‘Go Back Where You Came From, Safely Please’
by David Severn, April 18, 2012
Thirty years ago, in 1982, when we moved to Rays Road in Philo I started visiting the Navarro River just a short distance down the road on a regular basis. Many people did, though mostly in the summer. Access off the county road was on a road on the edge of the Van Zandt Resort property. In the winter you could cross the river on foot via the “Swinging Bridge” installed by Charmian Blattners granddad way back when she was a little girl (1920? 1930?). During the summer a railroad flat car drug out from the year before was pulled by bulldozer back into place as the “Summer Bridge” for vehicle access to the other side.
The Van Zandt access had every appearance of a public right of way, serving not only the river and the immediate property but also those properties further up the mountain including Highland Ranch, even though Ben Van Zandt would occasionally show up to tell people on the road that it was private property. Nobody ever paid him much mind. School kids would visit the river for quick dips during their daily romps, moms would take tykes down for relaxing afternoon cool-offs, and on weekends whole families would often pack lunches and picnic. The river provided recreation and revitalization of the finest quality.
The main swimming hole was on the far side of the river just downstream and around a bend from the bridges where a rock outcropping created an eddy that deposited sand on the bank and made a deep pocket for diving. Daredevil teens tied a rope to an overhanging tree and for many seasons the older folks laughed and cringed at the youths' fearless antics. The property on that side for many years had been run as a Jewish summer camp for kids called El Rancho Navarro but in 1982 it was bought by a Findhorn type group for an intentional spiritual community which they named Shenoa and ever since that particular spot has been known as the “Shenoa Swimming Hole.”
In 2000 a very nice woman, a purported Buddhist, by the name of Melody Haller who had made a multimillion dollar bundle at Yahoo! purchased Shenoa and with pressure from the Mendocino County Planning Department for emergency access constructed a single- lane driving bridge that continued to use and extended the Van Zandt road to across the river. The local gossip was that Melody and her husband Paul divorced over a couple of old growth redwood trees that had to come down to make way for the bridge. “I won't be a party to cutting down anything older than me.” He supposedly had contended. During Melody's ownership, the public, for the most part, continued to visit and use the river. I don't have the exact date but by 2004 the property was sold to a Canadian citizen named Jeffery Skoll, who had exceeded the millions into the billions of dollars for his role in developing the business plan for his friend Pierre Omidyar in the founding of eBay. Cold corporate capitalism invaded the Philo backside.
Skoll takes a different view from previous owners concerning public access to the river and the meaning of being connected to community even though his Skoll Foundation promotes itself as;
“benefiting communities around the world by investing in, connecting and celebrating social entrepreneurs.”
In his words he defines the term thus; “Social Entrepreneurs — n: Society's change agents: creators of innovation that disrupt the status quo and transform our world for the better.”
Buying the property under the secretive title of “92498 Holdings LLC,” Skoll immediately made anybody he hired sign a contract that they would not reveal who he was if they, in the course of their work, should find out his name and he made a point of not telling them who he was. Next he put in a locked gate at the beginning of the road through the Van Zandt property and plastered all previous access points along the river with “permission to pass required” notices. And, of course, a helicopter landing pad with windsock was installed. He instructed his henchmen to turn everyone away. Apparently, to Jeff Skoll, the “status quo” that money rules and absentee land barons tend to think of themselves as kings, passes muster but the “status quo” of continued community access to our rivers needs “disrupting.”
Let me point out here that the property consists of 160 acres and includes 15 cabins, eight houses, and 12 other functional buildings including a commercial-size kitchen and dining hall, and the obligatory swimming pool, all of which sit back at a considerable distance so that none have visual sight of the river itself and nobody coming or going from the river could or would disturb anyone else's privacy, though except for one or two caretakers the buildings sit empty. The road that continues up to Highland Ranch comes far closer to all of Skoll's empty habitations. Documents sent a couple years back to the Community Service District for fire clearance noted Skoll's intention for the place was for a corporate learning center and retreat but according to one person who has worked there, that had never really been the goal. Last year the place was put on the market but after reducing the price from $7 million to $6 million it has been removed with some rumored speculation that it is in escrow while other rumors say that any possible sale has fallen apart.
Though while the “keep out” measures have been somewhat effective they have not worked 100% and a small handful of people still visit the river somewhat regularly with me probably being the most overt and persistent daily offender. Over the years of quiet meditations along the banks listening to the rippling waters and the winds in the trees I have come to develop a reverence not only for the place itself but also for the old ones, the original inhabitants of Anderson Valley who for at least 5,000 years (some say over ten thousand) had given honor to the river as being a conveyor of life and the pathway of a sacred entity. Sixteen years ago I had an epiphany, a spiritual awakening, that opened my heart to the brilliant understanding and intimate relationship that the old ones had with not only the place itself but the whole universe. When such an experience happens you not only get the deep and sobering but you will also get coyote, the trickster and the sense of the ridiculous. Indian people pray daily but they know how to laugh. It is all part of life. So one day in saddened reverie over the knowledge that the down-river people of the Philo area, thought of today as the Tabate Pomo, had been annihilated with the coming of the white-man I decided to adopt them as my ancestors, my Grandfather and Grandmother, and to try to honor them as they they themselves honored the sacred elements, Earth, Air, Fire and Water. I have ever since with laughter in my heart, considered myself a full blooded Wannabe Tabate Pomo and it feels good, though a sometimes, somewhat lonely experience. The one requirement for holding this humbling honor is that, as the old ones did, I must upon rising each morning go to the river to bathe and sing a prayer song to the Four Directions, the Creator and the Old Ones themselves in appreciation of this life, this universe and the ways of nature. Though I laugh at what might seem ridiculous I take it all very seriously. In my little, stumbling way I thus feel I am helping to carrying on a several millennium old spiritual tradition of the people that anthropologists consider to be among the most peaceful people in the world. I consider it a religious commitment. Incidentally, added to my growing tribe of grandchildren, one year ago last October I became grandfather, myself, to a truely incredible, happy and vibrant Maidu/Late Pomo boy and so my obligation deepens.
In deference to at least one of the Skoll subservients known around town as the German Peter, he did try to be nice when suggesting I couldn't go on Skoll's property and it seemed to pain him when he would shrug his shoulders and say, “I can't give you permission to go there.” I would at these times, pat him on the shoulder, even give him a little hug if I remember right, and say, “That's alright Peter, don't feel bad. I don't need your permission.” And then when he wasn't around continue to do what I have done for many years. No one is hurt, no property is damaged and only rarely does anyone even see me on the bridge to surmise that I have been to the river. I believe I have a right to go there by legal adverse prescriptive easement (as does other community members that have used the river over the years) as well as an obligation to fulfill my religious beliefs and duty to my adopted ancestors both of which are coupled with an admittedly stubborn sense of priority that screams out that the 1% that Jeffery Skoll decidedly beds with has no right to deprive the 99% of our god given as well as California constitutional right to access and use our water.
Some two, three weeks ago now, mid afternoon, a close friend just returning from a jaunt to the river told me that there was grease smeared on the horizontal rails of the metal gate that we routinely step through to avoid punching in the combo that most locals have knowledge of. Being curious I walked down to the gate and sure enough it was smeared with grease. It is funny that because it was clear I had not even noticed it when I stepped through that morning without touching either top or bottom rail. Curious as to who did it and why, I punched in the call number on the box for Shenoa but just as the woman on the other end answered the maintenance/caretaker man drove up on an ATV and I hastily said I was wondering about the grease but I would talk face to face with the caretaker and hung up. The guy seemed even more bewildered than I and denied any knowledge so we both shrugged and I headed back home wondering what was up if it wasn't the Skoll outfit.
Within just a few steps a large pickup came screeching up from behind me and the woman driver through the passenger side window shouted in a loud accusatory voice, “Was that you that just called from the call box?”
“Yes” I said, “But I talked to the maint…”
“He works for me. Don't you ever call me again.” She interrupted. “I put the grease on the gate. You broke my gate and don't you ever go down there again.”
In exasperation I replied that there is no way in hell I broke the gate I don't even touch it when I go through.
“Yes you did!” she hollered, “And if you go though again I'll call the sheriff.”
I'm not particularly proud of my sarcastic retort, “Boy, you sure are a lovely woman,” but at least I didn't call her a bitch.
She put the truck in reverse and sped backward to turn around in the Van Zandt driveway. Two days later I got a call from Lieutenant Greg Van Patten with the Sheriff's Office.
He started off with, “Who is that woman anyway? What's going on?” When I explained the conversation I had with the woman he advised me to get a letter from Van Zandt that says I have permission to go down his road, which I do. I was left a little confused as to whether I was being accused solely for going through and breaking the gate or also for trespassing on Jeffery Skoll’s property.
Close to a week later, about 8:30 in the morning, the maintenance man was parked on the Van Zandt side of the bridge waiting for my arrival. I apologized for getting him involved in the silly affair and he told me I couldn't go across the bridge, he was sorry but it was his job. “Yeah” I said. “I know. I won't throw it in your face but when you’re gone, just know that I'll be down to da river again.” He nodded solemnly and drove off.
So there's where it stands. I'll roll with the punches, but I will go to the river. I believe it's my right. If somehow it comes to me going to jail, well, so be it. Jeffery Skoll is losing ground in the current economic downturn but he still has $3 billion investable dollars at his disposal. Forbes puts him at number 401 of the world’s richest people. Each billion, I am told, can easily return in a safe investment one million dollars a week. In a court battle for prescriptive easement rights my $595 a month social security puts me up against a formidable adversary.
That's my point of view. I'm sure Jeffery Skoll has his and I have been told by some of his mercenaries which includes German Peter that it is that he has such deep pockets that he lives in horror of being sued. It's not that he doesn't love us all.