I went to Folsom Lake yesterday. Like many of the lakes in California, Folsom Lake is actually a man-made reservoir. It was created in 1955 by a dam on the American River in the foothills above Sacramento, just upstream from the city of Folsom and the prison made famous by Johnny Cash right around that same time. (Historical note: Johnny Cash was never an inmate at Folsom Prison; he wrote the song after watching a documentary about Folsom Prison. He did, however, perform concerts for inmates at the prison much later.)
A friend who moved away a few years ago is in town this weekend, and she invited some of her Sacramento-area friends to a picnic at the lake. It was a good day. When we actually ventured out to the shore of the lake itself, my friend’s dog was fascinated with all the sticks and twigs and branches on the ground. Not only would she play fetch with them, but she would sometimes pick up a stick just lying on the ground in her mouth and move it somewhere else. It was funny to watch.
But why were the sticks there in the first place? The entire shore of the lake was lined with piles of dead wood, and there was driftwood visible floating on the surface of the water as well. I have been to Folsom Lake twice in 2017 now, to two different parts of the lake, and it was like this in both places. It has never been like this before in any of the other times in the past that I have been to the lake.
This winter has been very wet by California standards, with lots of rain in the valley and snow in the mountains. This rain has been much needed, after four extremely dry years and one average year. The water that collects in Folsom Lake is runoff from the mountains upstream from it, and with so little precipitation, the lake level had been dropping for the last several years. A few months ago, a series of very wet storms hit California, and the lake filled to capacity. Water rushed off the hillsides into the three forks of the American River and down into the lake, and these streams of water carried with them years of dead wood piling up on the floor of the drought-stricken forest. Although the lake is still nearly full, it has begun to empty again since those storms hit, and some of the debris floating on the surface was left beached as the waters receded, like soap scum on the edge of a draining bathtub.
Everyone and everything tells a story. Even something as mundane as a pile of driftwood has a deeper meaning. Maybe we would understand each other better and be happier if we were more willing to listen to these stories.