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Letter Art by Sophie Sheppard

The Argenta swamp was not drained to create cattle pasture, as you wrote in the Winter 1997 issue; it was much better pasture before it was drained. In fact, during the initial adjudication of water rights on the Humboldt River near the turn of the century, a rancher from that area filed for water rights on the swamp, as he had been haying and grazing there, after the water went down in the summer and fall, for years. His application was rejected, however, on the basis that he had not had to do any work to spread the water, that the water actually spread naturally, and therefore was not put to "beneficial use." The swamp was in fact drained to speed the flow of water to Rye Patch Reservoir; that such a large amount of water spread out unused and lay at the mercy of evaporation was galling to the farmers in Lovelock, and so they pushed for the drainage work. Ironically, had the judge granted that initial claim in the Argenta area, there would have been a good chance of the swamp still being there.

--Preston Wright, Elko, Nev.

Just hours before he died, Russel Chambers, 87, a rancher and neighbor of mine was visited in the hospital by one of the many newcomers whom he had befriended. Unsure of how to ease Russell's passing, Bobby broke into a faltering rendition of "Don't Fence Me In." Through the fog that was beginning to enfold him, Russel cracked a smile. A few days later, Bobby repeated the performance with more polish and custom-written verses about the Mattole River valley at Russell's funeral. Another newcomer told how Russell cherished his memories of riding to Bear Harbor in a day, a distance of some forty miles over ridges, beaches and more ridges, to help a friend gather sheep. They'd spend the next four days driving the flock back, through the mosaic of grasslands and redwood and Douglas-fir forests, public land and private ranches and timber holdings. Even younger ranchers, the age of Russell's kids, grew up riding horseback along the ridge tops to dances at the neighboring village of Briceland. Because their slopes are gentle and were kept clear with fire, the ridges--no matter who owned them--have provided the natural corridors for trade, hunting and courtship since the First Peoples.

I was reminded of the importance of such unfettered journeys when I read your Winter issue and the essay on trails as a way of building community. Trails aren't just a route toward community, they are signposts that the feeling of community exists at all. They indicate that the people of a region see themselves in relation to one another, tightly enough and with sufficient trust that they allow each other pass without calling it trespass. The inhabitants of these communities can rely on a foundation of common values and customs. It begins with the confidence that your neighbors will observe the first rule of rural living: to leave the gates as you found em. It embraces the faith that your neighbors, traveling on the trail, won't call the warden for the out-of-season deer hide tacked up in your corral or summon the building inspector for the new cabin you're erecting for your hired help. If trails face opposition in a neighborhood, perhaps it is because that species of trust needs to be reconstructed.

Much has changed in the Mattole since the days when Russell rode to Bear Harbor. Newcomers began to arrive in 1974, setting up forty- and hundred-acre homesteads on ranches that were subdivided. They brought with them different opinions about how land should be managed, which did nothing to endear them to the folks whose families had been living there for five generations. The new arrivals also introduced the ranching culture to what was then a novelty crop: marijuana. The practice of backwoods agriculture made residents more reluctant to let people cross their land. But the presence of contraband by itself isn't enough to explain the change. During Prohi-bition, honor was the rule, among moonshiners as much as the general population. Stories are told of how a stranger would show up inquiring about where to get some whiskey. "Well, I don't have any," someone would say, "but sometimes a guy might find a quart in that stump over there." The stranger would get whiskey, leave some money, and preserve plausible deniability for all. The missing ingredient isn't obedience to the law, it is trust, and the wholeness of the fabric of society.

Russell Chambers wove some fragments of the fabric connecting the newcomers with the ranching culture in the Mattole. He even chaired the board of a group which sprang up to benefit the Mattole's dwindling salmon runs. The process of trust- and trail-building in the Mattole has had its setbacks, as when a small group appealed recently to the state government to drastically restrict logging in the watershed.

Overall, the lesson for us in the Mattole is embodied in a saying of Russell's that one of the new settlers, who gardened with Russell and herded sheep for him, recalled at his memorial service. "Start as you mean to go on," she quoted. That would make good advice for settlers who would like to connect the landscape and the members of the community with a network of trails--and trust.

--Seth Zuckerman, Petrolia, Calif.

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