It’s early November and Central California is still smoking hot, like an overheated griddle, and drier than an old tortilla chip. Our creek is dry, river is dry, well is drying up—and no rain in the foreseeable future. My own wellspring of creativity, optimism, and trust in human decency is as jaded as the news, as withered as the roadside weeds.
My husband and I corralled our three grown sons for a last hurrah before school and jobs claimed them for the year, and paddled for five days through the forest-lined lakes and rivers of the Boundary Waters, between Minnesota and Canada. The fall colors were just beginning to flame, yellow and red torches against the dark green. Every half mile or so, we spotted boundary markers, letting us know where the US territory ended, and Canada began.
The first ripe plum on our little plum tree dangled in front of me this morning. The birds hadn’t even a pecked a hole in it, yet. The Santa Rosa plum, one of Luther Burbank’s best inventions, is a pretty, purpley-red color, with a frosted silvery sheen, and sunshine-yellow on the inside. I plucked it off the tree, bit into it, and stopped in my tracks.
Confluence: Old Latin, adapted, from “com” (together) “fluer” (to flow) The point at which two rivers come together.
Hiking with friends recently, the word "confluence" popped up, as we came upon two pretty streams flowing into one another. I should have stopped for a picture, but I didn’t. You can picture them yourself though—swift and clear, lined with willow trees and wildflowers, gravel beds sparkling as sun filtered through the trees. The idea of confluence was tossed about as we continued on our way.
My favorite book, as a kid, was about this puppy that always lagged behind the others. The Pokey Little Puppy sniffed about, dug holes and gazed through fence gaps while his mates raced ahead, found all the bones, then raced home for dinner. The bowl was always empty when he finally showed up. I named the stuffed dog I slept with “Pokey.” He still sits in my window seat. Do you see, now, how it happened? Those bare patches? All that pokiness rubbed off on me.
“Congratulations! It took you long enough!” a friend laughed this week, regarding my upcoming picture book. Hey! Only three and half decades! Right. If I were a dog, I’d be Pokey. If I were a plant, I’d be that century plant that takes a lifetime to bloom.
My whole life, I wanted the same three three things: to be a cowgirl, a writer, and a mom. They seemed like humble enough goals. I set off blithely into adulthood to lasso them.
Sadly, cows don’t actually roam the wide-open plains much anymore, serenaded by vaqueros. Mostly, they’re corralled in big feedlots, and the roaming ones are often herded around by guys on ATVs. I put that dream on hold while I worked out my options.
The dream of writing eluded me too. I failed Journalism due to showing up a day late for the final. You see how it goes. I submitted stories by the dozens to book and magazine publishers. The stories were mostly terrible. The editors were mostly kind. Still, I needed an umbrella to shield me from the rejection slips raining down upon me. My writing career went along about as well as my cowgirl career.
I turned tail and fled to Plan B: becoming a speech therapist, where at least I could get a paycheck. There I could work with kids and words too--while I waited for publishers to pound down my door. I married my high school sweetheart. After his medical training was complete, I announced it was high-time to start a family. I still believed dreams were like peaches--mine for the picking.
But becoming a mom was trickier than I’d guessed, as well. Unlike most people-- who make babies without half trying, I couldn’t get the stork to fly anywhere near our house. After two years of "trying" and failing, I started the long trudge through the land of infertility.
I’ll skip over the misery of this era. If you’ve been there, you know. It’s enough to say that sadness follows infertility patients like a coyote tracking a rabbit. While friends are throwing kid birthday parties and heading off to Disney Land, you're trying to climb out of the hole of another failed cycle, smile through a friend's umpteenth baby shower, and face down another weird, uncomfortable fertility procedure. I was 36 and all my best dreams were dangling way out of reach.
And then, miracle of miracle, just as I was trying to imagine being childless forever, the stork arrived. As infertility stories go, I hit the Baby Jackpot. One year after our first son arrived, two more followed in quick succession. In spite of the overwhelming exhaustion of three babies in three years, I've never taken these blessings for granted. We dove into into family life with gusto, making up for lost time. The mess and mayhem, hilarity and hijinks of raising three boys so close in age are hard to describe. But I don't question my miracles.
Once a month, I took a welcome break and soaked up the exhilarating tonic of a writers' group near me. This bunch of talented, brilliant, passionate and accomplished women who wrote just for kids. They saved my brain from dissolving like a sugar-lump in hot tea. They taught me their craft, critiqued my blunders and inspired me. A member recommended a small publisher for a story I’d written, so I sent it off, with little expectation.
A year later, another miracle arrived. Not a baby (thankfully) but a contract, to publish my story. I was dumbstruck. And euphoric. And confused. Because nothing really happened for a long time. More messy, loud, chaotic years passed, with little contact from the publisher. I began to wonder if I dreamed that contract. More years went by. My boys grew up and went off to college.
In the mean time, the publisher, illustrator, and publicity women, all in Minnesota, were busy making other picture book dreams come true. In due time, they turned their time and talents to my manuscript. Picture books, it turns out, are a time-consuming, collaborative affair. During the years we've been in contact, I've come to know, admire, and treasure this extraordinary, inspired, environmentally-passionate group of book-makers that are Raven Publications.
Big Fish Dreams is based on a true story about a salmon and a family fishing trip. Consie's artwork is glorious. Johanna Dee Hyde, an amazing publisher, editor, fire-fighter and canoeing guide-- taught me so much about watershed and the plight of salmon. It was her vision to help salmon in a more direct way. Part of the proceeds will go to stream and river restoration, so you'll be helping our watersheds if you decide to purchase a copy. Big Fish Dreams is due to be released this May 1st to bookstores and Amazon, but can be preordered from www.ravenwords.com . I hope you'll enjoy it with a kid you love.
Nothing beats a dream coming true, no matter how late it shows up. Perhaps slow-moving dreams just seem slow because we have an arbitrary timeline in mind. Like peaches on the tree, they ripen when they're ready, not one minute sooner. I'm pretty sure that wherever we are, at any given time, is exactly where we're meant to be. It's our job to figure out why.
I may never gallop across the plains herding cattle, wind in my hair. But then again, who knows? They probably have cow-girl camps for dreamers like me. In the meantime, I have two cherished, ancient, backyard horses waiting for me to bring them breakfast.
Some lucky folks are sprinters, knocking accomplishments off their lists with ease. But lots of us are wanderers, poking along, with plenty of detours along the way. Thankfully, sometimes even the pokiest pups find a bone. One way or another, the longed-for baby arrives. The century plant blooms. And sometimes-- the damn book finally gets published. However, if I hope for any more books in this lifetime, I may need to get Pokey an assistant. I'm thinking of a stuffed jackrabbit. Or a road runner. Because, wow. This really did take me long enough.
Feeling moody? Here's a favorite of mine!
Willie Nelson, My Heros Have Always Been Cowboys: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OMko5LelBdA
I breezed into my horse stall last evening, swinging a pair of buckets. I was singing, as I recall feeling ok in general--when the tip of my shoe caught under a plank, partially buried in the ground. Most of me flew forward. The foot-part of me stayed put. It's rude, really, how hard the earth is. I slammed face-first into ground. It knocked the wind clean out me, spitting dust and hay. A feeling of outrage, at the pain and at crashing down in such an abrupt fashion. Other than a pair of bloody knees and a pulled muscle or two, no damage done, except to my dignity. Obstacles. Ugh. They catch us off guard. They get in our way. They sure can get our attention.
A board is small, as obstacles go, and for most people avoidable--but life has so many big ones, ones we can’t avoid. Some so large that they seem insurmountable. Many of us have several at one time. Money issues. Health. Anxiety. Depression. Family problems. Loss. Grief. Loneliness. Fear. Anger. Addictions. Kids, parents, pets that need us, and not enough time, knowledge, resources or skills to address all the holes that need filling. The list is endless. And once one obstacle is conquered, another one pops up, just like those clown punching bags.
Shyness is a stumbling block I've had forever. (As a kid I used to hide in the coat closet when visitors came.) Even today, staring down the barrel at 59 years-- the coziness of being snuggled behind all those winter coats still appeals to me way more than than trying to make small talk at a party. But there’s something in all of us, pushing us to conquer, like flowers pushing through sidewalk cracks, fish beating against a dam, environmentalists hammering away against slow-moving bureaucracy.
Steph Wald is one of the many stream-loving heroes I've met, sporting a ponytail and green waders instead of a cape. As Watershed Projects Manager of Central Coast Salmon Enhancement, Steph's life work is all about removing obstacles for anadromous fish like steelhead and salmon. Ironically, she could probably cast a fly-rod from her office door and snag one of the "ten largest obstacles" in the Arroyo Grande watershed.
Steph sloshes hip-deep through the current, peering into the depths, reading the stream-bottom like a book. “See that change of gravel color? See where the silt is disturbed? Those are signs of fish." I plunge along behind her in borrowed waders, dazzled by the steady stream of science words which I can’t remember. “Water is everything,” Steph says. That much I remember, because she repeats it several times. Our upstream slosh concludes at the big obstacle: (photo above) A concrete weir, no longer critical to the water gauge operation, effectively blocks all young steelhead from from going beyond this point.
Due to a blizzard of rules and regulations, the removal of the obstacle has been in the Arroyo Grande Creek Watershed Plan since 2009. Dozens of bullet-points in the document start with words like "studying, securing, conducting, establishing, providing, assisting, overseeing, scheduling"--including a two year observation and and relocation plan for red-legged frogs! All this--before any "removing" can begin. I don't say this outloud, but honestly, I'm thinking: a few college kids with sledge hammers and some beer could have this down in a weekend. Then the fish and red-legged frogs could all get on with their business!
However--I'm neither a scientist nor a bureaucrat, which is a good thing, because everything would be in chaos, with no accountability or proper measurements of progress. I don't know how things like this work. When I express my dismay over the seeming lack of progress, Steph hauls out a huge binder, The 100 Year Plan for all the problems in this watershed to be solved. ONE HUNDRED YEARS?? I’ll be a fossil by then! "Yes--but it took at least a hundred years to make this mess," Steph reminds me.
I sit down to read, and listen to Steph describe all the projects in the works--and see so many good things happening, in large part due to Steph, her staff, and other like-minded organizations battling environmental, legal and buerocratic obstacles. They educate children with their "Trout in the Classroom" program. They teach about water conservation at the schools with the DROP program. They've just begun a program to protect the famous Pismo Clams. Their staff and volunteers are passionate about the health and vitality of the rivers and streams along the Central California Coast--their feet in waders, their minds on education and eyes on the future.
"The work ahead is not of one lifetime," Steph explains--"but of many lifetimes." Which means she and her colleagues are working for the benefit of people and wildlife not even born yet. And that humility and foresightedness is what makes them all heroes to me. If you want to join their efforts, check out their website at http://www.centralcoastsalmon.com
I don't have any great ideas for obstacle removal -- but I did just read a wonderful book: Mark Epstein, MD, in his recent book, "Advice Not Given" combines decades of Buddhist wisdom with psychiatrist's skill. "What I try to convey to my patients is that they can meet the challenges life throws at them by changing the way they relate to them. The goal is to meet the challenges with equanimity, not to make them go away."
The sub-title of Epstein's book (Advice to Getting Over Yourself) makes me laugh. Ultimately, "ourselves" are probably the biggest obstacles we'll ever have to get over. "Getting over myself" is a work in progress, but a worthy one. It might even lure me out of my shyness closet. As for stumbling over perfectly visible boards in my path--I guess there's a lesson there as well. Each time I inhale this morning, a sharp pain in my rib reminds me: some obstacles can actually be avoided by paying a little attention.
All day a song has been playing in my head. This rendition of Johnny Nash’s song, performed by Jimmy Cliff, is my favorite. Guaranteed to make you feel at least 10% cheerier--maybe even enough to consider tackling an obstacle of your own.
"I Can See Clearly Now" - Johnny Nash
It’s ironic that I’m a terrible at fishing. My dad was an expert fisherman. My husband is an expert fisherman. My sons all fish. My maiden name is even Fisher, for Heaven's Sake! And I wanted to be a fisher-person, if only to please my Pop.
Before I could reach the kitchen counter, my Pop took me fishing with him. He was fishing-obsessed and every family vacation was a fishing trip. I was his Saturday morning fishing buddy at the creek below our house.
Pop and I would get up early. What I remember is that the birds were always singing—because fishing season opens in the spring, and my Pop was always whistling, because we were going fishing.
We’d let my mom and my baby brother sleep in. The two of us would drive to where the creek had the deepest pools, and then wander downstream
Whenever I hooked a fish, I’d yell out, “GOT ONE!” and then Dad would rush over, urging me, “set your hook!” “Keep your tip up.” Usually the fish flipped off before I could land it. I hated that. Even though I felt sorry for the fish, I hated letting my Pop down.
While it’s a fact that I could bait a hook, cast, reel, and even conk a fish on the head, (so it wouldn’t suffer long) and could (sort of) help clean and fillet a fish —I never actually liked fishing. I never got good at it, because I never really wished to catch them. I felt sorry for the worm, and sorrier for the fish. Plus I got bored waiting to catch something I didn’t even want. None of that mattered though, because it was splendid to have my Pop all to myself on those Saturday mornings, going fishing'.
Anyway—after an hour or so, we’d have enough “fingerlings," just the right size for frying up with pancakes for breakfast. Pop would pull the willow branch out of the stream where our fish were strung through their gills to stay cool, tuck them in his fern-lined creel, and we’d head home. Mom and Scott would be up, with pancakes ready—and the Springtime Saturday Morning ritual was complete.
That could have gone on forever, as far as I was concerned. Except that I got this baby brother. As he grew bigger, (and probably showed signs of being a more promising fishing partner) I got replaced as the Saturday fishing pal. But the family fishing vacations continued. I started taking along my sketch pad and note book, fishing for stories and things to draw. I sometimes wondered if Pop was disappointed in me, but if he was, he never said so. We shared other things then—like gardening, and horses. And he encouraged my doodling.
Anyway, in his later years, my Pop got involved in a Water and Soil Conservation group. Stream restoration for improving fish habitat was the passion of his later years. He and a group of young biologists and other volunteers planted baby steel head in a stream that hadn’t seen a steelhead run in 50 years, due to commercial logging clogging their spawning beds with silt.
My Pop passed on, to the great fishing river in the sky, four years ago. And while I never made it as a fisherwoman—I have a wish to help pick up where he left off with stream restoration efforts.
This week, I went to visit the stream where we Pop worked, and where we scattered his ashes. There, not a short-cast away, were three steelhead—as long as a mans arm. Swaying and thrashing in the riffle, digging a hole to lay their eggs. I was so excited, I almost fainted dead away. But I got a short clip to share. I wish my Pop could have been there with me. But somehow, I’m positive he was. Thanks for checking in to Streamriffs--and may all your best fishing dreams come true.
The Chaos Theory says that the flutter of a butterfly’s wing on one side of the world can lead to a hurricane on the other. It’s a weather theory by an American mathmatition, explaining how a tiny disturbance of air makes a wave, which ripples outward, leading to unexpected consequences on distant shores.
(Gus is the disturbance in this creek and in my life as well. I didn’t ask for him, but somehow, a long list of butterfly flaps on someone else’s shore rippled him here to my shore. )
But I’m writing about ripples here, not dogs. I'm not good at math, nor weather, and airwaves are hard to see. But waves in the water are easy to watch. Toss a pebble in a pond and watch the ripples roll to infinity. Every action, word and thought is like a stone in the pond that starts a ripple. Once it starts, you can’t call it back. The trouble is, I’m often sleepwalking through my life, maybe I'm worried or distracted, or just daydreaming, kicking stones into the pond, causing ripples without even noticing. (Each time I write that word, I think of fudge-ripple ice cream, which I would like to have right now, but sadly do not.)
And regrettably, sometimes I actually mean to kick those stones, egged on by the grudges I carry around in my invisible backpack. I rehearse some old story of someone's wrong-doing, embellishing it, even. My grudges love this. They holler for more attention. Mean thoughts go rippling right out into the world. My grudges get fatter and louder. The thing is, this backpack is heavy and the noise is getting to me. Wouldn’t it be great to just drop the whole stinking pack? I imagine that feeling you get-- when you finally get into camp after a long day of hiking and take off your backpack—and feel like you’ll float right into the treetops...
On this darkest month of the year, I’m thinking about how I might experience that lighter-than- air-feeling. Thinking that if even a butterfly flap causes a reaction, positive or negative, maybe I should be more deliberate about my flutters and ripples.
If I’m starting something, just by my thoughts and wing-flapping, I’d like to start something good, like a hurricane of hope, or a tsunami of light and love. A wave of Fudge Ripple ice cream about now would be pretty sweet too.
“The protective walls of a family are not made of stone, but of love.” Mary Pipher, The Shelter of Each Other
Those walls, I think, include the whole human family, the strangers and loved ones who show up to shelter us when we need it most.
We all understand shelters to be temporary, a place to collect body and soul until we can secure better circumstances. The word comes from the Middle English words, “scield” and “truma,” meaning shield and troops. The notion is of a compact group of soldiers holding up interlocking shields encircling the one in danger.
This fall we’ve had our collective share of natural and unnatural disasters: hurricanes, earthquakes, mass shootings, wildfires. The recent firestorms of Northern California burned close to home. My family’s lives and homes stayed safe, but that wasn’t true for many friends and neighbors. Firemen’s hands were the first line of shelter, banging on door after door in the predawn hours, often pulling dazed, frightened people towards safety through walls of smoke.
Nearly everyone in the fire areas needed shelter or offered shelter. The needing and the offerings are ongoing, for all survivors of fire storms and other calamities-- and will be, for a long time to come.
Large-scale disasters make headlines, but personal traumas require shelter too. When hearts are shattered, we need emotional shelter. During a low point long ago, a friend drove four hours to buy me a pizza and listen to me wail. The pizza is long gone, but the kindness lives on; the smell of pepperoni and extra garlic is still a scent of hope. Emotional shelter can’t fix us; it only attempts to shield us as we struggle to our feet.
During my sons' high school years, they and their friends found their “port in a storm”-- in a fort in the orchard. Through summer mornings, fall afternoons, Christmas-lit nights and spring evenings, they hammered together their idea of shelter, drenched in happiness and sweat.
The fort attracted others as well, young women, drawn like moths to a lantern, tromped through the orchard, bringing art supplies and ideas. I like to think they were seeking more than my construction crew; that they were also drawn to the chance to create and to find shelter from their own storms.
I hope that every single person, who came through these walls felt protected and safe within. They were, I believe, safe-ish, as safe as teens in this world can be, which is to say--not very. Of course I tiptoed down in the dark, more than once; I may as well confess right now. But the rules are different for parents of teens. The fort wasn’t far from home, a literal stones-throw, if you were a budding baseball pitcher, but the orchard canopy made it feel a world away. It wasn’t church camp there--I can attest to that, but somehow this temple of plywood and Christmas lights felt like holy ground.
Each summer the fort evolved as new builders and artists emerged, then disappeared, sailing off to their worlds of college and work. But for one bright era, the fort consumed their free time and imagination. It sheltered them--and they sheltered each other; from loneliness, boredom, stress and the critical, anxious eyes of parents like me.
Wherever we find shelter, however we offer it--a roof to share, a pizza to deliver, a gloved hand reaching through the smoke--I believe there’s a stronger hand beneath our own, helping us hold up the shield. And the old tree fort? This morning, when I peeped inside, I startled two feral kittens sheltered inside, sleeping in a pool of sunlight. Shelter on, human family. And, of course, the song below was playing in my head as I pondered this post all week.
Bob Seger, "Against the Wind": https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f0Tsnqa8uaQ
Hopeful is my default setting. It’s not a choice, actually, it’s just the way my brain works, even when it’s not in my best interest, even when the star I’m following is more likely the high-beam of an oncoming train. In my last moment I will for sure be scanning the sky for flickers of light, for silver linings and for guiding stars. The thing is, most of the time my faith in happy endings is rewarded with just that--happy endings, often enough, at least, to keep me looking for that star.
Lately though, Hopefulness has taken a beating, right here on my home turf. You see, I live beside a river gasping its last breath. Ironic that a woman obsessed with wild rivers has landed beside a nearly dead one. This is staggering to me. After years of talking to people in charge of water politics, I’ve tasted the sludge of Hopeless, which tastes exactly like it sounds. The Salinas River, with the largest watershed in California, is the most degraded watershed in the state.
It wasn’t always this way. Old-timers tell of gathering at the swimming hole in our town to cool off on summer days. I’ve seen photos of farm-boys with pitchforks, standing beside wheelbarrows piled high with steelhead they gaffed out of the river. For eons before that, Chumash and Salinan tribes lived along the Salinas River Banks. Life along the Salinas River was abundant, until the summer of 1942.
That’s when the Army Corp of Engineers decided to dam the Upper Salinas to quench the thirst of the city San Luis Obispo. So long, Summer Swimming Hole. Huge farms sprang up in the valley, lowering water levels further. So long, fish and beavers. Then vineyards joined the party, turning groundwater into wine. Hello, tourists. So long, every last drop of water. The Salinas River, along my stretch, today, is drier than a cornhusk in the wind.
The upper Salinas River (described by Portola’s crew in 1769 as: “a river watering a luxuriant plain”) is a now a dusty playground for ATV and motor cycle riders, with occasional horses trotting by. Each time I ask how this could happen, I’m met with shrugs. You can’t fight city hall. San Luis Obispo gets our water. It’s a done deal.
But this is actually a story about hope. It starts when I walked into a recent presentation on reviving steelhead in the Salinas River. Hah! Fish with no water? Now that’s something I had to hear. I signed my name as I went in, which registered me for the door prize. (Another Ha! I’ve never won a prize in my life.) I settled down to listen with a cynical heart.
A fish expert named Devin Best, relatively new to the Salinas River Las Tablas Resource Conservation District, began his pitch about bringing steelhead back to the Salinas River. This made me incredulous and a little bit mad. Will they come roaring back on motorcycles? But I listened carefully. In a nutshell, this man with a vision, and with experience up and down the west coast working with rivers and endangered species, told us why there is reason to hope: (I’ve paraphrased here)
Steelhead are remarkably tough. In spite of all that’s been done to eradicate them from the Salinas, the species has persisted in pockets of water.
Dozens of groups along the watershed are coordinating and collaborating their efforts to restore the Salinas.
Growers are hauling out the invasive reed, Arundo, which hijacked much of the watershed. The reeds displace native plants, offer zero nutritional value to wildlife and suck up way more than their share of water.
We just passed the “State Groundwater Management Act” enforcing sustainable aquifers. There will be less water sucked out of the ground, providing more for the river.
The National Marine Fishery Services is working with the Upper Salinas Management group on sustainability plans for steelhead in this region. Mr. Best concluded that he expects to see water and fish in the Upper Salinas River in the future.
The audience filed out. I hung around to ask him some questions. Then it happened. Amazing local artist, Helen Davie, (who had arranged the presentation,) came up to me and said, “Congratulations! You won the Door Prize!” She handed me a beautiful painting of a running river. To be fair, this door prize may have been a little rigged. Everyone except me was already out the door. And also-- she knew me. Still, I was delighted beyond words. Further proof that even blind hopefulness has its rewards.
The painting is a night scene, a river spangled with reflected moon and starlight, titled “Riverbend, Milky Way.” It’s a block print, layered with coat after coat of paint, until it looks like it could flow right out of the frame, right into your home; like you could dip your hands into the cold, starry water and drink it.
And that is my hope. Because one day, before I leave this earth, I hope to see the Upper Salinas River flowing wild and free. I’ll be scanning the sky regularly for guiding stars. In the mean time, this painting hangs above my desk, reminding me that sometimes all we can do is follow the flickers of light leading through the dark, one hopeful step at a time.
Welcome to Streamriffs.com, a place for fellow creek- walkers and nature lovers. Lori Fisher Peelen lives in California with her family.