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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

The Place Where You Live: The American River, Sacramento, CA

Air Date: Week of March 24, 2017

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The American River at peak flood stage (Photo: Jennifer Berry)

Living on Earth gives a voice to Orion magazine’s longtime feature in which readers write about their favorite places. In this week’s edition, Jennifer Berry takes us through a portal into her suburban backyard, which fronts on the American River, and describes the radical changes she saw as the river flooded from California’s record rains this winter.

Transcript

CURWOOD: We stay with the subject of unusual weather and the flooding that’s inundated parts of the west for another installment in the occasional Living on Earth/Orion Magazine series “The Place Where You Live.” Orion invites readers to submit essays to the magazine’s website to put their homes on the map, and we give them a voice.

[MUSIC: Edward Sharpe and The Magnetic Zeroes “Home” from Edward Sharpe and The Magnetic Zeroes (Rough Trade Records 2009)]

This essay takes us to a hidden world in California.

BERRY: I live my husband and our daughters in Sacramento, California, along the American River. We look like we're situated in the middle of the city, but when you walk into the backyard it’s as though you've traveled through a portal, and you ended up on an episode of "Wild Kingdom". It's this river and wildlife that defines this place that we call home. I'm Jennifer Berry, and this my essay on the American River.


The first sighting of the resident osprey after the flood (Photo: Jennifer Berry)

Bundled in warm clothes, we breakfast along the American River, enjoying a temporary parting of clouds after weeks of rain. We eat in silent reverence for the landscape we call home, absorbing the transformed land.

[SOUND OF RUSHING RIVER]

The river rose an estimated 15 feet, burying trees to their canopies, swallowing the island between its two forks, and marooning logs and entangling debris atop bushes. This spooky sea climbed up the bank towards our home.

Our resident Osprey flies by the first time this year.

[OSPREY CALLS]

I exhale, relieved. I noted its absence and wondered if this unrecognizable river drove it away. I noted the unusually close proximity of the Red-tailed Hawk resting on our breakfast table,

[RED-TAILED HAWK CALL]


During the flood, a red-tailed hawk perched on Jennifer Berry’s breakfast table (Photo: Jennifer Berry)

then the Cooper’s Hawk waiting on the nearby perch we mounted for song birds.

[CALL OF COOPER’S HAWK]

We talk about the ground-dwelling creatures of the island and riparian corridor that were washed away. What happened to the coyote pack that ruled the riverbanks and met our gaze on frequent encounters? The beaver dam upstream has been swept away too. No wading birds, except a lone Great Egret braves the turbulence, standing upon a snarl of tree branches and roots in the middle of this sea, staring into the white-capped, muddy current.

I want to interpret this as destruction, but nature has other ideas. The Great Blue Herons fly in on schedule and claim their nests in the rookery. Abundant Tree Swallows fly at sharp angles and dips. Winter’s diving ducks have repositioned themselves away from the swift current to feed, bobbing on the choppy surface between dives. And the cottontails and quail moved out of the floodplain and into our hedges. Canada Geese settle onto the first land exposed as the river recedes. My husband spots a California sea lion upstream, chasing this year’s healthy run of fish more than 80 miles up the Delta.

[BARKING OF SEA LION]


The deluge reshaped the banks and riverbed and matted the trees along the river with debris (Photo: Jennifer Berry)

It’s dusk. I’m out at the river again. I admire the silhouettes of the naked trees and the sky’s light that illuminates the river. I note the biorhythms of the natural world, and I am awed and comforted by its ability to adapt and carry on.

[MUSIC: Jimmy LaValle, "Streamside," The Album Leaf, In a Safe Place, compilation, Sub Pop]

Back at our home, the landscape looks like it's been through a natural disaster. The riverbed has been reborn into strange land masses, and the rolling hills on the island between the forks are now eroded cliffs, and giant trees have been knocked down, carried downstream, carried and deposited in the weirdest of places. And the trees and bushes still standing are matted with debris and human litter.

I want to be sad when I see it, but the life all around me doesn't let me. Nature has this way of surviving in the middle of the aftermath of this flood, and I come to realize that nature doesn't think about what was, like we do. It just works with what is. Even after years, we see something amazing every day, whether it's a family of beavers swimming across the river at sunset, an osprey with a giant fish flopping in its talons so close I can look in its eye, or a group of bucks with enormous antlers swimming across in this tight-knit pack and then galloping through the hills onto the other side. We have coyote packs [COYOTE HOWLS]that run along the river and howl late at night, and we'll fling ourselves from our beds and run out onto the patio to see if we can see them.


Jennifer Berry and her dog along the river at sunset, before the flood (Photo: Jennifer Berry)

My husband and I have a tradition. Every night, when the sun is about to go down, one of us calls, "Sunset!", and we stop what we are doing. We grab our binoculars and our dogs,

[SOUNDS OF PANTING DOGS]

and we head out to our Adirondak chairs and watch as the natural world goes about its nightly routines, reconnect with each other, decompress, recompose ourselves. And there's something amazing recommuning with nature in that way. It's alive our here, and that does something to your soul when you're a part of it, and I don't know if we can separate this location with who we are anymore.

[MUSIC: Jimmy LaValle, "Streamside," The Album Leaf, In a Safe Place, compilation, Sub Pop]

CURWOOD: That’s Jennifer Berry and her essay on the floods in her backyard on the American river. You can find details about Orion Magazine and how to submit your essay, if you want to tell us about the place where you live at our website, LOE.org.

Coming up, why people hurt by pollution sometimes vote against environmental protectors. That’s just ahead here on Living on Earth. Stay tuned.

 

Links

Jennifer Berry's essay on the Orion website

Berry Ink, Jennifer Berry’s website showcasing her freelance writing

 

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