University of Minnesota
University of Minnesota

#TBT: 1997 “Someone Should Do Something With the Mississippi River”

I hope you will forgive a slightly self-indulgent post this time: the trajectory of project and program work that has become River Life began 20 years ago this month, in May, 1997.

In the late 1990s, I was working at a number of jobs, including a stint as historic preservation staff with the St. Paul District office of the Corps of Engineers (where my boss was John Anfinson, now superintendent of the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area unit of the National Park System).  I taught English part time at the University of St. Thomas, located in St. Paul, MN, with part of its campus facing the river.  My good friend Rob Foy in the English Department and I were talking with the coordinator for UST’s then-new Environmental Studies Program, Steve Hoffman, when someone suggested “we should do something with the Mississippi River, since it’s just right there, next to campus.”

The campus of the University of St. Thomas lies just to the right of this image of the Mississippi River Gorge. The ravine coming into the river near the center of the image is the former route of the creek that fed Shadow Falls in the 19th century.

Foy and Hoffman both had full time faculty jobs, so I took the opportunity to take the lead in figuring out what that “something” should be and how we would go about it.  In the next 18 months, between May 1997 and October 1998, the University of St. Thomas Environmental Studies Program led or collaborated on the following:

  • a nature writing contest which attracted a couple of dozen entries. The winners were published in a small chapbook. This was “before the internet” so I don’t think there’s a copy of this collection online;
  • a afternoon “Visit with Gary Snyder” program where the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet (Turtle Island, 1975) met and talked with UST students for an afternoon;
  • a Mississippi River cleanup during Earth Day 1998, a tradition which, I was glad to see last month, is continuing;
  • a symposium “River of Dreams: the Humanities and the Upper Mississippi River,” which was held in fall 1998.

This monument to World War I soldiers marks the end of Summit Avenue at the Mississippi River in St. Paul. The campus of the University of St. Thomas is adjacent to this section of park.

By that point, I had moved most of my work to the University of Minnesota, but I think it’s fair to say that the main programmatic and scholarly questions that still animate River Life were initiated during this series of events.  The 1998 symposium, in particular, set a model for our subsequent work, with each session featuring humanities scholars and writers in dialogue with scientists and people whose knowledge of the river came from their community or agency work.

Twenty years is a long time.  I hope the work continues at least another two decades, although it’s unlikely that I will be the one carrying it forward in 2037.  Anyone out there up for an interesting and enjoyable challenge?

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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.