The Minneapolis Star Tribune reported recently that the numbers of agricultural education teachers in Minnesota is shrinking, while the need grows. This trend should surprise no one: Minnesota’s population is increasingly urban, and farm consolidation is meaning fewer and fewer people make a living through farming.
And it should be just as evident that the need to learn about agriculture has really never been greater. For a variety of reasons far beyond this post, we may be nearing the end of the days when we don’t have to think about how food gets on our plate.
A faculty member at the University of Minnesota is quoted that ag education itself is changing, that it’s not “plows, cows, and sows” any more.
What, then, what should agricultural education for the 21st century in the Midwest look like? I suggest three topics, to complement the previously mentioned references to row crops and livestock. Farmers will continue to have to know about crops and stock, of course, but in addition, they will have to know about water, about communication, and about the planet.
With a minute fraction of the country actively engaged in farming, and a slightly larger number engaged in food processing and production, it is imperative that farmers know how to tell their story. And I emphatically do NOT mean letting farm chemical producers, or commodity associations, or grain companies or seed companies tell it for them!
Farming produces for a global market, often in competition with growers across the world. The impacts of farming are felt both locally and globally, and the challenge of feeding a global population will affect every farmer in the country. It’s not enough just to know your own backyard, or your watershed.
Speaking of watersheds, it may be only a slight exaggeration to say that the most important material coming off a farm is the water that drains the fields. Better water management is an essential part of contemporary agricultural practices. If wise management of the Mississippi River is largely a matter of managing the water flowing into the river and its tributaries, then farmers have to be part of that management solution. But they have to know as much about water, and care as much about clean water, as their river conservation partners (now too often arrayed as combatants).
Yes, there likely are too few ag ed teachers, in large part because there are fewer young people with ag ed in their background. Maybe if some of these other subjects are seen as essential to future ag learning, then more folks can be enticed to participate, whatever their background. Worth thinking about, anyway.
Earlier this fall, I was invited by Prof. Roopali Phadke of Macalester College’s Environmental Studies Program to participate in a small group workshop considering the future of St. Paul and the role various technologies might play in that future. St. Paul is one of six cities participating in a program called “The Futurescape City Tours,” organized through Arizona State University.
The group of us met and discussed our attitudes toward technology, then took a daylong walking tour of downtown and the immediate vicinity, with stops highlighting innovative technological systems such as those at District Energy and the St. Paul Union Depot.
The Depot, of course, is combining “past technology” of rail travel with innovations and multi-modal transportation that will serve St. Paul well into this century. And for me, considering St. Paul, that was one of the dominant themes: how the past and decisions that were made better than a century ago continue to shape the ways we will live in this place for the next century. Apparently a lot of us felt this way, our photoblog on Flickr is resonant with the built forms of the past in this place.
For me, of course, the view always turns toward the Mississippi, the reason for St. Paul’s very existence in the first place and perhaps its most distinctive physical characteristic going forward. For example,
St. Paul’s past is intimately tied to its location at the head of navigation on the Mississippi River. That place, where people and goods disembarked from riverboats and, often, continued their journey by rail, is still marked on the landscape by extensive railyards, often separating people from the river. This image, taken from the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary, illustrates that juxtaposition.
St. Paul’s present relationship to the river is quite different. Rail yards have been replaced by multi-use development and parks. People can get close to the water and in some places actually put their feet in the “Mighty Mississippi.” As the picture shows, the rail tracks are still there, still forming a barrier from downtown to the river, but there has been a whole new neighborhood developed at the waterfront.
St. Paul’s future river relationship will be more subtle, as these tiles, created by school children and forming part of a rain garden at the Vento Sanctuary illustrate. You maybe can’t tell from the photo, but I know the artist who worked with these children, and they were a multi-ethnic, mixed income and background group. St. Paul, where Garrison Keillor broadcasts “Prairie Home Companion” on many Saturday nights, will look less like “Lake Wobegon” in the future, and those of us who live there will have to be taking our water relationships much more seriously, hence the photo of rain garden elements.
What does this all add up to? I don’t really know, but our workshop leaders were kind enough not to make us focus strictly on nanotechnology. Technologies come in all manner of shapes and scales; understanding those we already have, and that we’ll have framing our lives for decades, is an important place to start!
The Mississippi River Network held its annual meeting in Minneapolis this week and it was a wonderful opportunity to catch up with old friends and make new acquaintances from throughout the great length of the Mississippi River. The MRN’s campaign, 1Mississippi, is a great idea and highly successful, as I have written about before. Anyone who has traveled much on the river knows, though, that there is not one Mississippi, but many; how many there are kind of depends on what lens you are using to look at the river.
This was perhaps never more evident than Thursday morning when about 20 meeting attendees got in canoes and paddled around Pike Island, or wita tanka in the Dakota language, at the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers. For water quality policy folks, this may be “Ground Zero” in the fight to reduce the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico. Organizations involved with recreational development marveled at this expanse of natural area preserved in the heart of the metropolitan region. People who look at the river in terms of habitat, especially birding, recognize that this is a central part of an Audubon-designated Important Birding Area, part of the Mississippi Flyway. True to our hopes, we saw six bald eagles, two great blue herons, an osprey and a couple of hawks. Plus countless LGBs (little grey birds).
I think our time at the Confluence affected the rest of our discussions, giving depth and resonance to our remaining meetings. It is the experience of place, slow absorption of the many ways the landscape and waters of a particular spot on the globe, that motivates so many of us to spend our careers working for the health of something like the Mississippi River. That place experience comes through may forms, and responds to (and stimulates) many facets of our experience. Sometimes we learn through scientific knowledge; sometimes awareness of policy disputes moves us to act.
Always, though, we respond to the stories of place. This podcast, created by Mona Smith of Allies:media/art, gives us multiple Dakota voices responding to a place with great spiritual and cultural significance. As a speaker says “We are still here today. We will always be here. This is our homeland.”
Voices to acknowledge and heed. A sense of where you are. Necessary to know in order to act in the right way, the right spirit.
A week ago, the Freshwater Society and the College of Biological Sciences at the University of Minnesota sponsored the most recent lecture in the Moos Family Lecture Series, highlighting challenges to water issues in the region. Dr. Duane Chapman spoke on “The Biology and Management of Asian Carps: Lessons for Minnesota.”
Not surprisingly, the lessons were mixed, although the news coverage in MinnPost.com and other online sources led with optimism, “Asian carp can be controlled,” for example. That much is certainly true; Chapman made the point very clearly that the carps are not an unstoppable force of Armageddon inexorably moving north and threatening to undo decades of work making our rivers attractive and accessible.
Which is by no means to say that we should stop our vigilance against the invasive fish. Wherever populations have become established, very substantial changes to the aquatic ecology have followed. The changes have been different in rivers from lakes, and vary by species of carp and the part of the previous ecosystem that has been most affected. But make no mistake: the carps that are coming are trouble, and we need to continue policy efforts, research agendas, and communication campaigns to prepare for their coming.
Chapman’s lecture, and the panel discussion that followed, were both well worth hearing, and if you missed the event last week, you’re in luck because the Freshwater Society has a video of the talk and slides available on its web site. Some of my key takeaways, which should by no means be understood as a complete sense of the argument, included:
- we need to know a lot more about the biology of these fish, the physical environment (water temperature, speed, bed surfaces) they live in, and the ecology around them (what eats them? what do they eat?);
- these subjects aren’t rocket science; they’re much harder, because there are so many moving parts, all of which adjust as other conditions adjust;
- some of the four carps species can probably arrive in the Twin Cities river environments (which include the Mississippi, Minnesota, and St. Croix rivers), and can probably survive, but the capacity to reproduce and establish a reproducing population is quite unknown at this time;
- the carps seem to require floodplain lakes as habitats where the juveniles grow the most. These lakes would thus seem to be good places to target anti-carps measures;
- we don’t know if areas of the Minnesota River upstream of the Twin Cities might be more susceptible to them than the Twin Cities itself. In other words, the Mississippi River in Pool 2 (St. Paul to Hastings) might not be a good place for them to get established, but they may be able to pass through Pool 2 and establish damaging populations in the Minnesota River, which comes into the Mississippi near the MSP airport;
- south of here, in the Illinois River where carp infestations have become legendary on YouTube, hundreds of thousands of fish are removed every day by commercial fishermen. This effort seems to be having some results, as the average size of the fish being taken has gotten smaller.
- We have some time in Minnesota to be working on this, and now is the time to be working. If we wait until they’re a problem, then the damage is done. (My emphasis).
A good place to learn what individuals can do in the Asian carps struggle is the web site of the Stop Carp Coalition, The federal government, which has a number of agencies working on various aspects of the problem has a web site clearinghouse of information, but that site is unfortunately unavailable right now because of the government shutdown.
Earlier this week I blogged about the success of the 1Mississippi campaign in reaching its initial goal of signing up 10,000 people to become River Citizens. These people, I suggested, form the vanguard of a new movement, a groundswell of people and organizations that do not take the Mississippi River for granted.
But what exactly does it mean not to take the river for granted? Let’s use the term “hydro-literate” to characterize the kind of citizen we mean; hydro-literate people know water, see water clearly, and take action as stewards of water.
Still not very precise. This is a big subject, and like our work on myths and stories of the Mississippi, is part of our long term effort here at River Life. We’ll start today with just a beginning, “put our toe in the water” so to speak. In the passage that follows, I will use “water” and “river” and “Mississippi River” more or less interchangeably, although they of course are not. Instead, they are increasingly specific elements of larger classifications, but we’ll leave that for another time.
Hydro-literate people know water. They understand that it’s a system of living and non-living components, that this system is highly variable both over time and through space (the Mississippi River in New Orleans and in Minneapolis are vastly different water bodies), and that what happens on land has a direct and intimate relationship with the water system. Furthermore, hydro-literacy makes clear that rivers like the Mississippi are only the most visible–and usually best-loved–component of a water system that includes a vast and complex array of groundwater systems, as well as more evident surface water tributaries.
Hydro-literacy means we see water clearly. We don’t just see the Mississippi as we want it to be, or as we fear it may be either. The river is not just a “problem” to be solved, or an “asset” to be taken advantage of. Rather, it is a place itself, with a historical and physical integrity as itself, independent of our relationship to it. I may be going out on a limb here, and apologize if I’m being offensive or presumptuous, but the understanding that the river has a reality outside of our relationship to it, and that our relationship to it is therefore centrally important both to it and to us, borrows heavily from what limited understanding I have of indigenous ways of knowing. Indigenous people have lived with the Mississippi for millennia; we should learn from them.
Hydro-literacy means taking action as stewards of water. This is the part that the 1Mississippi campaign is most concerned with, and there are many good reasons why this is an appropriate focus. Federal legislation such as the Water Resource Development Act and the Farm Bill both have profound implications for the Mississippi River and for rivers and water more generally. They are the policy DNA by which the particular actions of thousands of individual people and organizations are governed. State and local policies and planning frameworks matter a great deal also. But acting as a steward of the river encompasses a great deal more than taking policy action, important as that is. Organizations such as the Mississippi Watershed Management Organization and the Freshwater Society here in the Twin Cities, and hundreds more like them, have very strong stewardship education programs that address the myriad individual decisions that we all make daily that affect our water supplies.
So where does this leave us? How about with this: Hydro-literacy is one of the most difficult and complex conditions that we can aspire to. This stuff is hard. But it’s also among the most important things we can try to do. All the water we’re ever going to have is here now. As populations grow, climates change, and our demands on water increase and grow more complex, we have to figure this out. We’re all in it together, and can’t just hand the responsibility and authority off to a small subgroup of water engineers to make our decisions for us.
As I said earlier, at River Life we’re going to be working on this notion of “hydro-literacy” for a good long while. Help us out, won’t you? What do you think are the most important qualities of a hydro-literate citizen? What are the most important kinds of knowledge and action to have? What else should we write about?
Send us a note at email@example.com or, better yet, just make a comment to this blog post.
The Mississippi River Network announced today that its 1Mississippi campaign has reached its initial goal of signing up 10,000 “River Citizens,” a group that includes someone from all 50 states. River Citizens have pledged to take action in support of the health of the Mississippi River, most commonly by contacting elected officials and urging appropriate action on a variety of policy issues.
At the federal level, policy initiatives include work on a Farm Bill and on the Water Resources Development Act. A variety of state level policy initiatives focus on water quantity as well as water quality matters.
To date, River Citizens have been important voices in a number of state and local efforts, including ground water legislation in Iowa last spring. When the federal government resumes its normal course of work, there are a number of national issues affecting the Mississippi River that are lined up for action.
The Mississippi River Network is a group of 47 organizations located throughout the Mississippi River corridor and in Washington DC that are focused on one of several aspects of the Mississippi River’s health. Along with other broad-based coalitions such as America’s Great Watershed, the Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative, and the Mississippi River Collaborative, the Network is attempting to generate a national groundswell of support for legislation to ensure that the health of the Mississippi River is not taken for granted any more.
And that’s really the point of the River Citizen program: not taking the Mississippi River for granted. Even for many of us who work on river-related issues all the time, there is a tendency to forget how truly significant, on a global scale, our “home river” is. Statistics only tell part of the story; people’s experience with the Great River builds the respect and love that inspires action.
10,000 River Citizens is a lot of folks, but it will take 10 times that many or more, for the Mississippi River’s health to truly become a national priority. These ten thousand, then, should be understood as the “avant garde,” the early adopters and innovators who are paving the way for those who come later. The cognate word “vanguard” is also pertinent: those hardiest and strongest participants in any movement who set the way and lead the rest.
Congratulations to the Mississippi River Network and to the 10,000 River Citizens! In terms of the campaign to restore health to the river, this is the “end of the beginning.”
I’ve made the case before that the Mississippi River is a “system under stress,” albeit perhaps not in those precise terms. I remain convinced that two critically important lenses that we must develop for understanding the river, even those of us who think about it all the time, are as a “system” and a system that is under myriad complex, pervasive, and structural stresses. We’ll return to these themes, but not in this post.
Instead, in this post, I want to take up briefly the idea that recognizing the Mississippi River as a system under stress entails an additional recognition: strategies to alleviate that stress, to “solve the problems of the Mississippi” won’t happen through just tinkering with existing laws and/or doing new science. Better laws, or enforcement of existing regulations, and more science are necessary, but not sufficient to address the pervasive, ongoing nature of the stresses the river system faces.
We also have to capture the engagement of the public, at the deepest level we can reach, so that it would be unthinkable not to be concerned with the future of the Mississippi River as a system. To paraphrase the poet Gary Snyder, the work of the poet is to align the symbols and mythic narratives of our culture so that it is practically impossible not to be moved to make the necessary changes that face us.
Which brings me to a body of work that I want to commend to everyone’s attention. ”Mohona: Estuaries of Desire” is the most recent work produced by the Ananya Dance Theater under the artistic direction of U of M faculty member Ananya Chatterjea. ”Mohona” addresses the roles of water in the lives of ordinary women. As such it speaks to what is widely understood as the “world water crisis”: the fact that some 1 billion of the planet’s people lack ready access to fresh water and that the procurement of that water falls disproportionately on women, affecting the lives of those women in ways that are central to their futures.
The world water crisis is a little too big for River Life to tackle. Our geographical circumstance on the Mississippi River and deep commitment to a “place based” orientation to our education, research, and programs connects us deeply to the Mississippi, its watershed, and its problems. Nevertheless, events such as “Mohona” and other deeply felt cultural representations of the importance and immediacy of water as a central focus of peoples’ lives informs us, and reminds us that the stakes are very high in resolving the stresses that face the Big River.
All the stories about record alligators being caught and killed in the Mississippi River recently (Google “alligator Mississippi River” and you get 568,000 hits) has got me thinking about myths and the Mississippi River. Students of the river’s folklore will of course remember Mike Fink, the mythical riverboatman who was “half horse, half alligator and can whip [his] weight in wildcats.” So that’s one kind of myth, the exaggerated story that’s not true in any exact way but that speaks to the ethos of a time and place. Minnesotans have Paul Bunyan, and so forth.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn offers another kind of myth, a narrative that speaks to something almost ineffable that describes core beliefs, values, or structures of knowledge. (the university’s back in session, can you tell?) As scholars have shown for generations, Mark Twain’s master work speaks to deeply held American views on freedom, journeys, the ability to “light out for the territory,” as well as central 19th century moral qualms about race and slavery. We could go on, but won’t.
But there’s something going on–maybe just Twain revisited, maybe something else–when we read things like “she (a photographer with a web project) “travels the Great River Road and finds America.” There’s mythmaking at hand when a group of ten young adults and a videographer set off from the river’s headwaters in canoes to visit towns and cities and ask “How do you interact with the Mississippi?“
After all, this is no ordinary river; it’s the Mississippi (interject Mighty before Mississippi if you must).
And that’s my point: have we so overladen the physical river with stories, queries, Deep Meanings (or cliches)–with myths, in short–that we can no longer see it? Maybe more important, do our myths of the Mississippi keep us from taking the actions that are needed for the river to thrive?
This will be a counterintuitive question for many, if not most, of you. We don’t know enough about the Mississippi, it could be argued, and there’s truth there. We don’t love it enough, and more people need to know more and care more about it for us to undertake the right policies to save it, as hundreds of not thousands of people are dedicated to doing every day.
It remains worth asking, though: what are our contemporary myths of the Mississippi? What stories about the river are told by people who have never heard of Mark Twain or seen a paddleboat? What does the Mississippi mean, to whom, and so what?
These are questions that will take up much of our attention here at River Life for the foreseeable future, as we embark on a program funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation called the Sawyer Seminar. For the next 18-24 months, we’ll engage in a range of activities that explore questions such as those listed above, as well as broader contextual inquiries on how we see ourselves as humans who must learn to steward our water carefully in the face of a changing planet.
We’ll get to all that in due time. For now, tell us your myths of the Mississippi. We’ll start with the “easy” part!
A recent article in the online newspaper Minnpost.com highlights an often-overlooked era in Minnesota’s history when the Mississippi River was indeed the “front door” to the state. The article, reprinted from the Minnesota Historical Society’s MNopedia project, describes how communities such as Red Wing and Winona thrived as shipment points for “King Wheat,” which dominated farming production in southeastern Minnesota. The Mississippi River formed the primary link between Minnesota farming and markets across the country until the coming of the railroads in the 1870s.
After that era, the story is familiar to local historians and river buffs. Minneapolis industrialists figured out how to harness the waterpower at St. Anthony Falls and the falls became the epicenter of flour production for the next several decades. Eventually flour production tailed off, as did use of the Mississippi River as a primary transportation route.
This history is pertinent today, as communities up and down the Mississippi River reinvent their connections to the great river. Up here in the Upper Midwest, the river will most likely never again have the transportation importance it once had, but urban waterfronts remain important parts of community development planning throughout the region. The key question is: can cities redevelop their connection to the Mississippi River in new ways that are more responsive to the river’s status as central to an overtapped, and unstable water system? Or will we continue to follow outdated development models, seeing the river as a constant and unquestioned asset, always there for us to do with as we wish?
Explore the connections between campus and the Mississippi and learn about important aspects of the river corridor and the water system that supports it (and us!) on the second Wednesday of each month at noon, place TBA. Students, staff, faculty, and friends all welcome!
September 11 at Noon – Mississippi River 101
Meet us on East River Parkway at Harvard Street (by the hospital complex). We’ll walk down the stairs to the East River Flats and explore “Mississippi River 101.” Where does the river come from, and where does it go? Can you drink it here, swim in it? What kinds of fish live in the river? Who owns it?
Come with questions!
For more information and to rsvp if you’d like, send a message to the River Life Program firstname.lastname@example.org.
This Wednesday Water Walk is co-sponsored with the student River Ranger program.