The Swanton Loop

Swanton Pacific Ranch. Copyright 2013 Robin L. Chandler
Swanton Pacific Ranch. Copyright 2013 Robin L. Chandler

June and we are blessed again with strawberries. It’s after 5:30PM when I leave work, but the summer sun remains sky high moving towards the solstice. Driving north from Santa Cruz towards Davenport, the Pacific flashes brilliantly on this clear and hot day; along the coast farmers are irrigating their crops. The infinite horizontality brings mindfulness; the day falls away and clarity about the scheme of things returns.  Listening to the Blessed Are album, and I find the Woody Guthrie track Deportee and I softly sing with Joan Baez:

 Is this the best way we can grow our big orchards? Is this the best way we can grow our good fruit? To fall like dry leaves to rot on my topsoil. And be called by no name except “deportees.”

Swanton Berry Farm is my destination. Founded in 1989 by UC Santa Cruz graduate Jim Cochran, Swanton’s is the first commercial organic strawberry farm in California; it is also the first certified organic farm in the United States to sign a labor contract with the United Farm Workers (UFW). The farm stand, where I purchase my two pints of bright red strawberries, proudly displays the UFW flag bearing the black eagle on a field of red.  The UFW was formed as a result of Cesar Chavez’s organizing of Mexican-American and Fillipino American farmworkers to engage in boycotts, hunger strikes and strikes (all based on pacifism) to gain their rights.  The successful 1965 Delano grape strike is the most famous effort. The strawberries are amazing; a delight to see, smell, and taste the sweet and tart delight grown in the sandy soils of the coastline routinely kissed by the sea air. Last year, when Irene Reti’s & Sarah Rabkin’s oral history Cultivating a Movement was published, I read about Jim Cochran’s sustainable practices. Jim described using the Brassica family of plants— broccoli, cauliflower and mustard greens— in crop rotation to improve soil health instead of traditional strawberry farming practices using methyl bromide and Chloropicrin to kill soil disease. At Swanton’s you will never see the plastic covering the fields of commercial growers, indicating chemical fumigation is underway.

This month is also the 38th anniversary of the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act that became law on June 5, 1975 giving farm workers the right to collective bargaining and ensuring “peace in the agricultural fields by guaranteeing justice for all agricultural workers and stability in labor relations.” The act allowed union organizers to meet with farm workers in the fields and for farm workers to select representation by unions such as the UFW to engage in collective bargaining to negotiate conditions of employment.

Strawberries. Copyright 2013 Robin L. Chandler
Strawberries. Copyright 2013 Robin L. Chandler

After purchasing my strawberries, I drive out Swanton Road a beautiful loop curving through the Swanton Pacific Ranch, crossing Scott Creek a riparian corridor for Coho Salmon and Steelhead Trout, and winding through forests of Redwoods, Douglas Fir, and Monterey Pine. Surfers say the waves where Scott Creek estuary greets the ocean are the same as Swami’s Beach in San Diego County. The Ranch is beautiful. The furrows nestled amongst the coastal ecosystem; mankind’s geometric abstractions seeking to tame the wilderness topography. Recently I learned about the plein-air painter Sheridan Lord whose inspiring works are with us in the book Things in Place. Sheridan’s farm paintings are pictures “of breathtaking simplicity: the whole surface is occupied by the towering sky and broad fields, which are separated by a mere strip of trees.” Lord’s paintings evoke the environmental writer Peter Matthiessen who quotes the Ojibwa people in his book Nine-Headed Dragon River writing “sometimes I go about in pity for myself, and all the while a great wind is bearing me across the sky.”  Mindfulness is found in many ways: in a song, in a vista, in a painting, in a koan, or in a strawberry.

Auld Lang Syne

Farmer’s Market, Splashpad Park, Oakland. Copyright 2011 Robin L. Chandler

“How do you do that?” said Terrell.  About six years old, my admirer sat beside me on the concrete wall.  “I like to paint too…Santa brought me some paints, brushes and paper.”  While his grandmother watched, I loaned my new friend some paper and a brush and, we painted together in the brilliant sunshine of this last day of 2011.  The Saturday Farmer’s Market is a worthy subject: a unique cityscape with the mixing and mingling of so many kinds of people engaged in reaping the fruits of farmer’s labor.  As I walk through the market and see the bounty of the harvest, I recall the stories from a wonderful book  Cultivating a Movement. Edited by Irene Reti and Sarah Rabkin, the book draws from oral histories documenting the lives of individuals engaged in organic farming and sustainable agriculture on California’s Central Coast. The interviews dig deep into the social, cultural and environmental history of California on a range of topics concerning organic / sustainable agriculture including the influence of the hippie movement of the 1960s and 1970s; the influence of Alan Chadwick on farming; the organizing of Mexican-American farm workers resulting in the formation of the United Farm Workers (UFW) union; the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring; the creation of the California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF); and the influence of the UC Santa Cruz Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems. Recommended reading!

Our urban life blossoms in this space called Splashpad Park; an island of trees, shrub and grass floating between a major freeway and busy city streets.  Cars rush by; children and their parents line-up to see movies at the Grand Lake Theater; activists pass-out buttons and leaflets for Occupy Oakland while others gather signatures for a referendum against the death penalty; musicians play folk songs and Grateful Dead tunes; and shoppers visit the bakery, dry cleaners and other specialty shops as well as the Farmer’s Market.   Oakland’s community awakens on Saturday mornings, re-energized after the busy workweek, engaging in the timeless ritual of gathering those items necessary for sustenance.    Not sure if his little self will grasp all I wish him to know, but I pass on to Terrell the wise words of my drawing teacher Rob Anderson “draw what you know, what you see, what you feel, continue on until it is what you are.”  Grandmother gently urges Terrell that its time to leave; she rattles off the items they still need to buy: navel oranges, beets, radichio and arugula.

Turning back to my painting, I modestly attempt to capture on paper something reminiscent of the grand American Experiment performed by the Ashcan Painters – including Robert Henri, John Sloan, George Luks, William Glackens and Everett Shinn – a vivid description of America’s bustling cities and her people. My favorite painter of this Group – George Bellows – created some of the most moving depictions of the urban landscape: “The Lone Tenement”  and “Blue Morning.”  So, on this December 31, 2011 I raise my brush in celebration of painters old long ago, always brought to mind.

Just off the beaten path….our precious California State Parks

New Brighton State Beach. Copyright 2011 Robin L. Chandler

On May 21st we started our journey at the Salinas River National Wildlife Refuge and ended some eight hours later at the wharf in Monterey.  On three sequential Saturdays some fifty adventurers hiked thirty miles in the distinguished company of Sandy Lydon, Historian and Cabrillo College faculty, and Gary Griggs, Director of UC Santa Cruz Institute of Marine Science. Today would be the final ten-mile leg of  Monterey Bay Walk 3. May 7th we hiked from New Brighton State Beach in Capitola to just north of the Pajaro Dunes.  May 14th we ambled from Zmudowski State Beach to the Salinas River.  This morning a flock of Caspian Terns greeted us by the riverbank as we walked through the refuge to the beach. All was beautiful: endless sky, sea and sand.  My day’s walk would be measured by miles of words and punctuated by meters of awed silence –  awe inspired by the magnificent Monterey Bay. My companions on this adventure included my amazing friends Irene Reti and Sarah Rabkin.  Both passionate environmentalists, they have shared their love of nature, understanding of human frailty and hopes for the future in their recent books: Reti’s Kabbalah of Stone and Rabkin’s What I Learned at Bug Camp: Essays on Finding a Home in the World.   I am grateful for all the knowledge they shared with me about the human and natural history of lands between Santa Cruz and Monterey on these special  Saturdays in May.

Sandholdt State Park. Copyright 2011 Robin L. Chandler

Reflecting on the walks, many images delight my mind — images conjured by the stories of Sandy and Gary, the two  trip leaders: the realization that Monterey Bay is not a pristine environment, no location on the Bay has been spared the impact of humankind; the image of Chinese fishing sampans on the beach now known as New Brighton; the impact of earthquakes, erosion and tidal forces on the coastline; the story of Gaspar de Portola and his Spanish troops walking what would become the El Camino Reale as he searched in vain for Monterey Bay; developers’ insistence on building at the ocean’s edge, imperiously disregarding the cycle of el nino and la nina climate patterns on urban planning; the mother gray whale and her baby breaking the surface with their spouts; the enormous American bullfrog, an invasive species found on the shore of the Salinas River; the bachelor otter pod at Moss Landing; the snowy plovers guarding their nests and chicks on the beaches near to Monterey; and the clouds: light fogs at a far distance resting lightly on the water — quickly burning back leaving a brilliantly bright day where sunlight danced crisply on the waves, or the dramatic bands of clouds moving fast north to south, precursors of the front that would bring unseasonal rain from Santa Cruz to San Diego.

Fort Ord State Park. Copyright 2011 Robin L. Chandler

For thirty miles from Santa Cruz to Monterey we walked on the beach  – a pathway formed from a patchwork of California State Parks and Federal Wildlife Refuges  — a ring of bright white sand circling the Monterey Bay Marine Sanctuary.  Seventy California State Parks will be closed because of our state budget crisis.  Four of these parks are beach parks found along the shores of Monterey Bay, and two of them we crossed during our bayside journey: Zmudowski State Beach and Moss Landing State Beach.  In November 2010, the majority of California’s citizens elected NOT to  pass Proposition 21, a referendum proposing an annual $18.00 vehicle license fee.  Such a small price to pay for so much beauty….. just off the beaten path…..our precious California State Parks.