This was a speech I gave at Toastmasters. This talk was hastily written, hence the shameless use of Wikipedia as a source.
The Sacramento River is a fairly young river. It began to form its borders only a few million years ago. This is not a talk about the drought; it’s a talk about a place. A place that can inspire and cause the imagination to transcend an actual location. The Sacramento River symbolizes where we come from not only as humans, but as a society and civilization itself. In this realm, thinking about the Sacramento River and this painting in particular, I want to point out some things that have become evident to me. This painting reflects the river as a life preserver, as a conduit for travel and it places us squarely in the present.
This painting represents the river as what it truly is, a life preserver. The river is deep, there is a large boat in the distance. The river is wide, and the bridge is pretty far over there. Most important of all, the river is a force – it carries a lot of debris from upstream which collects along its banks. There is a form in the foreground that holds and retains a pool of water – separate from the rest. According to Wikipedia, this massive body of water supports 40-60 species of fish and 218 types of birds. Not only that, sacriver.org states that there are four separate runs of Chinook salmon in the Sacramento – Fall, late Fall, Winter, and Spring – and it is unique in that there are salmon in its waters year-round. To top it all off, before the arrival of Europeans, the Sacramento River had one of the densest populations of Native Americans for 12,000 years with trade and travel since ancient times. So you can see, it is a life preserver as evidenced in its deep body of blue and the reservoir in the foreground.
Not only is the deep body of blue represented, but also the steep levees that contain and restrain the flow of the river and channel it into a conduit of travel. The boat on the far shore can be seen as a means to cross this expanse to get to the other side – or as a means to travel with it wherever it goes. The website water.ca.gov states that today’s delta is 57 leveed island tracks and 700 miles of sloughs and channels. The levees were first engineered by unsuccessful 49ers. The online San Francisco history encyclopedia says that in 1927 the Delta Queen and King cruised up and down from Sacramento to San Francisco and that they passed each other in the night around Rio Vista. They navigated a total of five drawbridges: Rio Vista, Isleton, Walnut Grove, Courtland and Freeport – each of which still operates today. According to sacriver.org the Sacramento is second only in size to the Columbia in rivers that drain into the Pacific Ocean. So you can see that as the levees were built and the tributaries dammed to control the flow, the Sacramento became an important modern mode of transportation that you could use to get from point A to point B.
Modern travel aside, permanent and impermanent fixtures along the waterfront inform us to where we have been and where we are going as a society. The bridge in the distance is anchored to the bank, its basic structure harkening back to previous civilizations – the long columns supporting the road above. The pilings on the waterfront are worn down from years of wave activity and endless debris coming down from upstream. These gnawed-off posts take us back to the beginnings of the city of Sacramento, which according to Wikipedia was founded in 1854. Not that long ago. The colors are softer on the far shore, their values closer that of the sky than the near shore. The distance is hazy but recognizable. The reflective pool in the foreground is almost too symmetrical to be a natural form, surrounded by and in contrast to, the irregularity of the other debris which seems broken and worn down. We find ourselves with the debris from upstream. The contained water reflects the blue above.
The Sacramento River has done it again – it has allowed us to ponder its life preserving nature, its strength as a channel for transportation, and its power to place us in the present with a view to the distant past.