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.


Indelible Dahlias

Picture Perfect

I got my first “grown-up” camera in 1980 after graduating from journalism school at San Francisco State. Back in the day, cub reporters needed a camera and a car to get a foot in the door at a newspaper. I had a yellow Volkswagen bug, but no camera. To make matters worse, my training focused on writing and I’d never held anything more complicated in my hand than an old Instamatic.

To remedy this gap in my professional training, I took my brand new Konica T4 to Golden Gate Park to learn my way around the equipment and take practice shots, using Kodachrome film in 24-shot rolls. At the time digital was still connected to fingers and complicated math problems, not cameras. Not like today’s sophisticated point-and-shoot cameras.

San Francisco dahlia expert Erik Juul in the dell outside the Conservatory of Flowers. Photo by Gerda Juul

My first stop on my test run was the Dahlia Dell at the Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park. My beginner’s shots weren’t always in focus or properly lighted, but the experience of looking deeply into the color and bloom structure of dahlias created a love for this wildly beautiful flower and I was hooked.

Native to Mexico and Central America, the flower has been cultivated and bred for ever more showy flowers for more than 200 years in Europe and North America. The flowering ornamental is named for Andreas Dahl, Swedish scientist and environmentalist. They generally flower from May to November, with the heaviest bloom in late summer into fall.

While history and science are important, I was reminded of my emotional attachment to dahlias the other day when my friend Kasey Kronquist, head of the California Cut Flower Commission, posted some photos from an amazing Field to Vase Dinner at the farm of world-renowned celebrity event designer — turned American flower farmer — David Beahm.

David Beahm, courtesy David Beahm

He owns Thistle Dew Farm in Quakertown Pennsylvania and a major events company in New York City. Think parties for the Oscars, Victoria’s Secret Beauty, Christian Dior, McDonald’s and Louis Vuitton, to name a few. He does weddings and social events all over the world. As to the price tag for these parties, one can only guess.

Beyond high society event planners turned farmers, these dinners are held at premier flower farms around the country. They feature gourmet food, fine wines and elegant settings. Of course, there are flowers. I mean lots and lots of flowers at the peak of perfection.

The next event will be Oct. 16 at Cornerstone in Sonoma California. Guests will be among the first to experience the new home of Sunset Magazine’s test garden at Cornerstone. Guests will be greeted by Sunset garden editor Johanna Silver, who will host the sneak peak of the test gardens. Usually a sellout, tickets can be purchased online at

Field to Vase dinners are sponsored by the American Grown Flower organization to promote the nation’s floral industry. The events are more romantic than chick flicks, more fun than pulling weeds and more delicious than a mere 5-stars.

And then, when you toss in specialty flower farmers like Michael Genovese, owner of Summer Dreams Farm Oxford, Michigan, well, I’m done here. I’m just telling you, when I started out with a camera and some vague career dreams, there weren’t any farmers like Michael hanging out at the Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park.

David Beahm, courtesy Summer Dreams Farm

Michael Genovese and friend on the farm. Courtesy Summer Drams Farm

But, if you’re ready to be seduced, as I was — by the beauty of dahlias — I mean, here’s a list of display gardens throughout the U.S. and Canada:

If you want to grow dahlias, here’s a link to the American Dahlia Society: They have chapters around the U.S. where experts and enthusiasts gather to teach and trade the latest dahlia hybrids.

And, it’s not too late to catch the last of the dahlia bloom in Golden Gate Park, but hurry. Bye the way, dahlias have been the City of San Francisco’s official flower since 1926. More info on visiting the park is online at

Can’t get enough dahlias? Here’s a link to free dahlia flower computer wallpaper:

For more art, gardens, food and out and about in California, visit the Word Garden. Native Californian Kate Campbell is a novelist, poet and award-winning investigative reporter.

Malaise and Mayonnaise — One Month Post-retirement

Malaise and Mayonnaise — One Month Post-retirement

Retirement party July 15, 2016. Photo by Dave Kranz.

The “Happy Retirement” mylar balloons have finally deflated and straggle on the carpet, the hoopla marking the end of my 40-year journalism career is muted now. Good-byes have been said, hugs and tears exchanged and dozens of “thank you” notes written, even with my broken right arm, now healed enough to be supported in a brace. But, there’s never enough “thank you” in our world and there’s plenty of trouble to complain about.

I’m not good at transitions, hate change. I’m a mule — sleek and strong, with a big, beautiful rump, yes, but a mule just the same — an old gal who loves her harness, the plow and the hard work.

Retiring wasn’t a sudden decision. Nope. I read everything I could on the subject, planned, plotted and visualized the next phase of my life. Expected the best, but found the approach I’ve used all my life is the only one I know. Basically, if I’m not suffering, I’m not happy. Unwittingly, I turned my first month of freedom from the work-a-day world into a big mess. How big? Well —

My 14-year-old granddaughter came to visit for a month from Wisconsin. I picked her up at the airport in San Francisco the day after I retired. Her father, my son, came along and took her back to his house in Los Angeles. Five days later I drove down from Sacramento to pick her up. I had plans to see some sights on the way back home. We stopped at Mission Santa Barbara, had lunch in the Danish-style village of Solvang.

Santa Barbara Mission, established on the Feast of Saint Barbara, Dec. 4, 1786, tenth of 21 California Missions founded by Spanish Franciscans.

My 17-year-old car blew a radiator hose after pulling over Cuesta Grade, coming out of San Luis Obispo. The 7% grade is along El Camino Real, the historic road connecting California’s missions all the way to Sonoma.

So, while other retirees were rejuvenating in a swanky spa in Calistoga, I was sweating triple digit temperatures at Motel 6 in Atascadero, a farming town of 30,000. The overflowing pool sent water coursing through the parking lot, forming white caps as it reached the down slope. The guests were well drillers, fiber optic cable installers, truckers and homeless families given vouchers for overnight stays to get them out of the heat.

I met Larry. He was wearing a rakish blue bandana and hospital pajamas. His skin was the color and texture of waxed paper, his flesh barely concealed his knobby joints, but his eyes sparkled with illicit merriment, revealed him as a raconteur. He sat in a wheelchair holding a Gideon bible on his lap, asked me to tell him the story from Genesis of Joseph and his brothers’ betrayal. With Larry fact checking me, I pieced the tale together sitting in the early morning sun.

Car fixed, two days behind schedule, we drove Highway 41 — the James Dean Memorial Highway — where at the junction with Highway 46, the iconic actor died in a horrific crash. It’s no man’s land out there, scorched hills rolling away in all directions.

I had oil, water and an air mattress I planned to use for a lean-to shade if we broke down on a day when temps topped 113 F. We pushed the car as hard as we dared to get home and packed for five days at Lake Tahoe, where months before I’d reserved a vacation house that sleeps 10, planning a family celebration in honor of my blessed retirement.

My friend kindly loaned me her new car for the run through the mountains to the lake since my Mountaineer has become suspect. I picked up the keys to the house prepared to party. We unloaded and I went to make coffee. The coffeemaker had moldy grounds in the basket, no carafe to catch the brew. I used a beer stein, mopping overflow as it brewed. The place was hot, 86 when we arrived above 90 by late afternoon. I switched on the AC, adjusted the dials. No help. I tried the fan over the stove, no go. I flipped on the light for the loft, nothing. The overhead fan she was busted.

Then the bears arrived, a sow with two cubs. The mama sniffed the car with the fast-food wrappers on the front seat and the sunroof open. I charged out to shoo them away and the cubs shot up the pine tree beside the house. The sow snarled and sidled off. My granddaughter freaked because she thought I would be attacked.

Eventually my family arrived. The handyman came with a new coffeemaker and rotating fans, but could not improve the green images on the big screen TV. The fake Christmas tree in the corner added a festive touch in July. The children played with broken toys, we worked a couple of jigsaw puzzles with missing pieces. After dinner I hit the garbage disposal and rotten food flew out of the sink, the smell so bad I retched. I removed a mutilated sponge with serving tongs. The handyman came back. The kids picked up cigarette butts in the yard for fun.

Rounding the corner on my street after my Lake Tahoe adventure, I found five-gallon buckets had been tossed in my side yard, paint and oil all over the ground, fence, plants and sidewalk. The kindly police officer I spoke to said, “Lady, use common sense. If it’s in your yard, it’s your problem. Take the stuff to the hazardous waste dump out on Bradshaw Road.”

Welcome home mess

A friend emailed me a New York Times personal essay titled “I’m too old for this.” Author Dominique Browning concluded her piece about being 60-plus with the observation: “At least once a week I encounter a situation that in the old (young) days would have knocked me to my knees or otherwise spun my life off center. Now I can spot trouble 10 feet away (believe me, this is a big improvement), and I can say to myself: Too old for this. I spare myself a great deal of suffering, and as we all know, there is plenty of that to be had without looking for more.”

I’m not sure if Browning’s mantra would have helped me during my first month of retirement, but agree there’s plenty of trouble going around without looking for it. Sometimes I feel like the past honored queen of Job’s Daughters, a woman tested along with her father by the Almighty, but they were ever faithful. Wish Motel 6 Larry was here to quiz me so I can keep my stories straight while undergoing tests of Bibical proportions.

P.S. The vacation rental agency sent a letter of apology for the inconvenience and offered a 15% discount off the rent for a future stay. The hazardous waste is secured and it will be hauled to the dump in a week or so.


All Hallows Eve

I tell you this because it happened

beyond the nether regions


where you shouldn’t go

where speaking isn’t needed

shrugs and nods suffice


and steely truth unhinges night

with dollar bills folded moist against the skin


and clangs and clinking ice can pass

 for conversation

as she spreads her legs to shimmy

a final peep into the darkest folds of life


Into the caverns of delight

where slumber whispers undisturbed

while demons howl in fright.


She finds the passage

headed down the tunnel built for flight

running sweating from her concrete tomb

blood pouring from her beaten womb

her hallowed soot goes cold.


Her spirit dances now in swirling ash.

Her eternal agony untold

but I see those moments in a flash


When sun shines on the saints of old

and embraces her with sacred light

her horror bathed away.

She arises now.

Takes her place with all the saints

on this One November Day.

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Kate Campbell Images: Graffiti/Signage in alleys around and under Pike Place Public Market, Seattle WA. Shot while researching the novel Adrift in the Sound.