[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

[SUNDAY LECTURE NO. 2] "RESTORING RELATIONS: The Vernacular Approach to Ecological Restoration" by Freeman House

freemanhouse

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 second 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. Last week’s lecture is available here — “Wild Humanity: People and the Places That Make Them People”.


RESTORING RELATIONS: The Vernacular Approach to Ecological Restoration
by Freeman House

This piece is based on a keynote talk presented to the 3rd annual meeting of the Society for Ecological Restoration, California chapter, in Nevada City CA, May 1994. It was published in Restoration and Management Notes, Summer 1996.

A couple of years ago, I read a very well-written book that tried to convince me that wherever humans touched nature, nature became un-natural, its beauty and wildness spoiled .The book took notice, correctly I think, that human influence on the landscape had become universal. The writer, Bill McKibben, drew the conclusion that because of this, the end of nature was near. The name of the book is, in fact, The End of Nature (McKibben 1989). Like many environmentalists, McKibben is a passionate man, a man who grieves for injuries to nature. But during the time of writing, he seemed also to be a man who had swallowed most of industry’s argument for the inevitability and (indeed!) naturalness of its destructive behavior in regard to natural systems and human communities. If you accept these arguments—some of which are that economies must grow; that the efficiency of mass production legitimizes its brutalization of human life and and the destruction of natural systems; that mere appetite is the ruling element in human behavior—then McKibben’s conclusions must be correct. If humans are such a sport of nature, if their behavior can only be anti-nature, and if humans are everywhere, then nature must surely be on its way out. It is as if we lived somewhere else altogether than in the ecosystems which provide us with all our needs.

But in fact, humans have always been immersed in ecosystems. And for most of the time we’ve been on the planet, with the exception of the the last few hundred years, humans have behaved as if they were immersed in ecosystems. [1] The paleolithic hunter fails to find his game and returns to counsel with his people. How has their behavior strayed from the path of ample provision? The pre-industrial neolithic planter burns brush, saves seed, collects dung. Alongside deep frugality in the home exist the exuberant public indulgence in great monuments that were observatories of planetary movement, and the devotion of large amounts of time and energy to ceremonial observances of non-human processes and presences in the landscape surrounding. Throughout the industrial age, ecosystem behavior has endured even though its practitioners have been pushed back to the most marginal of land bases.

It is important to understand that behavior which rises out of ecosystems—life lived by immersion—has never been passive but diligently active: symbiotic, reciprocal, deliberately manipulative, and creative. Dennis Martinez, the pre-historian of the restoration movement, has shown us that the indigenous peoples of North America—and by extension elsewhere—have always been an interactive element of the landscape, effecting their own long-term survival with management practices so extensive that ecosystem function was affected (Martinez 1993). This is another view altogether of human relationships to nature. Rather than objectifying nature as a resource base functioning only to provide human wealth and comfort, such cultures express themselves as interactive parts of the natural systems around them. In such cultures, individuals are able to perceive themselves as having no greater (or lesser) a function in ecosystem process than algae, or deer.

Most of us have forgotten how to act this way. Over the recent few hundred years we have been encouraged to forget. There is, in fact, a whole educational industry structured for the purpose of convincing us that our primary identity is as consumers. The question is not how to mourn nature, or how to isolate and protect its tattered fragments, but how to re-engage it and thus rediscover our native wit and adaptive genius. And we will find, I believe, that this rediscovery is possible, but only ever in one place at a time. If we are to re-immerse ourselves in our larger lives, if we are to regain our extended identity, it will be through the portals of individual ecosystems and particular places. Continue reading

[SUNDAY LECTURE NO. 1] ‘Wild Humanity: People and the Places That Make Them People’ by Freeman House

freemanhouse

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 first lecture in this series.


WILD HUMANITY: People and the Places That Make Them People
by Freeman House

Revised in November 2001 from a University of Montana Wilderness Lecture delivered in April 2001

1.
Richard Manning writes in Inside Passage: A Journey Beyond Borders, “…people should cease drawing borders around nature and instead start placing boundaries on human behavior…we should begin behaving as if all places matter to us as much as wilderness. Because they do.” We have not only set wilderness apart from our everyday lives; we have also made a distinction between human life and the very concept of wildness. The effect of this questionable distinction is to put a most dangerous limitation on our potential for adaptive human behavior. As Manning continues, both our parks and our culture set “a line between utility and beauty, sacred and profane. This line is destroying us, as it is destroying the planet.”

A few months ago I heard Florence Krall summarize her late husband Paul Shepard’s life work in a single sentence: There is an indigenous person waiting to be released in each of us. Our genome is “the sum of an individual’s genetic material, a product of millions of years of evolution” (Shepard 1998). The human genome is as wild as the ecological systems out of which it evolved. Basic comfort as a human being requires a conscious interaction with the more-than-human aspects of the textures of life surrounding, just as an infant needs the touch of other humans to thrive. Wild animals can survive for a while in a zoo. Contemporary humans are trained for survival in the zoo of an abstracted, objectified, and commodified world.

The genome demands, writes Shepard, that our cultures constitute a full and rewarding mediation between ourselves and the ecosystems within which we live. By this tenet, our genome, the structure within which our rational processes are embedded, is requiring of us that we recover our niches in particular ecosystems. Strong and mysterious language: the genome demands. It suggests that we are impelled to engage the health of our watersheds and ecosystems as a first step in our search for sanity—for ourselves, for our communities, and for our species.

The title of this series is the poetics of wilderness, but I’d rather be talking about the poetics of the wild. Because it’s among my assumptions that “wilderness” is a social and political construct, while the word “wild” is best used to describe the essential organizational structure of Creation; that Creation is a wild unfolding; and that we humans (as well as all our co-evolved life forms) are both expressions and agents of that unfolding.

Given these premises, it is quite possible that the self-satisfied technological advances of the last 500 to 5000 years of so-called civilization may not represent the pinnacle of evolution we encourage ourselves to believe they are. Continue reading

[Sunday Lecture] "Watershed Work in a Changing World: Lessons Not Yet Learned" by Freeman House

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