“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