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#TBT: What do Rivers have to do with “Heritage”?

January 14, 2016Patrick NunnallyRiver MeaningComments Off on #TBT: What do Rivers have to do with “Heritage”?

The answer, like so much these days, might be “it depends,” or “more than you might think,” or (unfortunately) “who wants to know”?

OK, we can leave that last challenging bit out (been watching too much political commentary while at the gym) and return to our main topic.  Yesterday’s announcement of the inaugural issue of our new journal  Open Rivers got us thinking: what else have we been writing about at the beginnings of the year?  So here is the first “Throwback Thursday” piece, looking back at several previous posts that have spoken to how rivers engage our pasts, and through our pasts, our identity and sense of who/where we are.

Five years ago, we highlighted a project near St. Louis where archaeologists discovered a town site that appears not to have been inhabited for some 800 years.  Current floods and the record high water in 2011 have emphasized how perilous it is to build towns and farms in the floodplain of a river as volatile as the Mississippi.  Seems this is a lesson we have to learn over and over again.

“Heritage” has a less-gloomy side, though, and that aspect often appears when river communities “redevelop” their riverfronts.  Three years ago, my former student Derek Holmer wrote about how St. Paul could do a better job connecting the riverfront to spectacular architecture such as downtown’s Union Station.  Those changes are probably in the works, as subsequent news accounts have mentioned.  Meanwhile, check out Derek’s work at the Minneapolis For People blog.

In some ways, though, the most enduring and thought-provoking connection between “heritage” and rivers echoes the famous line from Heraclitus “No man ever steps in the same river twice.”  He is referring, of course, to the analogies between the passage of time and the flow of a river.  But I think the comment also connects us to the future of rivers; just as we have “made” the Mississippi that we have now, we are making the Mississippi for our futures.  I explored this a bit more in a post about the three main lessons of the River Life program, a post which seems as true today as it was two years ago.  The river is vital to our understanding of our past in this place, but it is also central to how we imagine ourselves continuing to live here in a sustainable way.  Final point: we can all contribute to that future, whether scientist or storyteller, policy work or parks user.


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