[SUNDAY LECTURE NO. 9] “The Case For The Watershed As An Organizing Principle” 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 ninth 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.

 


The Case For The Watershed As An Organizing Principle

by Freeman House

[I’ve rarely given a talk in circumstances more alien to my life experience. This talk was presented a roomful of county and state bureaucrats charged with implementing a five-county wetlands protection and restoration effort. The five counties were the southwestern-most part of California, stretching from Santa Barbara to San Diego, a part of the state that makes me feel like I’m in a foreign country. As if to accentuate the weirdness, the luncheon was held at Sea World, a theme park in San Diego.]

I’ve had quite a bit of time to puzzle about what qualifies me to be here. I feel a little like a visiting diplomat or more accurately, an anthropologist dropping into a whole other culture. Up in the backwoods of northern California, where I come from, we tend to think of ourselves as living in Alta California. Los Angeles and San Diego seem like another place, although they shouldn’t, considering that the voters around here determine a lot of what goes on in the state of California. Which is where I live regardless of the fact that it’s much easier for me and my comrades to think of ourselves as part of the Klamath Province.

I have worked at watershed restoration for 20 years, but in a drainage where there are no dams, and where there are still three species of a wild salmon population holding on. An eighth of the land base is managed benignly by the federal government as the King Range National Conservation Area, another eighth not so benignly by corporate timber interests, and the rest is held either in ranches or private smallholdings. It has a human population density of less than ten folks per square mile. Not too many similarities. And most of the people in this room probably know more about wetlands biology than I do.

Since it was a book I wrote that inspired the organizers to invite me and the book, Totem Salmon, is mainly about attempts to invoke a new (or rather very old) kind of community identity that lives within the constraints and opportunities of the place it finds itself, that’s what I’ll go ahead and talk about.

It could be my best credentials for being here today is the fact that I was born in Orange County. The earliest memories are of my first five years spent at my grandparents’ home in Anaheim, pre-Disneyland. Set in the middle of town, I had two acres to run in haphazardly planted to oranges and lemons and avocados, and for a long time that Edenic space was my model for paradise. Each weekend, we’d drive in my grandfather’s 1935 Buick sedan for maybe ten minutes to a local farm to buy our week’s supply of eggs and milk and vegetables. When we extended our drive to visit Aunt Florence in Pomona, we drove through 60 unbroken miles of commercial orange groves, another image of paradise. I’m revealing my age when I tell you that the air was wonderful, the light incredible.

Since then, I’ve learned something about the settlement of contemporary Anaheim. The existence of Anaheim is entirely dependent on 19th-century amateur efforts in social and physical engineering. Hard as it may be to believe when trying to find the freeway exits to Anaheim today, it was largely settled in the 1860s by polyglot groups of urban utopians who had few of the skills required for the kinds of agriculturally-based communitarian paradigms they were pursuing.

One thing was clear to all of them, however, and that was that their dreams were dependent on importing water to the arid lands they hoped would support them. Continue reading

[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. Continue reading

[SUNDAY LECTURE NO. 7] “DREAMING INDIGENOUS: One hundred years from now in a northern California valley” 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 seventh 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 Summer 1992 on the sesquicentennial of Columbus’ landing on North America in the Journal of the Society for Ecological Restoration.


DREAMING INDIGENOUS

One hundred years from now in a northern California valley

by Freeman House

Contact between whites and natives didn’t happen here in my part of North America until 150 years ago, which makes it easier to think like this. You can still see enough of the earlier patterns in the landscape to be able to guess at what it looked like then. Once contact did happen, however, it proceeded with unrelenting fury. Within a seven-year period ending in 1862, the 10,000-year-old culture that had been so wonderfully adapted to this little tuck in the Coast Range was reduced to a few broken individuals hanging on locally and a handful more isolated from the source of their identity, bereft of home on the reservation a hundred miles away.

Life was pleasant for the whites, in a rough sort of way. For a hundred years or so, pleasant enough so that even now some cowboys look back on that time as the very peak of existence. It was the usual scene for the North American West: a few steers and dairy cows, some hogs for market, and an economic boom every 30 or 40 years to keep things interesting—and growing. The tanbark boom kept quite a few of the boys busy for a time. And even though the oil boom fizzled, it brought the aura and glamor of the great world into the valley for a while, and Petrolia got a hotel. Come the bust, as it always did, well, subsistence was not so bad, with salmon and venison steak to fall back on.

The really big boom, the one that makes you wonder if anyone will survive the bust, came as a windfall to the handful of large landowners. A whole slew of events, historical and technological, had conspired to make the ubiquitous Douglas-fir worth something, worth a lot, after decades of laying it down around the edges of the prairies and burning over it year after year to expand the pasture. Three quarters of the landscape was suddenly marketable after three generations of living well enough off the other one quarter.

It came out fast—90 percent of three quarters of 300 square miles of timber from some of the most erodible forest slopes in North America, all in the space of a single generation. No one paid any attention to what anyone else was doing. There was no awareness, really, that a whole watershed was being stripped of its climax vegetation all at once. For most of the years between 1950 and 1970, several mills were kept running ‘round the clock, and the trucks taking timber out of the valley were so numerous and frequent that their drivers had to agree on one route out and another one in. There was a lot of money; anyone could find a job who wanted one. The schoolteacher worked at the sawmill at night.

Two 100-year storms within a ten year period was bad luck, they said, coming at a time when so many acres of soil were exposed to the sky. But exposed they were, and a vast warm rain on top of an unusually heavy snowpack on the ridges sent thousands of tons of sediment into the creeks and then into the river. In one week in 1955, the structure of the river was altered completely, from a cold, stable, deeply channeled waterway enclosed and cooled by riparian vegetation to a shallow, braided stream with broad cobbled floodplains, warm in summer, flashy in winter. And then it happened again in 1964.

When the new homesteaders began to arrive in the early 1970s, all we knew was that the king salmon and the silver salmon were almost gone. A few of us tried to do something about it, and by 1981 had established a sort of volunteer cottage industry in salmon propagation. We learned quickly that the key to the restoration of wild populations was habitat, and we found ourselves creating jobs along with volunteer and educational programs in reforestation, in erosion control. One thing leads to another—now we hear ourselves talking landscape rehabilitation, watershed restoration planning, water quality monitoring,

We were only vaguely aware that we were engaged in something called environmental restoration, and it wasn’t until the Restoring the Earth conference in Berkeley in 1988 that we realized that we were part of a planet-wide movement. Even before that, however, we had become aware of some of the pitfalls of this new terrain of consciousness. Logging was still a part of the essential economy of our valley. It was happening on nowhere near the scale of the bad old days, and practices had improved considerably thanks to well-reasoned timber harvest rules established during the Jerry Brown administration, but ecological systems were still being disrupted in ways not clearly understood. As we became more skilled in repairing damaged areas, we became aware of the danger of becoming the source of cheap janitorial services for corporate industry and others that might be opening up new wounds even as we were attempting to heal the old ones. It was not enough to become expert in putting back together what had been torn apart. Unless we adopted the cause of local ecological reserves, unless we tried to educate ourselves against destructive land use practices and tried to prevent them when education failed, unless we helped establish new small-scale resource extraction industries rooted in the ethic of ecosystem health, we were in danger of becoming Roto-Rooter persons for a dysfunctional society. If we practiced environmental restoration out of the same short-term assumptions that had created the disturbances in the first place, where could we end but as apologists for new deserts? Even the Roto-Rooter man tells the homeowner to stop pouring bacon grease down the toilet!

We are now concerned with the cultural content of the next 150 years because our experience tells us we must be. A successful sustainable human culture is a semi-permeable membrane between nature and human society, with information flowing freely in both directions. Having put ourselves in the way of some of the physical data coming toward us from the natural world, we are given both the rationale and the imperative for our roles in social transformation. Having perceived the reciprocal relationship between natural systems and local cultures, we have little choice but to work to make the latter more adaptive, more indigenous.

* * *

In making my contribution to this collection of restorationists’ reflections on the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ landing, I will allow myself two assumptions: that profound cultural shifts can happen suddenly and at any time; and that we are now in the midst of a pivotal era that offers us chances to abandon our more deadly economic practices, and begin to seek ways to adapt—and survive.

Because indigenous culture is always a response to locale, I will paint an imaginary picture of some aspects of life in our little valley 100 years from now. I will take a look at how a future might look if the insights available to one environmental restorationist were available to everyone. I will portray a future where timber, fish, and ranching are still the mainstays of economic life because I wish it to be that way; any other alternative seems less attractive. And for the treeplanter who is irritated by heady abstractions—who asks little more, after all, than for good work unfreighted with ambivalence—I will focus on some of the workaday themes of everyday life.

I will speak to you now from the future.
Continue reading

[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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[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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[SUNDAY LECTURE NO. 4] “Ghost in the System” 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 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. Continue reading

[SUNDAY LECTURE NO. 3] “Afterlife: On the great pulse of nutrients that feeds all of Creation” 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 third 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 Orion magazine, May-June 2003. It received the John Burroughs Award for best natural history essay of 2003.

AFTERLIFE: On the great pulse of nutrients that feeds all of Creation
by Freeman House

with photography by Scott Chambers, 1948-2008

The world is our consciousness. It surrounds us.
Gary Snyder

As an industrial fisherman I’ve taken hundreds, perhaps thousands of salmon lives. I’ve also eaten them—roasted over an open fire, poached with dill sauce, smoked on alder wood, and baked with sweet pepper and tomato. I’ve pursued salmon in the wild for livelihood and food, worked with my watershed neighbors to insure their continued presence in my home river, and written books and essays about them. I am in part a man made of salmon, so it doesn’t seem strange to me now to be pondering their lives after death.

For several months, Scott Chambers’ photographs of salmon, dead after spawning on the Starrigavin River near Sitka, Alaska, have been spread out on my worktable, pinned over whatever blank spaces remain on the walls of my office, and perched on piles of books waiting to be shelved. Their undeniable beauty is not enough to explain their grip on my mind. Continue reading