Living With the River: It’s All in the Prepositions
Some of you may remember prepositions from, oh, say 7th grade grammar class. Prepositions are the small words like “with” “to” or “in” that express relations between two things. Little surprise, then, that last week’s John E. Sawyer discussion on “relational ontologies” ended up being a discussion about prepositions.
To over simplify, “relational ontologies” is a matter of arguing that the relationships between things are more important than the things themselves. So for example, there is a river, and there is a community of people. Both are definable in any number of ways. But the important thing is the nature of the relationship between them. Taken a bit further, the idea would extend to an argument that our best relationship with the river entails obligations on us and that the river has existence and merit and value on its own, whether we are here or not.
Important concepts, and, like many important ideas, sorta hard to get your mind around.
So let’s think about prepositions a bit.
Some advocacy groups say they “speak for the Mississippi River.” I guess that’s better than speaking “at” the river or speaking “in” the river. But does speaking for the river imply that it can’t speak for itself? Maybe it “speaks” when it floods, reminding us where its proper domain is?
If we are going to develop a way of living “with” the river in an appropriate way, what does that ask of us? Is living with the river like living with a person? Aldo Leopold has argued that harmony with land is like harmony with a friend: you can’t cherish one hand while cutting the other one off. Do we “love” the Mississippi by restricting it within levee floodwalls, bunching it up regularly behind dams, and dumping our trash into it? Do we express our love for it by alternately stifling it and putting it on a pedestal to worship?
One of the important contributions of humanistic thinking in the academy is to ask us to question things that we commonly take for granted. We might think more closely about our language for the river, and what that language expresses about what we think the river is, who we think “we” are, and what the right relationship is between us and the Mississippi.
I think we’d find that the relationships are more complicated than we think, and that despite easy derision (“of course the river doesn’t actually talk”) there’s more to our relationship with the Mississippi than meets the eye.