April has brought spring in all it’s glory: hot sunny days and cold rainy ones; colorful flowers and deep green grass; and the sights and sounds of baseball. And yet, my soul and heart remain moored in March, dwelling long on the beauty of the Russian River. In the weeks since my artist residency, Sonoma County continues to inspire my imagination and fuel my art. Chalk Hill Artists Residency is a place to discover the interconnection of all living things and understand one’s place in the universe. And to take the bold step of sharing this knowledge as art. Dostoevsky wrote “it is life, life that matters, life alone – the continuous and everlasting process of discovering it – and not the discovery itself.”
Alexander von Humboldt, 19th century scientist and explorer, recognized planet Earth as one great living organism. Climbing over seventeen thousand feet in the mountains of Peru, Humboldt concluded that the botanical specimens of the Andes are similar to the plants he had seen in the European Alps. Lewis Lapham in Lapham’s Quarterly, (Spring 2017) writes “the excitement is the act of discovery, not the numbering and storing of the dots, but rather the connecting of the dots…..to regard the universe as a metaphor.”
The voyage of discovery begins. Like a writer before the blank page, the artist before the blank canvas stands in awe, asking what do I know? As I fill the brush with color and connect the first dots of paint on the canvas, I wonder where this journey will take me and what discovery will I make about myself and the universe?
The snow, fondant-like, blanketed the mountains. Rushing down the canyons, the rain wrote creeks on the landscape, like icing, on a cake. October brought me to the big empty, the Owens Valley, the tectonic, volcanic landscape, now a desert, once a vast ocean. The thirsty cottonwoods grow alongside the Zen-like creek, waiting months, sometimes years, for the river they know will come. In the big empty, I sang a prayer for this land. Staring deeply, intently at the mountains and the rivers, imagining the ocean that once was, I sang this blessing by Nanno Sakaki for what was and what can be:
“One day from the ocean, from yesterday, I’m sure
A lost hump-back whale will swim up this river.
And someday, from the ocean, from tomorrow,
Countless whales will swim up the river
To revisit the ancient beech forest,
Whales swimming up the river, up the river.”
A few weeks later, I stand before a Marsden Hartley work, painted in 1918, entitled The Last of New England – the Beginning of New Mexico hanging in the Chicago Art Institute. Writing to his friend, Alfred Stieglitz, Hartley described the Southwest: “I like the country very well for it is big and clean and true, and there is nothing dirty standing between one and the sunlight.” Standing before this work, I absorbed the intensity of the landscape realized in the painter’s forms and colors. Like Proust and his tea and madeleines, the painting roused my memory of the Eastern Sierra desert, big and clean and true. Now more than ever, we need people to stand up and speak out like the Sioux tribal leaders now singing their prayers in protest of the pipeline at Standing Rock. We do not need anything dirty, like an unnecessary pipeline, standing between us and the sunlight on the land.
A great shadow threatens the land. Lies and abuse, dressed as truth and normalcy, threaten our democracy, so tenuous, so often taken for granted. To heal our selves, we must take our song to the streets and valleys and together loudly sing our prayers for our land, our peoples, and our democracy. It will be a tough fight, but we must continue to urge national investment in clean and renewable energies and demand the cessation of investments in projects like the pipeline perpetuating fossil fuel dependence. Here at home, the LA Times reports that California leads the nation in energy productivity, electricity from renewable resources, and reductions in carbon intensity. Like the Shaman, we will raise our voice in song to heal ourselves, each other, and our community. Together, open, guiding, we will sing our love of the land we hold so dear.
Because the whales will swim up river, only when they hear our song.
Thanks to an early start, we reached the Owens Valley just before the storm closed Tioga Pass for the winter. Snow had dusted the peaks cradling Tuolumne meadow. There would be no pie today as we passed the Tioga Pass Resort; the diner long since closed, the windows boarded until the spring snowmelt. We were giddy, caught in the romance of the storm; dark thick clouds promised snow and rain to assuage our five-year drought.
Descending to Mono Lake, we made a right turn onto 395 towards Bishop and the Eastern Sierra Interpretive Association’s (ESIA) inaugural conference on the history of the eastern sierras. This is a desolate land, whose emptiness holds so many stories to be shared. The Owens Valley straddles two counties: Mono and Inyo. Mono County defined by Mono Lake and the volcanic fields at an elevation of 7,000 feet and the Mammoth Lakes ski resort. Inyo County, the table drops sharply, thousands of feet in altitude is lost, as we descend into ranch lands, cottonwoods and the meandering Owens River. We stopped often, capturing with camera and brush the conversation between brooding sky, dark mountains, parched landscape, and autumnal trees. A photographer and a painter, drawn to this sacred place, finding poetry at every compass point.
At the ESIA conference, David Carle spoke about water and the historic choices that shaped California. A long-term California State Park Ranger, Carle now writes full-time about land and water issues facing our state. According to Carle, in 1902 Los Angeles was a small town of 100,000 people, with a promising citrus industry, but desperately seeking water. Led by the engineer William Mulholland, businessmen and city planners set their sights on the Owens Valley, a region of 8,000 residents with a 75,000 acres of farm and pasture land producing 51,000 bushels of wheat annually. The Owens Valley also held lakes and rivers fed by the water stored in the snow covered Sierras. The aqueducts were completed in 1913, but it didn’t take long before Los Angeles was thirsty again. By 1924 Owens Lake was a dry lake bed where dust storms raged. Los Angeles had purchased all the water rights in the valley, but by the mid-1920s they owned all the towns too. Communities had been destroyed and ecological disaster created for the region. The author Mary Austin asked “ is all this worthwhile in order that Los Angeles should be so big?” Today, Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) is working hard to implement water reclamation, and to their credit most of Orange County’s water now comes from reclamation. But for some, there will never be enough water, Southern California’s thirst will not be slaked. The proposed Twin Tunnels Project would move water from the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers to the southland. Recently, LADWP purchased five islands located in the heart of the river delta, just as LADWP purchased the Owens Valley a century ago. Stop the Tunnels provides information about establishing fair water policies in California.
Looking out across the Owens Valley, at a land so near, so precious, it is scary to know that actions taken by a few powerful people, so far away, change the land and communities forever.
Going fishing with Dad was fun. Hot & humid Saturday mornings, piling into the station wagon with our poles, thermos or two, and bologna sandwiches. I had a spincast, pretty basic, the kind you had to bait yourself; the worms squirming in a Styrofoam cup filled with a bit of dirt and old coffee grounds. Dad was a fly fisherman; I was fascinated by the hours he spent tying his own flies in his basement workshop; I was also captivated by the ballet of the line striking the water. What an elegant and enigmatic ritual of rod and line dancing on the surface, breaking the serene plane. We fished in lakes and rivers of our Southern homeland, first Texas and later Virginia. I never caught many, and I know he spent hours helping me when he could have been fishing. But I remember the early mornings, alone together adrift in time, the sound of still water and rich dirt, the smell of dawn, before the fish bit.
Driving home, my father always sang to me, and I loved his tenor, cigarette scratchy. Sometimes, he made me laugh with a song from his days in the Air Force; “Old King Cole was a merry old soul, and a merry old soul was he, and he called for his pipe and he called for his bowl and he called for his privates three,” laughing and singing our way through the ranks to the general.
But more often than naught he sang Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen’s The Blues in the Night. For me it was a song of mystery, filled with exotic places, the sound of whistlin’ trains, of pain, darkness and loneliness beyond my age of understanding. But I felt the sadness, the melancholy, and the blues in his voice. It touched me deeply. He explained to me that Natchez and Mobile, Memphis and St. Joe were all cities on the deep and long Mississippi River with headwaters near St. Paul, Minnesota rolling all the way to New Orleans and the Gulf, the land of dreams. Our river, became the river of song. Magic. Later, when I was able, I purchased a recording of Louis Armstrong singing and playing his trumpet with Oscar Peterson on piano. Listening now, I bring my own archaeology of understanding to this song and what it says about the space and time from which it sprang…a place limiting relationships between genders and races. But Louis’ deep growly voice always takes me back to the riverside where song began for me.
My mama done tol’ me, when I was in knee pants My mama done tol’ me…
“son, a woman’ll sweet talk,
And she’ll give ya the big eye, but when the sweet talkin’s done
A woman’s a two-face, a worrisome thing who’ll leave ya to sing
the blues in the night”
Now the rain’s a-fallin’, hear the train’s a-callin, “whooee!” (my mama done tol’ me) hear dat lonesome whistle blowin’ ‘cross the trestle, “whooee!” (my mama done tol’ me) a-whooee-ah-whooee ol’ clickety-clack’s a-echoin’ back the blues in the night The evenin’ breeze will start the trees to cryin’ and the moon will hide it’s light when you get the blues in the night Take my word, the mockingbird’ll sing the saddest kind o’ song, he knows things are wrong, and he’s right
From natchez to mobile, from memphis to st. joe, wherever the four winds blow I been in some big towns an’ heard me some big talk, but there is one thing I know A woman’s a two-face, a worrisome thing who’ll leave ya to sing the blues in the night
So, let me give ya fair warnin’ You may feel fine in the mornin’ But look out for those blues in the night
Big flakes of snow melted on our faces as we cross-country skied, breaking trail on the ridge above Cold Stream Valley watershed. The soft quiet storm shattered by the sound of the train swiftly rolling up the mountain to Donner Pass. Joyous, we made our way through the meringue-like forest. Deep snow, grey sky, frozen blue pond and the charcoal scrawled tree scape now frosted, defined the sunless day.
Like thirsty pilgrims arriving at a well after a long journey, we gave thanks, knowing each snow filled hour meant sustained water for drought stricken cities and fields. Magnetized, we were drawn to the snow, both day and night, awestruck by this magical and rare occurrence. Never again taken for granted. A midnight stroll found us by the bank of the Truckee, laughing in joy, as the river, roared her song into the night, balance restored. In the heart of darkness, the snow-covered landscape reflected warmth, restoring our parched souls.
John Muir wrote in My First Summer in the Sierra “measureless mountain days…days in whose light everything seems to show us God…the blessings of one mountain day; whatever her fate, long life, short life, stormy or calm, she is rich forever.”
The sun was high in the sky: the light blinding and the air hot; no breeze. The egrets gathered as a rookery on the fallen trees by the lagoon in the Santa Cruz watershed, collecting themselves in the cool of the Eucalyptus trees, like sinners awaiting their baptism to wash away their sins. For a moment I lost myself in the other, the landscape. Quietly, I started to sing “yes, we’ll gather at the river, the beautiful, the beautiful river, gather with the saints at the river, that flows by the throne of God.” Shall We Gather at the River was a signature song for John Ford the filmmaker famous for his westerns shot in Monument Valley; the song became soundtrack in some of his most famous movies including My Darling Clementine, The Searchers, and Stagecoach. Ford often used the song as a means to define the boundary between the anglo-churchgoing community “civilizing” the frontier, and the “other ” community defined by their racial and ethnic differences; the “other’s” music emanated from saloons and was typically defined by Ford as minstrel songs and Spanish California folksongs.
Art and poetry are means to give voice to the other, be it individuals, communities, or the landscape. In his book, The Other Voice: Essays on Modern Poetry, the poet Octavio Paz wrote “all poets….if they are really poets, hear the other voice. It is their own, someone else’s, no one and everyone. Nothing distinguishes a poet from other men and women but these moments – rare yet frequent – in which being themselves they are other.”
Storm fed by New Mexican arroyos, the Colorado River winds across the Texas plains and prairies nurtured by springs, through the Hill Country and the fertile black bottom land, gathering steam as the Concho, Llano, Perdnales and San Saba rivers contribute on the journey to the Gulf of Mexico. Great forces tell the story of this country, some natural and some manmade. Wind and rain, lightening and thunder, sun and drought, the migration of creatures in the air, on the land, and through the water dialogue with man’s domestication of the landscape, wrestling nature to some kind of tenuous draw.
In a collection of essay’s Sacagawea’s Nickname: Essays on the American West, Larry McMurtry wrote “man may have seven ages, but the West has had only three: the age of Heroes (Lewis and Clark), the age of Publicity (Buffalo Bill), and the age of Suburbia, for which the preferred term is Urban Sprawl. How we got from the first age to the third, and what we have destroyed in the process, is a story historians will be worrying for a long time.”
Leaving Austin meandering the back roads towards Waco, I purposefully took a slight detour to the northwest to visit the Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge. Spring is the perfect time to catch the wild flowers and glimpse migratory birds nesting in the Texas Hill Country. Austin’s culture of great music and good food combined with Texas’ tax incentives are attracting the computer industry and the countryside is increasingly being developed into suburban housing enclaves. My journey is a series of interstates, highways, and two-lane roads that are increasingly developed. Thank goodness the Refuge was formed in 1992 to ensure some land would forgo development and protect the habitat of two endangered birds: the Golden-cheeked Warbler and the Black-capped Vireo. And refuge it is. Although it is hard to completely loose sight or sound of the farm to market road, it is possible to loose yourself briefly in the surrounding natural history. Hiking on a ridge in the refuge, populated with juniper trees (known as cedars in Texas), I was rewarded with sightings of the nesting Warbler and a full stereophonic soundtrack of the bird’s beautiful song juxtaposed by distant thunder. My found treasure included a gorgeous view of the Colorado River of Texas with a threatening lightening storm looming on the western horizon.
I am conscious of the looming suburbs on the horizon, threatening like a storm this precious refuge. Back in the car, heading towards my Dad’s home, I queue up The Mountain on Steve Earle and Del McCoury Band’s album of the same name. I know the odds are stacked against nature; mankind’s greed and hunger scar the landscape with glacier like force. But I know we need to come to some compromise with nature, something more than this tenuous draw. We need to live and breathe stewardship; because the land helps keep us from worry and woe. As I merge onto the highway, Steve Earle sings:
“I was born on this mountain a long time ago
Before they knocked down the timber and strip-mined the coal
When you rose in the mornin’ before it was light
To go down in that dark hole and come back up at night
I was born on this mountain, this mountain’s my home
She holds me and keeps me from worry and woe
Well, they took everything that she gave, now they’re gone
But I’ll die on this mountain, this mountain’s my home”
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!
“We crossed the broad Pecos and we crossed the Nueces, Swam the Guadalupe and followed the Brazos; Red River runs rusty; the Wichita clear. Down by the Brazos I courted my dear…The sweet Angelina runs glossy and glidey; The crooked Colorado flows weaving and winding. The slow San Antonio courses the plain. I will never walk by the Brazos again.”
Nomadic by circumstance, or maybe I just like driving, I am on the road again, speeding northward into the oncoming night from San Antonio towards Austin and Waco. I laugh out loud recalling an essay in High Country News by John Daniel; in A Word In Favor of Rootlessness he wrote “marriage to place is something we all need to realize in our culture, but not all of us are the marrying kind…it makes me very happy to drive the highways and back roads of the American West, exchanging talk with people who live where I don’t, pulling off somewhere to sleep in the truck and wake to a place I’ve never seen.” Out my side window, I search for the “Old Yellow Moon,” Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell croon about on my CD player. Running north – south, I-35 intersects a series of rivers crisscrossing Texas roughly north-west to south-east; I catalog them in my mind: San Antonio, Guadalupe, Colorado and as I get closer to my destination the tributaries to the Brazos including the Leon, San Gabriel and Little Rivers and of course Salado Creek.
This year, Texas like many places in the Western and Midwest United States is suffering from drought. Not enough rain is falling to soak into and heal the land, fill the reservoirs and aquifers and bless the riparian areas providing a respite to migratory birds and a home for wildlife along the streambeds. At the same time the demand for the life-giving water grows for agriculture, industry, and the expanding suburbs. In the thirty-some odd years I’ve been coming to Central Texas the population keeps increasing; more houses, more malls and with this expansion the burgeoning need for water. But this is not a new story. In San Antonio, I travelled parts of the San Antonio River Walk heading south to the Historic Missions National Park. Built in the early 18th century, close to rivers, the mission communities constructed dams and aqueducts to guide water for irrigating crops and powering flourmills. The Belton Lake Dam on the Leon River is a 20th century version of the mission acequias; Belton just provides a lot more water for a lot more people. The grandfather of Texas conservation, John Graves, wrote a book Goodbye to A River, published in 1959, now considered a classic about his late 1950s canoe trip down the Brazos River. The book is often cited as a major reason only a limited number of dams were built on the Brazos. The current drought places a strain on stored water supplies. But what can we do to make sure that there is enough water for all those who need it, including the native plants and animals? In the 13th Century, it is believed the Anazasi left the Colorado Plateau for the Rio Grande valley of New Mexico when extreme drought caused these peoples to abandon their homes. Where could we go?
Nomad that I appear to be, place and community do obsess me. Wherever I land, I want to understand the context of the place – the land and its people. I do not feel geographic detachment, but I realize this ability to move quickly from place to place comes at an expense. In Teaching About PlaceHal Crimmel published the article “Teaching About Place in an Era of Geographical Detachment.” Crimmel states “technology enables escape from any particular locale, accelerating the process of geographical detachment. In fact, living in place may have more to do with restraint than passion these days. Unprecedented access to distant energy sources, such as natural gas piped across the continent, and to mechanical or electrical technologies means people need not live within the ecological limits imposed by climate and topography.” I feel the contradiction deep in my bones; I hope my Prius buys me some credit when my judgement comes.
In early January 2011, we participated in what is becoming a beloved annual ritual: naturalist guided creek walks in the Lagunitas watershed seeking glimpses of Coho Salmon and Steelhead Trout who have come home to spawn. The Marin County based Salmon Protection and Watershed Network (SPAWN) is committed to restoring habitat, building community partnerships, and passing legislation supporting the survival of endangered Coho Salmon and Steelhead Trout in California and the Pacific Basin. Thankfully SPAWN is not alone; all along the Northern California coast educational, research and non-profit organizations are engaged in activities to save endangered fish species. In Marin county, the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy is engaged in restoring salmon habitat along Redwood Creek and the river’s mouth at Muir Beach. While in Santa Cruz, increasing numbers of steelhead smolts are making their way along the San Lorenzo River back to the sea. Scientists attribute these rising numbers of Steelhead to increased rainfall and the efforts of citizens to reduce urban runoff and improve habitat. These inroads are so important because some efforts in Southern California are foundering; recently the California Coastal Conservancy’s was forced to abandon’s its work to restore the Steelhead to San Mateo Creek in San Diego County.
For the past few years, we have been blessed with observing a pair or two of Salmon – their bodies touched with crimson – swimming upstream and building nests — called Redds – in preparation for laying eggs. But seeing these beautiful creatures is a rarity. Typically annual counts on the Lagunitas and San Geronimo creeks number only in the 60s. Writing about Steelhead in The Sespe Wild, Bradley John Monsma described California a few centuries ago when “thousands of fish, fattened from the ocean, pool near the mouths of rivers…before dashing upstream to gravel spawning beds in the mountains.” Rain and healthy watersheds are essential for the survival of Salmon and Steelhead; rain provides easy passage for the journey upstream to lay eggs, and give birth to fry. Rain emboldens rivers and creeks to break the sand barriers to the sea permitting smolt to begin the ocean phase of their life.
People make a huge difference in building healthy watersheds. We need to care, we need to understand that our lives are better because these animals are part of our world. We need to grasp that we are living in a biodiversity crisis that can only be resolved by our understanding the power of our different interdependent lives. Monsma quoting the human ecologist Paul Shepard writes “with the loss of species, we may be losing something essential to our humanity. It may be that we can approach the depth of ourselves only in relation to a diverse and healthy ecosystem” suggesting that mature societies are those that are “characterized by a view broad and forgiving involving a sense of the larger gift of life, a realistic sense of the self and other, a sense of the talents of generosity and circumspection.”