Thursday, March 31, 2011

"Still Kickin": Requiem for El Padre de los Vatos

In late 1970, I was given the opportunity, as a young Community College instructor itching for work, to teach classes at what was then known as the California Youth Authority in Stockton, housing young offenders under the age of 25. The idea of teaching behind bars scared me at first, but with the encouragement of my wife, I took the step. The three institutions were divided into schools, according to ages of the offenders, with Karl Holton School housing wards from about 18-25, there for a variety of offenses from sexual battery to murder.

At that time, the school had a college program and wards could earn college credit for courses. My first class was one in Chicano History and I had about a dozen wards sign up for it. It was a mixed group, mostly Chicanos, with a handful of blacks and whites.

I took them on a haphazard journey through a smattering of Mexico's history, through the early Spanish colonization of the Southwest, the Mexican-American War, and ending with the Farm worker's Movement and Cesar Chavez.

It went much better that I hoped. I generally found the young men restless, distracted but respectful. But others were completely enthralled with the new knowledge they were being given. The next semester, the word must have gotten out because I was so swamped with students we had to turn many of them away. My connection to them was not so much through the curriculum, but the fact that I was Chicano, like so many of them and I could readily relate to their experiences.

The windows of my classroom faced the athletic field, and while I lectured I began to notice a short, stocky Catholic priest slowly walking around and around the track accompanied by a young ward. I thought little about it at the time. I noticed how his bald head glistened like a mirror ball in the sun.

"What is he doing?" I asked a ward one day. "Confession", he answered. Can you do that? I wondered to myself. I had always known confession to take place in a dark, foreboding stall, with a tiny curtained opening through which you spoke your sins to hidden priest.

In 1983, I was invited by a parishioner at the church I attended to participate in a three day men's retreat called a "Cursillo", a short course in Christianity. To that point, I was a Catholic in name only, though I played guitar and led hymns for Spanish masses, so I was not keen on the idea. I told him I would think about it and let him know, hoping with time that he would forget all about it. But he was relentless, so some weeks later I reluctantly agreed to go.

The retreat turned out to be a powerful, enlightening experience and I returned from it determined to be a be a better Catholic and a more active member of my church, but I was not sure where to begin. What could I do? What did I have to offer?

Some time later, as I walked past the Catholic Chapel on my way from class, it occurred to me that in all this time, I had never even bothered to introduce myself the the priest I had seen so many times circling the track with young men! What kind of Catholic was I?

In a moment of decisiveness, I walked into his office and introduced myself. I told him that I was a teacher and that I played guitar for masses at my parish. "Nice to meet you", he said with a big grin, "I'm Father Gerold Koller, 'El Padre de los Vatos' ". I laughed. It was odd to hear a non-Chicano use the word "vato", referring to a street-wise kid from the Barrio. He was overjoyed to meet me, and invited me to visit one of his masses. I agreed.

After my first visit to a Sunday mass, I began to feel some sort of calling. If I truly wanted to get more involved in my church, here was my chance. After some prayer, I asked him "would it be o.k. if some Sunday I bring my guitar and play some hymns for mass?" 'Yes! Yes! Yes!" He exclaimed, strongly squeezing my arm. I was amazed at how powerful his grip was for such a small man.

He stayed fit by swimming during his lunches at the institution and riding his bike 25 miles a day during the weekends. He greeted everyone with a staunch grip, wide smile, and looked deeply into your soul with those intense, compassionate sky-blue eyes.

And so began a partnership (and friendship) with El Padre de los Vatos that would last until he retired in 1993. I began bringing my wife, Chela and our two sons, Miguel and Fernando, to mass. She was immediately taken the Padre, and by the young men, and began addressing them as "Mijo" (my son). "Como, estas Mijo?" She would greet them when they arrived to mass. She admonished them to take care, "Cuidate, mijo", as they returned to their halls afterwards.

Father was a learned musician and had apparently directed a choir at one of his earlier assignments, so he taught me many new hymns in English, and songs for the liturgy of the mass, since I had only played hymns for Spanish masses to this point. He even tried to teach me to learn to read music, but to no avail. For me, it was like mathematics or a foreign language, quickly resigning himself to just teaching me the tune, which I could easily repeat since I had a "good ear".

One day, Father Koller told me that some of the wards wanted to learn to play guitar and other instruments and that he had been teaching them basics. He proudly showed me a collection of old guitars, a stand-up bass, tambourines and a conga drum, which he kept in a room behind the altar. "Can you join us to practice next week?" I said yes and so started our ragtag choir of misfits, the official choir of the Padre's church!

One of the guitar players was actually pretty good, but the rest could only tag along, sometimes a beat or a chord behind. No matter. "The secret", warned the Padre "is to all start together and end on together". Everything in between is not that important!" And he would chuckle. "1-2- 3 play, 2-3-4 play!" We would hear over and over, as we polished each song for a subsequent Sunday's mass.

The Father also had his regular altar helpers during the mass, assigning one ward to read in English, and another in Spanish for the Liturgy of The Word.

But Father Koller could also be stern and took no guff from the guys. Many came just to mass just to socialize and get away from the halls, and though they were supposed to sit in the pews, according to their respective units, he quickly separated those becoming too chummy during mass. During prayers or the Homily, he would close his eyes as he spoke, but never mind, he always knew who was talking or misbehaving! "You!" Pointing to the culprit; "There!" Indicating where he wanted them to move. "This is God's house!" 

But his abiding love his vatos, these young misguided souls was evident in his face and the kind words he always spoke to them. He visited them in the halls, even in lockup when they had gotten in trouble for fighting.

He was especially sympathetic to those who had lost loved ones, parents, on the "outside" who were not even allowed to attend the funeral.

One day, after mulling over the words in Matthew 23, where Jesus, as he separates the evil doers from the righteous, praises the good because "I was hungry and you gave me food, thirsty and you gave me drink, in prison and you visited me", I was smitten by the phrase... "In prison and you visited me."

I began to design a retreat similar to a Cursillo, but with some obvious limitations. First, we could only have the guys for two complete days Saturdays and Sundays, not three, and they would have to return to their halls at the end of each day. When I first presented the proposal  to Father, he tepidly responded and said he would think about and get back to me. After several weeks with no response I timidly brought up the subject again. "Oh yes, yes let's do it", he exclaimed, apologizing for not responding sooner.

I then recruited about 8-10 Cursillo volunteers, told them of the plan and after a few meetings, we fine tuned the details.

The retreat would begin with a Friday night orientation. We would tell the wards briefly what the retreat entailed, ask them to commit to the entire weekend, forgo any family visits, and a pledge to participate in all activities. Only 25 would be chosen.

Fr. Koller hand picked each participant. Those who regularly attended mass would be invited first, followed by those who were close to being paroled. Usually, we had to squeeze in an extra 5-6 wards who had gotten the last minute word about the retreat and begged Father to attend.

There would be a series of 45 minute talks by the volunteers on the topics of faith, family, forgiveness, the sacraments, and God's love. Wards were to assigned tables of 6-8 each, with a volunteer leader at each. The tables were given names of saints: St. John, St. Mark, St. Matthew, St. Francis, and wards were carefully assigned to tables by El Padre who knew their personalities, and gang affiliations. Sworn enemies were kept apart.

Each talk was followed by the making of a colored group poster, depicting the topic (there was usually one artist at each table), then each table was to stand up in front of the room, taking turns explaining the images on their poster to the others.

One skit which I had written, was regularly included in the retreat. It was a parody on the parable of the Prodigal Son, but vato-style with the all the duds and slang of the barrio. I played "Joker", the crazy, disobedient young son who demands his part of his father's inheritance, then squanders it on drugs, booze and women. When he finds himself broke and broken, he returns to a forgiving father. The wards loved it and got the message, too. Months after, whenever they saw me on the grounds, they shouted "Hey, Joker!".

"Good job! Good job! Good job!" The padre would grab my arm tightly and whisper. Father stayed away most of the day. He felt confident that we could run the program without his interference and I for one, greatly appreciated his trust in us. "It's your program", he often remind us, though I always made sure to run all details of the topics and events of the weekend past him.

We sang hymns, prayed and showered the wards with a love they hardly knew existed. If for but a moment, they were transported to a community of love, kindness, joy and respect. Temporary treaties were made between wards. Rancors set aside for the weekend, at least. They were after all, God's children now, regardless of territory, race or creed.

Lunch was brought in by a core of loving volunteers, home cooked Spanish rice, beans, tortillas, enchiladas, a la Chicana, and the word soon got out that the chow was just like their momma's. Restaurants would regularly donate food, and the institution hamburgers or hot dogs for the wards. The devotees devoured gallon cans of Jalapeños and lapped up bowls of home made salsa, even the Blacks and Whites!

And El Padre de los Vatos beamed with pride, and squeezed my arm even harder.

Word of these lunches eventually got out to the "staffa", the staff and they sheepishly began to hang around, waiting be invited to the feast. Some took plates of food back to other staff members who couldn't leave their posts, and there was always plenty for 2nds, and even 3rds.

At first the staff was leery of our retreats. To them they were a big pain in the neck with extra duty, weighed down by the widely accepted myth that wards were a bunch of no-goods, worthless, incapable of change, and that any effort to reform them was a waste of time. To most, we were just a bunch well-intended Pollyannas, bleeding hearts who naively believed in the inherent good of all people.

Ron, a veteran Sergeant and dedicated Catholic, who all the wards respected, did wonders for us, spearheading the logistics to support our efforts, movement to and from the halls, daily headcounts of the men, and by providing guards for the weekend. He willingly volunteered his time. And in time, staffers began to see for themselves some of the small and big changes in the wards attending the retreats, even commenting on it to us, in disbelief.

The wards returned to their dorms after Day 1, with a look of complete contentment and joy on their faces. And every single one anxiously returned on Sunday morning for Day 2 with bigger smiles on their faces.

"If they ask about what you are doing on the retreat, just tell your homies on the halls you had to listen to a bunch of people give talks all day. Especially, don't say anything about the food!  We want those who come to any future retreats to come for the right reasons, and not just for the chow!" I told them before they left. They laughed it off, but The Word would not to be contained.

Day 2 continued like the previous but with much more openness and camaraderie. Loud ones were humbled and shy ones opened like big clams. New leaders began to emerge. At 10 o'clock we marched the men to the chapel for Sunday mass, and back to the classroom and lunch.

By Sunday late, these lions and tigers had become docile children in obvious need of love and friendship. They seemed so much like our own sons and we like their moms, dads, and brothers. They had become our "mijos" (sons).

The retreat ended with a closing ceremony at the Chapel. where we gave each ward a certificate and those who felt the spirit move them, given a chance the share their experience. We were all touched, and wept openly. In one closing, a ward publicly addressed a rival gang member asking for forgiveness. They hugged.

Most of the wards did not want it end, and hung around as long as they could before returning to their halls. Again, we admonished them not to share details of the retreat to others. But like The Word, word of the great food on the weekends ran freely in the halls! 

In time, we took the name "Manos de Cristo" (The Hands of Christ). We continued to invite new volunteers, asking them only to to mass on Sundays. Then, they could decide for themselves if they felt comfortable and wanted to join us. Some came but never returned. At one point, we had about 12-15 regular volunteers who served at masses, taught Bible study and catechism on the halls, helping the Father Koller prepare the young men for First Communion and Confirmations. We followed up with regular monthly meetings for the wards who had attended the retreats, until the majority of them were paroled.

We conducted retreats, at first twice a year, and I continued to play occasionally at mass until Father retired in 1993.  We had a heart-felt potluck at our house for Father's retirement, and volunteers who had worked with him over the years, tearfully said their goodbyes. A couple of years later I wrote him a letter, thanking him for the years we worked together at the institution, to which he responded in a tediously scribbled, handwritten note, thanking me, my wife and the others, for our mutual friendships.

During the writing of this piece, I began to think of the old padre and e-mailed the St. Charles Center in Carthagena, Ohio, where I knew he had gone to retire, to inquire about him. Later that evening, I received a message telling me that Father Koller had passed away in November of 2010, after complications following a serious fall, at the age of 89.

 Whenever I saw Father Koller, I would ask him, "How you doing' Father?" "I'm still kickin.' " He would say and crack up. But I guess his kickin' is over now.

Adios, Padre de los Vatos, may you rest in well-deserved peace.

Friday, March 25, 2011

"I'm Gonna Be An Artist When I Grow Up"

"Whataya gonna be when you grow up kid?" Was one of the first questions we probably all remember being asked when we were kids.

"I'm going to be an artist", I always replied, confidently. I don't know how I just knew, but I did. I was fond of repeating what some artist had supposedly said, "I did not choose art, art chose me", because that's what I wanted to believe was so in my life.

So I embarked on my quest and I drew and drew and painted and painted, on our kitchen table, on walls, and on the living room floor.

I copied cartoons, photos in books and magazines and made up my own images and everyone loved it, especially my teachers. I was always chosen to make decorations for the bulletin boards and in high school I became a sort of prima donna, winning contests, scholarships, and even had a student body office created just for me, called the "Art Commissioner", where I spent a couple of hours daily in one of the art rooms painting posters and signs for student body events! It was cool. No classes!

After winning first place in a national poster contest during my Junior year, I became almost famous on campus.

I was never quite sure what I would do with an art career. I guess I just envisioned myself in a studio creating paintings I would sell for thousands of dollars and showing at prestigious art galleries around the world.

But in my heart, I knew that was not a realistic goal, especially after I began to read about the tragic lives of famous artists. Van Gogh cut off his ear! He later shot himself. Oh, God.

Even my mother warned me at an early age "Artistas se hacen famosos nomas despues de muertos!" (Artists never get famous until they are dead!) She loved to rub it in. "Why don't you be something worthwhile, like a lawyer or a businessman?" She would prod sarcastically.

Then, I began to think in more practical terms. She was right. Maybe I could be sign painter, or a commercial artist. I scoured magazines like the New Yorker, studying the advertisements and gawking over the stuff of David Stone Martin, Ben Shahn, and Norman Rockwell. Yes, this was so much more realistic.

You cannot imagine the excitement I felt on getting accepted to one of the most prestigious art schools on the West Coast, California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland, CA. on an incoming student scholarship that would pay for my first year's tuition! Me, a little Mexican boy from a barrio in the central valley! I had arrived. I was on my way to the Big Times. I was good and I knew it.

I could hardly wait to get started showing the world how great I was. I would be liked. I would be envied and admired by all.

One morning, early in my first semester, as I sat on a stairwell outside one of the painting studios taking in all the possibilities the world of art had to offer me, I eyed a young Asian guy, below me in the rundown tennis courts, working on an oil painting. His canvas was perched on an easel and his brushes and tubes of paint piled on a small folding table next to him.

It was an exquisite fall day, sunny, warm and a perfect day in which to produce a masterpiece, I thought. I could not really tell what he was painting, but it appeared to be a clump of trees on the hillside. He deftly shoved the brush around his canvas, just as it should be. I was engrossed watching him.

"Man", I mused to myself, "I can't wait to be out there painting just like this guy." This was a dream come true.

Suddenly, the guy grabbed his canvas with both hands, ripped it off his easel, threw it to the ground and began stomping it!! "God, damn son of a bitch!!! God, damn son of a bitch!!!" he cursed over and over until all that was left of his painting was a pile of shredded rags.

I was stupified, dumbfounded. I couldn't believe what was happening. My epiphany shattered like a mirror smashed by a rock. 

I was to learn that being an artist had a hefty price tag, and exactly why the kid did what he did.

In retrospect, this had been a message from God to His artist child, one I have never forgotton: "Be humble my son, be humble."

Thursday, March 24, 2011

On the Merits of Guerismo: Just a Little Freckled, Red-Haired Meskin' Boy

My mother and I Ca. 1950
3-time Grammy Award winner, and Tex-Mex mogul, Little Joe has a song entitled "I'm Just a Lil' Ol' Red-Necked Meskin' Boy." The song encapsulates the outrageous conglomeration that makes up being Chicano in the U.S.

It became obvious to me early in life, growing up in a Mexican barrio in Central California, that color of skin would play a crucial role in successfully assimilating in the American culture.

The dark skinned Mexicans were called "prietos", or "morenos", referring to their complexion. My mother would often admonish me when I was playing out in the sun "Metete a la sombra, sino vas a parecer Indio" (get into the shade or you're going to look like an Indian").

And everyone knew that to be a dark-skinned Mexican Indian was bad.

On the other hand, to be a fair-skinned one, a "Guero", was a distinct advantage in the U.S. That meant we could "pass" for Gringo or White when it was convenient. Most of my friends were clearly Mexican looking, "prietos," and possessed an accent, to boot.

But by a stroke of fate's faceteous hand, I was born with a triple whammy: Guero, freckled, and with curly red hair! Of six siblings, three of us were born with red hair, and three with black hair. Where the red came from, we will never know since both my mom and dad had black hair. All of the red heads had freckles too.

No one had really ever heard of a red-haired, freckled Mexican.

When my kids became aware of the splatters of freckles on my face, arms and hands they would ask "Daddy, why do you have these spots all over you?" "Well, one day my mother was painting the ceiling, while I was in my crib underneath, and the paint spattered all over me", I would kid with them. They loved the story so they kept asking the question.

But all this had its negatives. My mother's comadre, Doña Margarita, who lived next door donned me "El Coloradito", referring to my red hair. "Como esta mi coloradito?" She would taunt. I hated it. It was like being called "carrot-top" or "matchstick." Other Mexicans often referred to me as Guero. "Como estas Guerito?"

There is no question there was a great amount of discrimination against dark-skinned Mexicans, at work and in school. They were singled out by the "Americanos", and prodded into fights, or put at the "back of room" with all the "slow learners" by teachers.

But I could slide. They never quite knew what I was, and I could hang with my Mexican friends one day, and with my Anglo buddies the next. Sometimes my Mexican pals resented me for running around with the Whites. Mostly, they stuck together out of necessity by a mostly white-skinned culture that feared dark skin.

In Mexico, the "Indians" (being dark-skinned), were relegated to secondary status as a by-product of the Spanish Conquest in the 1500's. While they were outcasts, Spanish men saw no hypocrisy in mating with Indian women, creating another caste of people labeled "Meztizo", one born of a Spanish father and an Indian mother, scorned by Europeans for having Indian blood, and equally by Indians for having European blood.

The "Peninsular", native of the Iberian Peninsula (Spain) believed that the Indians were less than human, "gente sin razon", people, but without logic, or reason. It made it easier to commit atrocities on them.  Ironically, it would be Meztizos who would lead the rebellion in 1810 which culminated in Mexico's Independence in 1821, after 300 years of Spanish colonization.

Compounding the irony, the term "Mexican", replaced the word Meztizo, after Mexico's independence in 1821, and a Mexican would now be redefined with a new sense of pride, as being one of both Indian and European bloods! How's that for a neat contradiction?

My own stereotype of what Mexicans were supposed to look like was shattered on my first trip to Mexico. I was amazed to see so many gueros, light-skinned, blond-haired and blue-eyed! Some were whiter than I was! "These are Mexicans?" I thought.

My suegro (father-in law) was fair-skinned and had the bluest eyes. My two sons are dark-skinned with black hair. No red-hair or freckles in sight among the rest of my family, brothers, nephews, cousins or grandkids. Maybe one will pop up some where down the line, who knows?

 Nonetheless, I have learned that Brown is Beautiful, that Bronze is Beautiful (and freckles too!). However, I no longer have red hair; alas, it is all white now.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Linguistics: Masculinity and Feminity in Language

I am conjuring some Latin scholar sitting in a darkly lit back room, centuries ago, deciding what the gender of nouns ought to be. In the Spanish language each noun is prefaced by El (masculine) and La (feminine).

In some cases it makes sense: El hombre (man) and La mujer (woman) or El niño (boy) and La niña (girl). El sol (sun) implies a strong, powerful male sun and La luna, a delicate, smaller mate.

Yet, as to why La cuchara (spoon) is feminine, and El tenedor (fork) is masculine, or El coche (car) is male, and La camioneta (pickup) is female, your guess is as good as mine.

In Spanish you never, ever say or use the noun without its accompanying gender. It is unthinkable. To this day, when speaking Spanish, I often pause in the middle of a sentence before using a noun, until I feel safe I have its correct gender.

And with the fluidity of language brought on by the internet and science, new gender prefaces must be made up and applied as in El celular (cell phone), La computadora (computer, El I-Pod, and El blog (I think!)

No such gender references exist in English, with the exception of colloquial terms like mailman or chairman, which were promptly changed to the gender neutral mailperson and chairperson to pacify critics of the Women's Movement back in the 70's, who charged these kinds of words were Chauvinistic, or something.

So we hispanics continually live with gender charged nouns. Thus, it's La cuchara (spoon) and El tenedor (fork). In our house all rooms, La cocina (kitchen) and La recamara, La sala are feminine, except for the bathroom, El baño. Explain that one to me!

Then there is La pala (shovel) and El asadon (hoe), El caballo (horse) and La mula (mule), La rosa (rose) and El clavel (carnation) El arbol (tree) and Las ojas (leaves), El ojo (eye) and La nariz (nose), El libro (book) and La oja (page), El telefono (telephone) and La computadora (computer), El chile and La naranja (orange), La noche (night) and El dia (day), El lapiz (pencil) and La pluma (pen).

Ironically, ugly is El Feo, and pretty, is La bella. Talk about reverse Chauvinism.

Women's Libbers would have a field day with Spanish! 

We often hear people making errors in ascribing the correct gender to the noun as in El casa or La caballo. Chicanos complicated the problem with spanglish adding the gender prefix to an English noun as in "Mira, La moon, esta muy purdy." 

But I have to admit the gender prefix makes the language prettier, more poetic, being able to see all objects as gender tied, not cold objects defined by a dictionary, without soul.

It's no wonder Cesar Chavez used to say "English is the language you do business with, but Spanish is the language of love."

Monday, March 21, 2011

Dad, What's A Peach?

Some time ago my wife and I and our two boys were returning from the Bay Area and decided to take the scenic route, Marsh Creek Road, which starts at Hwy 680 and passes through Walnut Creek, winding through the Mt Diablo foothills and connecting to Hwy 4, and the beautiful Delta waterways to Stockon.

At the foot of the pass, as it connects to the valley floor, there were many farms and orchards, and we loved to hit a few of the fruit stands on the way home and stock up on peaches and nectarines, during the summer.

On this one day, as we pulled into one of the first stands, a load of Japanese tourists had just unloaded from a small tour bus and were excitedly running among the trees, pointing and jabbering at the exquisite boughs of vermillion nectarines teeming on the branches.

At first, it stuck us as funny, odd. After all, this was just another old orchard giving its bounty for summer. I had seen hundreds growing up in the San Joaquin valley of California. I had even picked some of these fruits as a kid.

Years before, living in Modesto when my wife and I first married, we rented a small house in the barrio that once belonged to my uncles, The Mendozas. Two orange trees grew in the front yard, which we largely ignored.

One day, my old high school buddy, Phil came to visit us from Berkeley and brought his girlfriend and her friend, who both hailed from New York City. I had never met anybody from New York City and the barrio must have been an adventure for them. As they stepped from the car, his girlfriend's eyes immediately darted to the orange trees and she rushed towards one crying "Look, look, oh look oranges!!" She had never seen an orange growing on a tree.

My mom's house down the street stood in front of a small orchard. As kids, we took full advantage of this. Though only the size of about four square blocks, it held walnuts, figs, apricots, grapes, peaches and a few nectarine trees in it. We quickly learned when each would ripen and carried on clandestine raids into the orchard to taste its delicious delicacies, braving the ire of the rancher who chased us out many a time.

As a teen, I worked summers picking various crops in the valley. Unloading with the men from the back of a truck, it was still dark outside as we scurried to to our assigned sets of trees or rows of grapes. Sunrise in the fields was exquisite, the sparkle of dew drops as sun light hit them, the cool of summer mornings just before the heat began, nibbling on ripe apricots or peaches on a 12 foot ladder was intoxicating. You could smell the fruit being processed at the canneries in Modesto.

I had always enjoyed drives through the valley in spring and summer. Fields of almonds in bloom, and trees full of apricots and peaces were commonplace. When my wife, a native of Mexico first saw the orchards and fields, she was mesmerized.

I used to grill her on the names of fruit trees and it took her a few years to identify them just by their trunks and leaves. "What kind of tree is that?" "A Peach?" "No, it;s a cherry!" "What kind is that?" "A cherry?" "No, a peach!" I knew them all and took it for granted. Now, after 40+ years living in the valley, she knows them all, even without their leaves.

I left Modesto in 1957 when I went off to college in Oakland. After college, I enlisted in the U.S. Army and spent 3 more years from 1962-1965, away from the valley. One of the first things I noticed when I returned to Modesto was how many orchards had been torn down. In their place were parking lots, shopping centers and housing projects. To this day, I can recall exactly where a particular peach, walnut, or almond orchard or vineyard once stood.

On the drive from Modesto to Stockton where we now live, orchard after orchard has been leveled and I wonder what the fate of the remaining orchards is. Here in stockton, farmland has disappeared at an alarming rate. In what are now houses, Walmarts, and housing projects lie the remains of what were once tomato, cherry, almond or walnut fields plowed under. Tiny island orchards cling to life, but for how long?

Farmers' Markets still thrive locally and I love to frequent them to taste the rich familiar flavors of locally grown, fresh tomatoes, peaches, apricots, grapes, and pears in summer.

Yet, our appetite for farmland continues to grow. The fruit from backyard fruit trees feeds mostly the birds, or is left to fall to rot on the ground. According to Molly Penbreth from the California Department of Conservation, from 2002-2004 "More than 18,000 acres of farmland in several San Joaquin valley counties has become subdivisions, shopping malls and other developments."

The population of California is projected to double to 60 million by 2050, with much of that growth taking place in the central valley. Aside from the fact that for me the loss is mostly aesthetic, Califonia's agriculture  feeds a great chunk of the world, and is a multi-billion dollar business.

What will we do when our children ask, "Mom, what is a peach?" And all we can do is show them a picture? 

Monday, March 14, 2011

Monkey See, Monkey Do

The documentary film "Animals Are Beautiful People", has one clip which has just plain dumbfounded me since I saw it many years ago. It is a toast to the superb ingenuity of man; it is a testament to our brain, plain and simple, forever sealing all arguments about whether animals are as intelligent as men!

For an African Bushman, survival depends on, among other things, accessibility to water. One trick the Bushman employs is to find a termite mound and slowly begin to dig a narrow hole into its core, with a stick. He then hollows out a small chamber at the end, but larger than the diameter of the hole.

A monkey, being creature of curiosity, is attracted to the goings-on, and begins to watch. The man, makes sure the monkey sees every move. He then takes some fruit seeds from his pouch, pushes them through the hole in the mound, depositing them just inside the hollow he has dug, and retreats a short distance to wait.

The monkey, mad with curiosity approaches the mound and sticks his arm into the narrow opening, grabbing a fistful of seeds from the hollow inside. But when he tries to pull his arm out of the hole, he can't! The fistful of seeds is to large to now slip through the hole, and he is stuck. All he really has to do is to let go of the seeds and his arm will easily slide out of the mound, but his greed, and stupidity prevents him from doing so.

At this point, the man quickly pounces on the monkey, subdues him, slips a length of rope around his neck, and ties him to a nearby tree. He then reaches into a pouch, pulls out some rocks of salt which he has brought along just for this occasion, and scatters them around on the ground within the monkey's reach.

The monkey just cannot resist one of his favorite treats! He leaps on the salt and begins to eat it. Time passes and the monkey begins to tire. It is hot and he is getting mighty thirsty. But the Bushman bides his time until he  deems the monkey is mad with thirst.

At the precise moment, he cuts the monkey loose, and the monkey makes a bee line, right into an underground cave he knows contains the water, with the Bushman hot on his heels!

In the end, the two drink side by side, monkey and man, and the monkey does not even care.