Nature preserves are so much about the wildlife. Visitors are like houseguests. They’re welcome as long as they respect the house rules: stay on trails, give creatures their space and leave no trace.
jesikah maria ross says nature might be better served if the guests felt more at home.
“You don’t care for a place unless you have a relationship with it,” said ross, a documentary mediamaker who spells her name lowercase. “One way to do that is to tell stories about the place that humanize it.”
She recently did just that. As founding director of the Art of Regional Change program at UC Davis, ross rallied dozens of students to find and interview people who could tell the social and environmental history of the 130-acre Cache Creek Nature Preserve north of Sacramento.
The students recorded a diverse range of voices articulating a passion for the place: farmers, miners, flood-control managers, Native Americans, environmental scientists, environmental activists, poets – you name it.
Initially, ross planned to center the storytelling project on “the gravel wars,” a 20-year-long environmental conflict over aggregate mining in the creek bed. Not far into her research, however, she realized the mining was only the latest enterprise to change the ecology of the creek.
Native Americans, including the Southern Patwin Tribe, regularly gathered creekside grasses for weaving baskets, hunted Tule elk and fished for native Chinook salmon, lamprey, American shad and Sacramento splitttail. Mexican ranchers’ cattle grazed the banks. The Cache derives its name from the French trappers who cached their pelts there in the early 19th century.
The creek is significantly contaminated with mercury washed down from the Coast Range, where it was mined for gold recovery operations after 1850. At the same time, homesteaders diverted the stream for irrigation. Some of their descendants continue to farm along the creek.
In other words, the environmental history of Cache Creek is much like that of many rivers and creeks in California’s Central Valley.
“I’ve learned more about the history of California just by looking at a 130-acre parcel in Yolo County on the lower Cache,” ross said.
The Cache Creek Nature Preserve also is home to 30 acres of constructed wetlands, a rare savannah of oak trees and many birds – including snowy egrets, great blue herons and red-tailed hawks. But it’s the exposition of the hidden social landscape that makes the preserve more than just a nice place to visit.
“The more we can peel back those layers,” ross said in an interview, “the more we can have a connection – not just to our shared geography, but to our shared history and our shared humanity.”
Project participants collaboratively researched and produced stories on the layers. Then ross artfully wove all those media pieces into a website — Restore/Restory: A People’s History of the Cache Creek Nature Preserve — and an interactive audio tour of the preserve. The tour features vignettes from as many as 50 storytellers, each with a different take on the creek. Storyteller profiles paint the history along with a timeline linked to photos, maps and documents.
In one recording, Marshall McKay, chairman of the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation tribal council, describes how the creek “sings” at high flows and “thinks” in calmer waters.
The preserve is also a story of environmental reconciliation. Miners, environmentalists and county officials tell the history of the gravel wars, from conflict to compromise to collaboration. County voters approved an initiative that banned mining from the creek bed but allowed extraction nearby to continue. A gravel company donated land that became the preserve, which is operated and maintained with a fee assessed on mining operations.
A large gravel pit became a wetland and pond, and a political battleground became a preserve with all sides vested. As long-time Capay valley rancher Wyatt Cline put it in his interview with ross, the preserve “is everybody – it’s who we are.”
Miner Ben Adamo describes how his views toward environmentalism evolved:
Ann Brice, an ecologist and founding executive director of the Cache Creek Conservancy, tells how at least one Yolo County supervisor became intimately connected with the creek:
For Sarah Motley, an Episcopal priest, Cache Creek “is a place where God has been made real to me.” In one excerpt, she describes to ross the baptism of her son in the creek, which holds some of her fondest childhood memories:
As for ross, the synthesizing of so many different voices and histories tied to a single patch of land in the Golden State made her “a hyperactive patriot of California who cares about the environment.”
“I’ve never felt so connected to the land,” she said.