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.

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Zen of Barometric Pressure

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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.

Science.com 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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Red-tailed Hawk and a Fractured Valentine

I recently got an email from Dan, an old friend of my ex-husband,
who now lives in England. He inquired about John’s whereabouts.
I wrote him back with the news.

Fence whimsy, Orcas Island, WA

Dear Dan:  Thank you for your kind note about John. I’ll pass it on to our sons, Mark, 35 and Mike, 24. I know they’ll appreciate your remembrance. They’ve taken the loss of their father hard and they’re still getting over it. They were relatively young to lose their Dad and have been rudderless since, as I’ve been for the past few years. John was always so big and robust, wherever he went he filled the room. It’s still hard to believe a mere virus could diminish him, take him away.

John and I had a challenging relationship, as you know, and we were not living together when he died. He died alone by choice and it was a month before his body was discovered. I regret the way he died and miss him very much. He was my biggest supporter and we all wish we had been there for him. But, in the end, big and gruff, he chased everyone away in his bitterness.

As you may have gathered, I’m a writer and have worked as a reporter for many years. My work has often taken me to remote locations. John was always there for the boys and they easily went back and forth between us. He was proud of my work and in many ways made it possible for me to do it. I now live in Sacramento and work as a writer and photographer specializing in environmental issues. After Mike graduated from high school, I began to take creative writing classes — short stories, poetry — and I began a novel, Adrift in the Sound, published in 2012, that includes several characters modeled after John.

I worked my day job and worked on the novel nights and weekends. It’s set in Seattle in 1973, it’s about what happened after the “Free Love 60s” ended and a new era began — end of the Vietnam War, Watergate Scandal, Roe vs. Wade that legalized abortion, launching of the war on drugs, the Arab Oil Embargo, etc. The story is about Lizette, an addled street artist who hooks up with the Franklin Street Dogs, a ragtag tavern softball team, it’s about the gritty drug scene and the pristine beauty of Orcas Island, it’s about John and me and the only thing that really matters. But, remember, it’s fiction.

I struggled to find an ending for the story, but it eluded me. One night I had a dream, vivid and powerful. John and I were in bed on a sunny morning. We were young. In the dream, he went to take a bath and I went along to keep him company. In the dream every hurt, resentment, tension, grievance between us was resolved and in that moment only comfort, love and acceptance washed between us.

It was as if John came to me in person. It was 2 a.m. and by 6 a.m. the end of the novel was written, the story complete. I had a strong urge to call John, check in, see how he was doing, but put it off. As best the San Francisco Coroner can figure, he died the day I finished the novel. I believe the end of my story was his final gift to me, the gift of feeling his complete, untarnished love, and a gentle, resolved ending to a grating story. Sorry, but I can’t go on telling. It makes me cry.

Gerald and Buff Corsi ©
California Academy of Sciences

At John’s funeral, we had lots of chocolate and roses and friends from John’s days in San Francisco’s Haight Asbury. When it was over, I went outside and a huge red-tailed hawk swooped low and ruffled my hair then perched on a cornice of the building. You would think this an exaggeration, but I have witnesses.

The hawk was vigilant, as if guarding. It was still there after everyone left and I was alone with this magnificent bird, standing in front of an ornate and historic mausoleum. I hated to leave him there and my brother had to drag me away. We sprinkled some of John’s ashes in the Panhandle at Golden Gate Park where he played baseball as a kid. I have kept the rest.

Find Adrift in the Sound here.

Why Childhood Memories Matter

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Sunnydale housing project, 1941
[Photo: SAN FRANCISCO HISTORY CENTER, SAN FRANCISCO PUBLIC LIBRARY]

A child went running from the playground at Sunnydale Projects in the early summer of 1955, beating on doors, breathlessly telling grownups that I’d fallen from the monkey bars and couldn’t get up. When she finally found my mother behind one of the uniformly plain front doors, she explained and my mother came running. Trying to learn how to circle the bar and come upright like the older kids, I misplaced my hands on the bar and crashed to the ground, dislocating my kneecap.

I spent most of that summer hobbling from my bedroom to the couch. The doctor said my leg had to be immobilized and my mother made sure his orders were followed. There was no TV in most San Francisco homes in those days. Commercial TV broadcasts didn’t extend to the West Coast until 1951. Instead I colored, played with paper dolls, listened to the radio with my mother, and meditated on the swirls and flourishes in our burgundy oriental carpet. I went from cast to elastic bandages, my mother wrapping my knee tightly several times a day. Eventually I was allowed to walk, then permitted to go outside.

That’s how I met her. After walking dutifully for days around the projects, I went to a building beyond the view of our unit’s windows, and ran as fast as I could up and down the narrow sidewalks, testing my knee. A woman came out and asked my name and where I lived. I was only about six and answered truthfully. I went on running. When I got home, my mother said a nice lady had stopped by. My knee stiffened and I sat down, waiting for the wrath because I’d been running. The lady asked, my mother said, if I could come and play with her daughter, who couldn’t go outside because she had polio and couldn’t walk. I knew very well how that felt and agreed to visit.

This fuzzy, black and white, memory comes back now because of a recent conversation with my niece. She lives in Orange County, where a major measles outbreak is under way, and just had a baby. She’s leaning toward not vaccinating her infant daughter. She asked me what I thought about that decision. Trying to remain supportive of her parental prerogatives and not freak out, I said it was her decision, but the memory of the day I met my playmate kept coming up.

My mother dressed me in nice school clothes the first time I visited and walked me down the hill. We were welcomed, I went inside. In the living room was a large metal cylinder, horizontal sunlight through Venetian blinds striped the gray tube. Only my new friend’s head extended beyond the coffin-like enclosure, a mirror positioned above her so she could watch the room. The girl’s mother sat me down at a children’s table. She brought me crayons and a stack of coloring books, children’s playing cards, board games. I listened in shocked silence as she explained her daughter, Eunice, couldn’t walk or sit up, that she had to stay in her iron lung, but she could watch and she wanted to see me play. I caught Eunice’s eye in the mirror, sensed her wariness as it slipped into indifference.

Eunice’s mother fluttered about, brought me red Kool-Aid as I colored. She adjusted me in the child’s chair so I could be seen through the mirror. I don’t recall Eunice speaking. She just made animal sounds that signaled her mother when she needed attention. The polio vaccine had not yet been invented.

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Members of Rotary International volunteered their time and personal resources to help immunize more than 2 billion children in 122 countries during national immunization campaigns.

The vaccine became available when I was about 10. We all got it, everyone, including my parents and grandmother. About 1962, people lined up around the block to receive the vaccine on sugar cubes in the Alvarado Elementary School auditorium in San Francisco’s Noe Valley. There were long tables of nurses passing out the doses to grateful families, every member chewing the sweet protection.

“I respect your decisions about what’s best for Adriana and support you in whatever you decide,” I told my niece, but told her I had my sons immunized because I’m old enough to remember when immunizations were not available, perhaps with the exception of small pox vaccine, which my mother received in the 1930s as a girl. It left a distinctive scar that I often saw on people’s arms when I was a child.

Today, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control says about 30 percent of measles cases develop one or more complications, including pneumonia, which is the complication that is most often the cause of death in young children. Ear infections occur in about 1 in 10 measles cases and permanent loss of hearing can result. These complications are more common among children under five  years of age and adults over 20 years old. As a child, I knew children who were deaf from the effects of measles, the twisted beige wires of their hearing aids draped across their chests as they worked at their desks in school. There was no licensed measles vaccine in the U.S. until 1963.

“Your father had the most horrendous case of mumps I’ve ever seen in my entire life,” I told my niece, hauling up another memory. “His head was literally the size of a basketball. He was very, very sick for weeks, literally. Joyce, Steve (my other siblings) and I also got mumps. There was no vaccine at the time for that virus either. Joyce and Steve were very sick. My case was mild and only put me in bed for a few of days.”

Chicken Pox: Because there was no vaccine, we all had it, I said. My own sons had it, in the 1980s, too.

Whooping Cough: There was no vaccine available and fortunately none of us kids got it.

“If you’ve ever heard the sound of whooping cough, you’ll know it. It’s a horrifying sound,” I told my niece the other day.

In the fall of 1955, I attended first grade at Sunnydale School. My mother was president of the PTA. Eunice and I would have been classmates. She died that winter and her family moved away. My parents bought a house thanks to money they saved living in the projects and we moved away too. But the memory of Eunice, her translucent face and wispy hair spread out on a pillow, her inquiring eyes reflected from the mirror above her head stay with me and flood back whenever someone talks about the dangers of vaccinating children.

I tell you about this conversation with my niece because I survived a time when common vaccines were not available and hundreds of thousands of children were damaged or died. I got my children immunized because in my view the risk to their health and very lives was too great to ignore. I tell you this in memory of Eunice and because it matters.

How Anti-Vaxxers Ruined Disneyland For Themselves (And Everyone Else)

Characters in front of Sleeping Beauty Castle

Peddling Poetry — A Time-Honored Tradition

Restored peddlers wagon, Ohio

Beyond the flow of mainstream media, where mega-best-sellers barge by creating big wakes, there are quiet bays where writers row in welcoming waters, where a tide of readers wade in and tug their turquoise and yellow books to shore. I’ve been hanging out in these quiet inlets, splashing in the tide pools of poetic arts, collecting.

I’ve gathered prickly urchins and violet anemones, shells that play madrigals and rondos. I’ve taken them home and treasured each one. Many of these collected “chapbooks” include the poems of friends or writers I’ve heard read their stories at literary events. Some are the work of acquaintances on social media and others passed along by poets.
These slender volumes created by working artists follow a centuries old tradition made popular by “chapmen,” peddlers of sometimes dubious character who tramped the byways of 17th century small-town Europe offering housewares and hardware and the occasional booklet to rural residents. These pamphlets included political and religious tracts, folk tales — and often poetry.

Peddler in modern China

Although the Industrial Revolution brought better printing presses and the chapbook fell out of favor, the publishing method never completely died out. The appeal of inexpensive booklets easily distributed was not lost on thrifty residents of rural towns or on avant garde artists seeking attention for their work — the American Beat poets of the 1950s and 60s published frequently in chapbooks, for example.

American poet Allen Ginsberg’s ground-breaking work “Howl and Other Poems” was originally published this way by Lawrence Ferlinghetti and City Lights Books, as were works by Kenneth Rexroth, Robert Duncan, William Carlos Williams and Gregory Corso. Today a first edition chapbook of “Howl” sells for about $600, but back in the day probably cost less than a dollar. There’s a lively trade in collectible chapbooks these days and many independent booksellers maintain a special section. Not true for chain book stores, however.

But, chapbooks remain one of the world’s most widely-accepted forms of publishing poetry. Given the centuries-old tradition of bringing pots and pans, as well as prose and poetry, to customers worldwide, these minimalist, low-cost volumes don’t carry the modern stigma of vanity attached to longer, self-published works. Heck, every American poet from Whitman to Frost initially published this way.

Right now there are a number of chapbooks on my bedside table that I turn to when I settle down for a quick read before sleep. I’ll highlight them in coming weeks. The author’s aren’t household names like J.K. Rowling, John Grisham or James Patterson. Instead, the books are small, personal and beautifully made by real people with something to say. Here’s an example:

Grand Slam, poet Alan Kleiman’s premiere collection features many of his most popular works, offers deceptively light verse that pops with charm and catches the reader off-guard with unexpected insights. He finds poetic occasion in life’s ordinary events: Sardines, a barn reflected, feta dip, sliver removers, wanting girls, slow dancing and kisses.

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Kiss me a hundred times
and then a thousand
and then more that that
and then even more
and you will begin
to touch
the spot where
I want to kiss you more.
 “It’s a pleasure to praise Alan Kleiman’s brave and strange poetry, with its various

strands of innocent yearning and worldly resignation. ‘The Emperor’s clothes don’t fit anymore,’ Kleiman has found. The result is a whole new wardrobe, this time, without excuses” — Jeff Nunokawa, Princeton University.

Kleiman, who often works under the pen name Ace Mulvihil, lives in New York City and is as an attorney. His poetry has appeared in publications around the world. Grand Slam is available online from Amazon.

Today I join the ranks of chapmen, rattling my wagon from town to town, calling to housewives: “Hot poems. Hot Poems. One a penny, two a dime. Hot Poems!”