“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 eleventh (and final) lecture in this series. This series ran previously on this site in 2010-11.
Watershed Work in a Changing World: Lessons Not Yet Learned
by Freeman House
Plenary presentation for the California Salmon Restoration Federation’s 25th Annual Conference, Santa Rosa, CA, 9 March 2007
Watershed restorationists tend to develop a peculiar set of mind. Community-based watershed groups, the heart of anything we might call a popular movement toward restoring the Earth, are particularly prone to these psychological symptoms. The accepted protocols encourage us to envision something called “reference ecosystems,” some ideal state of dynamic equilibrium that we are then encouraged to imagine existed once and toward which we should be devoting our efforts. We develop strong attachments to certain elements of the living places in which we work, different elements for different practitioners. Some people love fish and some love trees. Many of us love the whole mysterious web of interrelationships. In all, we act as if the distribution of species and communities and weather patterns—either in the present or in our idealized reference ecosystem — is the once and always way that nature has manifested itself.
Sooner or later, we discover the weaknesses in such an idea. If only by paying attention long enough, we discover that nature over the long term is as fluid and fickle as running water. Recently, researching the prehistory of my region, I discovered something that changed the way I thought of the systems in which I’d been working for more than 20 years. I found that only five to six thousand years ago, the entire bioregion had been a few degrees warmer than it has been since and those few degrees determined a very different distribution of species than those we have been striving to maintain for so long. Most relevant for me was the discovery that in that warmer time that followed the last period of glaciation, there had been few if any salmon using the waters of California. (I found this discovery to be slightly embarrassing, having made public statements which confused the history of salmon speciation with the time that salmon had been using my home river. I would tell people salmon had been using my river for 60,000 years rather than the more accurate 6,000.)
More fascinating, though, is the archaeological evidence of Karuk and Tsnungwe ancestral peoples in the mountains above the Trinity River more than eight thousand years ago. Peoples living today in the Klamath River systems are direct descendants of people who lived through climate changes similar in magnitude to the ones we anticipate now. While those ancient peoples had centuries to adapt to a more gradual change than we anticipate, the degree to which that culture changed its life ways remains instructive. In simple terms, the Karuk people changed the way they lived. They changed from scattered groups of hunter-gatherers living in the mountains and following the food to substantial village cultures with an elaborate ceremonial life organized around newly available acorn and salmon resources. The point here is that a people completely changed their way of life in response to changes in the environment and they did it successfully and sustainably. The scope of change we face is quite different; it’s getting warmer rather than cooler and the rate of change is likely to be much quicker. We may be able to draw no more instruction from the Karuk model than that we adopt similar goals—to change our ways of life in the direction of sustainability and survival. Even James Lovelock, that most gloomy of prognosticators, ends a recent interview that predicts the human species pushed back into the Artic zones with the cheery observation that we are all survivors of humans who have endured half a dozen climate changes of equal magnitude within human time.
Now, you might ask, what does all this philosophizing have to do with how community-based watershed restorationists carry on their work? Climate change models currently available are projected on a global scale with an infinitude of possible local variations. Watershed restoration is by definition a local effort. How can community-based watershed groups include the unknown variables that face us as we make our strategic plans?Continue reading