The River Shanty: Secret histories of American river people

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It all started as a “gin-and-tonic-fueled bad idea,” and it just sort of grew from there.
Over the course of the last four years, Santa Cruz County-based artist Wes Modes traveled some of the major rivers in the United States on a homemade shanty boat that looks like something from the pages of a Mark Twain novel, searching for the untold stories of American river people.
Modes works as a lecturer in the University of California school system during the fall, winter and spring. During the summers of 2014, 2015 and 2016, Modes navigated the Mississippi River, the Missouri River, and the Tennessee River as a part of his art project, “A Secret History of American River People,” which seeks to chronicle the personal histories of the people he meets along the way.
This summer, Modes is traversing the Sacramento River – a homecoming of sorts for the California native, who stopped in Colusa for a few days last week as part of his journey down the river, which began in Red Bluff on July 1.
Modes started building the shanty boat while he was in grad school at UC Santa Cruz, getting his MFA.
“I have my summers free, and this project is both something that is like this dreamy vacation, but I’m also working and working towards something really meaningful, and something I really care about – and at the same time getting to live in this boat,” Modes said on Tuesday as he tamped down tobacco in a pipe, sitting at the dinner table inside his six-foot by four-foot floating summer home.
His life partner and co-pilot, Lauren “Benzy” Benz, sat out on the aft deck of the boat with her own tobacco pipe and a fishing rod, gifted to the two by a fishing guide the encountered upriver. His dog, Hazel, lazed comfortably on a love-seat.
“I really just wanted to just float around on the boat in between my first and second year of grad school. But I sort of conceived this project where… I really wanted to give something back to the communities… I thought it would be great to go into these towns and mostly listen, ask people questions and find out what the issues are that these people are dealing with.”
As a part of the project, which began in 2012, Modes has traveled more than 1,000 miles by river, 20,000 miles by land, and conducted 85 oral history interviews spanning more than 100 hours of video. Modes describes the project as a “dialogic and participatory art piece, firmly rooted in a People’s History tradition, that reexamine the issues currently and historically faced by people living or working on the river.”
“My thought was that whether the people would feel very similar or not, that the things that river people were dealing with in their town were things that people in other river communities would have to deal with. That was probably my most important hypothesis,” Modes said. “I feel like the challenges, and the solutions to those challenges, that river communities take on can educate or can inform other river towns.”
A focus on stories untold
Of particular interest to Modes are those stories not often found in the history books – the stories of women, of people of color, of working people and of native people.
“The rivers, historically, are both the literal and figurative margins of society. It’s where the people who aren’t integrated into the fabric of the community gathered.
Modes’ project also looks at rivers as a zone of conflict. Along his travels, he said that he has seen towns near rivers starting to embrace their identity as “river towns” after more than 100 years of disinterest, at the cost of pushing out the people who have historically lived on the river’s edge.
“Another issue river towns is also dealing with is how do we make people care about the river on one hand… and on the other hand, how do we prevent gentrification so that the people who have lived on the river for generations aren’t pushed or priced out of that area,” Modes said. “I’ve been seeing how towns are turning from backs to river to turning their faces toward the river, and Colusa would be a really good example of that…”
Benzy referred to rivers as one of the last commons in America, and Modes noted that rivers are interesting in that they are a often a zone of conflict.
“The rivers are commons and we recognize that, but then we are also greedy about the commons in America,” Modes said. “I think that we are like, ‘Well, the commons are great in America, as long as you use them and then get out. I think historically, you have a privatization of the commons – as much as is practical for capitalism. The rivers are, sadly, one of the last. You can’t just up and camp in a forest, and the river is still a gray area.” ■

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Brian Pearson is the Managing Editor & Reporter for the Williams Pioneer Review. Brian joined the Williams Pioneer Review in June 2016 and is committed to bringing hyperlocal news to its readers. A few of his projects include reporting on local government and the newly feature sports page. To contact Brian about this article, or for future articles, please email him at brian@colusacountynews.net