Running the River: Art & Literature in the Delta

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This photo from 1900 shows European-Americans boarding rowboats on the banks of the San Joaquin River in California. Using archives records like maps and photographs, scientists are trying to revive the delta. Photo courtesy Bank of Stockton

Given its isolation from major Northern California urban centers, the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta has resisted development and remains suspended in time, but not for much longer. It’s a place of wonder—1.1 million square-miles of rivers, creeks, marshes, sloughs, levees, 500,000 acres of farmland, and it is the font of about 7.5 million acre-feet of water that’s distributed to cities and farms throughout California—it’s a playground for recreation, an agricultural hub and there are those who say, without blushing, it’s a paradise fraught with political maneuvering and environmental threats.

Few will say, however, that the largest river delta on the Pacific Ocean side of the Americas is a hotbed of literature and art. But those working to protect and restore the delta say that is wrong. Various groups, including writers, poets, artists, academics and community advocates are busy collecting the cultural artifacts that help mark the delta as a unique place in the world, one with a rich and diverse creative history.

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Because I’m currently working on a novel set in the delta, I attended a discussion this week sponsored by the grassroots organization Restore the Delta about the past, present, and future of Delta Literature. Although literary luminaries from Jack London to Joan Didion have written about life in the delta, and their stories speak to significant topics in American history, scholars say the full range of narratives about this vital region awaits systematic collection, presentation and interpretation. There’s a lot of work to do.

During his overview of Delta Literature, Robert Benedetti, University of the Pacific professor emeritus of political science, commented that the “subtle beauty of the delta and a quiet appreciation by poets is needed,” if the delta’s rich cultural history and natural resources are to be saved from further neglect and degradation.

He also pointed to research into the literature of the delta by Gregg Camfield, professor of literature at the University of California, Merced. Canfield noted in his research that narratives shape human action and “we try to make sense of the past by telling its story; in the process, we shape our present and our future.” His survey of delta literature is online at: http://delta.blogs.ca.gov/files/2016/10/Full_Paper_Camfield.pdf

Paula Sheil, founder and executive director of Tuleburg Press & THE WRITE PLACE in Stockton, as well as a poet and accomplished sailor, read “Out the Gate,” her poem captures the delta breeze blowing gently past farms and levees, picking up speed and spilling out to the bay, meeting the gush of ocean “like big dreams in a torrent.” She refers to the delta as the “anti-San Francisco,” suggesting the delta is the flip side of hip, slick and cool, a counter weight or cultural anchor to the excesses of its famous neighbor.

The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta is a land of stunning open spaces fed by five major rivers. A maze of creeks and sloughs spreading finger-like through some of California’s most important habitat, especially for Chinook salmon and Greater Sandhill Cranes. It’s a bird watcher’s feast for the eyes and a fisherman’s delight. It’s also home to immigrants and dreamers who prefer the delta’s cloistered backwaters to brash and garish city life.

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Photo Courtesy: Friends of the River

In reality, Sheil said, “It’s the people who make the delta.” Adding that she tells her students that through the delta they’re connected to world, meaning by following the waterway to the ocean they have access to every distant land. But, she said, “Stockton youth don’t have access to the water. Some children who live in Stockton have never seen the delta.”

The City of Stockton is located on the San Joaquin River on the eastern edge of the delta, but freeways, development, train tracks, barriers of all types prevent exploration. “We live on the San Joaquin River and there isn’t even a place to put a kayak in the water.” Sheil said.

Tama Brisbane, Stockton poet laureate and executive director of Stockton’s “With Our Words,” a national movement to combat illiteracy, isolation, alienation, and silence by bringing new voices from the margins to the core of society through literary and performing arts. She noted that young Stockton poets who’ve traveled to poetry and performance art festivals around the country often have trouble explaining where they come from, have a gap in their understanding of place, of the delta that makes the territory from which they come unique.

“Stockton is a city that doesn’t own itself,” Brisbane said. “Stockton needs to hustle to get its identity back.”

Stories matter. They make us who we are. Camfield said in his survey of delta literature that “human beings selectively interpret their lives by way of narrative arcs, by how these narratives shape human action. We try to make sense of the past by telling its story; in the process, we shape our present and our future.”

With a delta novel in progress, the discussion about the literary past and future of the region was creatively stimulating and encouraging. But, a newcomer to Stockton, I also saw how quickly the city is transforming, wiping out the connection to the past.

In downtown Stockton old buildings with ornate architectural details are rotting, while next door new structures of steel and glass are under construction. Preserving what’s beautiful and meaningful from the past, while nurturing a proud new generation, is a task delta artists, poets and writers are embracing. It’s an exciting time in the delta and I look forward to contributing to the effort with a few good words of my own.

About these photos – Before the panel discussion, I had time to wander in downtown Stockton for a few photo grabs. I’m planning some mosaic projects and was delighted to stumble on some interesting examples in the lobby of Stockton’s old Elk’s Lodge on Sutter Street.

Keeping Art Alive — Hokusai

I’m not much for game playing. I always got picked last in girl’s basketball games. But, since friends were doing it, I reluctantly joined an art game — Keeping Art Alive. Instead of dropped shoulders and high pick-and-rolls, players got an artist’s name, checked out their work, reported back to the group. It’s not a game like Monopoly where you buy four houses and get a hotel or Scrabble where oryx puts you in the winner’s circle. This game sounded easy enough.

The rules are like the old TV show “Mission Impossible,” where you get an assignment and decide if you want to accept it or act like you’re blow drying your hair — can’t hear, don’t care. But, I found after agreeing to play that I got some hot creative ideas and fluffed up my art appreciation style. I guess the point of the game is the chance to amaze friends and family, as well as yourself — and in the process, Keep Art Alive.

Here’s my artistic game piece: Katsushika Hokusai. Yes, what you think you see happening, is … ahem … happening.

The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife, Hokusai 1820 wood block pring

I learned that some years before Japanese artist Hokusai’s death in 1849 at the age of 89, he reportedly said: “At the age of five years I had the habit of sketching things. At the age of fifty I had produced a large number of pictures, but for all that, none of them had any merit until the age of seventy.

“At seventy-three finally I learned something about the true nature of things, birds, animals, insects, fish, the grasses and the trees. So at the age of eighty years I will have made some progress, at ninety I will have penetrated the deepest significance of things, at a hundred I will make real wonders and at a hundred and ten, every point, every line, will have a life of its own.”

Although Hokusai did not reach 110, his vision has endured and 165 years after his death his art is continually being adapted by contemporary artists — notably tattoos, photos, movies and graphic arts, including posters and clothing and other textiles. That’s particularly evident in modern iterations of “The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife,” created when Hokusai was 60 years old.

Examples of Hokusai’s imagery in contemporary culture





I ran across Hokusai recently while writing a flash fiction piece (once you know, you know) that ended in the stealing of an ivory netsuke, which Hokusai created, but in wood-block carvings, as far as I can tell. Netsuke are erotic images or sculptures, produced for hundreds of years by both Chinese and Japanese artists. They’re sometimes called “pillow art.” Intended I suppose to give girls ideas, as if we don’t have plenty of our own.

But, I think what the art game players want is to highlight that art history is part of understanding our culture. Buying a pair of jeans with an image on the pockets may be cool, but chances are the purchaser has no idea of the fascinating history behind them. Hang a shower curtain in a bathroom with an Asian motif? Looks good, but the decorator probably doesn’t realize the orgins and rich history of the graphic design.

I guess since I now know more about this master Japanese artist and the art forms he worked in than before, I’ve won the satisfaction of helping “Keep Art Alive.” That feels awesome.

I hope you’ll try the game — get together with friends, create an art history challenge, draw artists’ names out of a hat or randomly online, everybody does some exploring and returns to the playing table to roll the dice.

The original print by Katsushika Hokusai

Bathing suit available on Etsy.com

The shower curtain can be ordered online

Think this game is silly? Click the link and find out why this company desperately needed to hire an art history major.