University of Minnesota
University of Minnesota

“Water Ways” Program Sets New Path for Water Education

June 28, 2016Patrick NunnallyRiver MeaningComments Off on “Water Ways” Program Sets New Path for Water Education

Saturday June 25 marked the official opening of the “Water Ways” program, which will travel to six sites across Minnesota over the next 18 months or so.  The Minnesota Humanities Center is the lead partner on this multi-faceted, path-breaking project; the Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center in Kandiyohi County is the local partner for the first series of programs.  More information, background, resources for educators and links to related programs such as story maps are available here.

There are a lot of things to like about the Water Ways project:

  • It begins with understandings from indigenous people about the local relationships to water and sense of “here.”  Once we know “where” we are, we can begin to connect with other systems and relationships that make up “who” we are.
  • The grounding in local experience and place makes the effort to “make water visible and understandable” much more accessible.  Many of us have had the basic lessons on the water cycle, but seeing how that works in your town or neighborhood makes the lesson much more memorable.
  • The projects depend on the participation of a wide range of community partners.  It’s not every day that humanities programmers team up with environmental learning centers!  During the first installation of the program alone, there is a children’s concert, two additional music festivals, two paddling events, three community celebrations and a presentation by the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the Lower Sioux Community.  The Prairie Woods calendar of events is here.

The federal, state, and media partners and sponsors for Water Ways is a “who’s who” of water and natural resource agencies and groups associated with public programming and community engagement.  Truly a wide-ranging and remarkable set of relationships, all of which focus on directing community attention to water.

Rivers and Human Systems: Grasping Water

It’s not entirely clear precisely what the organizers of last week’s international workshop “Grasping Water” had in mind with the name of the project.  It could be the case that they meant to allude to the nearly impossible task of actually physically grabbing a handful of water, that task then being seen as a metaphor for the difficulty of mentally “grasping’ the full dimensions of water.  Or perhaps they meant to direct participants’ attention to the water itself in rivers, adding knowledge gained from scientific investigations to the conceptual infrastructure from the humanities disciplines that are their “home  turf.”  Maybe, and we’ve all been there, they just needed a title with the grant proposal deadline looming.

Whatever the case, last week saw the first Summer Institute in Chinese Studies in Global Humanities put on at the University of Minnesota.  Major funding was provided by the Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation and the Consortium of Humanities Centers and Institutes, along with nine collaborating units from the University of Minnesota.  The 40 participants came from 13 home countries and, for the most part, study rivers in China, Africa, and North America through humanistic scholarly perspectives.

I won’t work through all of the talks, exchanges and interesting insights from the whole week; those ideas will likely pop up on the blog in various ways throughout the next weeks and months.  But I do think it’s instructive to review quickly the broad questions and topics that the group settled on in the institute’s “summing up” session on Friday:

  • Where does knowledge about rivers come from?  How (or does) the knowledge developed by official sources like government agencies intersect with the perspective of scholars, or advocacy organizations?  Who/what groups are not commonly heard; most particularly how are the perspectives of people indigenous to river regions heard or excluded?
  • What are the scales, both temporal and spatial, at which analyses and investigations are best pursued? Some impacts take decades to emerge while others may be visible right away.  Similarly, some issues can only be understood at a regional or national scale; zeroing in too closely to the actual site of concern may leave the investigator “unable to see the forest for the trees.”
  • How can we get a handle on the “unintended consequences” that almost always accompany a large scale intervention in a river system, such as building a dam?
  • Where does “agency” lie in manipulation of river systems and the associated human systems?  What happens if the group charged with imposing an intervention on a river doesn’t have responsibility or authority to address the chains of consequences for nearby people, for instance?
  • It seems that a broad field interdisciplinary collaboration is required for a rich nuanced investigation of rivers under change.  But the sorts of collaborations required, between scientists, humanists, and scholars from other knowledge bases, are difficult, and require a great deal of time, consideration, and relationship-building.
  • Major interventions in river systems such as dams are almost always justified in terms of making a country or region more modern, or bringing assets such as a steady supply of electricity to an area.  But these claims need to be investigated closely and unpacked for the various unspoken claims that are present as well.

These are big issues, a lot to think about.  I think two conclusions are in order at this point.  The first is that people interested in the Mississippi can learn a lot from studies of far-flung rivers such as the Yellow, the Volta, and the Zambezi.  The second is that, as complex as these issues are, coming to a definitive understanding may be as hard as grasping a handful of water!

Coming to Terms with Mark Twain

For a long time now I’ve had an uneasy relationship with the work of Mark Twain.  Sure, the books are great, and for many people they form an introduction to the stories and history of the Mississippi River.  For too many people and organizations, though, their knowledge starts and stops with Twain.  Images of steamboats and freckled barefoot boys convey some important elements of the Mississippi, and appear all over in marketing and promotional literature, but have severe limitations as well.  Still, it has always seemed churlish to push “beyond Mark Twain” always, or to find ways to minimize his impact so people can go on to broader, richer, more inclusive stories.

I’ve been reading work recently that in many respects redeems Twain in two important ways.  T.S. McMillin’s The Meaning of Rivers points out very clearly that Sam Clemens could not have become Mark Twain without the detailed and immersive education he got as a cub pilot.  Only after Clemens really learned to see the river, to look closely and understand its every mood rather than ride skimming along over it, did he have the knowledge he needed to make the Mississippi River central to his work.

The music historian Dennis McNally picks up one of the vital and easily-overlooked threads of Twain’s work when he reminds us of the importance of the river to our understanding of race and music in American history and culture.  There’s a lot to quarrel with in McNally’s On Highway 61, and Richard Mizelle’s Backwater Blues is a necessary complement to McNally’s version of events.  Taken together, though, we are reminded that we can’t really understand the importance of the Mississippi River without understanding its importance to black life in America.

Even though the Twin Cities is far upstream of the river as depicted in Twain, Mizelle and McNally, the essential truth remains: until we go beyond the easy anecdotes and images, and really learn to see the river and the myriad people for whom it is and has been central to their stories, we won’t really know the Mississippi.

#TBT St. Paul and Pool 2: Dynamic Land and Water

January 21, 2016Patrick NunnallyFeatured, River MeaningComments Off on #TBT St. Paul and Pool 2: Dynamic Land and Water

cattle on the flats 1925

Grazing on the West Side Flats. This herd of cattle is standing more or less where Holman Field airport is now located. Lily Lake was filled in early in the 20th century to create the land for the airport.
Image from the collections of the Minnesota Historical Society.

flood Upper Landing

Boating on Upper Levee during a flood. The Upper Levee neighborhood near the present Science Museum of Minnesota location flooded regularly during the first half of the 20th century. Residents of the community, nearly all of whom were Italian immigrants, moved out after the flood of 1952. Many went to the Railroad Island/Payne Avenue neighborhood on the east side of St. Paul, while others started businesses such as Mancini’s Char House and Cossetta’s Grocery and Deli on nearby West Seventh Street.
Image from the collections of the Minnesota Historical Society.

St. Paul bluff cutback for rr

Cutting away the bluff to make way for railroads. The center of downtown St. Paul, between the Science Museum and the Union Depot, is located on a high bluff overlooking the Mississippi. This photograph, probably from the 1870s or 1880s, shows the developing railroad beds below the bluff, where present Shepherd Road and current rail lines still run. The bluff appears to have been cut back through the soft St. Peter sandstone to make more room for the transportation network.
Image from the collections of the Minnesota Historical Society.

St. Paul under construction

Filling the Mississippi shoreland to make room for new development. This image, looking upstream from the Upper Landing area toward Fort Snelling, illustrates how watery margins of the Mississippi were filled in to create more land for transportation and settlement. The photograph probably dates to the 1870s.
Image from the collections of the Minnesota Historical Society.

#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.

National Parks “Tell Our Story”–What Does That Say About “Us”?

December 16, 2015Patrick NunnallyRiver MeaningComments Off on National Parks “Tell Our Story”–What Does That Say About “Us”?

I may get in some trouble for this post–comments are always welcome–but I have a bone to pick with National Geographic and, indirectly, with national parks.  Yes, I know, the “yellow box” is a highly respected “brand” and national parks are “America’s best idea.”  I generally agree with both of those sentiments, but…

A recent visual blog describes national parks as “How National Parks Tell our Story–And Show Who We Are.”  The subtitle is promising:  “They’re more than scenic places.  They’re a nation’s common ground.”

So here’s what we are told directly:

  • national parks began to be established in the late 19th century; the National Park Service was created in 1916;
  • the current director of the National Park Service, Jon Jarvis, sees the agency’s role as telling America’s broader story, not just protecting parcels of land.  His example is the civil rights story embodied in the Selma to Montgomery Trail site;
  • “They (national parks) help us imagine what the American landscape and its resident creatures looked like before railroads…” emphasis added.

This last part is egregiously wrongheaded.  As Mark David Spence (Dispossessing the Wilderness:  Indian Removal and the Making of the National Parks) and other historians point out clearly, the human populations indigenous to North America were deliberately and forcibly removed in order that tracts of land could be made into playgrounds and wonderlands for citizens of the United States.  Some of the pictures reinforce this absence: people (including a “cowboy”) standing at overlooks gazing out at the spectacular, and “empty” landscape.

The images reinforce other indirect messages about who “we” are, namely that we are by and large separate from Nature that we connect with by going and looking at it.  Almost all of the photos show crowds of people on walkways, behind fences, and reading from markers.  Only the urban scene around one of the basins in Washington DC shows people on the grass and engaged in activities other than a variation of “standing and looking.”

As the National Park Service enters its second century, we have to do better than this.  Be honest about removal of indigenous people and the connection of that genocide to park establishment.  Treat nature as something other than a glorious object to be held apart from us and worshipped. Only then will we be able to live up to the promise of the parks: becoming the nation’s common ground.


What Would a “River Studies” Curriculum Look Like?

December 7, 2015Patrick NunnallyRiver MeaningComments Off on What Would a “River Studies” Curriculum Look Like?

Teaching about rivers is complicated.  Rivers are unarguably complex biological and physical systems.  Historically, rivers have been venerated at the same time as they have been used as trash dumps and worse.  Our current view is anything but simple: some groups hold that rivers are fragile systems needing protection from human despoliation while others retain a “functional” mindset: what can the river do for us?

Last Friday I had the great pleasure of hearing students in GRAD 8101 “Preparing Future Faculty” as they proposed a series of freshman-oriented classes that would center on the Mississippi River.  PFF, as it is known, offers a one semester intensive introduction to teaching philosophies, aims, and approaches.  Students come from all over the University, so planning teams are by nature interdisciplinary.

This was the third or fourth time PFF students had worked with Mississippi River teaching and, as always, the results were stimulating, provocative, and to a degree unsettling.  The “unsettling” part comes from a recognition of how good these future teachers are and a realization of how much could be done to “teach the river.”

For example, one group based its course on student photography projects, proposing that students capture a series of “then and now” shots based on images from a century ago.  Elaboration on what has and has not changed, and why, would constitute the bulk of student learning.  Another group chose policy as the lens through which learning would take place.  Students would work with one major policy direction, say the Farm Bill or the Water Resources Development Act, and learn what the bill contained, what it does not contain, who contributes and whose voices are not heard, what are the intended and unanticipated consequences of the policy.

This is all great stuff, and bodes well for the future, because policy makers, program directors and advocacy leaders in 2050 are these students in class right now.  The work shown on Friday was all interdisciplinary, problem-oriented, community-based and well connected between course aims, assessments and activities.  It’s probably fair to say that each of these six proposed courses is richer than anything I had in my entire undergrad experience.

There is still room for disciplinary knowledge of course.  Deep engagement with part of the world, whether that engagement comes from the sciences, professional schools such as design, planning or engineering, or through humanistic inquiry, is important as a core set of concepts and knowledge that grounds teaching and inquiry.  The work going forward, I think, is taking that deep grounding and using it to look outward, to the community, to problems in the “real world,” to rivers as the case may be, rather than just refocusing within siloed perspectives.

I would think and write more about this, but I’ve gotta run–have a couple of courses to prepare for spring and the bar just got higher!

On Water in the “Just City”

December 2, 2015Patrick NunnallyRiver MeaningComments Off on On Water in the “Just City”

Lots of people involved in water conversations take for granted many of the issues peripheral to their main concentration.  Folks may be focused on water quality or availability, on the strength and resilience of aquatic ecological communities, or the varying roles that water bodies play in urban community development.  This last bit, where people are concentrating on disparate things like parks, urban riverfront revitalization, and brownfield cleanup, point professionals toward multi-sector collaboration and interdisciplinary inquiries.

All of this is fine, but there’s a key question that often gets left out: For whom are we working?  It is certainly true that clean, abundant water is a critically important benefit for all sectors of society.  It’s less evident that water-based public space is equally “public” for everyone.  We have been poking around with this question of how issues of equity and inequality intersect with the critically important issues attached to urban water and water-related open space such as waterfront parks.  There are interesting conversations taking place about urban ecology, urban sustainability, and urban livability.  But it wasn’t until we ran across this set of readings The Just City Essays: 26 Visions for Urban Equity, Inclusion, and Opportunity that we felt we were getting to the heart of the matter.  These writings, drawn from an international cast of designers, planners, scientists, and critical theorists, put human well-being–for ALL of the population–at the center of their discussions.

The writing gathered in The Just City Essays would be a valuable basis for even more broad-ranging conversations on the role of water as both amenity and necessity in formulating the “just city.”  These conversations should take place in classrooms and seminars, at academic conferences and professional meetings, even on street corners and community gathering spots.

Water needs to be part of the discussion of urban justice, and urban justice certainly needs to be part of the conversation on water.  If you know where these conversations are happening, and what is being developed out of them, drop me a note or post a comment in reply to this post; we’re collecting literature on this intersection and always want to learn and share more.

America’s Watershed Report Card: A Good Start Despite/Because of the Controversy

Working at a university the way I do, you’d think I would be all over the recent stories about the America’s Watershed Report Card for the Mississippi River basin.  A sampling of the coverage can be found here, here, and here.  After all, giving grades is what we do in class, right? We make judgments from criteria that we hope are clear and meaningful and that lead to desired change.

Obviously there’s a lot more that can be said about those three criteria, and many river organizations have commented on the report card specifically.  For example, Olivia Dorothy from American Rivers recently invited Ken Lubinski, retired from the US Geological Survey, to assess how well the report card addressed ecological data, river health, and the pros and cons of any report card effort.

I want to talk about something different: the “human dimension” which is sometimes taken for granted, sometimes too generalized, and sometimes falsely equated simply with “economy” and pitted against “ecology.”  I want to suggest that, despite the relative precision with which human dimensions of river health are mentioned in the report card, greater subtlety is needed around an abstract concept of “well being,” and that we must ask ourselves “well being for whom?”

There is no question that the report card addresses multiple ways the rivers of the Mississippi River basin benefit human health.  From drinking water to river-dependent employment, some measures are relatively easy to count.  Others, including the factors listed under “outdoor recreation,” are more complicated.  It’s one thing to count total numbers of hunting and fishing licenses, or days that particular camping spots are reserved.

But how do we know who is using the rivers, and in what ways?  The geographer Carolyn Finney from the University of Kentucky has written powerfully about the ways black and brown faces have been systematically erased from our understanding of “nature,” “outdoor recreation,” and “wilderness.”  Finney’s book Black Faces, White Spaces ought to be required reading and background for anyone involved in recreation, resource management, or public lands management.  A primer to her ideas can be found in this interview in Guernica, where she articulates the ways that public lands have become “landscapes of exclusion”  where native Americans and people of color may not feel welcome and perhaps do not visit on a regular basis.  More importantly, the black and brown faces that are in the outdoors are almost never accounted for in “environmental” movement literature, rarely pictured in imagery of the outdoors and people enjoying nature.

The mistaken belief that “people of color don’t like the outdoors” thus becomes a vicious cycle, where people do not feel welcome, agencies who mistakenly think certain segments of the population aren’t interested don’t do anything to reach important populations, who then feel doubly that they are unwelcome.  Important, and again overlooked, historical trends magnify the disconnect.

I don’t have an answer here, but am more convinced than ever that this is a question that must not go away.  When the next version of the Report Card for the Mississippi River basin is made, we have to find ways to account better for who is using the public lands of this massive space, and how those users find well-being from their association with the Great River.


Katrina Plus Ten: A View from the Other End of the River

October 16, 2015Patrick NunnallyFeatured, River Meaning, RiversComments Off on Katrina Plus Ten: A View from the Other End of the River

Ten years ago, on August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina made landfall on the Louisiana Gulf Coast.  What followed was a disaster of unparalleled magnitude in recent United States history, an event and its aftermath that forever changed ideas about urban resilience, the relationships between cities and the water bodies on which they are located, the roles of race and class in disaster response, even whether some cities in vulnerable locations should even be restored after disaster struck.  The Mississippi River was almost an afterthought during and immediately after the storm; the river itself did not flood the city and the most damaging levee breaches occurred in other locations.  Nevertheless, we feel that serious, sustained examination of the relationships between communities, water systems, urban space, and lived experience in the 21st century should start with at least a rudimentary examination of Katrina and its aftermath.

This is the tenth of ten blog posts examining crucial facets of the online coverage a decade after the storm. 

Up here in Minnesota, near the headwaters of the Mississippi River, Hurricane Katrina could have been nothing more than a TV vision. We gasp in horror, maybe write a check to help the people who are displaced, and go on about our business. After all, it wasn’t the river itself that flooded, right?

Hurricane Katrina hits New Orleans. Via

Hurricane Katrina hits New Orleans. Via

I have friends and colleagues in New Orleans, so the storm was much more personal to me. I remained convinced that Katrina was a river story, and that the various stories arising from the tenth anniversary had something deeply to do with what River Life is, or should be, doing. I think there are four lessons from the storm and the aftermath that inform River Life’s work in particular substantive ways.

First, Katrina was about a storm and water inundation, but the impact of the storm lay not just in the material nature of the flood but was a combination of the fact that this was New Orleans being affected, one of the country’s iconic cities, and also the particular populations in the city that were most at risk. Our lesson: The sciences of rivers are necessary, but not sufficient knowledge when examining urban rivers.

Second, the storm’s impact on specific populations was driven by their location in the city—poor people, often communities of color, live at lower elevations—which is a spatial factor that is historical and structurally associated with patterns of inequities locally and nationally.  Our lesson: A historical understanding both of the material and spatial form of urban rivers, and of the social, political, and economic contexts shaping populations in and near the river corridor is necessary to understanding urban rivers.

Third, history matters in terms of who was affected most by the storm, and how cities have grown up along rivers. But we can’t just be bound by historical patterns; we have to “think forward” as well. Our lesson: History is important, but we also need perspectives that shape a vision of the river and community going forward.

Fourth, the ways the story of Katrina and the aftermath was told were significant. The best work that we have linked to in this series conveys the immediacy of the personal, a depth of analytical understanding that allows readers to recognize contexts around personal stories, and innovative representation that create new forms of knowledge and insight. Our lesson: Innovations in the forms by which knowledge is developed, thought through, and conveyed are important; it’s not just the “what” of knowledge sharing, but the “how,” and the “why.”

For us, the stories of Katrina and its aftermath allow us to locate our study thus: River Life explores the processes by which riparian systems are converted to urban water systems, locating key intersections of water, community, identity, and sense of place. Our work helps our communities, both on campus and off, move toward a more sustainable, inclusive relationship between the Mississippi River and the people that depend on its long-term health.

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.