[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.


Twelve or Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Watershed

by Freeman House

(with apologies to Wallace Stevens)


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.


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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Thomas Pynchon on power, outlaws, disappearing, the internet, Control and real capital-M Magic

Thomas Pynchon’s 1997 introduction to Jim Dodge’s Stone Junction:

If we accept the notion that using power against the powerless is wrong, a clear enough set of corollaries begins to emerge. We become able to distinguish, as populations (thought not always their rulers) have usually been able to do, between outlaws and evil-doers, between outlawry and sin. Not much analysis is needed, because it is something we can sense in all its dead-serious immediacy. “But all they are are bandits,” the rulers whine indignantly, “motivated only by greed.” Sure. Except that, having long known the difference between theft and restoration, we understand the terms of the deal whereby outlaws, as agents of the poor, being more skilled and knowledgeable in the arts of karmic readjustment, may charge no worse that an agent’s fee, small enough to be acceptable to their clients, ample enough to cover the risks they have to take, and we always end up loving these folks, we cheer for Rob Roy, Jesse James, John Dillinger, at a level of passion usually reserved for sports affiliation.

Stone Junction is an outlaw epic for our own late era of corrupted romance and defective honor, with its own set of sleazy usurpers and Jacobitoid persistences — though the reader who’s expecting eighties nostalgia or, have mercy, some even earlier-type romp through the pleasures of drugs, sex and rock and roll, should be warned that lurking herein, representing the bleaker interests of that consensus ever throbbing along despite and apart from all the fun and pleased to call itself “Reality,” are to be found some mighty evil contract personnel, who produce some disagreeably mortal plot developments. One of the book’s manifold graces is its author’s choice never to dance away into wishful gobbledygook, remaining, rather, conscientiously grounded in our world as given, where, as Pam Tilli, in a slightly different context, reminds us, Destiny turns on a dime.

The other day in the street I heard a policeman in a police car, requesting over his loudspeaker that a civilian car blocking his way move aside and let him past, all the while addressing the drive of the car personally, by name. I was amazed at this, though people I tried to share it with only shrugged, assuming that of course the driver’s name (along with height, weight and date of birth) had been obtained from the Motor Vehicle Department via satellite, as soon as the offending car’s license number had been tapped into the terminal — so what?

Stone Junction was first published in 1989, toward the end of an era still innocent, in its way, of the cyberworld just ahead about to exponentially explode upon it. To be sure, there were already plenty of computers around then, but they were not quite so connected together as they were shortly to become. Data available these days to anybody were accessible then only to the Authorized, who didn’t always know what they had or what to do with it. There was still room to wiggle — the Web was primitive country, inhabited only by a few rugged pioneers, half loco and wise to the smallest details of their terrain. Honor prevailed, laws were unwritten, outlaws, as yet undefinable, were few. The question had only begun to arise of how to avoid, or, preferably, escape altogether, the threat, indeed promise, of control without mercy that lay in wait down the comely vistas of freedom that computer-folk were imagining then — a question we are still asking. Where can you jump in the rig and head for any more — who’s out there to grant us asylum? If we stay put, what is left to us that is not in some way tainted, coopted, and colonized, by the forces of Control, usually digital in nature? Does anybody know the way to William Gibson’s “Republic of Desire?” Would they tell if they knew? So forth.

You will notice in Stone Junction, along with its gifts of prophecy, a consistent celebration of those areas of life that tend to remain cash-propelled and thus mostly beyond the reach of the digital. It may be nearly the only example of a consciously analog Novel. Writers since have been obliged to acknowledge and deal with the ubiquitous cyber-realities that come more and more to set, and at quite a finely chopped-up scale too, the terms of our lives, not to mention calling into question the very traditions of a single author and a story that proceeds one piece after another — a situation Jim Dodge back then must have seen coming down the freeway, because the novel, ever contrarian, keeps its faith in the persistence of at least a niche market — who knows, maybe even a deep human need — for modalities of life whose value lies in their having resisted and gone the other way, against the digital storm — that are likely, therefore, to include pursuits more honorable that otherwise.

One popular method of resistance was always just to keep moving — seeking, not a place to hide out, secure and fixed, but a state of dynamic ambiguity about where one might be any given moment, along the lines of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. Modern digital machines, however, managed quickly enough to focus the blurred ellipsoid of human freedom even more narrowly than Planck’s Constant allows.

Equally difficult for those who might wish to proceed through life anonymously and without trace has been the continuing assault against the once-reliable refuge of the cash or non-plastic economy. There was a time not so long ago you could stroll down any major American avenue, collecting anonymous bank checks, get on some post office line, and send amounts in the range “hefty to whopping” anywhere, even overseas, no problem. Now it’s down to $750 a pop, and shrinking. All to catch those Drug Dealers of course, nothing to do with the grim, simplex desire for more information, more control, lying at the heart of most exertions of power, whatever governmental or corporate (if that’s a distinction you believe in).

You look at Windows 95 blooming on to the screen, and you think, Magic. But those who understand the system down to molecular level, nothing magical remains — all is revealed as simple repetitive drudgery, what we might even denounce as a squandering of precious operating time, were it not for Technology’s discovery of how to tap into velocity situation prevailing down at the smaller scales — Nnggyyyyow-w-w! like the Interstate down there! — and leave all the kazillions of brainless petty chores to their speedy new little devices.

Stone Junction‘s allegiance, however, is to the other kind of magic, the real stuff — long-practiced, all-out, contrary-to-fact, capital M Magic, not as adventitious spectacle, but as a pursued enterprise, in this very world we’re stuck with, continuing to give off readings — analog indications — of being abroad and at work, somewhere out in it.

The fatal temptation for a fiction writer who must accept the presence, often a necessity, of magic in his own work, is to solve difficulties of plot, character and — more often than is generally suspected — taste, by conveniently flourishing some prop, some ad hoc amulet or drug, that will just take care of each problem as it arises. Fortunately for us here, Jim Dodge, by the terms of his calling, cannot indulge in that particular luxury. Magic is in fact hard and honorable work, and cannot be deployed at whim, not without consequences. A good deal of Daniel Pearce’s character growth comes by way of learning the business and earning the powers — making Stone Junction a sort of magician’s Bildungsroman — in which teachers, more or less unorthodox in their methods, appear to Daniel one by one, each with particular skills to pass along, all linked in an organization known as AMO, the Alliance of Magicians and Outlaws, a proto-Web that tends to connect more by way of pay phones, mail drops and ESP than linked terminals, over overseen by the enigmatic, not quite all-powerful Volta.

Through all this meanwhile runs a second plotline — a whodunit, in which Daniel must solve the uncompromisingly earthly question of who murdered his mother, Annalee Pearce, in an alleyway in Livermore, California when he was fourteen, complete with multiple suspects, false trails, the identity of the killer not revealed till the final pages. The story traverses a map of some moral intricacy, sure-footed as Chandler, providing twists as elegant as Agatha Christie, as all the while Daniel’s education proceeds.

Will Bill Weber teaches meditation, fishing, waiting. Mott Stocker teaches Dope, its production and enjoyment. Ace safecracker Willie Clinton (yep) instructs the boy in how to get past all kinds of locks and alarms, rendering him thus semipermeable to certain protected parts of the world, setting him on his path to total dematerialization. For a while Daniel teams up with poker wizard Bad Bobby Sloane, roving the American highways in search of opportunities to risk capital in ways that cannot be officially controlled, climaxing in a legendary Lo-ball confrontation with the cheerfully louche Guido Caramba, in a literary poker passage as classic as it is funny, and in its appreciative devotion to a game where the moral stakes are so high, ranking up there with comparable parts of Kawabata’s The Master of Go.

The shape-shifting genius Jean Bluer teaches Daniel the arts of disguise — another illicit skill, given it’s already forbidden to impersonate policemen, doctors, lawyers, financial advisors, and who knows what all besides, as if someday all varieties of disguise will be statutory offences, including Impersonating an Ordinary Citizen. At last Daniel comes circling back to Volta, by now also one of his prime suspects in Annalee’s death, who teaches him the final secret of Invisibility. None of your secular Wellsian tricks with refractive indices and blood pigmentation here, but rather the well-known and time-honored arts of ceasing to be material.

At last Daniel is ready to set off on the metaphysical Quest all these teachers have been preparing him for, which now swiftly unfolds as an elaborate technocaper, with a mysterious and otherworldly six-pound Diamond as its target. Too early in those days for keyboard dramas, emergency downloads, and cyber-fugues to relentless countdowns at the corner of the screen, the technology Daniel goes up against is mostly of analog sort — optical surveillance, strain-gauge sensor grids and thermostatic alarms — his nondigital responses to which include nerve gas, plastique, and invisibility.

He takes the Diamond, and then the Diamond takes him. For it turns out to be a gateway to elsewhere, and Daniel’s life’s tale an account of the incarnation of a god, not the usual sort that ends up bringing aid and comfort to earthly powers, but that favorite of writers, the incorruptible wiseguy known to anthropologists as the Trickster, to working alchemists as Hermes, to card-players everywhere as the Joker. We don’t learn this till the end of the story, by which point, knowing Daniel as we’ve come to, we are free to take it literally as a real transfiguration, or as a metaphor of spiritual enlightenment, or as a description of Daniel’s unusually exalted state of mind as he prepares to cross, forever, the stone junction between Above and Below — by this point, all of these possibilities have become equally true, for we have been along on one of those indispensable literary journeys, taken nearly as far as Daniel — through it is for him to slip along across the last borderline, into what Wittgenstein once supposed cannot be spoken of, and upon which, as Eliphas Levi advised us — after “To know, to will, to dare” as the last and greatest of the rules of Magic — we must keep silent.