Running the River: Art & Literature in the Delta


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.


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:

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.


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.


Zen of Barometric Pressure


Imperial Tea Court garden in Berkeley C

Just lost power for an hour in Sacramento/Natomas and spent time on my cell checking the weather. Got curious about what barometric pressure actually means. Barometers were used in the old days to forecast weather, long before there were satellites and computers and all kinds of sensors.

U.S. Weather Service says barometric pressure in my area is currently at 29.22 and falling. Lowest pressure ever recorded in Sacramento was 28.95 on Jan. 27, 1916. So, things are getting pretty funky low down around here. says barometric pressure rarely increases or decreases more than 1 inch of mercury above or below the 30-inch mark unless weather conditions are extreme — or will be in a couple of days.

Weather experts say pressure readings are most useful for forecasting weather during the next 12 to 24 hours — as in telling us what’s about to happen. In general, a falling barometer indicates the approach of a storm. Forecasts for Northern California call for a big storm Sunday night into Monday, which barometers seem to confirm. Just hope it’s not too big.

If the mercury continues to fall, atmospheric scientists say the weather will worsen. When the mercury level is between 30.20 and 29.80 inches and dropping rapidly, (like it is now) expect precipitation. If the reading is less than 29.80 inches and still shooting down, expect, my words, to get walloped.

But not to worry, as of 2010, the lowest air pressure ever recorded for a hurricane was Gilbert in 1988. Its air pressure was just above 26 inches. Hurricane Sandy in 2012 hit a barometric pressure low of 27.92 over Atlantic City, New Jersey. Things could be worse and California water experts say we’ll likely be able to ride out the next series of storms without further damage to Oroville Dam

“Just as a solid rock is not shaken by the storm, even so the wise are not affected by praise or blame.” —-The Buddha.


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As forests decline, observers cite mismanagement

From state highways, foothill campgrounds and aerial surveys, it’s easy to see the catastrophic tree die-off in California forests. What isn’t as easily grasped is the scale of rapidly expanding tree mortality in the state’s 40 million acres of forestland — and what to do about it.

Rim Fire aftermath, Stanislaus National Forest

The U.S. Forest Service said in June 2016 that its survey showed more than 66 million trees, mostly pine species, have died in the southern Sierra Nevada alone, and more are dying. Forestry experts say the scale of the die-off is beyond anything ever observed. They attribute the tree mortality to four years of drought, bark beetle infestations, climate change and mismanagement.

“I’m afraid people are going to think the catastrophe we’re seeing in our forests today is just a natural cycle of drought and insect infestations, but there’s a lot more to this story,” Tuolumne County rancher Shaun Crook said. “What we have now is the culmination of 40 years of forest mismanagement that has led to these devastating conditions.”

Under story debris and dead trees, Stanislaus National Forest

Crook said if Sierra forests had been harvested in recent decades using sustainable-yield practices, they would not be as overgrown and would not be as vulnerable to drought, infestation and disease, which occur naturally.

Erin Huston, federal policy consultant for the California Farm Bureau Federation, said forests need to be actively managed for the multiple uses they were intended to serve.

“This includes active management at a pace and scale that keeps our forests resilient,” Huston said. “We’d like to see federal legislation that improves the climate for fuels reduction, for salvage logging and grazing after fires, and for forest watershed management.”

Farm Bureau and other organizations also support legislation to develop a wildfire emergency funding process that provides more reliable funding without harming land management and fire-reduction activities. U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said unless Congress acts rapidly to address how the Forest Service pays for firefighting, the agency will not have the resources necessary to fight wildfires, address the tree die-off and restore forests.

Historically, what forest managers have done to protect forest stands against drought and beetle infestations is to reduce the number of large trees and thin the stands, said Bill Stewart, co-director of the Center for Forestry at the University of California, Berkeley.

Severe tree overstocking revealed during 360,000-acre Rim Fire in Stanislaus National Forest

He talks about maintaining “thrifty” forests that are leaner and cleaner, that use far less water than current, overstocked stands and, through natural and vigorous growth, store more carbon dioxide emissions, which improves air quality.

At the same time, he said, healthy Sierra forests can continue to provide improved grazing, recreation and business opportunities.

“Unfortunately, 30 to 40 years ago the public said, ‘Keep all the trees in the forest.’ But now we’re finding out there just isn’t enough water in California to keep all those trees alive,” Stewart said.

Crook noted that when timber was thinned in the past, homeowners and small timberland owners also had markets at nearby sawmills and biomass plants, where they could salvage some of the wood and recoup part of the removal costs.

“Now, there are no wood-processing facilities — or the few that remain are maxed out — again because of (forest) mismanagement,” he said. “The only way to get the processing infrastructure back is to provide a guaranteed supply of timber from federal lands, so it can be turned into useful consumer products.”

Although the southern Sierra has been hit the hardest by the current tree die-off, Brittany Covich of the Sierra Nevada Conservancy said the underlying conditions leading to the tree mortality exist throughout the Sierra.

“We rely on healthy Sierra forests to filter and store the water runoff that feeds the State Water Project and the Central Valley Project, which supply irrigation water for hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland,” Covich said. “The forests of the Sierra Nevada region play a critical role in maintaining a reliable water source for California, but current conditions in the Sierra place that role at risk.”

CFBF Director of Water Resources Danny Merkley said agencies need the resources to thin forests to maintain forest health, noting that only about 3 percent of new forest growth is being removed each year — leaving 97 percent of new growth to compound overstocked conditions.

On the longer term, he said, there’s a need for additional public awareness about what’s needed to maintain healthy, sustainable forests.

“Forests are a major part of our watersheds and directly impact our water supply,” Merkley said. “We need to rethink how we manage our forests, in all their complexity, for resilient forests now and into the future.”

Last fall, Gov. Brown declared a state of emergency because of the tree die-off and formed a multidisciplinary tree mortality task force to help with safe removal of dead and dying trees. The task force includes more than 80 local, state and federal agencies, as well as utilities and other stakeholders, including groups representing ranching and grazing interests.

The state has purchased 10 air-curtain burners — 20-foot long, metal blast-sheet containers that can incinerate up to eight trees an hour, with low air emissions. The purchase was part of a $5 million investment in equipment to address the tree-mortality epidemic.

The trees pose serious public safety risks beyond catastrophic wildfires. Vilsack said the Forest Service is reprioritizing $32 million in California to remove dead trees along roads, trails and recreation sites, where falling timber is likely to threaten people, powerlines and structures.

Forest Service scientists said they expect to see continued elevated levels of tree mortality through 2016 in dense forest stands with root diseases and high levels of bark beetle activity.

Additional surveys across California forestland will be conducted throughout the summer and fall, they said. New tree mortality numbers have not yet been released.

(Kate Campbell is a former assistant editor of Ag Alert, a publication of the California Farm Bureau Federation. She may be contacted at )

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.

Distinctive lumber from invasive plant makes itself right at home

Distinctive lumber from invasive plant makes itself right at home

Sept./Oct. 2016 California Bountiful magazine 
Story by Kate Campbell
Photos by Kathi Corder and Carolyn Carey
and courtesy of Sustainable Northwest and Marcus Kauffman

Juniper wood brings a rustic, durable beauty to home improvements. The versatile building material has the strength of redwood and cedar, making it suitable for a variety of projects, including decks, cabinetry, countertops, stairs and garden structures.

People have valued wood for its beauty and strength from ancient times, recognizing it as a gift of the forest. But sometimes there can be too much of a good thing. That’s the case with native — but invasive — Western juniper.

Decades of wildfire suppression, years of drought, climate change and a general lack of forest management have allowed this shrub and tree species to go rogue — spreading like weeds across fragile landscapes and degrading sensitive wildlife habitat.

Land management experts say in the past 130 years, Western juniper has expanded by as much as tenfold in parts of California, Nevada, Oregon, Washington and Idaho, with the potential to occupy far more area in the future. The rugged plant already infests more than 4 million acres in California.

What’s encouraging is that people in government agencies, academia and business are coming together to find solutions to the problem, including how to manage runaway growth, restore vital ecosystems and build “juniper economies” in rural communities.

The goal is to manage juniper forests in ways that protect sagebrush habitat, according to Sean Curtis, Modoc County director of natural resources. Birds and animals such as the greater sage grouse, pygmy rabbit, sagebrush lizard, golden eagle and pronghorn antelope depend on sagebrush habitat. Some species, including the greater sage grouse, live nowhere else.

Part of the solution to improving sagebrush habitat and valuable rangeland, Curtis said, is finding ways to remove and turn tons of sturdy, richly textured juniper wood into must-have consumer products.

“Controlling the spread of invasive juniper in our area is one of the most important things we will do on the landscape for the next 20 years,” said Curtis, a Modoc County Farm Bureau director. “Everything we will do in the future will depend on how well we address this problem through sound management on both privately owned and public land.”

In the Modoc National Forest in the state’s northeast corner, actions are underway to reduce the number of overgrown acres and restore about 30,000 acres a year to the healthy conditions that existed more than a century ago. That means logging and clearing the trees and shrubs.

Junipers in a healthy Western ecosystem can live more than 1,000 years; land managers said no old-growth stands will be damaged during carefully planned landscape-restoration projects. But for wood from smaller, prolific juniper stands, researchers say they’re convinced markets for a wide variety of juniper wood products can be developed.

From left, Servando Melendrez, Tom Esgate and Doug Lindgren are some of the local loggers who work with environmental experts to target juniper removals where habitat and water resources are threatened. A juniper with an 18-inch trunk can guzzle 30 to 40 gallons of water a day.

Buzzing about juniper

Hurdles to building a vibrant juniper wood sector include high harvest costs for removal and lack of nearby sawmills to process the wood, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture market analysts.

But at a recent U.S. Bureau of Land Management conference in Portland, Neil Kelly, owner of one of the nation’s largest home remodel companies, said, “The buzz is big. Everyone is talking about juniper.”

Like redwood and cedars, juniper wood is highly durable. It resists rot and disease, has aromatic properties and offers color variations from pale white to deep reddish-brown. Architects and builders are demonstrating that it finishes well for cabinetry, flooring, stairs, decks and handrails, while others see an opportunity for juniper in highway safety structures such as signposts and guardrails.

“There’s a lot of juniper that needs to be removed and it makes sense to find beneficial uses for the wood,” Curtis said, noting that harvested juniper is also being chipped for use as biomass fuel for power generation.

“Sometimes there’s not much you can do with juniper, except remove it for the conservation benefits,” said Doug Lindgren, owner of Tubit Enterprises, a logging company in Burney. “But we’re talking with people in areas where juniper may be suitable for milling and then be turned into consumer products.”

Lindgren and logging project manager Tom Esgate, who specialize in treating landscapes to reduce wildfire hazards and restore watersheds, work on “prescriptive” landscape projects in Modoc and Lassen counties. Lindgren described the projects as highly collaborative, involving federal, state and local agencies, as well as environmental groups.

“We’re working on building healthy forests — forests that will produce benefits now and into the 21st century and beyond,” he said.

Artisans and farmers select juniper wood for a variety of woodworking projects, as it offers many advantages — it naturally comes in a range of colors and is highly durable. Clockwise from left, juniper wood appears in stair construction, vineyard trellises, fine art sculptures and furniture.

Buying the best

USDA market researchers said they’re surprised juniper hasn’t become a more popular wood for high-end consumer products. They conclude juniper sales could be doubled in niche markets, if people knew the story behind this native wood.

Eric Almquist, owner of Almquist Lumber Co. in Arcata, agrees. His lumberyard and small mill are a destination for hobby woodworkers, artisans and furniture builders throughout the state because of the selection of high-quality wood he sells.

Farmers and ranchers, however, are the company’s biggest customers for juniper lumber, he said. They use it for fencing, vineyard trellises, stakes and planting beds. The wood is naturally durable, less expensive than many similar options and needn’t be treated to prevent degrading — of particular interest to farmers who grow crops such as organic strawberries, lettuce and winegrapes.

“Juniper has unique properties, and when combined with an awareness of why landowners and forest managers are trying to clear the land of these invasive trees and find productive uses for the wood, it offers good reason to buy it,” Almquist said.

Sustainably harvesting Western juniper creates much-needed jobs in rural communities where logging and wood production have traditionally been an important part of the economy, said Nick Goulette of the Watershed Research and Training Center in Trinity County. The nonprofit organization, based in Hayfork, helps communities transition into new business activities in the wake of logging restrictions.

The search for alternative business and job opportunities led Goulette to Modoc County, after he learned about the juniper removal work advocated by Sustainable Northwest. The Oregon-based natural resources nonprofit helps producers find ways to turn juniper wood removed for environmental reasons into useful products that appeal to urban consumers.

“There’s a clear need on the land-management side to remove the trees,” Goulette said. “We’re focused on the business-opportunity side. Our vision is to use large amounts of juniper lumber for consumer and business products.”

Goulette said Sustainable Northwest is moving into the Portland home improvement and building market with a campaign to promote the use of juniper. With success in that market, the organization wants to expand public awareness in the San Francisco Bay Area.

The experts have studied the environmental implications of removing Western juniper. They’ve researched market potential, prepared workers, developed products. The only thing missing now, they say, is consumer awareness of juniper’s story and the willingness to buy it.

Kate Campbell

At a glance: Juniper trees and the greater sage grouse

Greater sage grouse are native to Western North America. However, invasive trees, raptors, wildfires and humans are threatening their future.

Farmers and ranchers in California and the West are working to clear invasive plants, including Western juniper, from habitat areas to protect the birds and other species that depend on healthy sagebrush ecosystems.

Juniper trees threaten natural habitat by crowding out brush and grass, reducing water filtration and increasing soil erosion. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management encourages selective removal of Western juniper trees to help restore this natural ecosystem.

Numerous universities and sustainable-resource organizations are working on ways to use juniper wood removed from the landscape for commercial and residential projects.

Western junipers rank as the fourth longest-lived tree species in the world. The giant bonsai-like Bennett juniper, located on a privately owned nature preserve within the Stanislaus National Forest in Tuolumne County, is the largest known juniper tree in America.

Information on heritage Western junipers is at

Originally published at

Blitzing California’s Coastal Forests: And How You Can Help

BERKELEY—With California’s 2016 rain totals higher than they’ve been in more than four years, forestry experts say our coastal forests are at extreme risk of disease. They warn sudden oak death moves silently through forest and gardens, killing tree after tree where it stands—and death will be on the rise this year.

It is the primary cause of tree mortality in coastal California, researchers say, with more than 3 million trees having died already in 15 counties since its discovery in the mid-1990s. Dead trees mean loss of habitat and increased wildfire danger. There is no cure for the disease.

The killer pathogen, Phytophthora ramorum, a fungus, is spread by water and air, with rainwater being a major route for disease spread. No one is sure how the pathogen got into California’s coastal forests or how to stop its spread. It is killing trees from Big Sur to Humboldt County, with Santa Cruz, Marin and Sonoma counties being particularly hard hit.


Infected tree. Photo courtesy U.S. Forest Service

The pathogen will take advantage of bark wounding, but it’s not necessary for infection to occur. California bay laurel seems to be the main source of inoculum in forests. Green waste, such as leaf litter and tree stumps, are also capable of supporting P. ramorum and acting as a disease reservoir. Because P. ramorum can infect many ornamental plants, such as rhododendron, and can be spread by moving them, experts are calling for the public’s help in locating infected trees and tracking disease spread.

IMG_8439 (2)

Wild Rhododendron, among species susceptible to SOD infection, photo taken while camping at Big Basin Redwoods State Park, Santa Cruz County

Researchers have found infections concentrated around illegal marijuana grows and suspect movement of supplies and soil amendments in Northern California watersheds result in forests with high levels of disease. Hikers, mountain bikers and horseback riders may also help move the pathogen to uninfected areas through contamination of boots, clothes, animals and equipment.

With so much at stake, researchers need help with the 10th annual spring SOD Blitzes (citizen scientist surveys for SOD). They hope this year’s citizen surveys will generate record participation. If you live, hike, bike or ride the trails in coastal forests, your help is essential to tracking the disease.

“This year is going to be one of the most critical yet for monitoring the more than 500 miles of susceptible and impacted coastal landscapes for SOD,” said Matteo Garbelotto, UC Berkeley faculty member who runs the Blitzes.

“We’re calling for as many seasoned and novice SOD Blitzers as we can possibly get to join the cause,” he said last week. “Their help is critical to informing communities about disease encroachment, while also helping to determine how effective current treatment and management efforts have been at reducing infection rates and protecting at-risk trees.”

 How to Help: If you live or will spend time in coastal forests, parks or communities this spring, you’re encouraged to participate in the disease-spotting effort.

 When:  Spring 2016, Weekends, April 9 – June 4, 2016.

 Training: 1-hour training sessions – Required.

Where: For locations and local details, go to

Cost: FREE — Attendees should bring mobile devices or GPS units if they have them.


Symptomatic California bay laurel leaves generally precede oak and tanoak infections, and are often the first sign that P. ramorum is in a location. Participants will be trained to identify and collect symptomatic bay leaves and record sample locations.

Volunteers are encouraged to bring their smartphone to the training with the free “SODmap mobile” app already installed (SOD distribution map of laboratory-confirmed positive and negative samples in California, not including nurseries) as it can help in identifying potential collection locations.

Blitz samples will be taken to the UC Berkeley Garbelotto lab to determine the presence or absence of the pathogen. Results will be posted online in the fall to SODmap ( and to the SODmap mobile app ( When used as instructed, these two tools will help inform thousands of people as to the presence and risk of SOD at a given location.

SOD Blitzes are made possible by the work of local volunteers, along with funding from the PG&E Foundation and the USDA Forest Service, State and Private Forestry organizations.


SOD Blitz volunteers gathering suspect leaf material for lab analysis. Photo courtesy California Oak Mortality Task Force.

“Not only do these volunteers provide invaluable data for the fight against SOD, they also help lead the charge in proactive SOD management on private property, with Blitzers 10 times more likely to actively manage their properties, collectively helping to slow disease spread,” Garbelotto said.

For more information on SOD Blitzes, go to

For more information on Sudden Oak Death and P. ramorum, go to the California Oak Mortality Task Force website at  or contact Katie Harrell at (510) 847-5482 or