Thirteen Ways of Looking at a River–Part 3
The third installment of this series is the hardest to write, I think, and is arguably the most important. Science, the frame of the first set of perspectives, can tell us anything about the world except what we ought to do and ought to want. Policy, planning, design, and economics, which I wrote about in the second set, may (or may not) represent the “will of the people,” but are subject to any number of caveats and contingencies. Furthermore, as I noted earlier, there are often inherent contradictions in some of those views of rivers, both of which point to “social good.”
What can be done? The final ways of looking at rivers that I want to suggest here may not be “answers” to that question, but I feel that they are important underlying structures to how we think and what we believe. Deeply rooted narratives of who we are as people, and/or images of what constitute a desirable condition for places, have long been central to discussions in America about environmental issues. Without going down that path, here are some musings of ways of looking at rivers that may reflect something as powerful yet amorphous as our “core values.:
- Rivers can be home for spiritual identity. Belief systems in both Western and non-Western traditions have located powerful spirits in rivers, and in water more generally. Specific bodies of water, such as the Ganges River, are centrally important to the belief system of millions of people.
- On a more personal, experiential note, rivers are often places where individuals go for retreat, contemplation, and reflection. There’s just something about sitting by moving water that seems to connect receptive minds to patterns of the globe and universe.
- Many rivers are locations of community identity. Along the Mississippi, it’s something of a badge of honor to be known as a “river town.” I don’t imagine it would take a lot of searching to find many specific cases where a river plays a role in a town’s nickname, or its logo/visual identity. Minneapolis, for example, long known as the “City of Lakes,” now has at least begun to experiment with the silhouette of the Stone Arch Bridge over the Mississippi River in the city’s logo.
- Rivers often play central roles in national mythologies. Let me make clear here that I’m not using the term “mythology” as something false, or fabulous. In my usage, which is drawn from qualitative social scientific investigations such as anthropology, a community’s mythology is that set of stories that are told to make sense of the place, to help people understand something about its distinctiveness. In the United States, the Mississippi River looms large in the national mythology, most famously certainly as a character in Mark Twain’s novels. But the big river was also a hugely significant marker in the westward migrations in the country’s history as well as a tie, of varying strength, of north to southern regions.
So where does this leave us (aside from having 14 entries in the “Thirteen ways of looking” meme–triskaidekaphobia still has a bit of a hold on me!).
I would argue that river folks ignore the last set of perspectives on the river at their peril. As I’ve noted, science is in many respects necessary for good river management, and strong policies are key. But policies and science that don’t engage the public at a deep level, or, worse, that contradict core beliefs and values, won’t be successful and may ultimately be counterproductive. This is where Minnesota’s self-image as the “Land of 10,000 Lakes” will be so pivotal in the years and decades ahead, as the state struggles to understand the complexity and fragility of its water systems. We’ve seen some early warning signals of coming challenges in cases like the recession of White Bear Lake and the conflicts over agriculturally-based water pollution.
The next generation of river stewards, managers, river citizens even, will be called upon to marshall all of these 13 ways of looking at rivers to make wise decisions about a fragile and precious resource.