University of Minnesota
University of Minnesota

About Patrick Nunnally

As the coordinator for the University of Minnesota’s River Life program, Pat Nunnally works to establish lasting relationships among the University of Minnesota and groups working on river sustainability. In the past two decades, Nunnally has developed a unique practice as a consulting historian, communications manager and interpretive planner, with a focus on rivers, trails and scenic byways. He has organized events and conferences with a Mississippi River connection, and has presented his work at numerous academic and professional meetings. He’s also worked with public agencies and private firms on many planning projects for culturally sensitive sites. Nunnally’s writings have appeared in a variety of forms, including the ongoing blog River Talk. His latest published piece is a short reflection on the importance of diverse stories in shaping an inclusive future for the Mississippi River. The City, the River, the Bridge, an edited collection of essays examining the consequences and aftermath of the I-35W bridge collapse, will appear in January 2011. Since 1999, Nunnally has served on the U of M faculty, teaching classes in landscape planning and urban studies. He holds graduate degrees in English, American studies and landscape architecture from Vanderbilt University, the University of Iowa and the University of Minnesota.

A Report from the “Front Lines”

Every so often it’s nice to get out of the (paradoxical) “sheltered shouting” of the academy and into the world where real, on the ground work takes place.  Last week, I spent my time in Moline Illinois, attending the Annual Meeting of the Mississippi River Network and the Upper Mississippi River Conference, put on by River Action and its partners.  Here are some quick observations:

The 50 or so members of the Mississippi River Network (MRN) separately and collectively are doing game-changing work to protect the health of the Mississippi River.  As the movement matures, our biggest questions and challenges may well turn to how well the members of the MRN can help each other out, share insights and strategies and truly formulate a collective impact on the river that is greater than what all of us as individual programs can do.  It’s going to take communication, coordination, and collaboration, each of which is easier to say than it is to do.  The group is clearly on the right path, though.

At the conference, Mark Gorman, a policy analyst from the Northeast-Midwest Institute (a member of the MRN) gave a talk with the intriguing title “The Cheshire Cat was Right.”  Gorman’s point?  ”If you don’t know where you’re going, any path will get you there.”  Indeed, figuring out where we really want to go is the hardest part of our work, and the planning element most easily truncated.  It’s much more fun just to do something, anything, for the sake of appearing to have momentum.

Finally, Patrick Seeb of the Saint Paul Riverfront Corporation (another MRN member) closed the conference with a reflection that asked us all to think bigger, to envision the future of our riverfront cities as well as the future of the rivers/riverfronts themselves.  Seeb listed five issues in urban resiliency that all of us should be thinking about:

  1. the looming health crisis–can we design and plan our cities so they are healthier places?
  2. the achievement gap–disparities in education, access to good jobs, and a host of other qualities is holding back a large percentage of our population.
  3. food and water security–the drinking water crises in West Virginia and Toledo OH this year point to a striking vulnerability.
  4. environmental disruption–what impact will a changing climate have on the physical fabric of our cities?
  5. the new face of America–across the nation, by 2045, the majority of the population will be nonwhite.  Moreover, younger people, the so-called “millennials,” are acquiring and processing knowledge very differently than older people do, even as the percentage of retirees grows and becomes a demographic factor to consider with the particular needs of an aging population.

Indeed, it’s always salutary to be reminded in these tangible, material ways why our work is important.

Adventure learning on the Big River

Veteran Mississippi River watchers can count on a few teams each year that will plan to navigate the full river under their own power, and will reach out to schools as they go.  Most of these trips take place in summer, so the outreach engages children through summer camps and things like that rather than formal curriculum connections.

Last winter, a couple of guys from Seattle got in touch with us, seeking advice and recommendations about a trip they were planning for fall 2014.  Jordan Hanssen and Greg Spooner make up OARNorthwest, a nonprofit group that researches and educates about water through self-propelled adventures on big waters.  They had done a couple of ocean trips in large specialized rowboats, and were thinking about a Mississippi River tour that would connect directly with classrooms in river communities as they progressed.

The result is Adventure: Mississippi River, which began September 2 and is now as of today south of the Quad Cities.  Jordan, Greg, and the rest of their team have done a great deal of advance work, lining up classes and resources the length of the river, working out where they will be gathering water samples for analysis, and scheduling their internet connections, webinars, and other communications.

Adventure: Mississippi River is turning into one of the most organized, best connected and communicated river trips we have heard of recently.  Follow them on the expedition web site, through Facebook and Twitter.  You’ll see a whole different river than the one you know!

The Mississippi in a Minute

Being a “20th century guy,” it has taken me a bit to warm up to things like “One Minute Film Festivals.”  But one minute is about all the attention span I have any more, so maybe I’ll have to look for more of these.

The Minneapolis Riverfront partnership has made it easy for me to explore this new territory, with its competition “One River, One Minute, Your Vision,” which took place this summer and fall.  All of the entries are accessible at this web site, and voting is open for the “People’s Choice” award.

Winners will be announced, and the second Riverfront Vitality Indicators report will be released, in a program Monday October 20 at Mill City Museum in the Minneapolis Central Riverfront.  The program starts at 6:00 and is free, but registration is required.

Recently in this space I wrote about the need for new stories and images to express our relationship with the Mississippi River in the 21st century.  As the examples of these films show, new media, or “old” media used in new ways, are important parts of bringing new voices and visions to the river.

On Disasters, “Natural” and Otherwise

Lots of people have pointed out that Hurricane Katrina can be considered a “natural” disaster only if we ignore the historical and social patterns that clustered New Orleans’ poorest residents in low-lying parts of town such as the Ninth Ward, or the engineering of water systems in the city that aimed the storm surge directly at the eastern part of the city.

Next Thursday, October 9, at 4:00, Sandra Zellmer, Robert B. Daugherty Professor of Law, University of Nebraska, will give a talk “Unnatural Disasters: How Law Hurts, How Law can Help.”  The Thursdays at Four program is in the Crosby Seminar Room, second floor, Northrop Auditorium, on the east bank of the University of Minnesota campus.

Zellmer’s current focus on issues of disaster and law pertains to laws governing water and how they may or may not be in alignment with what we know about water’s behavior.  As the lecture description points out:

It’s seductively deceptive to call floods and other catastrophes “natural.” They are anything but.  Storms may well be natural phenomenon, but humans have an uncanny ability to exacerbate their own vulnerability to them by shortsighted engineering projects, undue faith in technology, poor decisionmaking processes that encourage development in the floodplain, and federal, state, and local subsidies. The acknowledgement of our own responsibility for unnatural disasters can lead to blame and finger-pointing, but it can also prod us to confront the consequences of our actions, leading to the knowledge necessary to avoid future disasters.  This, in turn, can stimulate a liberating sense of possibility and opportunity—melding our own social and economic aspirations with the environmental imperatives of water and waterbodies.  If we acknowledge that at least some disasters are unnatural, not uncontrollable “acts of God,” then we have a fighting chance at making better laws and better decisions in the future.

What Kinds of Science Can Be Learned from Twitter?

Perhaps surprisingly, a lot of good scientific information is exchanged on social media platforms.  Next week’s “A Sip of Science” program explores how this happens by following “The Secret Life of a Tweet.”

Joanne Richardson, the digital maven behind most of River Life’s digital information work, will explore the “knowledge ecosystem” in which a particular bit of scientific knowledge is contained.  Where did the link in the tweet originally appear?  Who would have seen it there and what would have their expectations been?  Who might have seen the tweeted version of the information, and what can be understood about that audience?

Science is increasingly a broad field interdisciplinary enterprise that looks for impacts beyond the lab or originating discipline.  More and more, scientists from agencies and from academe are taking to social media to share and discuss their work.  Social media channels will never replace peer-reviewed journals, nor should they.  But the future of scientific communication is here, and it lies in digital media.

Learn more next Wednesday October 8, at 5:30, River Room, Aster Cafe.  RSVP requested through the link above.

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.


The Future Mississippi: A “Gardened” Landscape?

This is more or less the vision put forth by John Anfinson a couple of weeks ago at his talk inaugurating the John E,. Sawyer Seminar at the University of Minnesota.  Anfinson, superintendent at the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area and a historian by training, led the audience through three eras in the human manipulation of the river’s biological and physical systems.  He argued that the river’s future, in the face of a changing climate and threats such as invasive carp and other species, will see us managing the river’s systems “constantly and indefinitely.”

The video of Anfinson’s talk and the robust question session is available here.

Anfinson offers a provocative vision, one that may not sit all that well with advocates who argue for “restoration” of the river’s biological and physical systems.  Literal restoration, of course, is not possible for many reasons; is there a term that better, more precisely, expresses the goals of preserving systems more or less intact and functioning?

I think another important point from Anfinson’s talk is more subtle.  Suppose, just for the sake of argument, that we could somehow obtain all the scientific data on the Mississippi River that we wanted, and that federal and state policymakers were willing to make the river a national priority.  Then what?  How would we find a way to navigate among the multiple competing, overlapping, sometimes conflicting interests on the river?  If Anfinson is right, as I believe he is, that the river cannot be “all things to all people,” then how do we figure out which “things” it will be, and for which people?

Here is where a deeply humanistic study of the river is critically important.  What is it that people have said about their relationships with the river, and how have those been expressed?  How have they changed over time?  Whose voices and visions have been heard, and whose have not been?  The study of history, literature, art history, religion, landscape architecture, and related disciplines that are grounded in the nuanced study of what makes people deeply human–the humanities–is necessary to uncover those vital insights and perspectives.

We know a great deal about the Mississippi River from the perspectives of multiple sciences and policy perspectives.  But those views cannot tell us what we want, or what we ought to want, and for that reason science and policy will forever be necessary but not sufficient for understanding the river’s future.


Knowledge Into Action: Why We Do What We Do

September 17, 2014Patrick NunnallyScience0

All of us who do anything that can be called research want to see the knowledge we create put into action.  For our friend and colleague Kate Brauman, from the Institute on the Environment’s Global Water Initiative, that dream has happened, as this blog post describes.

Kate’s research on “crop per drop” has measured how water is being used in particular agricultural practices.  Bonsucro, an organization working to increase water efficiency in sugarcane production, worked with Brauman to develop production standards for water that have subsequently been adopted as a certification standard to be applied to production facilities around the world.

What if similar efforts were undertaken with corn and soybean production in the Mississippi River basin?  It may be possible, through objective scientific analysis of soils, water sources and other factors, to determine an optimal amount of water for farm fields that would reduce runoff (and the associated carrying of nutrients to the Gulf) while maintaining high production.

And as long as we’re dreaming, we started wondering if there were other areas beyond science where rigorous research would benefit stewardship practices for surface waters in the Mississippi River basin.  Can we try to figure out what pictures people have in their minds of what a healthy river or stream looks like, and then find ways to identify key elements of that image and what it would take to protect that element?  Is there some way to understand the stories people tell in order to hear why the river is important?


River City Revue: Exploring the “Dark Side” of the Mississippi

Rivers have always been “marginal” places, serving as the borders of states and regions, as the way in which, historically, “new” ideas and influences came into the towns along their banks.  There are many good reasons why “river town” has often conjured up synonyms such as “rowdy” or “dangerous.”

Now we can add “filthy” “debaucherous” and “unseemly” to the mix–what fun! (Although I did have to look that second one up.)

The Mississippi River Fund caps a summer of innovative programming with “River City Revue: Filth on the River” riverboat trip on the evening of Wednesday, September 10.  The boat leaves Harriet Island in St. Paul at 7:00.  Look here for tickets and more details.

Partners in River City Revue include the Works Progress studio and the National Park Service.

See you on the boat!

If You’re Interested in the Mississippi River’s Future, Start with Its Past

There are lots of truisms about “history” and “the past”: Those who don’t know history are condemned to repeat it.  History doesn’t repeat itself, but it certainly rhymes. That sort of thing.

Interesting thing is, those sayings are pretty generally true, at least I see it.  Yes, as a historian, I have professional bias.

With regard to the Upper Mississippi, the public will get a chance to test these ideas and to learn about the river’s past from one of the best in the business, John Anfinson.  Anfinson, the newly-appointed superintendent at the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, will be giving a talk “Trapped by History: The Past and Future of the Upper Mississippi River.”  Check here for full details of the talk, on September 9 at 7:00 pm in Northrop Auditorium on the campus of the University of Minnesota.

For many people whose professional work concerns the Mississippi River, the central issue at hand is what balance can be struck between competing demands and needs on the river.  The Upper Mississippi is a globally important ecosystem, but it is also a key component of international trade and shipping routes.  Flood control measures protect homes, farms, and businesses, but also cut the main channel off from critically valuable linkages to the broader floodplain.  All of these uses, and the dilemmas about how the can (or perhaps cannot) be balanced are grounded in a long history of changes to the physical fabric of the river and floodplain itself.

The key question is: To what extent are those changes determining and limiting future options?

We hope you’ll join us on September 9 to hear John Anfinson’s presentation and participate in the discussion.

“Trapped by History” is a public program sponsored by the Institute for Advanced Study in association with the John E. Sawyer Seminar “Making the Mississippi: Formulating New Narratives for the Mississippi River in the 21st Century.”  The Sawyer Seminar is supported by a generous grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to the University of Minnesota.

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Come Along for a Water Walk with Kare11 and River Life, and see Gifts at Work: The Mississippi River by the University of Minnesota Foundation