Petaluma writer, photographer team up for ‘On a River Winding Home’

Scott Hess and John Sheehy release new visual history of the Petaluma River|

Anticipation has built steadily in recent weeks over the upcoming release of “On a River Winding Home - Stories and Visions of the Petaluma River Watershed,” the meticulously researched and gorgeously photographed collaboration between Petaluma-based photographer Scott Hess and award-winning author and historian John Sheehy. The book encompasses the power of place, stunning landscapes, cultural history, and the shifting identity of the Petaluma River watershed.

After gaining acclaim from local historians and researchers lucky enough to preview advance copies, the coffee table-sized book - considered a must read for those interested in local history - is now available to the public.

The book is divided into three parts.

Fifty historical stories and 133 photographs illuminate “The Early Ones,” “The Working Landscape” and “The River Town.” In “The Oak Groves” (a sub-section of part two) we learn about how the Coast Miwok cultivated the region’s massive oak trees through selective burning as a means of pruning and weeding. In “Tolay Lake” (part one), Sheehy describes the area known for its Native American heritage, now a part of the 3,400-acre Tolay Lake Regional Park, and tells its history of serving as a spiritual setting for prayer and reflection. And in “Saltwater Highway” (part two) readers will navigate every bend as they glide up the Petaluma River on a paddle-wheeler steamer.

“On a River Winding Home” is the result of years of careful planning and painstaking preparation first envisioned by Hess, who ambitiously “kept slogging along” shooting photos of the landscape, mountains, river, agriculture and cityscapes. A commercial and arts photographer whose work has been widely exhibited, Hess, a native New Yorker, was influenced by his early exposure to the expansiveness of nature surrounding Lake Ontario.

“The photography is a meditation on this watershed and a panoramic look at what people have done here,” said Hess, 71, who lives in an 1879 farmhouse. “John is the only person I reached out to. I never considered anyone else. Sharing the same ecological perspective, we synchronized right away. I had a big folder of photos for the main themes, originally titled ‘Petaluma Valley.’ We worked together picking out really beautiful photos that illustrated various themes,” he said of their collaboration, which began in the spring of 2016.

A fourth-generation Petaluman, Sheehy, 63, is an editor and publisher who previously authored “Comrades of the Quest.” He and his wife, Laurie Szujewska, live on Sonoma Mountain. Szujewska, a graphic design teacher at University of California at Davis, worked closely with Hess and Sheehy and was a major influence and contributor to the book’s simple and elegant design.

“The purpose of this book is to bring alive the Petaluma River watershed in all of its complexity, past and present, for the sake of place-loving people, specifically those already rooted, becoming rooted, or even rerooted in the area,” noted Sheehy, in the book’s preface. He describes “On a River Winding Home” as part rambling walking tour, and part voyage to the past, pairing photos and stories. “It just seemed like a natural idea. For me, it was how do we organize this? Hardly anyone calls it Petaluma Valley, but most of us relate to boundaries. The watershed is defined by the creeks. People always had to be near the water; it was all about the water. The concept of the watershed became the key focus and we tried to stay within its boundaries. They never change.

“I grew up hearing these stories around the table,” Sheehy said. “They’re stories of the land. We wanted to re-story the landscape, to expand your viewpoint of history. The book is like a walking tour with Scott providing the visuals. His photos help you rethink our whole experience of living here.”

“On a River Winding Home” is a celebration of life and existence, a carefully thought out excursion that illuminates our past and how early settlers arrived here. Hess and Sheehy have reached a new level of storytelling and imagery. Both emphasize their great appreciation for the local historians, past and present who’ve kept these stories of the watershed alive and contributed to the book’s accuracy.

It’s such a treat to turn the pages of this joyful read, like unwrapping a special gift.

In a sampling of recent comments, reviewers called the book, “a masterpiece,” “story-telling at its best,” “drop-dead gorgeous” and “a must read for anyone who lives in the North Bay.”

“If you love Petaluma,” wrote Aqus Café’s John Crowley, “you’ll love this book.”

(Harlan Osborne’s ‘Toolin’ Around Town’ runs every two weeks. Contact him at

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