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.

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.

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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.

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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 https://nature.berkeley.edu/garbelottowp/?page_id=816

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

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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 (www.SODmap.org) and to the SODmap mobile app (www.sodmapmobile.org). 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.

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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 www.sodblitz.org.

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