Roll On, Columbia, Roll On

Astoria, Ore.  A version of this story first appeared in the “22 Rivers” newsletter. You can sign up for free right here

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Ray Roberson of Saint Maries ID finishes a set at FisherPoets Gathering in the Voodoo Room. Feb. 29, 2020. Astoria, Ore. Photo by Neal Moore.

When Jon Lee and his band Slimeline kicked into “Roll On Columbia” the tightly packed crowd at Astoria Brewing Company joined in. It was FisherPoets weekend at the mouth of the Columbia River, an annual gathering of grizzled fisher folk from Alaska to California who come to celebrate their craft with prose and poetry and song. Old and young here know Guthrie’s ditty by heart, and Lee, a descendant of over a century of Chinese cannery workers in Astoria, sang it with gusto.

But the Columbia no longer rolls – thanks in colossal part to the Grand Coulee Dam for which “Roll on Columbia” was penned – and this was Lee’s point: to encourage debate.

Lee had asked his friend Scott McAallister, a commercial fisherman from Juneau, Alaska, to interrupt him half way through. And so he did. The duo yelled back and forth for some time in pre-scripted fashion. McAllister arguing that Guthrie was a tool of the Corp of Engineers who never cared for the Columbia or the men and women who worked her. And Lee, that Guthrie, who could do no wrong, was being ironic.

“Ha, that would be the ultimate,” Robbie Law, Lee’s cousin and member of Slimeline, later told me. “To have the Bonneville Power Administration pay for you writing subversive lyrics.”

As big a boon as Alaska is for fishermen today, the Columbia River was once bigger. “It was just a wealth of big trees and salmon and water,” Lee said. “It should have sustained us. But we squandered it. It should have lasted forever.”

Lee’s friend, the writer Victoria Stooppiello, was born and raised in the Lower Columbia region. Her father, grandfather, and great-uncle were commercial fishermen their whole lives. In an essay titled “Denial is Not a River” she conjured the folly of over-logging and the damned dams and renewable energy through the lens of an economic enterprise zone.

Many of the professional fisher folk had a streak of activist in them. For they rhymed not only about the joys of the salmon runs of Bristol Bay, a region of Southwest Alaska, but the need for the EPA to reverse its recent verdict to allow the National Environmental Policy Act permitting process to consider mining it.

To once and for all disallow Pebble Mine, a porphyry copper, gold, and molybdenum mineral deposit project that will replace the sanctity of the salmon and these waters for the bounty that lies underneath.

Closer to Astoria, the presenters here assembled were passionate about the Columbia River, reflecting on the over-fishing that led to smaller fish and lessened runs, along with other obstacles the salmon now face.

As one fisher poet concluded at the gathering’s farewell event on Astoria’s fabled Pier 39, referring to the dams and the engineers who built them, “Sometimes it seems instead of one apple, we’ll devour the whole damned tree … So, it’s time to step back and take a long sober look, and conclude, Mama Mia. Let’s go back to the software, and try to come up with what’s really a good idea.”

‘Down the Mississippi’ book speech in Fort Benton, MT this Friday, July 13th

I’ll be doing a book speech about “Down the Mississippi” in FORT BENTON, MONTANA this FRIDAY, JULY 13, 2018 from 3:30PM to 5PM. The event will be hosted by the Chouteau County Library in historic Fort Benton, Montana. The library is located at 1518 Main St, Fort Benton, Montana 59442.

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The speech will include selected readings about the folks I encountered and documented on my voyage down the Mississippi and will take place at the oldest county library in Montana.  Should be fun!  If you’ll be in the vicinity it’d be great to meet up!

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Uniontown Supreme Court: If The Pilings Could Talk

Back in Astoria, Oregon, I befriended Columbia River Gillnetter, Cook Inlet Drifter, FisherPoet and Folklorist TOM HILTON, who shared with me this poem:

 

All that’s left is legend,

Names etched in a

granite Wall

Black and white photos

Folk Lores For sale

In the maritime museum

store

 

Boats of wood

Hands of Steel

Hearts of gold

 

All races

Colors

Creeds

A man was valued

By his word

Firm handshake

His deeds

 

White aproned Super-

models

Grinning from ear to ear

Days measured by

seasons

Not years

 

Tattered edges

Faded Yellow Brown

Ripped

Torn

Memories of the glory

days

When gillnetting was

born

 

Dilapidated docks

Rotten pilings

Broken tops beneath

our tidal view

Skeleton bones

Partially Submerged

Floating Homes

 

Lonely Net racks

Empty Bluestone tanks

Broken windows

Moldy musty dusty

dank

 

Wooden corks,

Lead lines,

Linen nets

Stripped clean of all

their glory

 

No more Mug up,

Coffee Time

Just Empty Chairs

waiting for stories

 

Court is no longer in

session

 

Yesterday’s myths

See thru faded

Transparent

Not bitter

Jaded

 

Today’s Mono-filament

Tangle Nets

Jesus Box

Deadliest catch drama

Overstated

Overrated

Prima Donnas

 

If those pilings could

talk

What tales would they

weave? Would they be

fortuitous of sport

fisherman’s greed?

 

Countless stories

Work is our Joy

Fortunes made

Love

Families

Togetherness

Life

Salmon

Laughter

Heartbreak

Lost

 

Of Butterflies

And Bowpickers

Double-enders

Power scows

Cash buyers

And Tenders

Four bits a pound

 

Clifton

Brookefield

Altoona

Alderbrooke

Uppertown

Uniontown

Celilo

 

Where did they all go?

 

Salmon Culture

A menagerie of people

A colorful past

Romanticized

Plagiarized

Eulogized

By people like me

 

Fishing is more than

Tradition

Governor

It’s a Religious

Ceremony

 

Ebbing current

Tides shift

Surge of change

Pulling our nets

Taking us under

These words bury my

pain

 

Black and white photos

Names etched on a

granite wall

Let’s not forget them

The true legends of fall!

 

This mighty river

What It was back then

Full of Salmon Sturgeon

Seiners, Trollers,

Gillnetters

Cannery women

Stomper

Astoria’s Fighting

Fishermen

 

The Story is over…

All the Legends have

died

Our Eyes welled with

wet

Politicians lied

Last of my tears shed

Cried

 

So if pilings could talk

 

Ask one how it was

back then…

 

It will probably tell you

Those days are gone

forever

Kid

 

With the stroke of a pen…

 

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Photo by Mitch Eckhardt

Copyright Tom Hilton and FisherPoets Anthology. Illusions of Separateness. “Uniontown Supreme Court: If The Pilings Could Talk” was written to pay respect for the men who fished and the women who worked the Columbia River.  Audio recording and video of the old cannery at Clifton, Oregon by Neal Moore.

‘Down the Mississippi’ book speech slated for Richland, WA

I’ll be doing a book speech about “Down the Mississippi” in Richland, Washington as I pass through the “Tri-Cities” of Richland, Kennewick and Pasco at the confluence of the YakimaSnake, and Columbia rivers in Southeastern Washington. The event will be hosted by the Richland Public Library on Monday, May 7th from 7-8pm. The library is located at 955 Northgate Dr, Richland, Washington 99352.

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It’ll be the first speech about the folks I encountered and documented on my voyage down the Mississippi in quite awhile and an absolute first at a library.  Should be fun!  If you’ll be in the vicinity it’d be great to meet up!

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Connected by Water

I had the pleasure to meet up with Bud Herrera of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. Bud is an Umatilla, a fisherman and entrepreneur who lives near the Rufus Landing Recreation Area where I recently made camp. We traded goods (he told me with a laugh, just like 150 years ago).

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He gave me a beaded salmon necklace so that other Native Americans I meet along my journey will know that I’m a friend, dried salmon for energy, which he called “gold”, and his own personal copy of Shadow Tribe: The Making of Columbia River Indian Identity by Andrew H. Fisher.  I gave what I could: organic coffee, a honeycrisp apple, and the promise of a signed copy of my previous expedition memoir, Down the Mississippi.

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I am excited to come back to Rufus to document Bud’s story and those of his tribal elders.  The Umatilla are a Native American tribe that traditionally inhabited the Columbia Plateau along the Umatilla and Columbia rivers, a civilization dating back millennia. Bud told me that salmon is gold and that we as a world are all connected by water.  Heartfelt words from a humble and wise new friend.

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Illiteracy to Literature in the Enlightened South

OXFORD, MISSISSIPPI

Known as the home of Nobel Prize-winning author William Faulkner, the University of Mississippi, and one of the finest independent book stores in the nation, Square Books, it came as a shock to learn Lafayette County’s illiteracy level amongst adults equals that of the national average – dead even at 23%.

And so began a search for answers.

One of the first things that catches your eye in Oxford is that folks from all walks of life are serious about the arts. From a rich and illustrious tradition of Hill Country Blues to a celebration of outsider art to the local Arts Council which hosts and funds a revolving door of local events to the three Square Book establishments on Oxford Square, there seem to be multiple celebrations of the arts every day and night of the week.

One of these Oxford institutions is billed as Thacker Mountain Radio – a weekly variety show of music and literature – held via Square Books every Thursday night stringing back to 1979. The show is live and the public are welcome and for those who can’t make it in person, there’s the radio.  Thacker Mountain is broadcast on both “Rebel Radio” and Mississippi Public Broadcasting.

To take a seat at Thacker Mountain is to get into the groove of the local arts scene. The oversized windows at Off Square Books are opened up and those who don’t get seats pour out into the town’s Square. The night that I caught Thacker Mountain through the lens of my camera was the night I met authors Jessica B. Harris and Roy Blount Jr. Their advice for the public at large – “You’ve got to read” – a mantra which led me to the local Literacy Council.

Nicole Bass is an “Americaore Vista” which is a title and branch of the Volunteers and Service to America. While the council spends most of their time dealing with “preventative” measures – working with children – I thought it would be interesting to tag along for the first lesson of an adult, by the name of Sherry Crocker.

Sherry is in her late thirties and has two young children.  She wants to break the cycle of illiteracy in her family and has asked the Literacy Council for help. According to Sherry, she’s taking lessons to “help [her] four year old with homework” as well as to “read [the notes] he brings home from school.”

The idea of taking that first step into a first lesson in reading is a daunting prospect for many adults who in so doing are forced to acknowledge they don’t know how to read. There’s a stigma attached to both being unable to read as well as the fact a healthy percentage of our nation cannot read, like unto a secret.  A secret that isn’t talked about in polite society – a secret that as painful as it might be, needs to be brought out into the open and turned around and discussed.

The lesson for Sherry was intense and at times difficult. She was not able to pronounce many consonants, but she tried and although visibly embarrassed, was determined not to give up. When asked why it might be scary for folks around the nation to take the bold step that she took this day, Sherry, full of confidence on having completed her very first lesson, beamed, “They’re just scared – but me – I’m not scared at all – I’m enjoying … learning how to read.”

From the basic grasp of consonants to the next step up the ladder of literacy – actually craving the concept of literature – I found the idea of introducing a literary mantra in the epicenter of what some folks refer to as the “Enlightened South” an interesting prospect.

David Swider and Michael Bible are affable and giddy and very much sincere about literature.  I joined the duo for a beer at the Square’s greasy spoon, Ajax, to talk shop about the region before sitting down for an interview back on their work-turf of Square Books.  Their energy plays off each other when they talk, turning every conversation into a brainstorming session of what would be cool or what could work out literary-wise for the literary journal, Kitty Snacks.  At ages 25 and 28, respectively, David and Michael are relatively young to undertake the launch of a literary magazine – but this is their point. They want to make the rather lofty idea of literature a possibility for folks of all ages by offering it to the public as bite sized snacks.

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According to Michael Bible, Mississippi “is the fattest, poorest, dumbest state in the country – that is full of geniuses.  You have people that can’t read right next to people that win Nobel Prizes – and it’s this weird kind of dichotomy that works to both illuminate that kind of difference but also recently, bring it together.”

“The book is kind of a hard commodity right now,” explains Wayne Andrews, Executive Director of the Yoknapatawpha Arts Council, who immediately saw the potential for the journal and helped to get it published.  While “publishers [are] not taking risks on new authors [nor] publishing diverse works, we’re finding new ways to do it.” According to Mr. Andrews, quarterly publications like Kitty Snacks are “leading [people] down the path to discover a magazine and then hopefully discover a book.”

The Renaissance of America’s Hometown

HANNIBAL, MISSOURI

Like unto Samuel Clemen’s legendary protagonist, Tom Sawyer, Alex Addison, the present-day, barefoot ambassador of Hannibal, is all business. “I see [riding the economic downturn] not as a challenge but as a goal – it’s starting to click, [things locally are] going to be really good,” explained Alex, age 13, holding his own in a round-table interview with Mayor Roy Hark, Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Terry Sampson, and City Planner Jeff LaGarce.

Taking a day out of his busy schedule as Hannibal’s official “Tom”, Alex took me for a tour of ‘America’s Hometown’ with the polished grace of a professional politician.  Together, we visited everybody from the local, modern-day judge, to the minister, to of course, the city’s old-school mayor.

As we talked about the building blocks of America – of what made America great – I learned that Twain’s literature, along with a now bustling Main Street, is making all the difference, at least locally here in ‘America’s Hometown’.  There is a buzz in the air along Main Street, as shopkeepers brave the financial crisis in hopes of a year that for many is landing solidly in the black.

The trick, as far as I could see, was a love and rallying cry from business owners and citizens alike to preserve the downtown district.  “Preservation doesn’t cost – it pays,” exhorted local resident and former PBS television personality, Bob Yapp.

After traveling the world as a foremost expert on home restoration, with his own show on both PBS and NPR, Mr. Yapp decided to settle for good here in Hannibal, describing himself as one of “Hannibal’s expats” who “are coming to Hannibal [with a love of Hannibal’s] architecture.”

But it isn’t just Mr. Yapp’s generation of eclectic friends, ranging from potter Steve Ayers to the next-door Bed and Breakfast innkeepers of the Dubach Inn,  that are excited about restoring America’s architectural past.  Yapp is busy mentoring and teaching at-risk youth from the local high school, many of which enjoy their time “on site” so much they plan to take up the trade.  “I actually want to do exactly what Bob is doing,” explained one Hannibal High School student, going on to exhort, “when you’re here you actually get to do stuff and work on stuff that you actually want to do.”

Which could describe the new Mark Twain Boyhood & Museum Executive Director Cindy Lovell’s take on Hannibal to a tee, self-describing her time in this town as “being intoxicated with the history [of Twain] ever since stepping foot into Hannibal.”  Dr. Lovell’s eyes glance around her as she walks these streets – observing the very homes and hills and river and buildings that directly inspired Hannibal’s favorite son – Mark Twain – with an all-knowing smile that one can’t help but find contagious.  “I think Hannibal’s history is so linked to the past,” continued Dr. Lovell, “in the preservation of the past, the lessons we learn from the past.  And we have to be vigilant.”

From the city officials I was most fortunate to meet, to the next generation of high school artisans, I believe that Hannibal, and through her example, America’s hometowns around the country, will continue to experience a re-birth of sorts as revitalization begins to hold sway.  “Across the nation, small communities are reinventing themselves,” continued Mr. Yapp. “And they’re having a renaissance in the sense that… things change.”

Continuing that walk, Dr. Lovell looked up, gesturing to the top of Main Street.  “Tom always has his eye on the future,” explained Dr. Lovell.  “That’s why when you look at the statue of Tom and Huck, lording over Main Street from the base of Cardiff Hill, you will see Tom stepping into the future.”

“Not only do we have a good past,” explained young Alex Addison, “but I think it would be better to have a good past and a great future than a great past and an okay future.”  A future that judging from the next generation of Hannibal, is most certainly going to be bright.

Tom