New Stories, New Images for the Mississippi River
I just finished putting together the reading list for something we’re doing this year called “Making the Mississippi: Formulating New Narratives for the Mississippi River in the 21st Century and Beyond.” The seminar is funded by a John E. Sawyer Seminar grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and we very much appreciate the support. Working in collaboration with scholars from other institutions, as well as Mississippi River experts from outside academe, we are excited to begin conversations about how we have “made” the river through words and images. For more on the Mississippi River seminar, check this page at the Institute for Advanced Study.
So I’m kind of a geek; putting together reading lists is something I’m really interested in. For the seminar, we’ll be reading some journalism, some technical reports, and a fair amount of scholarship on the history, archaeology, and literary perspectives on the Mississippi River. So that’s all fun, of course.
What makes the seminar really exciting, though, is the prospect of exploring the sources for new narratives for the Mississippi River. Don’t get me wrong, the stories we tell about the river remain powerful and important. But climate change is showing us that we should think more specifically about what we may mean when we call for “restoration” of natural systems in the watershed. And the old “fight the river floods” stories, while heroic, maybe should recede into history if we would quit building in the floodplain, where we shouldn’t be putting houses and buildings. Furthermore, as the demographics of our cities and regions change, leaders two generations hence may not be moved at all by the Mark Twain/Huckleberry Finn story that, implicitly or explicitly, is embedded in so much of what we write about the river.
So what should new narratives and images do, or look/sound like? Several points come readily to mind:
- We need to acknowledge that the Mississippi River is the most visible component of a water system that includes surface waters from some 40% of the continental United States and that is highly connected to groundwater in aquifers spanning the middle of the continent. We ought to know better how the system works.
- We should recognize that we have a complex relationship with the river, that we abuse and mistreat it by dumping wastes into it and tightly constraining its movement, but that we have also loved and respected it for millennia. We must begin to see that our relationship with the river includes both of these tendencies, and that our relationship should be managed with the river’s health in mind, just as it would be for others whom we love and respect.
- Our stories need to be multi cultural and multi vocal, tapping the deeply held beliefs and value systems and stories of the highly diverse population that lives along the river and depends on it. Ultimately, the health of the river will depend on efforts of people not yet brought into the conversation.
- We have to learn to recognize, appreciate, and allow for the dynamic nature of the river. It’s not just a still picture that we look at and appreciate aesthetically.
Maybe these are self-evident, but I don’t think the full implications of these perspectives are widely understood or well thought through. That’s part of our job in the Making the Mississippi seminar. Watch here and elsewhere that River Life posts information about future public events associated with the seminar; come to the events and join the conversation.
In the meantime, I would love to hear other views of what our new narratives and images need to convey.