Collecting stories of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta

Because in the end literature helps to build that sense of place that the Delta seems to lack.  –Bob Benedetti

For a region so crucial to the growth of California as we know it today, you might think there would be libraries full of books about the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

And yet, as UC Merced scholar Gregg Camfield wrote several years ago, the most obvious thing about the literature of the Delta “is how little there is.”

Advocates of the largest estuary on the west coast of the Americas are trying to collect those scattered bits and pieces in a new anthology of the Delta.

Spindrift Sunrise

And they need your help. They’re asking for public submissions of both published and non-published work – perhaps old family letters that have been yellowing for decades in a desk drawer, or poems that Delta residents wrote but never dreamed of ever publishing. Short stories, novels, family histories, biographies, and songs – fiction and nonfiction alike — will all be considered for the volume.

Don’t be shy. You’ll be helping with a much broader cause: giving the little understood Delta a face, an identity, a sense of place.

That cause has gained some momentum recently with the passage of legislation which, if signed by the president, would designate the Delta as a national heritage area. Up to now, the Delta has been recognized largely for water supply or environmental values alone.

Sandhill Cranes, Staten Island

“The Delta is not just a place to warehouse water and fish,” said Bob Benedetti, a retired University of the Pacific professor who is involved in efforts to raise the profile of the estuary.

“The Delta is much more than that,” he said. “It’s a set of human communities that deserve to be recognized.”

The anthology effort, spearheaded by a small state agency called the Delta Protection Commission, aims to collect writings from prior to the 1800s all the way to the present day. That’s a broad time span in a region that has seen much change, from the Native Americans who inhabited the estuary in prehistoric times to the travelers who passed through during the Gold Rush, and from the laborers who drained the Delta’s wetlands and carved out the farms that exist today to the innovators and inventors who made the Delta a sort of “Silicon Valley for agriculture.”

Taking Flight, Empire Tract

Considering that rich history, why is it, exactly, that we have so few stories about the Delta to this point? Some possible answers can be found in an analysis by Camfield, a UC Merced literature professor, as part of an earlier Delta-focused research project.

First, Camfield notes that most of the human stories from Delta cultures prior to the 1800s have been lost because they were not written down. They were never really meant to be, since they were structured around verse and music.

“It is beyond difficult to capture oral narratives from the deep human history of the Delta in any but the most superficial way,” Camfield wrote.

The dearth of English-language literature, however, may be surprising given the Delta’s central role in California as a prime farming region, a transportation hub and a switchyard for much of the state’s water supply.

“Many similar areas in the U.S. and around the world are cultural and literary centers,” Camfield wrote.

That never quite happened for the Delta. While Benicia, on the western end of the estuary, briefly served as California’s state capital, it was San Francisco that became the center of California culture. In one of the few pieces of earlier literature that addresses the Delta at least in passing, humorist George Derby skewered Benicia, writing: “Had Adam and Eve been originally placed here, the human race would never have been propagated. It is my impression that the heat, and the wind, and some other little Benician accidents, would have been too much for them.”

Day’s End, Terminous

Thus lost in the shadow of “The City,” the Delta played mostly a peripheral role in literature. Many of the works that do exist concern travelers simply passing through, perhaps on their way from San Francisco to the glittering mines of the Mother Lode.

Jack London did write about summers spent plying Delta waters in his boat. And in more modern times writers like Joan Didion, Leonard Gardner, Maxine Hong Kingston and Ernesto Galarza penned pieces that are focused more on the people of the Delta themselves. Gardner’s “Fat City,” for example, tells the story of working class in Stockton through the eyes of two young boxers.

Why is it so important to bring these works, or portions of them, together in one volume? Because in the end, Benedetti says, literature helps to build that sense of place that the Delta seems to lack.

Whichever pieces are ultimately included in the anthology, Benedetti said he hopes it will instill pride in Delta residents, reconnect those who have lost touch with the region, and raise awareness throughout the state as a whole.

“We talk a lot about the missions when we talk about the history of California,” Benedetti said. “Why don’t we talk about the Delta? We hope California will wake up to this as an important area.”

Delta Protection Commission graphic by Stacy Hayden.

Want to be part of the Delta anthology?

Organizers will consider a wide range of material, including short stories, novels, family histories, biographies, autobiographies, poems and songs. Both new and historical writing will be considered.

For the purposes of the anthology, the Delta is defined as an area stretching to Sacramento in the north, Stockton to the east, Tracy to the south and Benicia to the west.

Mail submissions to the Delta Protection Commission, 2101 Stone Blvd. Suite 240 in West Sacramento, CA  95691. Or email researcher Carrie Alexander at Carrie.Alexander@delta.ca.gov. For more details visit delta.ca.gov/anthology.

Organizers are asking for submissions by September 30, 2019. The Delta Protection Commission is working on the project with the Tuleburg Press, Restore the Delta and the Center for California Studies at Sacramento State University.

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