UCIRA Spotlight on Artist jesikah maria ross: Restore/Restory

21 Feb

If the trail itself is the earliest form of narrative—a clear path though dense thickets of competing data—then  stories, too, are a kind of map, limning relationships, connecting sights with sounds and history with emotions. Here in California, the trails left by geological events, by the earliest inhabitants, by the various users of the land, lie across one another in a confusing and eroding web. So too do the stories of successive waves of inhabitants. Gold is a different color to a farmer than to an ecologist. A basket weaver sees one terrain; a gravel miner sees another. How to tell those trails and map those narratives so that they engage  as broad an audience as possible is the aim of Restore/Restory, jesikah maria ross’s current project as director of UC Davis’s Art of Regional Change.

A documentary producer and sound recordist, ross has created films and radio features on social issues including workers rights, globalization and environmental issues and worked with communities in South Africa, Tijuana and remote Sierra towns. The Art of Regional Change, which she co-founded, is a joint initiative of two different colleges—the Davis Humanities Institute in the College of Humanities, Art and Cultural Studies, and the Center for Regional Change in the College of Agriculture and Environmental Science.

“Being cross-disciplinary,” ross says, “was hard wired into our DNA from the get go.” The social scientists, she says, were interested in combining storytelling with their data maps and models in order to make their research more compelling for policy makers. The humanists meanwhile “wanted to figure out ways they could do research more in connection to community questions and needs.”

The interests flow together in Restore/Restory which focuses on the Cache Creek Nature Preserve, a 130 acre tract of water, wildlife, gravel, and contested land-use 25 minutes from the Davis campus. Working with community members, faculty and students,  ross hopes to weld modern methods (an interactive website) and ancient forms (anecdote and poetry) in a multi-layered and many-voiced history of the region.

A tributary of the Sacramento River, Cache Creek has a rich and well documented past. The lake and stream valley, abundant with fish, game, and migratory birds, show evidence of having been occupied by Native Americans for at least 11,000 years. In the 19th century, French trappers from the Hudson’s Bay Company, attracted by the same abundance, used the creek as a convenient stashing place for the furs they were collecting—leading to its present name. Later settlers found the presence of year round water and the alluvium it had brought ideal for the farming that continues to be a major feature of the valley.

Still, as Anne Brice, founding executive director of the Cache Creek Conservancy tells Restore/Restory’s student interviewers, the site chosen for the Nature Preserve was ”not all that attractive.” Gravel miners—drawn by centuries of deposits rushed downhill by the high speed spring flow—had left a legacy of gaping pits and grey dust. What green there was mostly came from the state’s latest water-hogging in-comers, giant reed (Arundo) and salt cedar (tamarisk). Both species choke out native reeds and shade trees.

But then, the site had not exactly been chosen. The land the preserve occupies was donated and remains funded by a local mining company in the wake of two decades of ‘gravel wars’ that resulted in restrictions on the practice. As Eric Larsen a fluvial Geomorphologist, tells another Restore/Restory interviewer, “the creek was changing its nature because of the amount of gravel that was being taken out…. in ‘95, there was a balance proposed: the amount taken out shouldn’t exceed the amount coming in.”  The Preserve is one expression of that balance.

For ross the site with both its negative and positives was perfect.

“A lot of the projects we have done in the Art of Regional Change,” she explains “have been in the rural Sierra Nevada which is somewhere between an hour and a half and 3 hours away. So it was difficult for faculty and students to have a high level of engagement.”

The Preserve was recommended by a colleague who worked in its Tending and Gathering garden. There, native food and fiber plants –now often inaccessible thanks to farming, mining, and residential development—are being grown and harvested in traditional ways. Created in collaboration with California Indian Basketweaving Association and funded in part by a local Rancheria, the garden, like the Preserve, testified not only to the competing interests tugging at the land, but also to the kinds of cooperation and dialog that were emerging between the various stake holders.

As a community media specialist, ross’s purpose is not simply to uncover the story of a place but to empower its residents. Discovering the Cache Creek Preserve, she says, was “like going down the rabbit hole. The more I started looking into it,” she says “the more I realized I could tell the story of California by telling the story of a small patch of land in my own backyard.”

One of the arts of community media is deciding who decides how and what stories get told. The people involved in Restore/ Restory are almost equally divided between those from the university –72 students and faculty—and those from the community—59. Those categories, of course, aren’t hard and fast. The Tending and Gathering garden’s traditional burn-over was organized by a university doctoral candidate; ross’s mother’s people are still farming in the Central Valley. “Being connected to the land and having debates over land use,” she says, “isn’t new to me.”

For Restore/Restory, she assembled a community advisory group representative of the Creek’s diverse constituents. It was they who came up with the list of people to interview. Those interviews, 48 in all, with miners, ranchers, hydrologists, garden volunteers, ecoscientists, directors, activists, and members of the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation form the core of ross’s Cache Creek narrative.

Conducted and compiled by five classes of students in three different departments (Techno-Cultural  Studies, English, and American Studies), the interviews exist in multiple formats. Two to three minute audio versions will be accessible on the website ross is currently constructing. These will be also be part of pod casts that will be available to visitors at the Preserve. Two-page text versions will also appear on the website, while the full transcripts rest in the Yolo County archives.

Students did the audio editing, transcribed the thirty-minute interviews, composed the print profiles, and then presented the results to each other. That was an important moment, says ross. “They could see how different it is to craft a story in audio and to craft a story in print. In audio you only have what they (the interview subjects) say to work with.” Print allows paraphrase and parentheses.

The website ross is designing will contain a historical time line of the Cache Creek area. There will be places to encounter each storyteller with options to hear their story or read it. There will be poems written by attendees at the Preserve’s Writers Workshops (The Nature Preserve proudly calls itself  home to the only conservancy-sponsored public arts program in the country.) There will be links to educational curricula. And at the center, will be what ross describes as digital murals–one for each of the habitats in the Preserve. As the mouse passes over a time-tunnel like panoply of archival, family and student photos the voices of the storytellers will be heard, and the changing outlines of time space and perspective will take vivid shape.

In forming the community advisory board, ross also drew up a memorandum of agreement that specifies a review and feedback process. It might happen, ross says, now that the website is becoming a reality, that there are stories that people won’t want told. She is granted editorial control but not the kind of solo vision artists are used to having.  It can be frustrating, she says, when she is aiming at perfection, but that shift of focus—from  product to process—is the point. History, the communal narrative reminds those who listen, is not what happened in the past. It’s the stories that we keep telling about it.

For ross, the telling of Cache Creek is as much a reparation as the tearing out of Arundo and the turning of old gravel pits into new ponds. “There’s so much invisible history in any square inch of land,” she says. “The more we can peel back those layers, the more we can have a connection—not just to our shared geography, but to our shared history and our shared humanity. You can see the realities of California play out if you just keep saying: what was this land used for 20 years ago? How about 50? 100? 200?”

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Ariel Swartley

San Pedro, CA

aswartley@att.net

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