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.

Fast Freight Running

Fast Freight Running

California Train Museum

After 40 years of working in the journalism trenches, several things strike me about the current state of reporting and commentary. It has become fractured, partisan and suspect as the information load has dramatically increased. As a young reporter, I once had a discussion with a UC Berkeley economist who viewed the media and mass communication as a transportation system — a way to deliver goods and services no different than mule teams, ships, trains, 18-wheelers and automobiles.

He said the media is a system for delivering information — a digital highway. Right now the system is in disarray, but systems rationalize over time, he said, and eventually find their best, highest use in the marketplace, or they cease to exist, think telegrams and the Pony Express. The eminent economist I spoke with said movies did not kill radio, TV did not kill movies, trucks did not kill railroads, railroads did not kill ships and mobile devices have not yet killed telephones.

Experts say the first contact point for engaging audiences, particularly millennials, is to “make informative content entertaining.” Otherwise known as adding chrome to the packaging. In old-school journalism the golden rule was “kids and dogs sell newspapers.” For TV it was “if it bleeds it leads.” Nothing like a 4-alarm fire to get an audience’s attention. For a while broadcast news leaned on T&A to tell stories and engage readers. Today it seems giggles & jiggles, along with the spice of irreverence sprinkled on top, is the audience hook.

Journalism has two duties to audience — educate and entertain. The pendulum has swung heavily to entertainment. Lack of imagination in reporting substantiate news has made the act of informing people dull, leading to audience disinterest. But there’s another a more fundamental problem with the “freight” being pushed today, and young people are picking up on it.

Legitimacy and honesty, which are essential to good journalism and are sorely lacking today. Audiences, even young ones, know it and turn away when they sense those missing ingredients. Consider how many times recently someone has said to a screen, “That fool doesn’t know what he or she is talking about”? It’s like buying a car and expecting it to have wheels. If the basics are missing, people don’t buy it. Product integrity is essential, not something extra.

Getting people to consume information requires quality content engagingly packaged. It’s about telling a valuable story in a logical and exciting manner and spreading it around. It has been said that information delivery systems — the Internet, mobile devices, cable —all together are like drinking from a fire hose. We’re swimming in a flood of information and nothing makes sense. We’re drowning.

Getting people to drink comfortably requires deft packaging and on-time delivery. In other words, good editing and efficient delivery, like FedEx to your doorstep. And, behind every good journalist is a great editor who understands the audience being targeted and how best to serve them with the information they need to keep the rig on the road.

It’s true, television news media and responsible journalism are not the same things. So, what’s happening in the media now is the process of rationalizing delivery systems. Hyper-local news outlets, blogs, on-line magazines, independent videos and podcasts break down the content loads and efficiently deliver editorial products on time to the right address. Some systems will work and strengthen over time, some will serve micro-audience segments, some will go away. The point is that people — the market for information — expect integrity while being educated and entertained through seamless, cost-effective delivery.

Gathering facts and telling stories continues to be essential to people, just as it was in ancient times. What’s changing is how news moves down the highway and is delivered. It’s interesting to watch it happen and be a part of it. The information highway systems will firm up, but journalists still need to load their best stuff on the pallets and send it fast freight to their target destinations. In today’s marketplace of ideas well-built mental merchandise is sorely needed and there are plenty of people who’ll help unload and distribute the goods, if information products that meet demand.


In addition to writing fiction and poetry, Kate Campbell is an environmental and political writer. She lives at the confluence of the American and Sacramento rivers and publishes the Word Garden blog at https://kcamp300.wordpress.com/ Her acclaimed novel Adrift in the Sound is available through online booksellers.

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