Coyote's Fleas

by Freeman House
Spring 2001

Dan Stolpe, a noted Santa Cruz fine artist who specializes in Native American/human-animal transformation images, told me this story: "Some say Coyote is the first of all animal people, the first to be named by the creator. Some say he has the power to change the sun and the moon, but with all that power he can't get rid of his fleas. So the best he can do is find a log on which he scratches his back, while he watches the fleas jump up."

Humans are tinkerers. Always have been, along with some of our primate ancestors. For a very long time - most of our time on the planet, in fact - we did our tinkering within the restraints of Coyote's world, those fleas implicitly acknowledged as the workings of creation over which we had no control. Were we wiser then in our recognition that we were participants in a vast web of relationship always just beyond our comprehension? I hope it's true, because if it is, there's a chance we might recover some of that wisdom. I have little doubt that we attained those ancient cautionary principles the hard way, by making mistakes, some of which likely threatened our very survival. And we moderns who have survived the 20th century have a wealth of mistakes to instruct us. Think green revolution. Think atomic energy. Think Bureau of Reclamation, Army Corps of Engineers.

I grew up in a culture that had all but forgotten Coyote's world, and I suffered that forgetfulness in a personal way. I know now that my pain was the pain of a human animal in cultural exile from the nourishing embrace of its earthly provenance, but I didn't know that then. I thought there must be something wrong with me.

I had some good luck. My wanderings took me to Puget Sound, where I found myself working as a commercial salmon fisherman. My work on cannery-owned purse-seiners was, in spite of its industrial arrogance and alienating efficiency, an enlightening immersion in the world of natural provision. The great life of wild salmon entered my personal life, where it continues to swim today, 30 years later.

I left the fishing life after only a few years. I followed the salmon now swimming in my psyche into the practice of watershed restoration in my home drainage.

In 1879 Seth Green, an American entrepreneur promoting domestic fish culture, wrote, "We have tilled the ground for 4,000 years; we have just begun to till the waters." Green's manifesto fell on the fertile ground of 19th century utilitarianism and, in no time at all, non-native fishes were being introduced to alien waters all over the world. Salmon hatcheries were among the most well-financed and visible manifestations of the fish culture movement. In a mere half-century, hatchery salmon ("sea-going Spam," writes Tom Jay) were overwhelming the wild stocks' freshwater habitat, and interbreeding was skewing 10,000 years of the fishes' exquisite adaptation to particular rivers.

The genetic tinkerers have developed a new threat to our watershed and to wild salmon everywhere: a supersalmon. This creature, never before seen on the planet, was created on Prince Rupert Island by introducing human growth hormones into the genetic structure of Atlantic salmon. The result is a fish that grows to market size twice as quickly as its native predecessor. Some scientists speculate that such a 'Trojan gene' in the wild would, because of the size-enhanced sexual attraction of the altered creature, make non-enhanced native salmon extinct within 20 salmon generations. That's 60 to 100 human years, a blink of the evolutionary eye.

In my own small northern California watershed, our restoration efforts include the maintenance of our own dwindling stocks of wild chinook and coho salmon, among the last strains unadulterated by hatchery introduction in California. That effort has incorporated some techniques that superficially resemble hatchery culture. But the practice has grown over 20 years to include extraordinary precautions to ensure that those efforts do not interfere with the wild stocks' ancient genetic adaptation to this unique river system. As resident landowners we are also learning, through increasingly systematic attentiveness to the processes of the land and waters that support us, to moderate our timbering, grazing and road-building practices in the direction of fruitful immersion in the wild world.

We have chosen to live with our fleas, and attempt to live our lives a little differently based on what the elegant adaptations of salmon have taught us. Better, we figure, to adjust our behavior to the constraints and opportunities of the natural world than to assume we can rebuild that world to fit our desires.

Should we take it as our purpose - and find the will - we might yet regain some measure of control over our own machinations, our machines. And then the constructed world might go quiet enough that the winds and waters, and yes, Coyote, would speak to us again.

About the Author

Freeman House's book, Totem Salmon: Life Lessons From Another Species, received the Best Nonfiction Award from the Bay Area Book Reviewers Association for 1999. A co-founder of the Mattole Restoration Council, he is a frequent public speaker.