Nevada City, California
On the opening night of Wild and Scenic, John Trudell addressed a packed house at the Nevada Theatre. I’ve heard him speak before, even spoken with him. His words are so potent, his message so rich, it’s difficult to paraphrase, or even absorb it in one pass. Twice during the festival people quoted him from that night, but those particular points had washed over me as I absorbed the one that came before. (If anyone has an audio recording or a transcript of his talk that night, please let me know!)
That night, Trudell spoke about systems. Systems that are in place in our society that serve to imprison and control us. Two examples he used were the military system and the system of organized religion. When someone asked him about the Occupy movement, he was openly ambivalent. First he said, we need to be careful that our actions of protest do not feed those systems. When cops are called to police a riot, for instance, the protestors are actually feeding the system by requiring the need for the cops. He pointed out that this last Black Friday, Americans spent more money than ever. This feeds the system of corporate commercialism, and goes against the very essence of Occupy. He asked us to think about this, and to embrace change in a way that starved the system. “If the 99% all agreed to not buy anything for one whole day…” he mused. With him, we imagined that, and imagined creating new systems, and what they might look like.
The next day at Wild and Scenic, Occupy Nevada County hosted a street fair on Commercial Street, right by the parklet. Street theatre and a puppet show were the highlights of the afternoon. As I wandered through their displays and watched the entertainment, I thought about Trudell’s comments and the general criticism that Occupy lacks focus and commitment–on a national level at least. But that day, at that protest, I saw loads of both. Maybe that’s why our little town’s Occupy movement has made national news. It was focus that got that attention, focus on the epidemic of foreclosures in our community.
I had a great dinner with friends and chosen family that night, took a breath from festival life. We talked for awhile about democracy: when it worked and when it didn’t, agreeing that it works okay when the system is small, intimate even, and when the parties involved deeply care about and need one another. Once people can be objectified and made dispensable, democracy quickly evaporates. I fell asleep thinking about Trudell’s words and about systems old and yet uninvented.
The next morning I headed to City Hall to see Jason Rainey, Derek Hitchcock, and Mark Dubois give a talk about a new watershed governance system. Rainey, former executive director of SYRCL, has relocated to the Bay Area to work at International Rivers in the same capacity. He asked us to suspend our judgement and skepticism a moment, and imagine a whole new system, a system that “honored the blue lines on the map” for once. Derek Hitchcock, mentioned off the top that Trudell’s talk had greatly impacted him. Mark Dubois called upon us to be compassionate and inclusive rather than catty and judgmental (always a trick for humans). Here is Hitchcock’s proposal for a new system, a grass-roots, built from the bottom way to manage our watersheds and ourselves in the process.
Level One: Tributary Watershed Guilds. Every creek and stream would be stewarded by those around it, who would meet biweekly or monthly to discuss hazards and opportunities for the watershed that they called home. We see these types of guilds here in our community: Friends of Deer Creek, Wolf Creek Alliance, and the newly formed group trying to work out differences along Rush Creek.
Level Two: Each tributary guild would send a representative to a Sub Basin Guild. For us, this would encompass the South Yuba River basin.
Level Three: Each Level Two group would send a representative to the Yuba Watershed/Bear Watershed Guild. Groups like SYRCL and Yuba Watershed Institute are the nearest organizations we have to this type of guild, they just aren’t inherently built from the bottom up as Hitchcock proposes.
Level Four: This guild would get its representation the same way, from the level below it, and would encompass the foothills, mountains, central valley, and delta.
Level Five: The San Francisco Watershed Guild.
It’s somewhat stupefying to imagine a system that doesn’t exist. In the moments before the Q and A, I found myself growing excited. I began to think about the watershed up at the farm, which sits atop the San Juan Ridge. Our actions there affect two separate watersheds: runoff from the front half of the property goes to the South Fork of the Yuba, runoff from the back heads down to the Middle Fork. I began to scan my mind for the nearest creek to the farm: Bloody Run Creek. “What can you do?” Mark Dubois was asking us. “Walk your tributary. Get to know it. Talk to your neighbors.” I felt a flash of light and recognition in my brain. I don’t know how to snap my fingers and make Hitchcock’s system appear, but I know how to walk along Bloody Run Creek, and I know how to talk to my neighbors. Neither of those feeds the systems that I am finding problematic.
The Q and A quickly disintegrated, however, into a broad, theoretical conversation whose participants were hung up on verbiage and biases. “Focus! Focus!” the panelists encouraged the audience, and I thought again of Occupy.
A couple weeks ago I listened to an old recording of Utah Phillips talking about why the Progressives succeeded in the earlier part of the 20th century. “We put our differences aside,” he said simply. If we can learn to do that, and be tolerant and compassionate with one another, perhaps we can create an effective system that honors the blue lines in the map and allows creatures of all kinds to thrive.
Jason Rainey says that rivers are magical to us, in part, because of the power a confluence brings to any situation. A confluence is literally powerful, and metaphorically as well: ideas and attitudes come together with force, with volition. Compromise is essential, and the power of the river grows from the bottom up.
I have a lot to learn about Bloody Run Creek.