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.

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

May 4, 2017Patrick NunnallyFeatured, Throwback ThursdayComments Off on #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?

“Provocations” issue of Open Rivers journal now online

May 2, 2017Patrick NunnallyFeaturedComments Off on “Provocations” issue of Open Rivers journal now online

Open Rivers Issue 6 “Provocations” is now posted and available!  Find it at

The world of higher education is notoriously siloed. Colleges and universities are divided into departments by discipline, which often contain particular subdisciplines. Crossing these lines is difficult and sometimes perilous. But the study of rivers and water necessarily crosses disciplines. Scientific study can tell us a lot about water, but not what the meaning of our local river is.

Aerial view of University of Minnesota East and West Bank campuses and the Mississippi River. Photographer Patrick O’Leary. Image via University of Minnesota.

This issue of Open Rivers explores higher education programs that contribute to new understandings of rivers. We include perspectives from sciences and engineering, as Barbara Heitkamp’s review of the work at the St. Anthony Falls Laboratory demonstrates, and as Nicholas R. Jordan and his colleagues show in their discussion of research on Seven Mile Creek.

There is a lot more happening on campuses across the country though. This issue of Open Rivers is distinguished by two articles that we solicited from colleagues at other universities. Bethany Wiggin, the founding director of the Penn Program in the Environmental Humanities, offers a rich description of the kinds of programming, engagement, and exploration that come from a deep encounter with a diverse river stretch like the Lower Schuylkill River in Philadelphia. Across the continent, the Los Angeles River is the subject of Tyler Huxtable’s exploration of how a river can be part of the emerging image of even such an “unnatural” city as Los Angeles. Huxtable is part of the staff at UCLA’s Laboratory for Environmental Narrative Strategies (LENS).

We ask universities to undertake specific roles in our society. One of these is to push inquiries into difficult subjects, asking hard, inconvenient questions that other organizations aren’t necessarily tasked with looking into. Kirsten Delegard and Kevin Ehrman-Solberg take up this challenge with their research into the historical and spatial distribution of racially restrictive covenants in Minneapolis. Their findings, that there seems to be a strong historical correlation between restrictive covenants and park lands associated with water bodies in Minneapolis, is sobering news for people committed to a more inclusive future for our water landscapes.

Sara Axtell speaks directly to the sometimes uneasy alliance between community needs and university perspectives in her reflection on bringing disconnected practices together. Universities have responsibilities to their communities, responsibilities which can be hard to understand, much less fulfill.

Speaking of communities, universities are often the location of artistic or other enriching experiences for community members as well as the campus. Phyllis Messenger’s review of the theatrical production, One River, in Duluth describes just one aspect of a year-long community-engaged series of programs that gathered dozens of diverse perspectives on the St. Louis River.

Of course, the most visible embodiment of a college or university is its student body. Joe Underhill offers a rich, evocative reflection on a semester-long trip down the Mississippi with a group of students from Augsburg College. Kristen Anderson took a more traditional route to broadening her education: study abroad. Anderson’s year in Germany nevertheless broadened her understanding considerably of how communities interact with water.

Issue 6 is broadly diverse, yet quite focused. We think all of the pieces contained here offer a distinctive, provocative, perspective that pushes our thinking forward on issues of place, community, and water. Look for more like this in the months to come. Happy reading!

March for Science Should Highlight Indigenous Science

April 18, 2017Patrick NunnallyProgram & AnnouncementsComments Off on March for Science Should Highlight Indigenous Science

Saturday’s Earth Day March for Science is gaining worldwide attention.  Our program has spent considerable energy learning what we can about hydrological sciences over the years and we have noted the increasing visibility of ways of knowing sometimes referred to as “traditional ecological knowledge” or indigenous science.  Learning more about these perspectives is always on our “to do” list!  Accordingly, we were happy to get notice of a Letter of Support for Indigenous Science as part of next weekend’s March. The Letter is pasted below; we urge you to click on the link above, add your name, and forward it to like-minded colleagues.

To the March for Science, DC and satellite marches across the nation and the world:

As Indigenous scientists, agency professionals, tribal professionals, educators, traditional practitioners, family, youth, elders and allies from Indigenous communities and homelands all over the living Earth we

Endorse and Support the March for Science.

As original peoples, we have long memories, centuries old wisdom and deep knowledge of this land and the importance of empirical, scientific inquiry as fundamental to the well-being of people and planet.

Let us remember that long before Western science came to these shores, there were Indigenous scientists here. Native astronomers, agronomists, geneticists, ecologists, engineers, botanists, zoologists, watershed hydrologists, pharmacologists, physicians and more—all engaged in the creation and application of knowledge which promoted the flourishing of both human societies and the beings with whom we share the planet. We give gratitude for all their contributions to knowledge. Native science supported indigenous culture, governance and decision making for a sustainable future –the same needs which bring us together today.

As we endorse and support the March for Science, let us acknowledge that there are multiple ways of knowing that play an essential role in advancing knowledge for the health of all life. Science, as concept and process, is translatable into over 500 different Indigenous languages in the U.S. and thousands world-wide. Western science is a powerful approach, but it is not the only one.

Indigenous science provides a wealth of knowledge and a powerful alternative paradigm by which we understand the natural world and our relation to it. Embedded in cultural frameworks of respect, reciprocity, responsibility and reverence for the earth, Indigenous science lies within a worldview where knowledge is coupled to responsibility and human activity is aligned with ecological principles and natural law, rather than against them. We need both ways of knowing if we are to advance knowledge and sustainability.

Let us March not just for Science-but for Sciences!

We acknowledge and honor our ancestors and draw attention to the ways in which Indigenous communities have been negatively impacted by the misguided use of Western scientific research and institutional power. Our communities have been used as research subjects, experienced environmental racism, extractive industries that harm our homelands and have witnessed Indigenous science and the rights of Indigenous peoples dismissed by institutions of Western science.

While Indigenous science is an ancient and dynamic body of knowledge, embedded in sophisticated cultural epistemologies, it has long been marginalized by the institutions of contemporary Western science. However, traditional knowledge is increasingly recognized as a source of concepts, models, philosophies and practices which can inform the design of new sustainability solutions. It is both ancient and urgent.

Indigenous science offers both key insights and philosophical frameworks for problem solving that includes human values, which are much needed as we face challenges such as climate change, sustainable resource management, health disparities and the need for healing the ecological damage we have done.

Indigenous science informs place-specific resource management and land-care practices important for environmental health of tribal and federal lands. We require greater recognition and support for tribal consultation and participation in the co-management, protection, and restoration of our ancestral lands.

Indigenous communities have partnered with Western science to address environmental justice, health disparities, and intergenerational trauma in our communities. We have championed innovation and technology in science from agriculture to medicine. New ecological insights have been generated through sharing of Indigenous science. Indigenous communities and Western science continue to promote diversity within STEM fields. Each year Indigenous people graduate with Ph.D.’s, M.D.’s, M.S.’s and related degrees that benefit our collective societies. We also recognize and promote the advancement of culture-bearers, Elders, hunters and gatherers who strengthen our communities through traditional practices.

Our tribal communities need more culturally embedded scientists and at the same time, institutions of Western science need more Indigenous perspectives. The next generation of scientists needs to be well- positioned for growing collaboration with Indigenous science. Thus we call for enhanced support for inclusion of Indigenous science in mainstream education, for the benefit of all. We envision a productive symbiosis between Indigenous and Western knowledges that serve our shared goals of sustainability for land and culture. This symbiosis requires mutual respect for the intellectual sovereignty of both Indigenous and Western sciences.

As members of the Indigenous science community, we endorse and support the March for Science – and we encourage Indigenous people and allies to participate in the national march in DC or a satellite march. Let us engage the power of both Indigenous and Western science on behalf of the living Earth.

Let our Indigenous voices be heard.


#TBT: Hidden Falls Park: Maybe Less Hidden in New Plan

April 13, 2017Patrick NunnallyThrowback ThursdayComments Off on #TBT: Hidden Falls Park: Maybe Less Hidden in New Plan

A week or so ago, I was pleased to see an article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune that stormwater management at the old Ford plant site could boost water flow over Hidden Falls, an intermittent stream that leaves the vacant industrial property through a steep ravine on its way to the Mississippi River. The Ford plant site, nearly 150 acres of industrial property on a bluff above the Mississippi in St. Paul, is perhaps the premier redevelopment site in the Upper Midwest.  Whatever happens here will have a substantial impact for generations; it’s appropriate that stormwater management is getting a lot of attention.  I have had students develop options for the Ford site and for Hidden Falls Park over the years; it’s an interesting intersection of river and city.

On a whim, I went to the Minnesota Historical Society web site to see what it had for historical photos of the park.  I found two that were pertinent.

Nikon D2X capture of original.

This image, dated to 1938, shows the wall and stairway made by WPA crews in the park.  Only ruins of this structure remain; it’s interesting to see what was there before.  Beautiful work.

As is so often the case when doing historical research, you sometimes find more than you were looking for.  The metadata for this image says that it was made in July 1939 and shows police, WPA officials, and striking workers.  A strike?! What was that about?  In all of my years working on Mississippi River history, the history of labor on and along the river is one subject that I have found very little material about.  Whole new possibilities open up.

But then, it’s the Mississippi River, so I should expect that, right?

Water Advocacy Calendar is Crowded!

April 11, 2017Patrick NunnallyProgram & AnnouncementsComments Off on Water Advocacy Calendar is Crowded!

A week from today, Tuesday April 19, Twin Cities water advocates will have a busy day!

Friends of the Mississippi River is part of a large group of water environment protectors putting forward a Water Action Day to meet with legislators and rally for clean water across the state.  For decades, Minnesota’s water protection policies have been among the leading edge in protection for clean waters.  Now the legislature is threatening many of these policies, arguing, I guess, that we don’t need to keep working to maintain the safe clean water that is so important to industry, communities, and the state’s quality of life.  The Water Action Day is part of Governor Dayton’s Year of Water Action, a broadly inclusive framework aimed at making citizens across the state aware of the importance of clean, abundant water.

As they say on late-night TV pitches “But wait–there’s more!”  The Minneapolis Park Board is holding a public hearing the evening of April 19 on the status of the Calhoun/Bde Maka Ska Master Plan.  This lake, southwest of downtown Minneapolis, has been known as Bde Maka Ska by the Dakota people, who have lived here, their origin place, for millennia.  Beginning in the mid 19th century, white settlers who were colonizing the land now in the state of Minnesota, named the lake Calhoun, after the Secretary of War who had authorized the establishment of Fort Snelling in 1820.  Calhoun, a notorious racist, slave owner, and secessionist, has become an increasingly controversial figure in American history; public momentum to change the name of the lake and park has been building for a number of years.

Taken together, the advocacy opportunities related to Water Action Day and the master planning for Calhoun/Bde Maka Ska sketch out twin avenues for water research, advocacy, and engagement for the long term in Minnesota.  No longer can we just assume that we will have a sufficient supply of clean water.  And no longer can we assume that the names things have always had will be adequate and appropriate.  In both cases, we must broaden the range of voices we hear, the stories we learn, and the insights we recognize to ensure that Minnesota’s waters are planned for the whole public, by the whole public.

#TBT: Megalops in the Blufflands Region c. 1900

March 30, 2017Patrick NunnallyThrowback ThursdayComments Off on #TBT: Megalops in the Blufflands Region c. 1900

Today’s image is from the collections at the University of Minnesota Archives.

The collection in question concerns the Megalops, a research vessel built in 1899 that allowed scientists from the University of Minnesota and Minnesota Normal School, Mankato (now Minnesota State University, Mankato) to study the aquatic life of the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers.  Metadata for this image, #37 in the collection, indicates it was made around 1900, but no location is listed.  Do any of you have an idea specifically where this might be?

The bluff on the picture’s right places the scene in the blufflands region, reaching from the vicinity of Red Wing down past Dubuque Iowa, almost to the Quad Cities.  The water surface has changed tremendously of course; this shot was made well before the locks and dams built in the 1930s flooded the floodplain forest to ensure a nine foot deep navigation channel for commercial navigation.  The railroad crossing is probably gone also, although it’s possible that sources such as Corps of Engineer charts or photographs documenting the locks and dams may show it.

The village in the foreground might offer a clue, if the right county plat maps or USGS topographic maps could be identified to narrow the spatial focus.  There were several communities such as these along the river at this time, although the railroad was making the river less and less viable as a transportation system. The railroad line appears to hug the shore, while the primitive wagon road snakes through the upland section of the village, dodging what appear to be mudholes before disappearing around the bluff.

If you look at the image on the web page, and click “view full size image” you can zoom in a great deal.  With enough zoom, another community appears on the floodplain past the bluff, in the image’s center-right section.  This is a much more substantial town, with a smoking industrial site of some sort near the water’s edge and what appears to be a very large church set well back from the waterfront.  Unlike the small village in the foreground, this town is likely to still be present in the landscape, perhaps offering a better clue as to precisely where this photo was taken.

Historic photographs: the biggest time-waster on my desk!  Hope you enjoy this one also.

The Rivers Beneath Our Feet

March 28, 2017Patrick NunnallyRiversComments Off on The Rivers Beneath Our Feet

We generally know that rain runs off the ground into the neighboring river, and that this process takes place somewhere below ground.  Maybe we’ve seen the “Don’t Pollute Drains to River” stencils on storm drains in our neighborhood.

But what exactly are the conduits below ground that carry storm water to the Mississippi (in the case of St. Paul and Minneapolis, as well as dozens of other communities)?

My friend and colleague Matt Tucker, from the Department of Landscape Architecture at the University of Minnesota refers to these waterways as “Anthropocene rivers,” which I take to mean that they are part of the earth’s circulatory system that has been made by humans.  The metaphor–or maybe it’s a literal statement?–that rivers are the circulation system of the living earth is powerful.  So it was interesting to see this article about the Capitol Region Watershed District, highlighting one of the main arteries, if you will, conveying St. Paul’s storm water to the Mississippi.  Be sure to watch the video; good images and articulate voices about the relationships between the community and the river.

For a historian like me, the sight of century-old limestone blocks still carrying storm water is completely fascinating in its own right.  But the tunnel also makes me wonder  “Why did they do that?” and “What else happened?”  (And who were “they” anyway?) Was the development of this large storm water system a means to drain wet lands to build out new neighborhoods? Who pressed to make the project happen, and how was it paid for?  If the project was about draining land for development, what happened to the people who had been using the land before?

So many questions about how recent generations of humans have changed land and water systems to make a city.  And, following Tucker’s terms, if these are “anthropocene” rivers, what does that mean?  Certainly we have a responsibility to and for these water ways, even if they aren’t as charismatic as the above-ground Mississippi River.  Hard to imagine picnicking by the storm drain.    That’s an important part of the watershed district’s work: helping us see the connections between the rivers beneath our feet and the rivers in front of us.

#TBT: Fifty-five Years Ago, Minnesota Had Few Tools to Respond to River Pollution

March 23, 2017Patrick NunnallyThrowback ThursdayComments Off on #TBT: Fifty-five Years Ago, Minnesota Had Few Tools to Respond to River Pollution

There has been a lot written recently about impending changes at the Environmental Protection Agency under the new Presidential administration.  A quick look into the entries at the Minnesota Historical Society’s MNopedia shows that pollution of the Mississippi River was a substantial public concern in 1962-63, nearly a decade before the 1970 establishment of the EPA through the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

The MNopedia article “Mississippi River Oil Spill, 1962-1963,” by Joseph Manulik (who was a U of MN Honors student when he wrote the piece) details how two spills, both on the Minnesota River, wreaked havoc downstream.  Manulik makes the clear point that the State of Minnesota had poor policy tools to deal with environmental crises.  The spilled oil fouled waterbird habitat as far down the Mississippi as Lake Pepin, killing thousands of ducks and wrecking the aquatic ecology of the river for nearly 100 miles.  But the only state remedy could not be put into action until a health hazard to humans was declared.  At this point in history, very few people ventured near the river, so the state was left with makeshift remedies, including a short-lived involvement of the National Guard. There was no recourse in state or federal law to hold the industrial sites responsible for the oil spills responsible for the accidents.

There is, of course, a lot of posturing and exaggeration about policy directions at the EPA.  But it does seem clear that there is little appetite to return to a pre-EPA world, where rivers burned, waterfowl suffocated, and polluters were held unaccountable.


Minnesota’s Clean Water Fund: Working Well, but Restoring Water Takes a Long Time

March 21, 2017Patrick NunnallyProgram & AnnouncementsComments Off on Minnesota’s Clean Water Fund: Working Well, but Restoring Water Takes a Long Time

In 2008, Minnesota voters passed an amendment to the state constitution establishing a 25 year fund to support the state’s clean water, land, heritage, and parks and trails programs.  To date, that fund has allocated some $760 million toward restoration of the state’s surface waters; the state Department of Natural Resources estimates that 40% of the state’s lakes, rivers and streams are “impaired,” that is, unfit for fishing or swimming.

So how is the state doing with the infusion of cleanup funds? The Office of the Legislative Auditor released a report this week suggesting that the funds are being spent appropriately, but that it’s still too early to measure results in terms of cleaner waters.

Two conclusions can be reached:

First, the clean bill of health regarding agency processes and spending efforts is very good news.  There are some relatively minor hiccups regarding precisely what spending is allowable, but the Legislative Auditor’s report recognizes that the program is working well.  For any program with a sizable amount of money, that’s a good sign, and a welcome affirmation of government agencies doing a good job on important work.

Second, as coverage by Minnesota Public Radio says, making a measurable change in water quality takes a long time.  Using Clean Water Legacy funds, the state has sped up collection of water quality data across the state’s 80-some watersheds, but it will take a 10 year cycle of revisiting and remeasuring those watersheds to determine how much actual progress is being made in the field.  As the Auditor’s project manager notes, “It also takes a long time to restore water,”

That’s a point that should not be lost on any of us. It’s easier to keep water clean in the first place than it is to clean it after pollution has occurred.


#TBT: River History Found in all Sorts of Places

March 16, 2017Patrick NunnallyThrowback ThursdayComments Off on #TBT: River History Found in all Sorts of Places

It probably shouldn’t be surprising, but it is, how many places the Mississippi River’s history shows up.  The fantastic, and fun, Open Parks Network site contains over 200,000 images of items relating to the nation’s over 400 national park units.  OF COURSE they would have great Mississippi River materials on the site!

Actually, not so much, at least coming from a simple “Mississippi River” keyword search.  Of course, there are many other ways to search for river-related items, but I just thought I would share one thing I did find.  Here’s an image that is part of the collections of the Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site

The power dam and lock at Keokuk Iowa was a nationally-significant power development when it went online right before World War 1.  It’s hardly surprising that Sandburg would have had this image in his files. What stories about the river and its people does this image elicit? What questions can we ask of it that inform how we think about the river now, a century later?

Contact Us!
Send us a note at to make suggestions for other places we should look, media to track, and stories to tell!
River Life in Video
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
Open Rivers: Rethinking the Mississippi
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.