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The Fifth Course

Greetings from the Edge of the San Joaquin River…

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[Reprinted from the April 2010 issue of Stanislaus Connections]

The annual Tule Fog Fete is a fundraising event for Modesto, California’s Great Valley Museum. Held outdoors at Caswell Memorial State Park, the child-centered event includes live animal exhibits, docent-led walks through the park’s many riverside paths, snacks, silent auctions, and live music.

As a local amateur musician, I volunteer my services every year to the Great Valley Museum and the Tule Fog Fete. I play guitar and mandolin in the Zero Visibility String Band, a pickup band that was started specifically for the Tule Fog Fete dozens of years ago.

By 11:00 AM on March 7, the band assembled and began unpacking instruments. Keith Davis, Meg Eshom, and Jason Winfrey shared guitar duties; Linda McFelter swapped liberally back and forth between guitar and mandolin; Ken van de Kieft played a lot of octave mandolin and some guitar; yours truly played mandolin for the entire afternoon. But the most appreciated performer of the afternoon, measured in applause, was a young Miss Winfrey who pulled out her fiddle and, with help from her proud father, led us through a spirited rendition of “Old Joe Clark.”

We always play the fete without amplification. Set up and tear down remains simple and keeps us close to the action. Were we to employ microphones and a PA system, we would need to be farther away from our fellow volunteers and the animals they bring with them. And we would be removed from our audience, separated by a wall of sound.

Without amplification we can participate to a greater degree in the day’s activities, and draw our audience in. Once the audience is in, they listen and enjoy. The experience becomes neighborly and nearly participatory. Smiles get wider, toes tap, and voices drift out of the audience in harmony with our songs. Food for the souls of acoustic musicians.

The size and make-up of the band made it possible for individuals to take their own breaks. Meg scooted off to place bids on baked goods. Linda enjoyed some lunch. I grabbed a cold drink, a couple of chocolate chip cookies, and made time to chat with friends and relatives. Each of us rested a bit all while the band played on.

The advantage to the flowing and transient audience was that the music never stopped longer than the time it took to figure out whose turn it was to pick the tune. If you sat down to eat and listened while you waited for the next nature walk to start, you got a lot of music from different sets of people even though there were never fewer than 3 of us playing together at one time.

During our non-stop 4 hour set, warm sunlight filtered through the still leafless branches of black oaks that ring the picnic area and felt good on our faces and backs of our necks. We cast aside our jackets and let the sun do its work on bare arms.

We all realized the rare privilege of playing together in such beautiful surroundings. At the end of the day smiles and handshakes went all around, and we told each other we needed to do more of this. I am sure that part of the magic was the fete itself, a thing difficult to duplicate without a sunny day in the park and a lot of happy people in attendance.

I wish I could say the park itself was in good condition. Winter-fallen debris still litters the ground in the picnic area, brush cleared from a tree-fall nearby has been left in the overflow parking area, and half of the restroom buildings are closed. Caswell Memorial State Park, on the state park service closure list, could use some heavy yard work and a little maintenance.

The plants and animals do not mind the extra debris in the meadows and parking lots. It does not directly hurt a park to return to its less maintained state. But without clear trails, picnic benches, ample parking, and restroom facilities, this land will go unused. In the end it could become an attractive nuisance or a burden to the state. Then it could be sold to the highest bidder, who would be within his or her rights to clear it for multiple home construction. We would lose one of the few examples of riparian habitat still extant in the San Joaquin Valley.

One of the things that I hope arises out of the Tule Fog Fete is not just the monetary support gained by the Great Valley Museum, but greater awareness among our friends and neighbors in the valley that maintaining places like Caswell Memorial State Park is important to our quality of life. We have precious few places as wild and wooded as Caswell within easy driving distance. We need to preserve every one of them.

Perhaps we could use the model provided by the Great Valley Museum to raise funds for the upkeep of Caswell and other places in need. How about a May Day Festival? I know where we can scare up some committed volunteers, and I have “in” with a local Bluegrass band that would play for free.

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