5 Questions for jesikah maria ross

How many stories are held by a single patch of land? For multimedia artist jesikah maria ross, uncovering the answer is a means of knowing and loving our places and neighbors. jeskiah is the creator of Restore/Restory, a project that attempts to chronicle the stories, traditions, and relationships connected to a single, 130-acre patch of rural California called the Cache Creek Nature Preserve. Through hundreds of interviews, audio recordings, photographs, and documents, Restore/Restory articulates the ways in which a particular patch of California is also the whole of California, with its legacy of change and struggle, beauty and diversity. Below is the first in an eight-part series in which jesikah will introduce us to the people, land, and stories of Cache Creek via sound, image, and text.

There’s no end to beautiful, natural places in rural California. What’s special about the people and stories of Cache Creek?

It’s the same thing that’s special about every patch of land—its history and how that history shapes our relationship with each other and the places we live. Every landscape is filled with stories: who lived there and where they come from; how they used the land and why they left; which plants and animals were there in the past and which are there now. But we usually don’t have access to that range of stories. And we often don’t even realize how little we know about the layered history of our home ground.

The more stories we know about our home place, the more we can forge a shared understanding of the past that allows empathy for one another and our surroundings.

In the case of the Cache Creek area, involving residents in sharing and discussing their different stories of place through the Restore/Restory project created a forum for folks who generally don’t cross paths. That included hearing stories of genocide as well as tales of collaboration, environmental restoration, cultural renewal, and scenic wonder. Through the process, I think we generated more respect for different groups’ struggles and a feeling that we can work together to enhance this place we all call home.

Take us on a tour of the Cache Creek Nature Preserve. What physical and cultural features define this place?

The Nature Preserve—which is the focus of the Restore/Restory project—is located in rural Yolo County, at the western edge of California’s Great Central Valley, just before it rises into the coastal range. The Preserve is small, about 130 acres, but it’s got an incredible variety of habitats. It’s located right on Cache Creek, so it’s got a tangled riparian forest filled with cottonwood trees, willows, and other native shrubs. It smells amazing when you walk though it on a sunny day—that scent of warm bark mingling with moist air. And because the creek-side vegetation is so abundant, there’s a ton of wildlife—different birds, butterflies, beavers, and otters, as well as deer, coyotes, and the ever-present cottontail rabbits.

To the north, the riparian area slopes slightly up into a lovely oak grove, with some of the oldest and most majestic “grandfather oak” trees in the county. To the east, the oak grove opens up onto an expanse of thigh-high grasslands. And to the west there’s a spectacular wetland that’s been restored from an old gravel-mining pit. Next to the wetland is a Tending and Gathering Garden, where local Native people grow medicinal and basketry materials. In terms of other physical structures, it’s got a historic barn that is well over a hundred years old and filled with antique farming gear.

The Preserve has several paths and you can walk the entire grounds in about two hours and feel like you’ve visited different parts of California’s landscape—past and present.

Full moon over the Cache Creek Nature Preserve. Photo by Steve Fisch.

You’ve said that the Preserve is a microcosm of California as a whole. How so?

If you examine the history of the area, what you get is really the larger narrative of California, from changing demographics to different types of land use to shifting cultural values. The Preserve was first inhabited by Native people, who were kicked off by Spanish colonists, who were in turn dispossessed by the Mexican army (and Native people were forced to work at their missions). The Mexican army was then pushed off by American settlers seeking new territory, and then gold, and then—after the mining played out—land to cultivate. Land use went from hunting and gathering to fur trading, ranching, and farming, and the prevailing norm was to exploit natural resources for economic gain. When gravel mining became more profitable than farming, the Preserve became a mining operation. As the environmental movement gained traction, a battle to stop mining the creek ensued, and the land become a preserve.

Now the land is common ground, where local native people source materials, mining continues next to the creek, ecological restoration is happening along the creek, farming occurs up and downstream, and the Preserve operates as an environmental and agricultural education center. This is a speed-dating version of history, but I think it illuminates the waves of migration, conflict, and outcome that have occurred throughout California over the past few hundred years. It reminds me that history is all around us, and that you can learn a lot about your state by digging in your own backyard.

And telling stories is one way of establishing those histories. For you, what’s the relationship between storytelling and the way we inhabit a place?

Storytelling helps us understand ourselves, each other, and the world around us. It’s how we make sense of our experiences and communicate our hopes and needs. That’s why storytelling create bonds among people; it generates understanding and, sometimes, common cause. And when storytelling is about place, it can forge deeper connections between people and a location, creating a shared sense of history and humanity.

When you share a story about a place, it unites you. It builds solidarity. The act of sharing stories—especially in a facilitated group experience—about the places we live (or love!) leads to more social cohesion, collective action, and ecological stewardship.

Can you give us a quick preview of your forthcoming series? What are some highlights we should look forward to?

The series is drawn from my recent collaborative documentary arts project Restore/Restory, which explores the history of the Cache Creek Nature Preserve through the voices, views, and images of a diverse cross section of Yolo County residents.

In this series you’ll meet a rancher, an ecologist, a farmer, a miner, a scientist, a priest, a tribal leader, and a water agency manager. You’ll hear about their different experiences with the creek and learn how those interactions have shaped their views of the past and hopes for the future. You’ll explore different views on land use, culture, and ecology, while being immersed in rich soundscapes—the birds at dawn, the creek in different seasons, the animals and insects roaming the grounds at dusk. Most of all, you’ll be reminded of how people preserve the places they love, and how a shared connection to a place can build bridges across various divides.

To get started, here’s a story from Wyatt Cline, a Native Californian rancher. It’s one of my favorite pieces, because in just three minutes he gives us such a strong sense of his connection with the creek, his family history, and why he loves this place.

Listen to more of Wyatt’s story here. To hear other perspectives on the history of the Cache Creek Nature Preserve, visit www.restorerestory.org.