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Many Ways to Address a “System Under Stress”

September 25, 2013Patrick NunnallyRiversComments Off on Many Ways to Address a “System Under Stress”

I’ve made the case before that the Mississippi River is a “system under stress,” albeit perhaps not in those precise terms.  I remain convinced that two critically important lenses that we must develop for understanding the river, even those of us who think about it all the time, are as a “system” and a system that is under myriad complex, pervasive, and structural stresses.  We’ll return to these themes, but not in this post.

Instead, in this post, I want to take up briefly the idea that recognizing the Mississippi River as a system under stress entails an additional recognition: strategies to alleviate that stress, to “solve the problems of the Mississippi” won’t happen through just tinkering with existing laws and/or doing new science.  Better laws, or enforcement of existing regulations, and more science are necessary, but not sufficient to address the pervasive, ongoing nature of the stresses the river system faces.

We also have to capture the engagement of the public, at the deepest level we can reach, so that it would be unthinkable not to be concerned with the future of the Mississippi River as a system.  To paraphrase the poet Gary Snyder, the work of the poet is to align the symbols and mythic narratives of our culture so that it is practically impossible not to be moved to make the necessary changes that face us.

Which brings me to a body of work that I want to commend to everyone’s attention.  “Mohona: Estuaries of Desire” is the most recent work produced by the Ananya Dance Theater under the artistic direction of U of M faculty member Ananya Chatterjea.  “Mohona” addresses the roles of water in the lives of ordinary women.  As such it speaks to what is widely understood as the “world water crisis”: the fact that some 1 billion of the planet’s people lack ready access to fresh water and that the procurement of that water falls disproportionately on women, affecting the lives of those women in ways that are central to their futures.

The world water crisis is a little too big for River Life to tackle.  Our geographical circumstance on the Mississippi River and deep commitment to a “place based” orientation to our education, research, and programs connects us deeply to the Mississippi, its watershed, and its problems.  Nevertheless, events such as “Mohona” and other deeply felt cultural representations of the importance and immediacy of water as a central focus of peoples’ lives informs us, and reminds us that the stakes are very high in resolving the stresses that face the Big River.


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