Image and Word | The Origin Story
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The Origin Story

  |   Word Column

Wawona Meadow

Write what you know. That sage advice is found in most writing instruction, any kind of writing. It applies to other creative endeavors as well. For instance,  when I took up photography  it became ‘shoot what you know.’ Though it can lead to uncomfortable introspection if, like me, you don’t  know very much.

In both writing and photography, however, I eventually chose to focus on my immediate surroundings, Central California. I have a perspective on that.

While Central California does not have the depth of history you’ll find elsewhere, or the active city life of San Francisco or Los Angeles, it does have its own stories to tell. One never-to-be-finished writing project led me to research California’s gold rush, arguably the most significant historical event in the region. I live south of the mother lode, not very close to Sutter’s Mill, but the forty-niners’ accounts let me see this area through the eyes of newcomers, in a time when the landscape was fresh.

They saw the Sierra Nevada Mountains, huge and snow-capped in the middle of summer. They were stunned at the majesty of this range. They looked across the great San Joaquin Valley, hundreds of miles of golden poppies and oak trees, with wide rivers, packed with life. The indigenous peoples of the region were almost all peaceful and friendly, about a hundred different tribes speaking different languages (A story for another time). The air was clear, the summers hot, and they were all going to strike gold. It really didn’t work out so great for many of them, but they stayed.

A little less than a hundred years later my own ancestors marched into California. They were dust bowl refugees, travelers from Arkansas, Texas and Louisiana hoping to find their fortunes in the Golden State, or at least jobs. The state looked a lot different now. Orchards, cotton fields and grape vineyards held ground once covered in poppies. The rivers were smaller, water siphoned off to feed agriculture that was the new Californian gold. Wildlife was mostly up in the foothills, except for the coyotes and an occasional possum or racoon. The Grizzlies that walked these fields were long gone, existing only on the state’s flag.

It was still a beautiful place, though. You could find the wild if you looked, and the mixture of cultures, faiths and lifestyles had given the area a spirit of its own. It wasn’t old west, it was a little new west. A man named Adams took a few pictures of our mountains – you may have seen them. A president named Roosevelt gave his blessing to a grand idea, our national parks. Yosemite was first, and after a while, Sequoia and Kings Canyon. Natures’ majesty at its most triumphant, preserved in the mountains that cast their shadow across the great valley below.

I was born in that shadow, in a town called Fresno. I grew up thirty miles south of the city in wide open fields, the youngest of four. Mom worked on the farms picking grapes, packing sweet potatoes, weeding cotton, doing whatever the season called for. Dad traveled to Fresno every day, a maintenance man for the YMCA, and later a diesel mechanics’ shop. My valley was a dusty wonderland. My imagination grew in toy-car roads I built in vineyard rows, superhero action-figures I made out of cardboard tabs from potato-packing boxes. Forts were constructed with piles of tree stumps, B.B. Guns a way of life. Heat in the winter was from a cast-iron wood stove, cool in the summer from a sprinkler.

Harsh sun was always overhead, gone only when fog crept in and covered everything. Mom canned vegetables and fruits, and we grew the tastiest, juiciest tomatoes in American history. We had chickens, pigs, and for a while, a cow. And dogs, so many dogs, all my best friends. We spent many weekends in the Sierras, camping at places like Stony Creek, Big Meadows, Grant Grove, Nelder Grove. We fished and camped at Pine Flat Reservoir. In high school I floated down the Kings River in inner-tubes.

Now I’m older and I live in the heart of Fresno. I’ve left a stress-filled job and picked up a few vintage cameras. From this perspective California and my distant childhood have a lot in common.

The wild seems to be gone.

The air is hazy, there is no year-round snow cap on the mountains. As a matter of fact, you can’t even see the mountains on most days. The promise of a golden future has faded. And I find myself asking what I actually know, what can I write about, what can I shoot?

So I drove back to the reservoir where dad used to fish, and I went to the national parks where we used to spend weekends, and I stood at the edge of fields as the sun cast long shadows across the valley. I looked at a stand of golden poppies by the highway. They’re still there, growing in medians and in the shadow of overpasses. They come up on their own. Golden poppies, whispering the entire story of the Golden State. Maybe not covering hundreds of miles of valley, but here none-the-less. It came to me then, that it’s all still here. I know the beauty of Central California because I’ve lived it. That is what I’ll write. That is what I’ll shoot.

All poppies.

So here we are at Image and Word. I’ve never been one to focus, so who knows how this will go. I’ve been a painter, a musician, a poet, a writer, a designer, a photographer. I’ve been successful at some of these things, a hobbyist at others. I’ve always wanted a gallery of sorts, a place to put out my work, and that was the idea that spawned this magazine.

I didn’t want to do it alone, though. I didn’t want this to be about me, I wanted to be one of the people sharing here. I’ve had a lot of friends over the years who are very impressive artists, thinkers and creators. I’ve asked many of them to join me. At the beginning it may seem more like a personal blog and showcase. But my hope is that it grows into the magazine I envisioned when I started.

I’ll write, draw, photograph, what I know. Most of that is Central California, even the fiction. Others will share their talents, what they know. I’ve invited people from all over the west coast of the United States, maybe others will follow.

I hope you enjoy Image and Word, and I hope you’ll visit us regularly. We have a lot in common with the poppies on the side of the freeway. The spirit of the arts is a Western tradition, and you never know just where it will spring up.

The featured photo is Wawona Meadow, taken in 2012. © James Gathright.

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