Fishing for Paradise

by Freeman House
Fly Fishing Catalog 2004

Humans need a taste of wild foods once in a while, preferably gathered with one’s own hands. The basic psychic comfort of experiencing the earth as a place that welcomes us by feeding us was hardwired into each of us during our long residence in the Pleistocene. We haven’t evolved very far from that need: It’s still part of the basic definition of being human. It’s this need, I think, that accounts for the undiminished taste for hunting and fishing for which modern supermarkets offer no substitute.

But we are losing ground in our relationships with nature. Within the last century, the developed world has embraced expensive technologies in transportation, agriculture and energy, which in turn provide us with an illusory sense of comfort and prosperity. The expense of those technologies can be calculated in lost topsoil, deforestation, the dewatering of our rivers – the list goes on. Our “comforts” are killing us just as surely as they are making us feel safe. Meanwhile, we grow further and further from the sources of our sustenance, and our very imaginations are drying up as a result of the absence of our primary teachers – the lands and waters themselves, and the creatures with whom we share them. The pleasure of fishing is now tainted by the question of how long such pleasures will be available to us.

About the Author

Freeman House is a cofounder 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 Bay Area Book Reviewers Association and the Henry D. Vursell award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Tom Wesoloh, manager of North Coast projects for Cal Trout, tells of fishermen who say to him “If we just let ‘em go, everything will be fine.” Or “If we just stopped fishing for five years, wouldn’t the fish come back?” He replies sadly, “if only it were true.” A growing number of activists and scientists think that we need a more proactive approach to the restoration of our fish populations and (especially) the habitats that support them.

Few individual human minds can grapple with global ecological problems without falling into despair. A watershed, however, presents a scale of possibility in terms of working with nonprofessional residents and neighbors toward a common understanding of home. The goal of working in common toward optimum health and productivity of a complex system is scaled down to fit within our daily experience. You may very well have political and practical differences with a watershed neighbor, but if you are standing on the ground discussing what’s before you, ideological differences have a way of resolving themselves, mediated by the place itself. If you happen to share a watershed with native salmon or trout, it’s not hard to find allies in such work.