©Joe Medieros

Living Lightly

Rivers of Birds, Forests of Tules:  Central Valley Nature & Culture in Season

By Lillian Vallee

25. Full Moon Over Salt Slough

Yesterday morning, in cold rain and viscous mud, Modesto Junior College students—Konstantin Bandalak (with son Kiril), Ramona Cole, Frank Dompe, Aida Hawkins, Fongsamout Samonthy, Greg Seaman, and Chris Scheid—along with students from Mr. Palmer’s Botany class at Fresno City College and U.S. Fish & Wildlife staff, planted blackberry, elderberry, coyote bush and sandbar willow on the West Bear Creek portion of the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge near Los Banos. The work was quick and a bit wobbly (watch out for those ground squirrel holes!) and our reward, in addition to a hot lunch at the shop (prepared by the heroic Brandon Jordan in record time), was a long ride through the heart of the refuge, past the egret and heron rookery, the lustrous backwaters of the San Joaquin River, and two flocks of sheep helping to keep weeds down behind an electric fence in the grasslands. Eight-year old Kiril, who had planted four coyote bushes without any adult help and snapped pictures of the rookery, said he liked the black sheep best.

If I am anywhere near San Luis, I try to end the day with a little work by the gate (mainly clearing poison hemlock) and then with a visit to Maggie Icho and Salt Slough. Pulling hemlock, and mulching creeping wild rye and blackberry with it, is an all-consuming, never-ending task and sometimes I hear the eerie clanging of metal, as if a train were passing close by, and I look up to see the automatic refuge gate closing in front of me. For an instant, the place is all mine and I am trapped in a fairytale kingdom to perform some inexplicable task of high portent (like weaving shirts out of nettles or chopping hemlock) that will save my children or siblings, changed into wild swans by a malevolent force. Who is that towhee staring at me with glistening eye as he scratches the soil for his evening meal and why are the quail calling Cuidado! Cuidado!?

No more dawdling; the blackbirds arranged like musical notes on the telephone wires have vanished, and the rolling gate means it is almost sundown. I have time to see Maggie and to follow the course of Salt Slough before the elk tour route returns me to the gate and the long drive home. The night shift is beginning: quiet cottontails and hares replace gregarious ground squirrels; horned owls take over from hawks on the fence posts. The elk have drifted into the swales

Maggie Icho, Wukchumne Yokuts head woman, called Wahnomkot, is there, as she always is, pounding acorns in her oak mortar with a beautifully elongated pestle, worn to a smooth lozenge, or removing a cooking stone from a basket of acorn soup with a looped stirring stick. She is beautiful in her flowered dress and white hair, and she is demonstrating what she knows with a smile that dimples her cheeks. Even though Maggie is a photo on the interpretive panel along the elk tour route, you can come to her with a problem, and she always gives good advice: look around you, she urges, watch the killdeer and listen to the meadowlarks. Understand the millipede and recognize the kestrel. Step out of yourself and study the slough.

Salt Slough, once a swift-flowing, clear-running tributary of the San Joaquin River, was a salmon stream fed by Sierra Nevada snowmelt. It is hard to let go of salmon dreams—they reside here. Dried salmon was probably a reliable staple, along with wildfowl, and this time of year women might gather new tule shoots to eat like asparagus with freshwater mussels and clams “the size of dinner plates.” Even now you can find tiny white clam shells, dragged up onto the banks by raccoons, but they are more likely to be the size of your thumbnail. “With American settlement,” states the interpretive panel. “Salt Slough became a primary route for transporting crops and produce to the markets of San Francisco and beyond.”

The early dams, dikes, and canals built for water control reduced the natural flow of the slough, which now shares the fate of most Central Valley rivers as conduits for mainly agricultural and urban drainage. Its waters are muddy and placid and can no longer support salmon, clams or other invertebrates. Refuge managers have worked hard to increase the diversity of native plants (willows, cottonwoods, Valley oaks, buttonbush and elderberry) to stabilize the soil and to provide cover for a wild range of wildlife.

In spite of alterations, Salt Slough is dense with phantom presences and exotic languages. Once at dusk, I thought I heard a baby crying. Thinking that someone had abandoned a child at the slough, I headed for the sound: when I got there two yellow eyes stared at me with something close to pure fury and a long-eared owl swooped down from a low branch so close to my head I could feel its powerful wing beat. Egrets gather in black willow thickets at sundown, their white silhouettes ghostly against rough trunks and expiring light. There is also something here, in the bend of the slough, in its cattail edges, that speaks of sorrow and longing, the age-old yearning to hold beauty and keep it from encroaching change.

Maggie knew something about this. And even though she is a photo on an interpretive panel, someone with a gun still wanted to shoot her. There is a bullet hole that tore away a piece of her dress and left a wound as round as the full moon I see on the last leg of the drive. When I visit Salt Slough, I touch that wound, that hole in our breast, and I think of the lost boy who thought he could kill Maggie Icho.

Sources: Interpretive panels at the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge; Milliken Museum in Los Banos.

An Earth Day urgency


Comparisons have been made regarding our current Administration and the Nixon years – the Bush scandals (wire tapping, lobbyists) and Watergate, Iraq and Vietnam. These, we believe, are valid comparisons and must be delved into more because there are many more similarities, and history is repeating itself, except in an even more destructive, permanent way.

But – here’s a big difference between the current regime and the Nixon administration. In the early 1970’s caring about air and water quality, and preserving the environment wasn’t a political party “theme” or catch phrase – it was a genuine concern, party affiliation aside – it was logical and necessary. In that area, in that era, intelligence prevailed.

In this new millennium, have we regressed or “dumbed down” so badly that the very health of our families, and the future of our earth’s existence have been reduced to a political strategy move? Or worse, that an opponent who shows concern for these issues is accused of having a major character flaw? This is especially distressing when we can actually see even more clearly the damage we’ve done, and the fear many of us feel when we realize what it is going to take to reverse it. If we let complacency and indifference be our game plan for this century, it is nothing short of treason to the next generations. The peace-minded will be forced to become militant to do what is necessary to save our collective lives.

There’s an American hero you may have never heard about, but you should have, and hopefully his name will make it to the regular classroom curriculum someday.

His name was Gaylord Nelson, the founder of Earth Day. Over 20 million ‘earthlings’ participated in the first Earth Day celebration in 1970.

Beginning in 1948, Gaylord Nelson served as a state senator, governor and then a U.S. senator for 18 years during the 1960’s and 70‘s. In 1981 he left the Senate and became a counselor of The Wilderness Society. (Visit www.wilderness.org/AboutUs/Nelson_Bio.cfm to find out more.)

He dedicated his life to protecting the wilderness, and was instrumental in creating the Environmental Protection Act, the Clean Air/Water Acts of the early 1970’s, and much more. He was presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Clinton in 1995, and received many other prestigious awards. Senator Nelson died last July. We must not squander all he has done to lay the groundwork for all of us to continue his legacy.

Rachel Carson, the author of the classic Silent Spring (a must read for any generation!), was nothing less than a modern day prophet. She scared a lot of people with her scenarios of a world gone so wrong, environmentally, that many things we take for granted, like bird songs, could be forever silenced by our careless greed and irresponsibility to the earth, and its inhabitants. She quoted Albert Schweitzer: “Man can hardly recognize the devils of his own creation.”

 Earth day will be 36 years old on Saturday, April 22nd. There’s a celebration at Graceada Park for the 17th year. Sometimes it rains on that day, sometimes it’s sunny – but keep in mind: it is Earth’s Day! Please don’t let weather deter you – the Earth is just making a point!

It will be our 8th year attending, and we’ll be handing out information on Gaylord Nelson, and how you can help continue his legacy. Come and show your support for Gaylord Nelson, Rachel Carson and many others, and what they accomplished for conservation, preservation and healthy living. They met with opposition all the way but persevered. We must be relentless in the face of the tyrants who choose to gamble away your future to fill their pocketbooks.

Politics is a huge part of it, and, like it or not, we must be involved and informed. We have elections coming up, and even locally we have some individuals who have set their sights on more personal power for themselves to the direct detriment of our region – environmentally and economically. Get active: for yourself, for your family, community, and world – for our Earth.

 “We stand now where two roads diverge. But unlike the roads in Robert Frost’s familiar poem, they are not equally fair. The road we have long been traveling is deceptively easy, a smooth super-highway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster. The other fork of the road—the one ‘less traveled by’—offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of our earth.”

— Rachel Carson, Silent Spring, 1962

ACTION: Contact the authors at Cruelty-Free Consumers / Valley Ecology NOW, P.O. Box 12, Empire, CA. 95319 652-4131; ryke40@ainet.com


Fields of plenty


Borrowing my title from Michael Ableman is a way of honoring his viewpoints. For years I have admired his work to bring to our attention the issues involved in organic farming. His newest book, Fields of Plenty (Chronicle Books), makes clear the necessity for us to keep supporting farmers and gardeners who provide us with sustainable nourishment. He tells the stories of farmers all over the country who are doing just that, and their struggle to continue.

Here in the Central Valley we have many farmers who produce food by farming in a sustainable fashion. We have only to look at our Modesto, Stockton, Davis, and other Farmers‘ Markets to see it in action. The importance of these food sources cannot be overestimated; these markets are often the only places where truly fresh food is available, often picked the very same day. The produce you buy at supermarkets often has been trucked from a thousand miles away; its contribution to air pollution in the valley from diesel trucks is part of the air pollution that fouls our air and sickens many of us.

There are other ways to beat the supermarket syndrome. Because I planted in early fall, I have not bought a single head of lettuce this winter. One packet of mixed lettuce seeds and one of carrots has produced all I can eat. First you eat the thinnings, then the full-grown heads. Same for onions, garlic, peas, all fine winter crops. Almost anyone can grow these in a raised bed about 4 ft. by 8ft. so it fits in nearly anyone’s patio. Granted, you have to put good soil in it and pay attention to watering.

Another trend I believe to be absolutely essential to our future is the movement to have school gardens.

I recently visited two of them, one at a Belmont school, and the other started by Alice Waters (of Chez Panisse restaurant) in Berkeley. You would be amazed at how much children learn at these gardens. I have been told by my son, John, who started the one in Belmont, that the students now eat all the vegetables they grow because they grew them and are proud of the garden and their part in it. Not only do they learn to garden, but also to plan the space (often involving the parents, since John’s school is on a hill and needed terracing). Learning about how to get things to grow, complete with watering chores and planting and weeding, turns out to be part of the curriculum. And, best of all, the children learn of the nutritional value of fresh food. At the school where Alice Waters started the project, nearly an acre of the grounds has been turned into garden, complete with berry bushes and even some fruit trees, and finally, a cafeteria in which the garden produce is a regular part of the lunch menu.

There are a number of school gardens in Modesto. Ask your child if one exists in your district. We would like to do a feature on the local school gardens and learn how they are doing. We may not be able to go as far as Alice Waters, but at least we could start. My friend Karabi was recently substitute teaching in one school and came home shocked that huge bowls of string beans were thrown away at lunch time when none of the children would eat them. We really need to turn this kind of thing around so that children will be more healthy. The obesity epidemic among U.S. children is telling us something.

Michael Ableman’s earlier books, From the Good Earth and On Good Land, chronicle the work of the Center for Urban Agriculture at Fairview Gardens, near Santa Barbara. He now lives in British Columbia and is the subject of a PBS broadcast, “Beyond Organic” narrated by Meryl Streep. He has been featured in many other publications.

BOTTLED WATER: pouring resources down the drain

Walking the Line: What Mexican activists can teach the U.S. about poverty and the planet


As the border organizer for Sierra Club's Environmental Justice program, I bounce back and forth across the U.S.-Mexico border supporting grassroots environmental activists. More than the food, language, or currency, the biggest difference from one side to the other is what issues are considered "environmental.” Perhaps nowhere else on earth is there such a long border between such a rich country and such a struggling one, and this disparity seems to carry over to which issues take priority.

For example, Laguna La Escondida in Reynosa, Mexico, a water source for the surrounding community whose name means Hidden Lagoon, is also an important migratory bird stopover point. Reynosa citizens concerned about their environment are working to clean up the lagoon to protect their families' health from the waste dumped into its waters. Neighboring Texas citizens concerned about their environment are working to clean up the lagoon to prevent habitat destruction for hundreds of migratory birds. This binational effort is a terrific start, but it avoids confronting the issue of poverty. For all their goodwill and concern, the Texans' narrow focus on bird habitat prevents many of them from seeing the bigger problem -- human habitat.

Since the enactment of NAFTA in 1994, rapid industrialization along the border has led to some of the fastest population growth in either country. Almost 12 million people now live in Mexico and the United States along the nearly 2,000-mile border, and by 2020 that number could reach 20 million. This is not "smart growth," but instead a ferocious growth to support the movement of consumer goods.

NAFTA was supposed to bring economic prosperity to Mexico, but the poverty and human suffering along the border tell a different story. Mexico's more than 3,000 border maquiladoras -- the mostly foreign-owned manufacturing and assembly plants -- send about 90 percent of their products to the United States. The Spanish word "maquilar" means "to assemble," but it is also slang for "to do someone else's work for them." This is what's really going on; the maquiladora sector produced more than $100 billion in goods last year, but the typical maquiladora worker earns between $1 and $3 per hour, including benefits and bonuses. Special tariff-free zones along the border mean that many maquiladoras pay low taxes, limiting the funds that could improve quality of life.

Those who don't work in the maquiladoras live in their shadows. The industrial growth has drawn more people and development to the region, putting additional pressure on communities and the environment. Towns that until recently were small agricultural settlements now produce toxic chemicals for a worldwide market. Informal, donkey-drawn garbage carts cannot keep up with the waste stream from booming border cities. The natural environment suffers, indeed, but the most immediate suffering is human.

I recently visited a community near Matamoros, at the eastern end of the border, where the streets and canals were filled with trash. Rather than a classic litter campaign, the local activists explained that their biggest concern was the roads. If the local authorities don't pave the road, they told me, the garbage trucks cannot get in and pick up the waste. Even burning the waste would be preferable to having to live with it in their homes, they say. The activists lament the polluted canals and the litter, but their focus is on the people. Without regular pickups, families live with trash piling up in their houses, and their children get sick.

South of Tijuana, on the western end of the border, a small environmental group advocates for more drains and sewers. Heavy seasonal rains flood the valleys and bring sewage and trash tumbling down to the beaches. While a goal of the local campaign may be to have cleaner beaches and unpolluted water, the way to reach that goal is by talking about quality-of-life issues like proper drainage from homes, regular trash pickup in outlying areas, and safe drinking water -- something that 12 percent of border residents do not have. In the United States, these issues are all too often considered a given, lumped into the category of "basic services." But even in the U.S. there are people who suffer as we ignore their poverty, having decided that it is not an environmental issue.

People are an important part of an ecosystem. If they are poor and unhealthy, then the ecosystem is poor and unhealthy. Many Mexican activists know this too well, but the closest thing the mainstream environmental movement in the United States has to this integrated people-and-poverty approach is the often neglected environmental-justice movement. The EJ movement works for justice for people of color and low-income communities that have been targeted by polluters. The EJ movement is our salvation -- but we must stop viewing it as extracurricular to the business of conservation.

It's time to support the right to a clean and healthful environment for all people. This means that residents in the border region should not suffer disproportionately from environmental health problems because of the color of their skin, the level of their income, or the side of the international line on which they live. It also means that environmental activists should not look past human poverty to save an endearing species, but must look instead at the big picture.

The cries of intense poverty and injustice across the world are getting louder. It is time for the environmental movement to listen, and to act.

Oliver Bernstein is a Sierra Club environmental-justice organizer along the U.S.-Mexico Border.

Reprinted by permission from Grist (www.grist.org). For more environmental news and humor sign up for Grist's free email service, www.grist.org/signup