From this valley

View of Half Dome in Yosemite Valley. Copyright Robin L. Chandler 2014.

View of Half Dome in Yosemite Valley. Copyright Robin L. Chandler 2014.

From this valley they say you are going…we will miss your bright eyes and sweet smile…for they say you are taking the sunshine…that has brightened our path for a while.” These are lines from Red River Valley, a song heard throughout John Ford’s classic film of the Great Depression, The Grapes of Wrath, and the melancholy theme for the Joad family’s hard-travelin’ exodus from dustbowl Oklahoma. Tenant farmers, the Joads head to California hoping for a better life, forced from their home by drought and economic hardship. With a few days off in early November, I am driving there and back, crisscrossing my great state of California from Santa Cruz to Nipomo, Los Angeles to Fresno, and Yosemite to Oakland. The many legs of my journey take me through the Central Coast, the Los Angeles Basin, the Central Sierras, and the Central Valley. The land is parched, thirsting for rain and relief from a multi-year drought; and Chicano, Latino and Mexican-American agricultural workers — immigrants and migrants – who came to California hoping for a better life, populate much of this land.

In the fields of the Pajaro Valley, near Watsonville in Monterey County, artichokes, strawberries and cole crops like Brussels sprouts and cauliflower are tended and harvested. Farther down the road, I arrive in yet another important agricultural county, San Luis Obispo, where avocados, citrus, and vegetables are grown. As I drive by the workers in the field, Gloria Anzaldua’s words from her book Borderlands: La Frontera ring in my ears: “To live in the Borderlands means you are neither hispana india negra espanola, ni gabacha, eres mestizo, mulata, half-breed caught in the crossfire between camps while carrying all five races on your back not knowing which side to turn to, run from…”

Today migrants of the borderlands make these agricultural riches possible, but some fifty years ago, “Okies” migrants from the 1930s dustbowl tended the crops of this county. Working in Nipomo, Dorothea Lange documented this earlier migration and plight of the workers in her famous Great Depression photograph of the “Migrant Mother.”

Further down the road, I reach Kern County in the San Joaquin Valley where, Buck Owens Boulevard crosses Highway 58, which leads to the Cesar Chavez National Memorial in Keene. The child of Texas sharecroppers driven out by dust and the Depression, Buck Owens found seasonal work following the crops from Gila Bend, Arizona through the Imperial and San Joaquin Valleys of California. Growing up listening to Mexican border radio stations and Baptist gospel songs, Buck made Bakersfield his home and became famous for singing the story of the “Okie” migrants who came to find work in the farms and oilfields of Central California. Owen’s contributions and the work of Merle Haggard are chronicled in Gerald Haslam’s Workin’ Man’s Blues: Country Music in California. Ironically, just a few miles south of the road memorializing Owens is the final resting place of Cesar Chavez at the headquarters of the United Farm Workers (UFW) who started and led the farm workers’ movement to give voice to the next generation of poor and disenfranchised agricultural workers.




Moore-Hancock Farmstead log cabin Austin, Texas. Copyright Robin L. Chandler 2014.

Moore-Hancock Farmstead log cabin Austin, Texas. Copyright Robin L. Chandler 2014.

In just under thirty-three days, the AIDS LifeCycle begins and we ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles. Cranking up the training, I’ve been riding some classic climbs in the Bay Area: Pinehurst to Skyline, the Three Bears and the Hicks Valley Wilson Hill Road. But recently I took a break to visit Austin, Texas the home of former Governor Ann Richards[1]. Austin hosted the Society of Architectural Historians (SAH) annual meeting. It doesn’t take much arm twisting to visit the queen city of Central Texas. Because in Austin you can easily find great music (we saw Squeeze Box Mania at Threadgills which featured the great conjunto tejano accordianist Joel Guzman and songwriter / vocalist Sarah Fox), local brews (Thirsty Planet’s Yellow Armadillo Wheat) and Southern comfort food (fried pickles)! And April is a beautiful time to visit Texas. Bluebonnets and Indian Paintbrush nonchalantly grace street corners and boulevard median strips. And a quick drive outside the city limits brings sights of mother Longhorns doting on their calves frolicking in pastures among the spring wildflowers. A meeting like SAH provides the opportunity to dig deeper into the urban landscape and we participated in the post-conference tour Transition, Gentrification and Hidden History in Austin’s Black Neighborhoods. When the Civil War ended in 1865, many freed slaves migrated to the nearest town where they settled and established neighborhoods such as Austin’s Clarksville and Wheatville. Some freedman like Orange Hancock settled on land formerly

Longhorns, Bluebonnets, and Indian Paintbrush. Copyright Robin L. Chandler 2013.

Longhorns, Bluebonnets, and Indian Paintbrush. Copyright Robin L. Chandler 2014.

owned by their masters such as the Moore-Hancock Farmstead. Built in 1849, the Moore- Hancock home is the oldest Austin log cabin on it’s original site and a tangible link to 19th century African-American history in north-central Austin. The Freedmen communities thrived until 1928 when the Austin City Master Plan achieved segregation by zoning East Austin as a district where services and amenities such as plumbing and paved roads would be provided to African-Americans. With this zoning plan, Austin sought to draw African-Americans to the East side of town and extinguish black neighborhoods encroaching on expanding white Austin. Some eighty-years later, East Austin is gentrifying as popular food venues such as Franklin Barbecue have opened (just down the street from the historic Chitlin’ Circuit nightclub the Victory Grill where one of my favorite blues players W.C. Clark got his professional start) and the Rosewood Courts Housing Authority seeks a listing on the National Register of Historic Places. To learn more about these neighborhoods, read Michelle Mears book And Grace Will Lead Me Home: African-American Freedman Communities of Austin, Texas 1865-1928.


[1] HBO documentary films just released the film All About Ann: Governor Richards of the Lone Star State and it is recommended viewing!

si se puede: it can be done


Strawberry fields along San Andreas Road. Copyright Robin L. Chandler 2014

Strawberry fields along San Andreas Road. Copyright Robin L. Chandler 2014


Egret on Elkhorn Slough. Copyright Robin L. Chandler 2014


Crossing the Pajaro River. Copyright Robin L. Chandler 2014


Monterey Bay from Fort Ord State Park. Copyright Robin L. Chandler 2014

My training for the 2014 AIDS Life Cycle continues! It is the end of March, and just last week I achieved this month’s goal to cycle more than ninety miles in one day. It was an amazing day beginning in heavy fog and ending in bright sunshine and strong winds blowing in from the Pacific; a beautiful ride, the kind of ride that clears your head and helps put everything in perspective, well at least for a few moments! My journey took me from Santa Cruz where I cycled past surfers at Pleasure Point, through redwood trees in Aptos, along the nature reserve at Elkhorn Slough, and through Fort Ord Dunes State Park and on to fisherman’s wharf at Monterey. My good friend Connie joined me for the Castroville to Monterey loop; it was wonderful to have the company and conversation. After lunch, I got back on my bike and rode the fifty miles home to Santa Cruz. It can be done!

Cycling gives you time to think about what you see as you ride. North of the Pajaro River I travelled through strawberry fields; north of the Salinas River through rows of artichokes, all crops being irrigated and tended by hard working Mexican-American farm workers. Every March 31st in California we celebrate the birthday of Cesar Chavez as an official state holiday. It was nearly fifty years ago when Cesar Chavez came to Delano, California to begin the dangerous but desperately important work of organizing farm workers. In 1935 the Wagner Act establishing the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) was passed by the U.S. Congress and signed into law by President Franklin Roosevelt. The NLRB ensures that workers can join unions and engage in collective bargaining without management reprisal. But unfortunately, agricultural workers were not included in the Wagner Act legislation, an omission that took another thirty years and Cesar and his wife Helen Chavez and Delores Huerta, labor leader, civil rights activist and co-founder with Chavez of the United Farm Workers (UFW) devoting themselves to the cause of organizing farm workers to rectify. The multi-ethnic movement Si se puede began in 1965. On Friday March 28, 2014, Diego Luna’s motion picture Cesar Chavez was released nationally. With great excitement, Wave and I attend the film; it was wonderful to be in the theater with so many young people clearly moved by their heroic story on screen. The film was inspiring; the hard work of farming becomes a tragedy when workers responsible for putting the food we eat on the table are not given respect, consideration, a reasonable wage, and protection from agricultural pesticides. The film primarily documents the events surrounding the Delano Grape Strike (la huelga) including the three hundred mile pilgrimage from Delano to the state capital in Sacramento and Chavez’s moving hunger strike to end violence against striking workers. The twenty-five day hunger strike ended in March 1968 some forty-six years ago this month. Senator Robert Kennedy brought national prominence to the movement when he joined Cesar Chavez to end his hunger strike with a celebration of the Eucharist. In my mind, Kennedy’s presence was a recognition of Chavez as an American hero. Chavez’s heroic work is detailed in two University of California Press books: Delano – The Story of the California Grape Strike by the journalist John Gregory Dunne and in Peter Mathiessen’s Sal si Puedes: Cesar Chavez and the New American Revolution

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.