Sketching Touchstones or What’s That Man Pointing At?

Coloma, Ca

This Spring marks my sixth journey to Coloma with my fourth graders.

Here, on the banks of the South Fork of the American River, just upstream from the long gone tailrace where James Marshall discovered gold in January 1848, is the Coloma Outdoor Discovery School (CODS) campus.

Here my fourth graders are on a journey themselves, as they arrive as inexperienced Greenhorns and leave Coloma as seasoned Sourdoughs. This is a powerful experience for my nine and ten year olds and witnessing this change is the reason we keep coming back to the banks of the American River and the Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park at Coloma. Our school has been part of this excellent outdoor educational program for the past 27 years!

This Spring we were greeted by very wet weather which was a bit unusual for the middle of May. The American River was in full flow and the long rain season was not done yet. I wondered how my charges would take to the wet conditions. Well like ducks to water was the answer I was soon to find out!

On Thursday, rain was forecast for the afternoon. This was to be our hike day when we head into the State Historic Park and hike up to the Monroe Ridge. There was heavy rain the night before and we had a short window before rain would return again. We would not be hiking up to the Monroe Ridge but we would get a hike in before heavy rain set in.

Our naturalist, Raven, had the keys to the kingdom so we where able go into historic buildings which I had never seen the interior before including the Monroe House, the Thomas House, and the the Coloma school house.

A pervious sketch from June 22, 2016 of the Chinese store and the Coloma school house. It was great to finally be in the inside.

While we didn’t make it up to Monroe Ridge, because of the inclement weather, we did make it to the James Marshall Monument. This 41 foot monument was created to commemorate the man who is credited with starting California’s Gold Rush. The monument was unveiled on May 3, 1890 and the column is topped with a ten foot tall statue of James Marshall. In his right hand he is holding the flecks of gold that he discover in the tailrace of Sutter’s Mill and his left hand is point down to the valley floor near the banks of the American River where he first laid eyes on the gold that made the world rush in to the Coloma Valley.

This monument is a touchstone in my sketching universe. I have sketched this statue many times from different angles and in different conditions.  Each time I sketch this statue I learn a little more about it. And there is a certain comfort in sketching the same object over a period of time, in this case six years.

This June 17, 2014 sketch of the James Marshall Monument is noted for a glaring mistake. As I was so focused on the shapes and contours of the monument I neglected to spell the man’s name correctly. He is immortalized in my journal as James Marsall.

The key sketches are quick impressions of the Marshall statue, finished before the first drops of rain signaled a wet but delightful return to the CODS campus.


A Miner’s Gold Pouch

I wear my gold pouch with pride.

I’ve had it now for five years. That’s five trips to the Gold Fields of Coloma, five apple challenges, five dunkings into the South Fork of the American River, a few hundred students, and chaperones. It’s a bit faded now and turned up at the edges like a big leaf maple leaf in fall.

When I first was handed my pouch on my arrival at the Coloma Outdoor Discovery School (CODS), it was new, soft leather, the same pouch that all Greenhorns receive within their first few hours on the South Fork of the American River.

The gold pouch serves a few different purposes. Primarily it is a leather name tag, worn around the neck. Mine has the my miner’s name: Hawk Eye. Maybe a nod to MASH, a reference to birds or an allusion to my mother’s home state. It’s all of these but primarily it is a statement about seeing and perception. To be aware, to be present.

In our current time, our youth are inundated with artificial experience. Bright screens that can darken the mind. And our youth, I fear, will reap a whirlwind for not being “here now”.

But it the contents of the pouch that gives me hope. In my pouch is a vial filled with water. This is the container that Greenhorns use to keep their flakes of gold that they find while gold panning. Mine is empty because I seldom have time to pan for gold.

I am often asked by students to show them the gold in my vial and I tell them that the gold I find in Coloma is not contained in my vial but the gold is standing in front of me. That is my hope. That is our future.

While at CODS we learn what happened here in January 1848, setting off the largest migration of humans in history, indeed the world rushed in. But the Gold Rush that happens on the banks of the American River happens here everyday at CODS.

It is something undefinable, and unique to each individual student but it is certainly much more precious than the gold that was manically mined here after word spread of James Marshall’s discovery.

The real gold of Coloma is that fire that burns within, that we all, as educators, fan and tend to. As Yeats noted, “Education is not the filling of the pail, but the lighting of a fire.” Just as it’s not about filling the vial with gold but really about igniting the desire to do something for our one and only planet and to be our best selfs.

And while we head back on the bus, many students sleep but that fire, that little pilot light, that always burns, is planted in them, ready to ignite!


Bend But Don’t Break

The South Fork of the American River was alive and kicking during our late May visit to the Coloma Outdoor Discovery School (CODS). The roar of the record Sierra snowmelt as it passed over Troublemaker rapids, just upstream from the CODS campus, drown out the raucous calls of the carpentaros, working on their granary tree.

As was my usual habit, I rose with the quail and headed out to sketch, before all 85 fourth graders were up and about. I wanted to sketch the old iron Coloma Bridge (1917). This was the bridge that brought us from the small town of Coloma, across the American ( just upstream from the gold “discovery ” site) to the CODS campus.

I found a picnic bench and started sketching. Some sketches turn into a labryinth of lines that test my powers of perspective so I took another sip of coffee, turned the page, and turned 90 degrees to the left.

A quick riverside sketch of the bank at CODS that is now under water as a Canada goose looks on.

I though I’d sketch something more organic: the river itself. The South Fork of the American seemed to be barely contained within its banks. Now here was a metaphor (a comparison I frequently point out to fourth graders). Trees, young saplings, where bent, their green leaves almost touching the rushing waters. These young ones had survived one of the river’s bigger deluges. Just as my fourth graders had stood tall this year, especially at Coloma. They’ve had to battle late spring high temps, mosquitos, the intricacies of the Virginia Reel, the fear of the unknown, not finding enough gold in the diggins, not getting the top bunk, and homesickness.  Bend but don’t break,  and like these saplings, they stood tall.

These trees and my students inspired a poem which I added to my river sketch (painted of course with the waters of the American).


In the year of the deluge

Tree bend but don’t break.

Roots covered in swollen waters

Reminds me of my charges

Struggling to stand tall

Against forces bent to topple.

Bend but don’t break,

Is all I can offer,

Bend but don’t break

As green, new growth

Implores the early morning sun

To shine and I say “shine”.


Coloma, again

This summer I returned to Coloma and the Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park sans 90 fourth graders. I had two historical buildings that I wanted to sketch: the Coloma schoolhouse and Wah Hop Store.

I headed to Coloma from my mother’s house in Penn Valley, early in the morning, to avoid the oppressive heat of the foothills in summer. Even though the spread makes it look like the school and Chinese store sit right next to each other, they are on opposite sides of the the town. I just used my artistic license (it hasn’t expired just yet).

The original school burned down and was replaced by the abandoned Slatington School which was nine miles away and moved to it’s present site. The school was reopened in January of 1920.


Painters painting the school as I am painting the Coloma school. The ranger came by to inspect our work.

After sketching the school and store, I headed up the hill to sketch one touchstone that I keep returning to, the James Marshall Monument.

Age of Gold

I filled in the page with the last two paragraphs of H. W. Brands seminal work The Age of Gold. This book, along with J. S. Holliday’s groundbreaking masterpiece, The World Rushed In, are the two greater books written about California’s Gold Rush. the last paragraph of Brands history is quoted here:

Yet he was remembered after his death, and a statue was erected in his honor. The statue stands above the river at Coloma, in a hillside copse of trees. From a stone pedestal Marshall gazes out across the valley. The mill is long gone, and the millrace obliterated. But so is most evidence of the hordes who followed Marshall here, and the general scene isn’t much different that it was on that sunny, cold morning in 1848, when the carpenter’s eye fell on the glittering yellow flakes that set the heart of the world aquiver.