The first mission in what is now Santa Cruz, California, was built on the banks of the San Lorenzo River in 1791. It flooded that same year and drove the missionaries further up the hillside where they rebuilt the mission. In 1840 an earthquake and tidal wave destroyed much of the mission which at that time had only about 100 native people. Many of the Ohlone and Yakuts, who had lived freely along the river and had been rounded up and forced into the mission contrary to Spanish law, had previously fled from the disease and mistreatment they encountered among the Spanish missionaries. The river continued to flood periodically over the next century. In the 1950s the Army Corps of Engineers rerouted the river after a devastating flood that destroyed much of downtown Santa Cruz. The river embankments, however, failed a few years later, and the river once again flooded Santa Cruz.
Santa Cruz has had a long history of violence: floods, earthquakes, mudslides, fires, and human violence. In 1797, six years after the mission was founded, a pueblo was established near the San Lorenzo, where a race track was built as a public works project. It quickly attracted gamblers, smugglers, drinkers, and sundry outcasts. In addition many convicted criminals settled in the area and stole cattle, sheep, and crops from the mission. Today tensions continue. A restless struggle is evident between the homeless, the drifters, and the affluent tourists, shoppers, and residents who wander the streets and often exchange altercations with one another. Some residents bear signs that read “Take back Santa Cruz” and engage in what they call “positive loitering.” On May 1 of this year, violence erupted during a May Day celebration and 19 stores were damaged. The outbreak was blamed on anarchists.
And yet Santa Cruz is a blessed place, occupying a lovely Mediterranean-like spot on the north curve of Monterey Bay. The climate is balmy, the views are spectacular, the city radiates energy and fun. It has that California “feel” that appeals to so many people from the Midwest and eastern regions of the nation.
This June the Society for the Shamanic Practitioners organized an expedition called “Shamanism without Borders” to tend the sites of crisis and trauma that Santa Cruz county holds from its years of disasters, both natural and human-made. The concept of Shamanism without Borders entails the creation of teams of shamans to tend places whenever and wherever disaster occurs or has occurred. In California we created seven teams of shamans to visit seven different sites to explore the possibility of providing shamanic tending for the Land and Beings that continue to suffer from the imprint of past traumas or that reel from current and ongoing violence.
Twelve shamanic practitioners, including myself, formed a team that was assigned downtown Santa Cruz as our place of tending. Our area extended from the San Lorenzo River to the pedestrian-commercial mall two blocks away which was built after the earthquake of 1989 whose epicenter was Santa Cruz County. (Most of the media attention, however, was focused on San Francisco where the World Series had just begun. Ironically, the two teams that year, the San Francisco Giants and the Oakland Athletics, were both from the Bay Area.) Today the mall consists of several blocks of trendy shops, restaurants, and galleries. On a weekend it is crowded and bustling.
At the top end of the mall is the famous Santa Cruz clock-tower plaza, long a city landmark and the “heart” of Santa Cruz where rallies and rituals take place. Each October 17 the clock is stopped at 5:04 p.m. to commemorate the “World Series earthquake.” This plaza, steeped in memory, marked the edge of our designated area.
Our team began by walking together from the river to the mall where we spent some time drumming and singing behind the one vacant lot on the mall that has not been developed since the ‘89 earthquake. Then we disbanded at the clock tower to each go our separate way and discover what we might do individually to tend the areas that called to us within this loop we had just walked. I went back to the river.
I scrambled down the bank from the pedestrian riverwalk, along a path I had not seen earlier, and stumbled upon the camp of some homeless person who was at the moment not there. The camp was partially hidden from me by rushes and thick vegetation as I approached it. But when I was a few feet away I saw that it contained the typical chaos of debris and odor one associates with homelessness. I retreated to a place farther down the bank where I could be alone and drum and talk with the river.
River said this: Rivers are created to be shelters and sources for life. From earliest times, people, animals, birds hover along our banks. They drink and refresh themselves. Wash the aches from their bodies. Relax. Today most people ignore or trash me. They can no longer drink from me. But the homeless still gather and live along my banks in ways similar to the earlier ages. In spite of their cluttered lives they are dear to me. They use me as a shelter and source of life much as I was created to be used. I am here to refresh them when they are hot and thirsty, cleanse them when they are dirty, soothe their fears when they are worried. I value them.
After an hour or so, we reconvened at the clock tower with its bright splashing fountain. Some of us had stayed near there, drumming and singing, appearing to others, I suppose, as just a few more street musicians. A few yards away is the heart-breaking statue of a man, woman, and child huddled together for safety, their strained bodies rising up into twisted, stunted shapes that are their headless heads. Called “Collateral Damage,” the sculpture is dedicated to all the civilians who have ever been killed in a war. As we returned we noticed that a group of women and children had assembled there to organize a rally decrying the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. One of our team joined them for awhile, hoisting a protest placard that read: “Honk if you hate BP!”
We ended our expedition downtown, and returned to our own camp in the mountains where we re-gathered with the other six teams to assess and continue our work remotely.
Meanwhile the homeless—thirsty, dirty, worried, and fearful—search for shelter along the river’s banks. Meanwhile shamans carry the pain of this troubled world in their hearts. And meanwhile the San Lorenzo River descends from high in the Santa Cruz Mountains, meanders quietly through the distracted city, and watches.