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“River as Storied” A Post from the Sawyer Symposium

May 26, 2015Patrick NunnallyRiver MeaningComments Off on “River as Storied” A Post from the Sawyer Symposium

Last month we convened a symposium, “The Once and Future River: Imagining the Mississippi in an Era of Climate Change.”  Video coverage of the sessions is available here and additional material is on the web site of the Institute for Advanced Study  as well.

The chairs of the various sessions during the symposium have written blog posts about their session, posts which we will run for consecutive days this week.   The author of this post is Laurie Moberg, one of two Graduate Fellows of the John E. Sawyer Seminar.

We all tell stories: about our families, our pets, our vacations, our problems, our adventures, our experiences in the world. And we tell these stories for all sorts of reasons: to create connections to others, to inspire levity or gravity, to get advice or dispense it. These stories do more than report on our lives; through the stories we tell, we interpret and create our worlds.

In anthropology, this claim that we create the world in our words and stories is not a stretch. A key characteristic of the qualitative research process in anthropology is to listen to the stories people tell so that we might see the world in a new way through the narratives of others. This claim is also at the center of the work of the John E. Sawyer Seminar “Making the Mississippi: Formulating New Water Narratives” in the Institute for Advanced Study at the University of Minnesota this year. The year-long seminar has invited us to consider how our stories about the Mississippi River inflect not only our academic pursuits on campus, but the public and social lives of communities across the watershed. Citing the importance of narratives, the seminar explores the ways our varied stories have defined, changed, and entangled us with the Mississippi River and questions how we might collaboratively craft stories about and with the river to confront the uncertainties of global climate change into the future.

As a Graduate Fellow for the seminar, I had the pleasure of organizing and being a discussant for the panel “River as Frame” during the recent Sawyer Seminar Symposium “The Once and Future River: Imagining the Mississippi River in an Era of Climate Change.” While the symposium as a whole aggregated a diverse constellation of stories tied to the Mississippi, the presenters for this panel shared stories specifically to illustrate how we grapple with and define the Mississippi River given its immensity, variation, and material dynamism.

Based on her work with the Mississippi River Network, Jennifer Browning explained both the importance and complications of the River Citizens advocacy campaign; drawing people together across the incongruences of the watershed, the movement focuses on protecting the well-being of the river for the land, water, and people of the region despite differences of perspectives, experiences, and priorities. Encouraging all of us to become River Citizens and make a commitment to care for the Mississippi River no matter where we live, her story is one of collaboration, not only between varied human constituencies, but between people and the river as well.

Dr. Christopher Morris’ project demonstrates the limitations of historic scientific stories to engineer the Mississippi. As these scientific narratives centered on catchy words like “disturbance” or “equilibrium” gain the patina of expertise, they rationalize human behaviors toward the river. Yet Morris points out that our words to describe the river define our conduct toward it by constraining our imaginations and obscuring some of the river’s material capacities as well. His is a story of both human naïveté and hope: if our existing words prescribe the river inadequately, then perhaps different words can help us tell alternative stories that might remedy our limited and limiting understandings of the Mississippi.

Through both Dakota narratives with long oral histories and her own contemporary poetry, Dr. Gwen Westerman work invites us to see the river as a site of creation and to see ourselves as relatives of the natural world. Her story inspires us to reimagine the parameters of our relationships and responsibilities to the earth and to its other inhabitants, both human and nonhuman.

I encourage you to watch to the presentations in their entirety through the video recordings posted online. What I find most compelling from this panel is that each of the presentations demonstrates the power and importance of stories to design particular kinds of relationships with the Mississippi. Because of the immensity of the Mississippi River and the varied ways it is integrated into people’s lives – politically, socially, and physically – stories of the Mississippi are necessarily multiple and varied. Yet all these stories have real effects on the material and social world. The stories we tell about the Mississippi River are one way in which we embed the material world of the river into our social worlds. Our challenge is to intentionally consider what kinds of relationships we want with the river into the future and then to make sure we are telling the stories that get us there.

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