A Creek Runs Through It – Dispatch from the Watershed Poetry Festival

The real work of planet-saving will be small, humble, and humbling, and (insofar as it involves love) pleasing and rewarding. – Wendell Berry

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Vincent Medina, Ohlone Poet

When I saw the post for the Watershed Environmental Poetry Festival in Berkeley on Poetry Flash, I knew that I had to attend. I was in need of both creative and moral inspiration, in this era of drought, climate change, and ecosystem collapse. And I am always enchanted by sweet nature-infused wordsmithery, especially celebrations of water, trees, and land.

This was my first time, though it is celebrating its 21st year. The Watershed Festival emerged during the tenure of former U.S. Nobel Laureate and Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award-winner Robert Hass in the 1990s, when he launched the national Watershed Initiative. It continues today as an international poetry competition, River of Words, which encourages “children to make art and poetry about their watersheds.”

The day began with a walk along Strawberry Creek, starting on UC Berkeley campus and tracing above ground the route the creek takes underground until it reaches the bay.

The themes of poems on Saturday ranged from a tribute to the forests accompanied by a jazz-funk trio, to readings from an anthology dedicated to California State Parks called What Redwoods Know. But the highlight for me was two performances, equal parts edifying and inspiring: one by a local indigenous man and the other by middle school students who were part of California Poets in the Schools.

Vincent Medina is a member of an Muwekma Ohlone tribe. He spoke about his language Chochenyo, which, like much indigenous language and culture, has been the victim of erasure and suppression at the hands of colonial powers and outsiders, from the Spaniards to contemporary U.S. capitalism and imperialism. He is on a mission:”Reawaken” his ancestral language after it had “gone to sleep.” He didn’t grow up speaking the language, but his grandmother did and he began digging into archives and talking with elders. He is now conversationally fluent in Chochenyo.

The language connects them to the land and their ancestors, he said. To their oldest selves. And Chochenyo’s combination of rough and smooth sounds mirror the landscape of this bioregion, which the Ohlone have inhabited for at least several thousand years.

If you live in the East Bay, your mountain is Mt. Diablo, a name given by Spanish colonialists. But in Medina’s language it is called Tuyshtak, meaning something like “Place of the Day” or “at the dawn of time.” Tuyshtak was a sacred site for the Ohlone and features in many of their stories. From Altamont Pass to the ocean, the ups and downs of the land texture their historic sense of place. In preserving his language and anchoring it in the land, he was saying, “We have no intention of leaving.”

Medina then shared a poem and a phrase in Chochenyo that translates as “We are related.” It reminded me of the Lakota phrase, Mitakuye Oyasin, “All my relations,” both invocation and reaffirmation of our true interconnectedness – one our modern economy and worldview have largely forgotten.

If you ever need a boost in mood and hope for humanity, listen to kids read their poetry. Ten kids, ages 8-13, shared poems about submission, about the wonder of lizards growing their tails back, about bees dying, about stars that shine even when you can’t see them, and about pretty wishes sparkling in the night.

Their poems were so crisp, honest, unfiltered, and perceptive. Find out more about California Poets in the Schools.

The festival was a great reminder that we must begin to honestly see the natural world around us and to resurrect words that reaffirm the sacredness of that world and our connection with it. In doing so, we honor both our place and ourselves. If we are to cultivate living in proper relation to our home, language is a great place to start.


P.S. You can get a map of Oakland-Berkeley creeks and watersheds here and find lots of resources on Bay Area local watersheds at the Watershed Project and EBMUD.

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