Tuesday, July 18, 2006
July 18, 2006
Driving into the parking lot, our boats stuffed into the back of the pick-up, our conversation ended abruptly with the sight of flashing lights. A crowd of people huddled leaning over the guard rail stretching as far as they could across the expansive space above the water.
Hastily we grabbed our gear, our eyes shifting, not wanting to partake in the drama below the rail. We only wanted to kayak on the South Yuba on the perfect day – the summer solstice. Perhaps if we were fast, we would also be invisible. Nobody would notice us slipping past as we clambered down the rocks to the river, silent and slippery like the brown fish.
Yet we were stopped at the top. You are our first line of defense, he said. You understand the river much better than we. We can’t get down there fast enough. You go. Find him, he said: Blue shorts; In his forties.
A group of three standing on the put in rock pleaded with us with their eyes. Find him please. He is a good swimmer. He swims every day. In a pool. He doesn’t understand the river. Blue shorts, 40 something became a person.
Jason told them he could be stranded on a rock. He said the water is warm. There is a chance. But it was a lie. Everybody knew it. Nobody wanted to say it. How could you say it to those eyes? I remained silent. Very silent as if I were only a ghost too.
My timing was off. We peered behind rocks. We strained our eyes to see below the surface. I pleaded with the river to not reveal the blue shorts. I missed strokes. I scrambled from low in the eddy to avoid slipping away. There is no use pleading with the river. It does not care. It does not stop or ease for anyone’s worried mind.
The river becomes choked with rocks. It drops. We could not pass. Nor could a body supporting blue shorts. The walk around was a relief. He could not be there. I could breathe again. I could paddle on the summer solstice without fearing finding those blue shorts behind every rock.
Cory passed us. He had been crying. He had been there to hear the man cry out for help.
A red helicopter thumped through the canyon. Its rhythm beating between the canyon walls before we could see it.
We paddled. We swam. We basked in the sun on a rock. The river was vividly alive, as were we.
He had not been found when we returned for the truck. They were packing up the tents from the parking lot. People milled around, hushed and somber.
Mark Ray. A piano teacher from Manchester, England. Days later the newspaper article was pinned to the park bench by the guard rail.
The following day, June 22, was my grandmother’s 82nd birthday. I knew it would be her last. Early that morning I called to wish her a happy birthday but she could not come to the phone.
The same group of three as the day before on the South Yuba hiked down to Euchre’s Bar on the North Fork of the American to paddle for two days in solitude. After passing through the first canyon of mossy dark walls, green water flowing over glowing white granite and waterfalls I began to cry. This trip is for my grandmother, I said. To Grandma.
She died nine days later. I never had the chance to speak to her.
Helen Tartol – Giant Gap, North Fork of the American River: for you always
July 4th I returned from Chicago after my grandmother’s funeral. On the fifth I drove across the Sierra Nevada to meet some friends on the West Walker River. Past Lake Tahoe,a garbled and distressed voice mail from Jess. I called when I reached Nevada. It took her three tries before I could understand her words through her tears. Sam died kayaking in Norway. My body went cold. Silent tears.
As I slid my boat into the cold desert river I knew that it was not for me. After a quarter mile of the eleven mile rapid that constitutes that stretch of river I got out of my boat and walked back to my truck as the others continued.
Two days later we paddled on the South San Joaquin. Its beauty is breathtakingly alive. I was the river. The river was me and all of us - including Mark, Grandma and Sam.
Wednesday, February 01, 2006
Again I showed up at the 49 bridge on a perfect paddling day without a boat. The river a milky green ribbon.
Jessica and I spoke on the phone at about 12:30 pm. I was still in my pajamas and drinking coffee. She was dropping her husband, Steve, off to paddle and wanted to know if I wanted to meet her there for a hike.
Once we dropped down from the trail to the river. Steve and his friend were just upstream. They paddled to us and reported time both spent stuck in the same hole.
Back to the bridge after the hike. More paddlers there. Matt. He wanted to hike. I declined. He wanted to watch me take photos. I said no. Just leave. Just leave. Please leave me alone.
On the flat slab of granite Christopher and I stood a year ago I sprawled out on my stomach, right hand dangling in the water until I could no longer press the camera’s button. The strap held the camera to my wrist. The hand red and slow.
Sitting on the slab I waited for my hand to return as I willed the sound, the smell and the feel of being there into my body. But I could not force it to stay.
Foam loitered in corners rising up and down like breath. Remains of something fibrous wound around a bare branch. I worked around them but returned time and time again to the two faceless figures in long hemp robes meditating downstream, melding into the rocks as the sun set, still and quiet. Did the sound, smell and feel meld into their robes to stay?
Sunday, January 08, 2006
No Picture Taking
Sunday, January 8, 2006
The Maidu Indians lived in Nevada County before there ever was a Nevada County. They have a history with this river. To begin the New Year I had been invited to attend a Maidu ceremony calling back the salmon to the South Yuba River.
This was an opportunity I accepted with eagerness. It seemed a logical and necessary thing to do to begin reconstructing a usable past of the river - Begin with the people who have known it the longest.
Yet as the day grew nearer I met it with a continued sense of trepidation directly connected to my feelings of guilt. At the root of the guilt was my perceived sense of being a foreign invader taking something for my own use and contorting it to fit into my own contexts and designs.
Feeding this sense of guilt and separatism was a show of Zig Jackson’s photography that I saw in Omaha’s Joslyn Art Museum a few weeks ago. That Jackson also received his MFA from the San Francisco Art Institute magnified my feelings because of our shared educational origins and therefore in my mind I manifested a heightened personal connection and responsibility to his artistic statements based on a superficial coincidence.
Zig Jackson succinctly describes my unease with a single photograph and relentlessly drives the point home with photographic series entitled Indian Man in San Francisco and Indian Photographing Tourists Photographing Indians. Jackson sits on a park bench in Golden Gate Park wearing a Plains Indian headdress. Behind him bison are fenced in. He had erected a sign, also appearing in several other photographs, next to the bench:
ENTERING ZIG’S INDIAN RESERVATION
No Picture Taking
No Air Traffic
New Agers Prohibited
The last restriction was a huge concern to me. I very much want to distance myself as far as I possibly can away from the ‘New Ager.’ Jackson criticizes the tendency for those seeking spiritual guidance to take what they deem fit from his culture and disregard the rest. A just criticism. Our own culture has taken just about all that it could from the Native American culture. I don’t want to be a part of taking more. New Agers Prohibited.
Yet participating in a ceremony like this is a sincere form of acknowledging that the Native Americans have a beautiful belief system that is undervalued and virtually buried by our own culture. How valid is the gesture?
I think of Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings after Japanese wood cut prints. Van Gogh’s paintings were created with sincere admiration for an art he had newly discovered that moved him greatly. They were beautiful paintings, but the Japanese characters Van Gogh included were meaningless lines approximating symbols from another culture. The paintings were not Japanese wood cuts, but something that would always remain European painting no matter how much he tried to emulate another culture’s sensibilities.
But how can I be critical of those New Agers I distance myself from when I, myself, just participated in a Maidu ceremony to heal the river and not be a hypocrite? I was a curious ‘tourist’ stepping into a sacred ceremony that I knew nothing about, investigating a gap that I find missing within my own cultural context. I even violated another of Jackson’s prohibitions. I brought my camera. If Jackson were there he could have photographed me photographing Indians and I would have been included in his unnerving series Indian Photographing Tourists Photographing Indians. No Picture Taking.
The ceremony was yesterday morning. We gathered at Edwards Crossing under rain heavy clouds and traveled in a procession to Spring Creek.
My camera hung from my neck. As Bill set up an altar I, through my camera lens, greedily became absorbed with the textures and colors that were being built into something with meaning beyond the objects themselves. But once the ceremony started I experienced it through my own eyes, not a lens.
Standing in a circle we conjured a palpable sense of love and concern for the river. It was powerful and it was real. Three women cried. I knew I was experiencing an expression of connection to the earth, denied to us by our own culture, through people who have been living the connection since arriving here. I know that it exists. I know that it’s a real thing that still exists. There is an ancient lineage honoring the river that has its own language to clearly articulate the connection that so many of us feel but seem unable to adequately express. But it’s still not my language. I don’t feel I can adopt this one that is not my own, even as perfected and honed as it is. But I can remember the feeling of knowing and experiencing a language and a palpable connection that exists for this particular river. I can carry this with me until I find a way to clearly articulate that connection myself.
I wonder if Zig Jackson would condemn me for doing this.
It seems to me that it would be so simple if we had a something of a universal language for this like Esperanto. Then there would not be separations formed by guilt or disdain stemming from appropriating parts of different cultures that seem to have gotten it right. I would not wonder if Jackson would condemn me. I would not feel skeptical and critical of others adopting ceremonies and ideals from various cultures while I simultaneously freely appropriate the things from myriad cultures that work for me. But Esperanto has never taken off in this world as of yet as far as I know. Tensions persist.