“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.
Rachel Carson and the Creeping Apocalypse
by Freeman House
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.