[This is part 1 of a two-part post]
It’s a dark November night as I drive through the western Sierras toward Quincy, CA (elevation 3,423 ft.). The narrow road twists through pine and rock as the elevation rises, edged by water spanned by erector-set bridges and intermittent power stations. Because it is so dark, because there are no streetlights, and because the stars are hidden by the mist, the landscape is implied by the space that is not taken up. I can’t resist crossing a one-lane bridge across the Feather River into Belden, even though it’s dark and everything is shut down. It is a place I will be visiting again in two days, although I don’t know it at the time. I also don’t yet know that the roads I am traveling are laid directly over trails made by the Mountain Maidu long, long ago.
The town of Quincy is just as quiet as one would expect a remote mountain town to be on a Sunday night at 8pm. I stop into Moon’s, a restaurant whose rough-hewn exterior implies a warm interior. The fire in the wood stove, coats and hats hanging on a communal rack next to the front door, and patrons conversing across the dining room fulfill that promise, and I realize that I am in a place that exists based on a tangible sense of community. I am here at the invitation of Rob Wade. Rob’s professional CV reads something like this: Coordinator of the Plumas County Unified School District’s Outdoor Education Program. An award-winning educator specializing in place-based learning in the Feather River Watershed. Founding member of the Feather River Land Trust. Coordinator of the Trust’s conservation and education program, Learning Landscapes. Director of the Feather River Outdoor School.
Yet with all that, it still doesn’t quite get it said. What begins to, though, is Rachel, the young woman who brought me my (excellent) meal. We exchange pleasantries as I settle the bill, and I tell her I’m here to meet Rob and some of the students, teachers, and administrators of Plumas USD. Her face breaks into a wide smile as she begins to enthusiastically sing Rob’s praises, and shares memories of her own experiences in the monumental 6th grade rite-of-passage outdoor experience that all Plumas USD students access. “Rob is awesome! He does such great work with the kids. He took my 6th grade class on outdoor ed. It’s something every kid looks forward to here.” She talks about the impact the experience had on her, and while she’s speaking she exudes a sense of pride in being a Mountain Kid; I’m about to understand why.
My next 48 hours in Plumas County provides many deep and powerful lessons on the meaning of place, of place-based learning, of public education and the public trust, and of community.
Quincy sits on the south edge of the American Valley in central Plumas County, against the western slope of the Sierra Nevada Mountain range. It is the county seat, population ~5,000. Plumas gets its name from the Spanish name for the Feather River (Río de las Plumas), which flows through the county. Quincy made its debut alongside the birth of the county on March 18, 1854, when an act was passed by the State of California creating Plumas County from the eastern portion of Butte County. Predating Quincy, this place has been (and continues to be) the home of the Feather River and the Maidu people. The Maidu have always been here; Seeloom is the original name of this place.
Emigration to Quincy was based on the gold rush. In 1850, African American frontiersman James Beckwourth’s discovery of the lowest pass through the Sierras blazed a trail that enabled much of the migration to the area. Originally a Native American path through the mountains, Beckwourth was credited with discovering what came to be called Beckwourth Pass, a low-elevation pass through the Sierras. In 1851, he improved what is now known as the Beckwourth Trail. It began near Pyramid Lake and the Truckee Meadows east of the mountains, climbed to the pass named for him, traveled along a ridge and between two forks of the Feather River before passing down through the gold fields of northern California ending in the Sacramento Valley. The trail spared emigrants about 150 miles, several steep grades, and dangerous passes (including the infamous Donner Pass) as they made their way west.
Significant numbers of Chinese miners settled in the area and built roads, ditches, and other infrastructure. During the 1870s the area was in full economic boom, and while the 1900s saw the decline of mining, the timber industry began to rise. By 1910, the Western Pacific Railroad connected Quincy with the rest of the world. With gold and copper mining still active, the timber industry’s rapid development, and the American Valley’s steady agricultural output, Quincy thrived. The upswing in the timber industry translated to new mill business and migration to the area. Quincy Lumber employed hundreds of men, many of whom were African American migrants from Louisiana and Arkansas. In 1940, African Americans in Quincy comprised 40% of the town’s population, and although the mill closed many years ago, former employees remained, raised families, attended local schools, and became a part of the community. In some ways, this place (and the way people connected to and in it) translated to Quincy being ahead of the nation:
‘Though segregated housing was the norm, little else was divided by race. After two years of resistance from white locals, African American children began attending local schools in 1940. Their presence generated [for the time and place] scenes of remarkable integration. In fact, by the Spring of 1954 a black senior, John Clark, was elected student body president at Quincy High School. White adults entertained at “the Sump,” a black club in the Quincy Hotel. Local African Americans often spent their leisure hours in the Quarters at B&B’s Club owned by Ben and Alberta Conston. A white Louisiana native remarked on the degree of integration in Quincy and Sloat saying openly what many black and white residents already knew: that such intermingling would not have been possible in Lake Charles, Louisiana. While the introduction of hundreds of African Americans into Sloat and Quincy was not without problems, the white and black citizens achieved degrees of integration rarely seen in other parts of the United States at that time. Economic benefits bound black and white workers to the Quincy Lumber Company and the company with the community.’ (Crawford, 2006)
This awareness of the interdependence between a community of people and nature has history here, an unbroken narrative. It is not a new idea; it transcends politics, individual ideologies, ethnic, racial, and cultural differences, and in a place like this we are able to see how deep roots grow strong trees.
Understanding and honoring the interconnectedness of people and place is expressing itself in innovative and essential ways in Plumas County. Notably, for the work we do at Ten Strands, through the K–12 public school system.
Having entered the mountain ecosystem the night before, I meet Rob Wade early the next morning at a local cafe and quickly find myself entering what could be rightly called a sub-system—one that is defined by the land, and exists to ensure the ongoing success of the land and the people who inhabit it. Sitting at a long table in a corner, I immediately know when Rob walks in. Not because I recognize his face (I’d never even seen a photo), but because everyone in the cafe greets him in turn as he makes his way to the counter. Like he’s the mayor, only everyone genuinely likes him. Our first meeting is set to go quickly, as we’re due at the first of three student outings (in the next 24 hours!) soon. In that hour in the cafe I understand why Rob inspires the reaction I’ve witnessed: he is the most Zen air traffic controller imaginable, the hub of a wheel whose spokes represent a stellium of partners who would not be functioning with as much coordination and impact without him.
In 1995 Rob stepped into a role as Director of the Outdoor Education Camp, already a program within Plumas USD. In the early 1980s former Curriculum and Instruction Director of Plumas USD, Joe Hagwood, approached former District Superintendent John Malarkey, hoping to start an outdoor education program. What Hagwood recognized and wanted to address was a lack of connection between kids and their natural surroundings. “There was a belief at the time that because kids lived in the mountains, they intrinsically knew everything about the natural world around them. This was far from the truth. In order to care about something, students need to have a basic understanding of it. So, we set out to create a program for kids to learn about the forests, creeks, and meadows around them and in the process, forge a connection to the land and their home.” Hagwood approached Warren Grandall, the Public Affairs Officer with the Plumas National Forest Service and John Gallagher, the Outdoor Recreation and Leadership Director at Feather River College with his ideas, and the three collaborated to create a basic framework and curriculum for the camp. In partnership with the Plumas National Forest Service and Feather River College students, the camp had professionals volunteering to staff the camp.
What started as a two-day, one-night overnight camp for the local 6th grade class in 1988 has grown into a countywide, comprehensive set of K–12 experiences integrating outdoor and classroom education, Next Generation Science Standards, districtwide teacher professional learning, outdoor classrooms accessible to every school site, and partnerships that include many more stakeholders than the original three. And at the center of this galaxy, Rob Wade’s soft-spoken commitment and passion is the gravity.
(Look for part two of this post on 3/29/18)