of words:
Cunts are still running the world (x2)

Now the working classes are obsolete
They are surplus to society’s needs
So let ’em all kill each other
And get it made overseas.
That’s the word, don’t you know
From the guys that’s running the show
Let’s be perfectly clear boys and girls,
Cunts are still running the world [Repeat: x 2]

Oh feed your children on crayfish and lobster tails,
Find a school near the top of the league
In theory I respect your right to exist
I will kill you if you move in next to me
Ah, it stinks, it sucks, it’s anthropologically unjust
Oh, but the takings are up by a third, oh so
Cunts are still running the world [Repeat: x 2]

The free market is perfectly natural
Do you think that I’m some kind of dummy?
It’s the ideal way to order the world
“Fuck the morals, does it make any money?”
And if you don’t like it, then leave
Or use your right to protest on the street.
Yeah use your right, but don’t imagine that it’s heard
Cunts are still running the world [Repeat: x 6]

[SUNDAY LECTURE NO. 5] “Silent Future: Rachel Carson and the Creeping Apocalypse” 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 fifth 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 particular essay was prepared with the assistance of a literary fellowship from Lannan, and was first published in Courage for the Earth: Writers, Scientists, and Activists Celebrate the Life and Writing of Rachel Carson (edited by Peter Matthiessen) on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Carson’s birth.


SILENT FUTURE

Rachel Carson and the Creeping Apocalypse

by Freeman House

1.
It must have been in 1970 when I was working with a collective fishing venture in Trinidad, California, that Rachel Carson enrolled me into the school of ecological activism. I was in a period of my life when the affairs of the world seemed so hopelessly screwed up that I had chosen to divorce myself from mainstream culture and work with others to build a world that fit my fallible sense of the proper way to live. We were in the habit of calling our position “building a new culture within the shell of the old.” A less friendly observer of our efforts might describe them as an attempt to escape the grim imperatives of history, and I would not argue.

I did pick up a copy of the San Francisco Chronicle once in a while and in one of them I read of a scientific report that predicted the imminent extinction of brown pelicans in California due to the thinning effect of the insecticide DDT on the eggs of the birds. The article referred to Silent Spring, and made me realize how much I loved brown pelicans.

The collective had acquired a double-ended Newfoundland dory, a pretty craft that bobbed in the water like an eggshell, narrow at the beam and twenty feet long. It had two sets of oarlocks and a place to step a mast near its center. It replaced our former noisy and greasy thirty-foot scow powered by an unreliable diesel engine. With the new boat we could row out in the dawn light to the rockfish holes seaward of the monoliths of stone that rose out of the water a half-mile or so offshore, to get some fishing done before the north winds roiled the water at midday. And then we could raise the sail as we headed for home, skimming into port and luxuriating like people on a pleasure cruise. The quiet on the water was wonderful. Where before we had been isolated from ocean life by a dense aural penumbra of engine-howl, now all the lives of the sea came round to investigate. Seals and sea lions followed us as if we were a carnival show; the gulls circled shrieking about our heads while common murres sped across our bow like very fast windup toys.

In the middle distance always the pelicans. They look like creatures from another age, their overlarge heads stretching forward, heads and beaks that from some angles appear to be larger than their aerodynamic bodies. There is rarely one alone; more often they fly in groups of six to 20. The flocks act as if they have a single mind, so precise and graceful are their formations. The pelicans fly most often in a line, one behind the other, the line rising up and plunging down thrillingly close to the water’s surface in rolling arcs that resemble drawings of a sine wave. But sometimes the birds fly in marvelously sinuous gathered formations, group mind and individual mind working in perfect harmony. The individuals within the group might glide past one another or fall back a bit, but the formation as a whole holds its shape as a mutable polygon, sometimes wheeling as a unit in a 90-degree turn, all white bellies exposed at once, to change direction. It is enough to make you forget the cuts on your hands and live for a moment in the perfect realm of the whole. It is tempting to think that the birds are tracing arabesques against the looming fog bank merely to pleasure our senses, but the pelicans are fishing, too. Perhaps the varieties of formations represent different strategies for different prey.

At the sight of a food fish, all semblance of group mind evaporates as one bird after another drops in twisting free fall, most of them entering the water head first with the perfect verticality of a practiced diver. But some birds belly flop with a huge commotion that can only be described as clumsy. It will take a few moments of shaking the water off their wings and reorienting themselves for the birds to recover their dignity. The sight can make me laugh out loud with empathy, having myself made moves equally indecorous.

Any bird that can move you to awe and, seconds later, make you laugh out loud has intrinsic value enough to burn. I was enraged that a bunch of mad utopians out to rid the world of insects that fit into no economic scheme was inflicting the collateral damage of depriving the world of pelicans. And that is how Rachel Carson, several steps removed, influenced a sense of myself as an ecological being, a reciprocal participant in the surrounding world. It was a sense that would inform the rest of my life.
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