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THE NATURE OF WORDS
The third annual Respite By The River reading series, put on by the San Joaquin River Parkway and Conservation Trust, will give local lovers of literature a peek into the lives and histories of the central San Joaquin Valley for the next six months.
This season's lineup includes: author and journalist Mark Arax, May 25; historian and performer Bill Coate, June 29; author Dympna Ugwu-Oju, July 27; author Gerald Haslam, Aug. 24; naturalist and performer Frank Helling, Sept. 28; and author Steve Yarbrough, Oct. 26.
Community journalist Jefferson Beavers interviewed Barb Ruiz, the Education Programs Manager for the Coke Hallowell Center for River Studies, on the nuts and bolts of the Respite By The River series, and about the small moments of magic that make the River Center a special part of Fresno and the Valley.
First, for the uninitiated, tell us a little bit about the San Joaquin River Parkway and Conservation Trust. What are the group's main goals?
We preserve the San Joaquin River lands and connect people with those lands. That's our elevator speech. The longer version is, we are actively preserving lands along the river and we're creating a 22-mile trail from Friant Dam to Freeway 99. That's 6,000 acres and we've acquired 4,000 of them. We're a private nonprofit group, not a government organization.
The trust has been [working on these goals] for a long time. I'm not sure about how many members we have, exactly, but it's about 2,000 people. We're a big, eclectic organization. We like to connect people with our work in a variety of ways. We have art and displays and do lots of things at the River Center. We do nature walks, canoe trips, and preschool trips. Basically we want to get people down here to this beautiful space, so they can see why it's worth preserving.
What was the genesis of the Respite By The River series, and how does the series work to help promote the goals of the group?
A couple of years ago, David Mas Masumoto approached us about doing a reading. He was thinking about supporting us financially, I think, and he wanted to do something special. We then had more people offer to do readings.
So we got a grant from the Harry C. Mitchell Trust [to put together the series] in months with predictably clear weather, so people could hear stories about living in the valley of the river. We've since expanded that a little to include all literature of the San Joaquin Valley. It's mostly regional authors talking about their sense of place. We're very interested in preserving the stories of the land.
How did the Respite By The River series get its name?
When we first named it, we were hoping that it would become a real respite. It's a chance for people midweek, without doing much planning, to grab some sandwiches, plop down on the grass, and enjoy some entertainment. You can listen to these stories and be transported to a time or a place in the valley that's different than where you are now.
The River Center is a wonderful place. One of the most magical moments for me was when Mas read here in October 2004. It was getting dark, and he seemed really in touch with what happens in nature that time of year. He had a clip-on book light for his book and he just wandered through audience, reading, with owls and starlings and trees above. It was a wonderful moment, and those happen more often than not. It's a great place to connect to nature and enjoy the stories.
This year's series kicks off with local author and journalist Mark Arax on May 25 and popular local historian Bill Coate on June 29. How do those two particular performers set the tone for the rest of the series?
The fact that [Arax and Coate] do have such a following already, they will have a built-in audiences who'll come to see them, and that'll give people a chance to know a little more about us. We've got a great a lineup the whole season. It's a good mix of people with a lot of different experiences, and some people who are just beginning to tell their stories.
How do you go about choosing authors for the series? What are the main considerations?
We like to highlight stories of California's central valley, to give people a sense of what it's like to both live here now and in the old days. This summer, for example, we'll have a couple of performers who are representing people who are long gone. In September, there's Frank Helling, telling John Muir stories, and in June there's Bill Coate, [telling Fresno County sesquicentennial stories]. There's a variety of folks who'd like to be a part of it, so we don't have to spend a lot of time fishing around for authors and performers.
What else can people expect when they come out to the River Center for the readings?
This year, there should be a lot of what I call "Parkway magic." [On a recent] Saturday, a woman happened to stop by the River Center. She'd heard we were looking for bakers in a newsletter promoting a bake sale we were having, and she asked if we ever need bakers during other times of the year. She [and others] volunteered, so now we have wonderful bakers for the Respite By The River series.
This particular baker will be making something called chocolate ganache for the Arax reading. I don't know what that is, but it sure sounds yummy.
There are exhibits. The river house will be open and there will be lots of things on hand to talk about the natural history and cultural history related to the river. Our current exhibit has historical photographs and artifacts of Millerton, the first Fresno County seat, which is now under the river. It features R.W. Riggs photos and it runs through July.
We're also having a new children's art camp in the mornings about the natural history of animals near the river. The kids will go down to the [local] museums in the afternoons, when it gets warmer. Their art will be on display in the river house this fall.
You have a partnership with Fresno State radio station KFSR 90.7-FM, in addition to the Mitchell Trust, to help put on the series. What other partnerships does the group seek and maintain?
We literally have hundreds and hundreds, big and small, so many that I wouldn't want to leave anyone out. We've had a wonderful relationship with Valley Public Radio and Channel 18. The local for-profit media have been really good supporters, too, including the Spanish-language media.
There has been the California Department of Fish and Game, the San Joaquin River Conservancy, local school districts, the Scout Island people, the Fresno Arts Council, the Bonner Family Foundation, and many area developers, too. To make this kind list would just totally shortchange folks, because we do get tremendous partnerships from so many places. We're very thankful.
If people would like to get involved with the series and/or the River Parkway and Conservation Trust, how can they help?
We have an information line that people can call, to tell us about their interests. We then connect them with someone to work with. So (559) 433-3190, ext 3#, is a good place to start.
Visit the San Joaquin River Parkway and Conservation Trust website for details about the River Center and related projects. See the KFSR website or the calendar for details about the Respite By The River series and the Arax reading.