The man behind the Watershed Environmental Poetry Festival: Mark Baldridge, 1948-2014

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Mark Baldridge, who has died. Photo: Baldridge family

By Sharon Coleman

For decades, Berkeley has been enriched by a vibrant literary community with poetry at its heart, as we see in downtown Berkeley’s Addison Street Poetry Walk. At the heart of the poetry community since 1972 has been Poetry Flash, a hub for reviews, articles, event listings, and presenter of many singular literary events. And at the heart of Poetry Flash since 1995 has been Mark Baldridge, in so many capacities from board member to web master, but most notably as Director of the annual Watershed Environmental Poetry Festival.

When Robert Hass was named first U. S. Poet Laureate from the West in 1995, he joined in meetings at International Rivers Network with poets and ecologists to discuss “Nature and the American Imagination,” the theme of his laureateship, and to think of ways to engage the public using poetry. Having left a corporate career and started his own small advertising agency, hungry to do something real, Mark attended these meetings. From the discussions came the idea for the first Watershed Festival that took place in April 1996 at the Bandshell of Golden Gate Park.

Over a thousand people attended to hear poets Joy Harjo, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Michael McClure, and others. With Joyce Jenkins, editor and publisher of Poetry Flash, Mark wrote a major grant to the Creative Work Fund for “Down to Earth: Fifty-foot Rubbing Panels.” These were wooden panels carved in bas-relief by New Zealand artist Shane Eagleton that people could place paper over and make a rubbing. On them were designs, embedded driftwood, and a poem by Robert Hass. The grant came through, and the panels were unveiled at the Festival along with a sculpture, also by Eagleton, of a life-size humpback whale and baby whale carved from a single storm-salvaged redwood log. Joining the big poets on the stage were many children also sharing their poetry. It was huge and magical. And became an annual event.

After a second year in Golden Gate Park, the organizers brought the event to Berkeley, where the 19th annual Watershed took place in September 2014. It cannot be emphasized enough how much work Mark did to ensure the continuation and relevance of Watershed. He invited a diverse lineup of major American and international poets. He reached out to different ecological, cultural, and literary groups, artists, dancers, and musicians to present. He made sure to include Native American poets, artists and activists. He handled most of the logistics, usually in Berkeley’s Civic Center Park, beginning the set up at 6am, what he called “dawn patrol.” When one year the Festival was to be rained out, I arranged for him to move it to Berkeley City College’s Auditorium. He worked out all the details and directed a crew of volunteers from morning to night.

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Mark Baldridge wih a carved bear. Photo: courtesy Baldridge family

Mark linked cultural organizing with direct activism to affect city policy and design when he joined with Ecocity Builders to daylight the creeks of Berkeley. Together they advocated the general daylighting and restoration of Berkeley’s many creeks, and specifically proposed re-routing Strawberry Creek and daylighting it to create a green corridor through downtown much like was done in San Luis Obispo. In 2002, Mark joined a crew who stayed up all night to paint blue lines through downtown where the creek could be. Mark also brought Richard Register and Kristin Miller of Ecocity Builders to speak at Watershed several times. Register remembers the spirit he brought to the cause:

“Mark supported our creek work by lending us his name and reputation as one of our directors; we were soul mates in the cause and he did all he could to increase the chances that Berkeley would adopt policies and projects to advance our objectives. He remained a close friend to the watershed restoration projects we were involved in. He was already in love with Berkeley creeks and wanted them glorified into existence as free, pungently fragrant and stuffed with life. He wanted to help that realization to the end of his life.”

Mark was born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1948, to Charlotte and Charles B. Baldridge, who worked for General Motors. He grew up in Bay Village, Ohio, then in Downers Grove, Illinois, with his two brothers, Jim and Dick, and sister, Marcia. His family moved to Santa Barbara and he studied at San Marcos High School where he played football but grew very critical of the sport and the industry around it. He developed a deep appreciation for classical music and began a lifelong love for playing the flute—which he enjoyed doing for his wedding, during afternoon work breaks and even to accompany his wife reading poetry.

Mark also developed a lifelong passion for astronomy, a passion he conveyed to his children and others. He’d show them Jupiter’s moons, Saturn’s rings and the polar cap of Mars though his telescope. He’d install shadow boxes so the entire neighborhood could observe the solar eclipse. When Haley’s comet passed over, he woke his oldest daughter, Alice, every night to scan it across the horizon. Undoubtedly, he inspired and supported her to become a planetary scientist. After a post-doc with NASA’s Mars Expedition, Alice Baldridge is now a professor in the Environmental and Earth Science department at Saint Mary’s College. His children and step daughter Claire all volunteered and worked on Watershed throughout the years: Ian sometimes wore a bear suit for the kids, Molly painted faces, Claire painted parachutes used as tents.

Mark first entered college with the idea that he’d become a minister. But after a short stint at Westmont College, a Christian seminary that he found too conservative, he came to UC Berkeley to study communications in 1967. He graduated in 1970. His senior project, a short film called Help Cried the Kelp, drew attention to the lasting environmental damage of the Santa Barbara oil spill. In 1971 he married Maureen Hanlon in San Francisco and began working in corporate communications. They had three children, Alice, Ian, and Molly, the family growing as they moved for work to Santa Barbara, to Minneapolis, to Los Angeles. When he was offered a position in San Francisco in 1979, he decided to settle in Berkeley because it was the place he felt most in tune with.

During the 35 years he lived here, he became more and more Berkeley. “He loved Berkeley and was Berkeley through and through,” said Joyce Jenkins.

Mark started his own advertising business, BridgeMarCom, and Peet’s Coffee and Tea became a client. He did image work for Peet’s—including the ethnic designs still on their cups—and advertising campaigns before the company’s IPO “went public.” One of his creative ad inspirations brought him to Poetry Flash: for the holidays in the early nineties he designed a campaign that presented poems (not ad jingles) that featured the image of “a steaming cup,” or coffee or tea. The poets whose work was selected were paid and got free coffee. With his office just a few blocks away on Fifth Street, he contacted Poetry Flash to help select the poems. Assisting with other Poetry Flash projects including Watershed, Mark soon realized that here he could join his lifelong interests in spirituality, ecology, communication, and serving others.

One of his early contributions was a button he designed and produced for a group of literary professionals battling Newt Gingrich’s attempt to dismantle the National Endowment for the Arts as a government agency in 1995. The buttons read “Words Work” and “Save the NEA.” He helped Joyce Jenkins of Poetry Flash rent an exhibit space at the American Bookseller’s Association convention where she and many others petitioned to save the NEA, handed out the buttons, and met Hilary Clinton. His work amplified the activism when Jane Alexander, head of the NEA, wore the button while giving a speech. She particularly praised writers and literary professionals because no other discipline in the arts had fought so hard to save the NEA and all arts funding.

Mark slowly integrated into Poetry Flash. He spearheaded the creation of their website, distributed the print paper and many announcements, wrote grants, designed and produced graphics and so much more. He also did the same for the organizations and events that are presented by Poetry Flash, such as the annual Northern California Book Awards. He became the captain and shepherd of Poetry Flash, and chair of the Board of Directors. After working together for a year, Mark and Joyce were married December 22, 1995, the solstice that year, because he wanted to be married on the longest night of the year.

The impact that Mark Baldridge had on Poetry Flash, many other literary and arts organizations, his children, and so many individuals cannot be overstated. While he was not a poet or artist per se, he brought together very creative thinking with a keen analytical sense of logistics and professionalism. Given the limited and dwindling resources of most literary arts organizations, Mark found clever ways to continue to present world-class events and writing. He engaged the generosity of local businesses, individuals and the City of Berkeley—who all understand that a vibrant arts and literary scene increases not only our quality of life, but our economic stability as well. He taught that there are many practical ways to make one’s ideals or dreams into real events or organizations and to sustain them. All this he coupled with the constant hard work and the stubborn yet playful determination of a bear.

Rusty Morrison, a local poet turned publisher, beautifully captures his spirit and influence:

“When I think of Mark Baldridge, I immediately hear his voice—low-pitched, resonant with feeling, but never overly dramatic; calmly even-tempered, but still very communicative of nuance. I remember, too, that when I’d stop by the Poetry Flash office for friendly advice, Mark and Joyce Jenkins were almost always there, day or night, working at their computers. But no matter how much work they had of their own, they’d always listen. Listening well is a skill— it begins with offering back a true and intuitive measuring of what’s been said. . . He didn’t voice an opinion until he had something useful to say, but when he was ready to engage, he did so with full heart and attention. . . He had a gift for raising ideas and offering recommendations that turned my attention toward best-practice and practicality. But he always did so while exuding his warm, slightly wry, charm. Sometimes he would share a story from his past when he was working in the business world. He had a talent for making me laugh, and for reminding me that even when things were challenging, we were all lucky to be working in a profession that valued art, language and ideas, not simply the dollar.”

Mark Baldridge died Dec. 27, 2014 after a struggle with cancer. He was in hospice and died after celebrating Christmas and his anniversary with his family. Mark  is survived by his wife ,Joyce Jenkins of Berkeley, his daughters Alice Baldridge of Berkeley and Molly Baldridge of San Francisco, his son Ian Baldridge of El Cerrito, his step-daughter Claire Baker of Los Angeles, his mother Charlotte Baldridge of Santa Barbara, his sister Marcia Pepper of Santa Barbara, his brothers James Baldridge of Long Beach and Dick Baldridge of Portland, Oregon.

There will be a memorial for Mark Baldridge Sunday, Jan. 11 from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the Berkeley Fellowship Hall, 1924 Cedar St. (at Bonita Avenue) in Berkeley.

On Tuesday, Jan. 13 from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m,. the Albany Library is hosting “A Gathering of Poets: Readings by Friends of Mark Baldridge and Poetry Flash” at the Albany Library, 1247 Marin Ave., Albany.

Donations may by made in Mark Baldridge’s honor to Poetry Flash, 1450 #4 Fourth Street, Berkeley, 94710.

Berkeleyside is always honored to publish, at no charge, obituaries of members of the Berkeley community. Please email text and photo(s) to editors@berkeleyside.com.