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The Mississippi River in 2100: More Visible, Better Understood, More Contested

August 4, 2014Patrick NunnallyFormer Featured PostsComments Off on The Mississippi River in 2100: More Visible, Better Understood, More Contested

Earlier this summer, we met Wes Modes, a California artist who is piloting a shantyboat down the Mississippi River in search of the “secret history of river people, river communities, and the river itself.”  The Secret History blog has all kinds of entertaining reflections and insights, and Wes’ Twitter feed @WModes always is interesting.  The project is worth some time to read and follow.

I interviewed with Wes in the day or so before he started off, and one of his questions in particular really struck home:  What do I see in the river’s future?

My answer drew in part from some grant writing we’re starting up to support “River Life 3.0” (I’ll spare you all the details) which has involved reading and thinking about the future of the river in the face of climate change.  Many of those discussions use the end of the century, the year 2100, as a benchmark for prediction and modeling, so my comments to Wes did the same.

To me, one of the safe predictions is that in 2100, we will be thinking more about the Mississippi, be more aware of its presence and the role it plays in our local/regional hydrologic cycles.  Hell, it will be an improvement if we even know that there is a local-regional hydrologic cycle, and how it works.  So that’s prediction/goal #1: that the river will be more visible to the people who depend on it, and they have a working knowledge of how the river works as part of a water system.

The second goal, for me, is that the river will be understood better than it is now.  For many of us river folks, our sense of the river’s meaning comes from Mark Twain.  But by 2100, the population around here will have changed considerably.  Minnesota won’t be “Ole and Lena,” Lake Wobegon so much any more, and the influx of new people, diverse ethnicities and belief systems, will have to come to understanding the value of the Mississippi using new narratives and new images.

Finally, it may sound odd to predict/hope that the river is “more contested,” but if that new meaning of the river is contested, then it means that the subject matters to people.  What we mean by having a “sense of place” will most likely change as new people come into the Midwest/Mississippi Valley, and as those new populations make the place theirs, then the meaning of all kinds of places will come into play.  For example, our partners at the Minnesota Historical Society own and manage the Oliver H. Kelley Farm, on the Mississippi a short distance upstream from Minneapolis.  The stories told at the Kelley Farm, the meaning that is made there, if you will, will change in coming generations.

All of these trends come together, I think, at the Mississippi: a changing river offering new kinds of meaning to broader segments of the population.


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A joint project of River Life, the Institute for Advanced Study, and the University of Minnesota Libraries, Open Rivers is an interdisciplinary online journal that recognizes the Mississippi River as a space for timely and critical conversations about people, community, water, and place.