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Photograph by Michael Amsler

Current events: Environmental activist Kay McCabe has created a watershed event that highlights the issues facing the Russian River--a source of water for Sonoma and Marin counties--without getting bogged down in politics.

Liquid Assets

Celebrating the Russian River

By Bill Strubbe

"IN RETROSPECT, I am amazed that when I first began saying to people, 'Let's celebrate the spirit of the river,' they didn't laugh at me," says Kay McCabe, the visionary behind the third annual, 10-day homage to the biological, economic, and spiritual lifeblood of the county. Indeed, the Pomo Indians knew the winding waterway as Shabakai, the Pomo word for snake. In 1812, homesick Russian fur traders named the river Slavanika--an endearing diminutive for a Slavic girl. Later, European settlers gave it the name we now know it by: the Russian River.

"No matter what your religious background, the spiritual experience of sitting beside water is a deep one," says McCabe, a longtime Sonoma County resident living in the rural west county town of Occidental. "We all know that without water there would be no life on our planet. The relationship humans have with water is so primal that it goes beyond usual conversation and draws one to silence."

Silence and action are the enduring ways of the Quakers. As a Quaker, McCabe was always active in her community--directing Headstart, organizing cooperative daycare, and being active in the League of Women Voters--but it wasn't until a mystical experience in Ireland that a shift into bioregional consciousness, this notion of celebrating the spirit of the river, took hold of her.

"After my husband died several years ago, I decided to do something to invent a new life for myself. Both our fathers were Irish, so I visited Ireland to explore our heritage," recalls McCabe, an octogenarian great-grandmother. "While there I had several what one might call mystical experiences, where I subliminally absorbed the Celtic notion of the web of life and nature, that we are a part of everything else."

Shortly afterward, while reading an Irish headline about an upcoming celebration of the river Shannon, it dawned on McCabe: "Why didn't we have a celebration of our own river, starting at the headwaters and ending up at Jenner--an event to express our gratitude for the river's gifts and to honor the different peoples who live and have lived in the area?"

Back in Sonoma County she called around to friends and key environmentalists and asked if they'd help stage such an event. "Everyone said their plates were too full and asked, 'Why don't you do it?' " recalls McCabe. "But what did I know? And I figured that if I didn't know, then there was probably an enormous number of people who didn't know anything about the river either. I should say the watershed, because water is flowing everywhere, in streams and underground. But I didn't even know what a watershed was."

So McCabe, now 81, studied everything she could get her hands on, spoke to experts and activists, and quickly learned that "the whole area is tied up in water-related conflicts and issues: the increased demand on water for housing; wastewater disposal; mining the rich gravel beds; diverting water from the Eel River. I go to some of those meetings, and there's so much anger in the room that it sometimes seems impossible for a meeting of the minds."

But she realized that the one factor uniting all factions was their love of the Russian River. "You don't have to be a specialist. Politics and positions on various issues don't matter. Caring about and loving the river is the only requirement for participating in any of the events," McCabe emphasizes.

"What I liked about Kay's approach was that it was a very nonpolitical, positive, and educational way to raise awareness," says Russian River Celebration chair Brace Parkman, a senior state Parks Department archeologist, who also works with Siberians to raise awareness of their own Angara River, which drains out of Lake Baikal. "We're trying to unite communities that one wouldn't normally think were connected, but which in fact are. Which in turn helps foster concern for what happens throughout the watershed."

TO MANY environmental activists entrenched in years of conflict and litigation, McCabe's nonconfrontational and "fun" approach appeared naive, and some admit it took them a while to warm up to her plans. But McCabe reasoned that people are going to care about the watershed by developing a sense of belonging through creating fun and ongoing ritual. As the eminent Joseph Campbell believed, rituals express a spiritual reality in accord with the way of nature. He wrote that rituals are enactments of myth, and myth is the "music we dance to when we cannot hear the tune."

Over the last three years, in what is believed to be the only watershedwide river celebration in the nation, a cycle of river rituals has continued to evolve. The Celebration of the River commences at the headwaters in Mendocino, where a spring bubbles out of the ground--"the water is so clear," says McCabe, "that it's not difficult to imagine the small fish floating in air rather than swimming in water."

The small gathering, with representatives of Native Americans from Round Valley, begins in silence, followed by an opportunity to speak of feelings about water and nature.

Glass-blowing artist Sonny Cresswell of Cazadero created a flask in which to scoop water from the headwaters and convey it the 120 miles to the ocean. "As a symbolic way to link ourselves with the process of the water flowing to the ocean," McCabe says, "we have a relay of cyclists, kayakers, and canoers carrying the water to the river mouth." Despite limited public access, Howard Moes, a retired psychologist in Santa Rosa, created a Russian River Relay Pathway, a series of routes for cyclists, hikers, and kayakers.

ON THE LAST DAY, at the river mouth, Violet Chappell, the elder of the Kashaya Reservation at Salt Point, will preside over a ceremony and give a blessing in the Pomo language. The headwaters from the flask will be transferred to a traditional water basket, then poured into the sea, accompanied by a flotilla of kayaks being paddled into the sunset.

While Kay McCabe is indubitably the moving spirit--crowned last year as "Queen of the River"--about 20 committees in cooperation with the Sonoma County Conservation Council coordinate the various events offered during the 10-day celebration: educational hikes, river walks, lectures, river cleanups, poetry and singing, festivals, ceremonies and rituals, and a picnic.

"The Russian River is a very private river in that there are only eight public county beaches," McCabe explains. "To highlight how little access there is, we'll be having a picnic at one of the lesser-known beaches. People generally don't know where they are, and the county has just published a map."

Oscar Gomez has participated the last two years on the cleanup days. "Memorial Beach, where we like to hang out, was a mess, so I got some friends together to help pick up the diapers, beer bottles, and bags," the 19-year-old from Healdsburg says. "After that it made me think about why I am tossing this garbage and polluting the river, when someone else will have to pick it up."

The number of participants each year has grown from dozens and hundreds to a few thousand. One of the ongoing challenges of organizing the slew of events is the tiny $5,000 budget, most of it donated in $25 to $100 checks. This year, a generous matching grant of $2,000 from Broadlink Communications and EcoStewards has been extended, meaning $2,000 must be donated by the community at large before the extra $2,000 kicks in.

From inner urgings, to studying biology and politics, to involving the broader community, to manifestation, the river celebration undertaking has been one of learning for McCabe herself. "In these past few years I've reached beyond my capacities and grown enormously. I feel more clear about myself and that I've done something that is of value."

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From the September 14-20, 2000 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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