Tuesday, December 20, 2005


Stones, Yuba Gap, September 6, 2005

Rosetta Stone

Rosetta Stone
Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Annie Dillard, ­Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Chapter 7, Spring

“When I was quite young I fondly imagined that all foreign languages were codes for English. I thought that ‘hat,’ say, was the real and actual name of the thing, but the people in other countries, who obstinately persisted in speaking the code of their forefathers, might use the word ‘ibu,’ say, to designate not only the concept of hat, but the English word hat…. Each foreign language was a different code, I figured, and at school I would eventually be given the keys to unlock some of the most important codes’ systems. On the first day of my first French course, however, things rapidly took an entirely unexpected shape. I realized that I was going to have to learn speech all over again, word by word, one word at a time – and my dismay knew no bounds….

Some reputable scientists, even today, are not wholly satisfied with the notion that the song of birds is strictly and solely a territorial claim. It’s an important point. We’ve been on earth all these years and we still don’t know for certain why birds sing. We need someone to unlock the code to this foreign language and give us the key; we need a new Rosetta Stone. Or should we learn, as I had to, each new word one by one? ….Sometimes birdsong seems just like the garbled speech of infants. There is a certain age at which a child looks at you in all earnestness and delivers a long, pleased speech in all the true inflections of spoken English, but with not one recognizable syllable. There is no way you can tell the child that if language had been a melody, he had mastered it and done well, but that since it was in fact a sense, he had botched it utterly….

…we have been asking the wrong question. It does not matter a hoot what the mocking bird on the chimney is singing. If the mocking bird were chirping to give us the long-sought formula for a unified field theory, the point would be only slightly less irrelevant. The real and proper question is: Why is it so beautiful? …Beauty itself is the language to which we have no key; it is the mute cipher, the cryptogram, the uncracked, unbroken code. And it could be that for beauty, as it turned out to be for French, that there is no key, that ‘oui’ will never make sense in our language but only in its own, and that we need to start all over again, on a new continent, learning the strange syllables one by one.”

I read that in the laundromat Friday as I waited for my clothes to finish the spin cycle and it has sat pounding around in my head since. It was a new Rosetta Stone for me for why I am doing what I am doing. I thought I understood the river pretty well since I’ve spent so much time with it - I started paddling down rivers when I was 13. But the more I see it from different angles, with different eyes than a paddler, the more I realize I am only understanding the river at the level of the infant who botches speech utterly. I have found that new continent right in my own backyard and am now spending my days trying to learn the strange syllables one by one.

Last night I picked up a book that I had borrowed from a friend long ago because I liked the title, yet I had never before opened it, The Secret Knowledge of Water, by Craig Childs. In bed before falling asleep I read the introduction. Craig Childs was in the Utah desert sleeping next to a flash flood bursting through a slot canyon. In the morning he heard human voices – a woman in her forties – questions posed – questions answered. He rounded a corner in anticipation of surprising the people only to find there was nobody there. Only water. “The voices were part of a complex language, a language that formed audible words as water tumbled over rocks, and one that carved sentences and stories into the stone walls that it passed. I would grow older with this language, tracing its meanings like working back through genealogy. I would study its parts, how different types of canyons varied their conversations. When there was no fluid, as was most often the case, with my hands on the water-carved walls I would read the language like some sort of seer.”

Twice in one week I stumbled upon people writing about the same language I have heard and not yet understood clearly. For a decade Craig Childs follow the source of that voice. He chose to study the language of the water in the desert because that’s where the water is strong and free. There are no dams or diversions muffling its voice. I have chosen a river that many consider to have the most complex plumbing system in the state, and possibly the entire country. I am excited to see where our language study paths cross.

Monday, December 19, 2005


Rhythms, Yuba Gap, September 7, 2005

Goodbye Beatriz

Goodbye Beatriz
Monday, December 19, 2005

Beatriz Terraza’s last Rio Grande article irritated me. At the end she nicely concludes that, 'I have come to see the river as something apart from my own narrow experiences with it – as a living, beautiful thing worth saving. I don’t know what my role in that task will be. But perhaps…seeing my own small place in the river’s web of connections among people is a good place to start.’ Great. It sounds wonderful. I wish more people would see that. But, I have the same feeling I do when I see a cheesy romantic comedy – like I’ve been manipulated and dealt a load of insincerity to go a long with it for the sake of being entertained and made to feel good. There was some conflict, an adventure ensues and at the end, everything works out so neatly and everyone is happy. It’s surface. It’s light and entertaining. It has no depth. It’s really what happens next which has the depth in both the cheesy movie and with Beatriz – the part starts where the story ends is where it starts to get interesting and real. But that’s the part that we’re not shown.

Perhaps I’m being too harsh with Ms. Beatriz. She has brought the river to the attention of many a Texan through her writing, and that is a lot, but I still feel that there needs to be more if she is to conclude her entire month long Rio Grande with a grand, nebulous statement such as, ‘Yup, it’s alive and yup, it’s beautiful. It’s worth saving after all!’ I’m alive. Occasionally I’ve been called beautiful. Should I be saved too?

Saved from what? You? Me? The United States? Mexico? Salt cedars? Its border designation? Pollution? Dams?

With her final statement she has turned her articles from a getting to know the river premise, a beautiful premise on its own, to a weak statement pointing a finger toward conservationism and environmentalism. In the end neither premise was met successfully.

Beatrice’s articles were centered around the people who make the river a central part of their lives. But the river itself took second stage. It seemed only a supporting character to the people she showcased. If she wanted to advocate river conservation, she did so poorly by centering on the people. Instead her writing became a month long personal interest story. We, in general as a nation, know so little about environmental facts and issues. This is largely in part due to the media turning a majority of the few environmental stories they do report into personal interest stories. Those are apparently more entertaining than facts. Beatriz thinks the river is alive and beautiful and is worthy of being saved. We all feel good. But who really cares?

If Beatriz’s aim was to get to know the river itself, she also failed. Instead she got to know some people along the river and their thoughts and feelings about it. I keep thinking back to when Beatriz sat by the river and could hear its voice but couldn’t understand what it was saying. Nowhere in her journalistic retelling of her story does she ever take the time to learn what it said herself. All of her experiences were mediated by someone else – border patrol, naturalists, farmers, park rangers, guides. But I really don’t believe that she has developed an idea of her own personal connection. If so, it’s never identified in her writing.

Before her conclusion, Beatriz includes a query from naturalist Roy Rodriguez, ‘…the main issue with the river is “do people find any value in it? Do we neglect the connection that we have with it?”’

Do we neglect the connection that we have with it?

This is where Beatriz should have signed off. Perhaps we just don’t understand that connection yet. And perhaps, as Beatriz showed me, perhaps primarily we don’t yet know how to go about establishing that connection in the first place.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Spaulding Reservoir

Dead, 2005

Dam Lurking

Dam Lurking
Sunday, December 11, 2005

The green gate at the entrance of the PG&E road to the Spaulding projects was closed. I parked my truck outside it, gathered my backpack and camera and began walking through the gate. A rectangular sign affixed to the gate told me not to trespass on the PG&E land. I continued walking. Another sign tacked to a tree read the same. I turned around and walked back through the gate the way I had come.

I decided to instead walk down the other fork in the road to the closed campground and boat ramp - through another gate that said that I was welcome to use PG&E lands. Welcome sounded better than trespassing. I figured that once I got to the reservoir I could just make my way along the bank to the dam and that way be in compliance with the signs.

I wandered along the gray stumps of trees lining the receded reservoir bank. Soon I discovered that my way to the dams was thwarted by treacherous looking cliffs and rock walls. But, across a small creek and up the hillside, I could see the PG&E road. I figured that if I climbed the hill to the road, I still wouldn’t technically be trespassing since I didn’t actually walk through the gate where the signs were posted to get there. Faulty logic – I know. I kept mollifying my worried mind that I was on National Forest land anyway, but this is something I had only heard through others and not confirmed myself.

I walked down the deserted road to where I had come last Saturday with the FERC Academy group and stood above Spaulding 1 looking across the dam. I could hear the metal guardrails and gates creak in the wind. Everything else was silent.

Things seemed much more ominous being there without a group or a guide. The tower on the dam and the barbed wire gate leading to a metal stairway seemed prison-like. I hesitated before making my way across the long expansive dam. My heart began to race and I felt acutely that I was not in a natural place. It felt wrong.

My goal was to confidently walk across the dam to the stairs on the far side that lead down the backside of the dam to the faucet that becomes the beginning of the South Yuba River below the reservoir. Then I was to confidently descend the stairs to the faucet. It looked like an easy thing to do last weekend. But having a better look at it today revealed a chain across a lower platform hovering above a ladder thrust into the dam wall that must be scaled to reach the lower staircases. Feeling like a criminal with my racing heart, I opted to stop slightly before reaching the chain. Scaling down a ladder on a dam is not high on my list of things to do. But what made me feel infinitely less comfortable thank thinking of descending that ladder was the knowledge that something like 500,000 acre-feet of water was pressing against the other side of the dam. Since the dam was constructed in the 1890’s, it would appear that the engineering was sound and the water wasn’t likely to come busting through, but logic has nothing to do with fear or anxiety.

Once I made the decision to not go all the way down, I turned abruptly and ascended the stairs with loud ringing steps until I reached the top panting. All I wanted to do was go back the way I had come and leave the reservoir. Once again I hesitated, but then I turned and continued to Spaulding 2 as I had planned.

Spaulding 2’s gates are open for the winter, but the water level is so low that it is dry on either side of the project. I walked across the metal grating with less unease than I flet on Spaulding 1. From the perspective of being underneath the gate doors, the dam gave the feel of being a great meat grinder. It’s a cold and violating looking structure. This is where the water spills into Jordan Creek to meet with the South Yuba during the spring runoff.

After spending time in the silence of the dams I felt depleted. I had no desire to continue to Spaulding 3. I made my way back across Spaulding 1 to the road. In my entire trek to the boat ramp and across the dams and back to my truck I came across no one. The silence and isolation of being on such an engineered landscape was an eerie experience. I longed for a friend. I even longed for a heated confrontation of a PG&E worker. I wanted anything to break the silence of that place.

As I walked back I wondered how reservoirs become such cherished recreation areas. This one provided no solace for me. This past summer I came to the reservoir for the first time for a bachelorette party. We took a boat ride across the water to a secluded campsite. Once there I climbed the bank to the kitchen area nestled within the trees. Never during the entire time I was there did I go down to the water until it was time to leave. I wanted nothing to do with that water which is unusual for me.

It’s not like I haven’t experienced reservoir waters before. Sometimes during the summer I have to work on Folsom Reservoir where the three forks of the American River empty. I don’t have a strong emotion aversion to it, but I also can’t say I like being there. It holds no draw for me, no connection, leaves no impression. I hear no voice of the river in the water. It’s like the water behind dams is silenced. It sits there quietly and obediently until it’s allowed to become itself once again if it makes it to the other side. Then the voice begins again.

Wall Holding Water

Wall Holding Water, 2005

Beatriz's Light Bulb

Beatriz's Light Bulb
Sunday, December 11, 2005

It’s Sunday Morning. I’ve been waiting all week for Beatriz’s latest Rio Grande adventure. She's already moved into Chihuahua, Mexico to a stretch of river called the ‘Forgotten River.’ I guess you need to cover ground quickly in a newspaper column.

The Rio Grande separates Chihuahua from Texas, and it seems to do it quite poignantly. The Rio Grande, like the South Yuba, is heavily plumbed. As the river passes through El Paso it all but disappears. Lining what once was a vibrant river are now ghost towns and salt cedars. The salt cedar can ‘guzzle up to 200 gallons of water a day.’ Mexico is allotted 60,000 acre-feet of water per year from the river but is not permitted to dam the river for agricultural use until the water reaches Coahuila where the Rio Conchos gives its water to the decimated Rio Grande. That’s over 300 miles of no water for agriculture.

Those numbers meant nothing to me until last Tuesday’s FERC Academy. 60,000af/yr seems like a big number… On average, the South Yuba receives 93,000af/yr. 85,000 of that comes within a few months during the spring runoff when Spaulding Reservoir can no longer contain all the water coming from the snowmelt and rains. This is when Spaulding Dam #2 spills. The remaining 9,000af/yr we get comes from the 1cfs faucet at the base of Spaulding 1. In other words, when we’re not getting spring runoff, we’re not getting much water and the majority of the water we do get comes within a very short window.

I can only assume that Mexico doesn’t get its 60,000af/yr in a nice, steady flow either. If they have no water most of the year and no way to hold it when it comes, there’s no way to sustain life – of either the river or the people. On top of that, they have the invasive salt cedars lining the banks hoarding what little water does flow. The people of Chihuahua got screwed. The results are impossible to miss.

It is here that Beatriz makes a connection: Nora-Naranjo Morse of Santa Clara Pueblo in New Mexico told her that ‘she has come to see the river as “a person, as alive.” She called it a “metaphor for our lives. ‘Cause when the water is ill, maybe we’re ill.”’ Beatriz considers, ‘Where the river is broken, so are the lives along it.’

But people remain living in this region of Mexico. Or if they’ve moved to the United States for more financial opportunities, many seem to return. Beatriz asked Lisset Saenz, a 17 year old living in Van Horn, Texas whether she prefers the United States or Mexico. Lisset said she is happier in Mexico, ‘There’s nothing to worry about here. Van Horn, everybody cares about what you have, and who has more things. Here, everybody is equal.’

This statement made by a 17 year old girl seems so utterly wise. The river is definitely ill, yet the people most affected by the disease are not the one’s who are ill; the society causing the illness in the river is the one appearing to be ill. We hoard things and we hoard the rivers for ourselves. In doing so, we’re far more destructive than the invasive salt cedars.

Seeing a destroyed river and the effects must feel devastating. Our water policies have not only destroyed rivers to this extreme in other countries, but in our own as well – and in California at that. The Owens River on the eastern side of the Sierra once sustained a vibrant community and fertile land until the entire river was diverted to sustain Los Angeles. There must be countless similarities between Chihuahua’s Rio Grande and the Owens Valley in California. These are both drastic examples leading to two river’s severe illness and death, in the case of the Owens River. At what point does a river start to become ill in the first place? Once it starts to become ill do we even have the ability to detect the illness anymore?

Two days after her bleak Mexico experience, Beatriz floated down the Rio Grande in a raft in Big Bend National Park. The river had become a river once again because of the Rio Grande’s confluence with the Rio Conchos. Marcos Paredes of the National Park Service was Beatriz’s guide. His major life decisions have been made in isolation on the river. He fears for its life, ‘What people have got to understand is how we are killing this river. And dead is dead…. There are values that we don’t traditionally look at that we should consider – solitude, quiet, dark skies. How far should we go to protect that?’ Paredes asked when the last time Beatriz went anywhere and did not see another person. Or has she ever? Beatriz replied without having to think about it: no.

I found her answer disheartening. How many people also have not? How can we protect those things Paredes asks about if people have not experienced the value of them? These are not things that can be reduced to monetary values such as the value of water converted to electricity or the value of water sold for agricultural or domestic use. These are the things of unquantifiable value that help heal societal illnesses. The same gap resurfaces…

Beatriz concludes her article: ‘By the end of the day…I am also changed in a way I never expected…. I never considered that this body of water…was a living thing that could die…. I long to return next year and float down other canyons, to savor the feeling I tasted so briefly… - that of being one with the river, of the water in my own body pulling like a magnet toward the river…. I long to see a day when we fix the problems with this river that has provided so much life.’

The light bulb has finally been turned on.

Monday, December 05, 2005


Hole, 2005

Rio de las Uvas?

Rio de las Uvas?
Fluency II (Usable Past)
Sunday, December 4, 2005

River, Interrupted. The dams literally interrupt the natural flow of the water. But, as I wrote about Deb, I realized acutely that there is something beyond this that gets interrupted as well - something that’s much more difficult to articulate. Again, I am up against a language barrier because the lexicon does not seem to exist to support it. I need to find a usable past to place myself in a greater context of the river. I have only experienced the river within the context of its structure in the beginning of the 21st century.

This morning I began reading about the history of the Yuba. Usable past gap number one occurred with the explanation of the origin of the name Yuba. Its naming has been forgotten, but a few theories remain. General Vallejo, in the Marysville Herald of August 1850, stated that during Captain Luis Arguello’s 1820 expedition the captain named it El Rio de las Uvas – the Grape River. In the Anglicization of the name it became ‘Yuba.’ Later that month in a letter to the editor, Johann Sutter disagreed with Vallejo by asserting that the river was named after the native group of people who lived in today’s Yuba City called the Yubu. But nobody remembers anymore. Regardless of the origin of the name, it appears we have a very short remembered history.

The Nisenan people who once lived here had been decimated by 1870. The Gold Rush wiped out the entire native oral history and culture and people of the river in about 20 years. By the turn of the 20th century, the South Yuba was already blocked by its first hydro-electro dam below what had been the confluence of the South Yuba River and Fordyce Creek, creating Spaulding Reservoir. This is the only history we remember. And what if we don’t have a usable history to follow and guide us? I suppose the only thing to do is create one. What was the river like before the dam was erected, before 1cfs was released from the bottom of the structure, before the miners dumped tailings in the water, and before entire hillsides were transformed into valleys by hydraulic mining? What did the river feel like when salmon and steelhead swam between the rocks? Did the river have the same voice then as it does now?

This morning I felt angry toward the gold miners. I scowled in the direction of Coloma where John Sutter discovered gold in 1848, and where I now teach kayaking in the summer. I thought about the historical landmarks scattered along Highway 49 through Marshall Gold Discovery Park that walk visitors through gold mining procedures. I had no idea that Coloma had been a Nisenan village until this morning. So had Nevada City. But our remembered history begins with the Gold Rush as if nothing existed before.

Frustrated I got on line to see what Dallas Morning News’s Beatriz Terrazas is up to with her Rio Grande story. As if to rub it in, she covered San Juan Pueblo, New Mexico. There the story is similar in that the Pueblo Indian’s lives changed dramatically with the arrival of the Spanish in the 1500’s. ‘When the Spanish arrived in the Pueblos, they rounded up the people and took them to the river. Priests cut long branches from the cottonwoods, dipped them in the river, and christened the people into a new religion. The people rolled in the dirt, trying to remove what they had been christened with.’ The Spanish ‘killed a way of life.’ The miners killed an entire people.

The Pueblo people still have a usable history of the river. They have passed down the memory of it through generations. They still honor it and its connection with their past and present. ‘Water is a gateway so revered that the Pueblo people won’t discuss its religious meaning with outsiders. The secretiveness is their way of preserving long-held religious traditions, some of which still take place at the river.’ I certainly don’t blame them for wanting to protect the spirituality of the river by keeping it within their culture. Our culture has proven with our history to destroy all that is spiritual within the river.

Herman Agoyo, a tribe councilman and former tribal governor, was Beatriz and Erich’s guide through San Juan Pueblo. He shared his poem, ‘River Voice Card,’ with Beatriz. Part of it reads:

To us you are P’oekay (strong water)
You are the source of life and joy….
You are arayui (sacred water serpent).
You fed our sacred springs, ponds and wells.
Because of you Ohkay Owingeh (Village of Strong People) was born.
Because of you, we are still connected to our place of birth and emergence.

I will borrow this to begin to construct my usable history of the Yuba River. Thank you Beatriz and Herman Agoyo.

Beatriz concludes this Sunday’s account of her experiences asking, ‘Will I ever connect in a deep way to the river I knew growing up? …I have never explored any deep, personal emotion I might have for the river.’

Beatriz – you are beginning to construct your usable past of the river you grew up on. You are learning through other’s experiences and connections. You are placing yourself within its greater context – something that stretches beyond yourself. It’s a beginning. But when are you going to go to the river to construct your own story? Are you willing to go there yourself to hear what the river will tell you? Are you willing to go beyond being a journalist to tell your own story?

To the Faucet

To the Faucet, 2005


Faucet, 2005

FERC Academy II - Schematics

FERC Academy, Saturday, December 3, 2005

Two summers ago I spent a day swimming on the South Yuba with Matt after his friend Deb died kayaking Fordyce Creek. He wanted to go there to process her death and to connect with her through the river. I remember vividly him telling me that we probably touched water molecules that had touched her on the day she died. That thought somehow made sense to me and I found the idea of the connectedness we all have with each other and our natural world comforting.

Over a year later I joined a group called FERC Academy to learn about the physical, economic and political structures of the Yuba watershed in hopes of gaining insight into the convoluted procedures involving the relicensing of the South Yuba water projects and more importantly, about the river itself. The first stop on our first field excursion was to Spaulding Reservoir. A dam built in the 1890s separates the water from where Fordyce Creek empties into Spaulding Reservoir from the section of the South Yuba where Matt and I swam that summer day. We were given a packet that includes three pages of complicated diagrams with arrows and webs of lines that illustrate where the water comes from and where it goes and who controls it. It’s certainly not nature that does the controlling anymore.

It is required by FERC that 1cfs is released into the South Yuba at all times. We stood on the dam that separates the 74,773 AF of dark reservoir water on one side from the white spurt of 1cfs on the other. Steep metal stairs laced the rocks 275 feet down below to the riverbed, or more aptly described, the faucet. It is literally a valve that can be turned on and off manually at the base of the concrete structure. The river is a faucet.

Running next to the river (I use the term loosely) is a more generous allocation of water destined for either the Bear River or Deer Creek Power House via tunnels and canals. Bear River gets 5cfs, a whopping 4 more than the South Yuba, but the South Yuba Canal carries 126cfs to Deer Creek Power House.

The PG&E people fielded countless questions about who gets the water, who decides who gets the water and how much and when, what happens when the reservoir is full, when are the gates open…. I concluded that it’s all pretty much a clusterfuck that began in the 1890’s thanks to the Gold Rush. There is nothing natural about the way the water moves through the watershed. Some of it is for electricity, some for consumption, 1cfs for fish presumably. Most gets used in Nevada County, but some goes to Placer. NID (Nevada Irrigation District) is required to supply all necessary water and PG&E is, well, PG&E. The system is maxed out they said. But developments keep springing up and NID will have to continue to supply them as they come. This is the most complicated plumbing system in the area they admitted.

The group then caravanned to our second destination at Dutch Flat on the Bear River. To get there we needed to pass through yellow crime scene tape and a full encampment of search and rescue teams looking for a recently murdered woman who is believed to be buried in the area. Dead seemed to be the theme of the day. Dead river canyons, dead water and now another dead woman.

We stood on the dam by the dreary looking reservoir. Across the water, tubes shot straight down the hillside carrying water from as far away as the North Fork of the American River as well as Spaulding Reservoir. On the other side of the dam the water gushed out of a tube into a concrete canal. And so it all goes. More questions were fielded. Some were lost in the sound of the water blasting into a canal. Others were lost in the sound of passing search and rescue trucks.

I came back today overwhelmed with the thoughts of the daunting task of trying to comprehend what the river that I’ve been so involved with this past year actually is. It’s not what I thought it was. That comforting thought of the interconnectedness of things that I wanted to believe when I was at the river with Matt is false. We’ve engineered it away. The probability that those particular molecules that touched Deb had eventually made it into that sparse allotment of 1cfs is very slim. I feel betrayed, but by whom or what I don’t really know. My own idealism, perhaps?

Spaulding 2 Gates

Spaulding 2 Gates, 2005

FERC Academy I - Fluency

FERC Academy I - Fluency
Friday, December 2, 2005

The Yuba and Bear River watersheds are coming up for FERC relicensing. FERC is the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission which licenses non-federal hydropower projects. SYRCL, American Rivers and the Natural Heritage Institute have implemented the FERC Academy to educate the likes of me who love our river but have no clue what the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is and how it can affect rivers. I’ve missed the first two meetings so I still don’t really know much about the FERC.

When I signed up I was given a big binder with the handouts from the first two meetings. I had homework. Section one was a bunch of legal speak that explained what FERC does. I perused it and gleaned little insight into the subject since legal speak is a foreign language to most of us who are outside the legal world. I need a translator. The second section began with chapter sixteen of Jefferey E. Mount’s California Rivers and Streams – The Conflict Between Fluvial Process and Land Use, The Damming of California’s Rivers. I learned that 75 percent of California’s runoff is located north of Sacramento while 80 percent of the demand for that water is from south of Sacramento. This came as no surprise to me since the LA sprawl and San Francisco are both south of Sacramento. We have more than 1,200 nonfederal dams and 181 federal reservoirs that hold almost 60 percent of the annual runoff in California. More than 140 different aqueducts and canals relocate this water, 80 percent of which is consumed by agriculture. Urban residential use consumes a mere 10 percent. I also learned that almost half of the agricultural water is used for alfalfa, irrigated pasture, cotton and rice. These four uses represent only 10 percent of the total value of crops produced in the California. And not only that, but much of this water-guzzling agriculture takes place in arid climates. That seems like a big waste of water to me.

All of this was conveyed to me through a whole lot of numbers. In addition to not speaking legalese, I also don’t regularly converse in number talk. Numbers reduce things to such an abstract, practical form with no soul. I finished the article with a feeling that large amounts of water are being wasted on very insubstantial crops, all of the reservoirs we’ve constructed will eventually be rendered useless due to the disruption of sediment flows, and the riparian ecosystems are thrown completely out of whack due to our meddling, without any ability to grasp the scope of it. It’s depressing and heady and big. All of this information was communicated to me with science and numbers. This is the language that will be used to communicate with the legal faction who have the power to continue to alter the rivers, the language that is revered as the truth in our society. Where does this leave me who does not speak numbers, science or legalese?

Well, I’ve signed up to regularly attend meetings and field trips where I will be familiarized in all three languages regarding dams on the Yuba. It’s a start, but there was something that had to happen before I could ever conceive of attending those meetings in the first place. I needed a connection to rivers before being able to attain the stamina and desire to slog through languages reducing what I love to numbers, charts and graphs, and legal memos. I needed to be able to understand its language. I’ve been learning that through all the time I’ve spent in, on and around rivers. But what about other people who haven’t had much experience on rivers?

I spent the Thanksgiving holiday in a suburb of Dallas, Texas – land of little water. The day I left an article in the Dallas Morning News caught my eye: ‘The Source: The Rio Grande exerts a powerful pull right from the start.’ Most of the socio-political issues associated with this river concern water rights, border violence and illegal immigration. But the purpose of the article was to highlight that there is something that goes way beyond the main news headlines concerning it. ‘And yet there has always been some other force I associate with the river, something I’ve never been able to name. Despite our best efforts, it seems to defy those of us who seek to unravel its mystery,’ writes Beatriz Terrazas, staff writer for the Dallas Morning News. She and photographer Erich Schlegel began a series of journeys in July along the 1,900 miles of river ‘in hopes of tapping into the mystery of the river’s call.’

This revelation is what people need to experience before the river is reduced to numbers and charts. This is the thing that needs to be remembered when the inevitable translation occurs. This is what is essential – the mystery, the soul, the spirit – whatever you want to call it, of the river. It is why I have spent years paddling rivers, countless hours alone in my studio painting the light and movement of rivers, and the reason why I endure ticks, poison oak and my destroyed knee to cover every inch of the South Yuba River I can with my camera in hand. This is why I am compelled to learn about the language of numbers and science that will be later translated into the legal language – a far disparate language from that of the river.

Beatriz’s article in the November 27th Lifestyles section was based on her trip to Creede, Colorado at the Continental Divide. Greg Coln, her guide, and his wife Delen have spent the past 20 years guiding on that stretch of the Rio Grande. They are intimately familiar with its character, changes and spirit. Delen describes her relationship to the river as, ‘…connected with our very blood flow, with the rhythm of our bodies and our minds.’ Greg explains, ‘It’s like somebody talking about their relationship with God or Jesus. It’s something you don’t know how to put into words. It’s just there. It’s real. And it’s a part of you.’

There is a reason that Greg says that trying to put his relationship with the river into words is as difficult as trying to explain a relationship with a higher power. It’s something that is beyond us. We can sense it, but it is not part of our lexicon to describe it. This, to me, signifies a problem. If it is not in our language, we, as a society have not yet begun to absorb it.

This morning I treated myself with indulging in lying in bed reading a book, At the Root of This Longing, by Carol Lee Flinders. On the page I left off, Flinders described the significance of the connection between the culture and rivers through an Indian story about Draupadi from the epic Mahabharata, ‘…and in the flow of her tears, her blood, her hair, and her garments are represented in the rivers of India, the land that’s said to be “river-mothered.” For Ganga, Jumna, Narmada, Sarasvati, and Kaveri are goddesses as well as rivers.’ In the Indian culture, the intangible relationships with our rivers has been incorporated directly into the spiritual vocabulary of the land. There is less of a language gap and therefore more of a natural acceptance and understanding of the important connection between people and rivers.

Beatriz sits on the bank and listens, ‘…the water murmurs in a way that mimics people’s talking. But I don’t know the language of this river… this river is a stranger I am just beginning to know.’ It’s because it is not the language we are taught in school. Nor is it the language that makes the political decisions. However, Beatriz, you are only partly on track. The water does not mimic people’s talking. Perhaps we instead mimic it. We need a paradigm shift in our thinking that removes ourselves as the center in which rivers and nature follow. We learn from the river, it does not learn from us. Be with the water longer, listen harder and you will begin to understand its language. This is the language we need to be fluent in before we can begin to translate it into the legal or scientific languages.

Spaulding 2 Under Flood Gates

Spaulding 2 Under Flood Gates, 2005