University of Minnesota
University of Minnesota

The Campus, The River, The Park, and the Connection Between the Three

As a University along one of the greatest rivers of the world, most of us are aware of the Mississippi flowing beneath our feet as we walk across the Washington Avenue Bridge, but not many of us know we are actually studying, working, learning, and growing in a national park. To shine light on the connection between the University of Minnesota campus, the river, and the park we gathered on April 8th for a Water Walk with park ranger, Dan Dressler, and our own, Pat Nunnally.

Starting from this month’s campus hotspot, Northrop Auditorium emphasized the connection our campus has to the river, as even Goldie made a guest appearance on our walk. Taking a few short steps to Arlington Street we were already at the edge of the Mississippi, staring over to the West Bank of campus glimmering against the water. Aside from the great view, this is the point where the end of the park board and the university property shift, further portraying our symbiotic relationship.

“Why here?” Dan Dressler asked of the significance of a national park along the river. According to park services there’s more than one reason why the Mississippi national river and recreation area was chosen to include the 72 miles of river that pass through the Twin Cities. In this stretch, the river changes more than anywhere else. Starting as a small shallow river, the Mississippi flows through the only significant falls and gorge in the course of the river, as well as locks and dams to open up by St. Paul near Fort Snelling to become Mark Twain’s rendition of the big, open, mighty Mississippi. Although the park owns virtually none of the land within its boundaries, the government was looking at the entire river when declaring the park in hopes of conserving the river and its surrounding ecosystems.

We tend to think of national parks to be places like Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon, but most historic sites in the country are park service sites. In the Twin Cities we see the river as a natural resource but it also holds a lot of historical significance. The Twin Cities are here because boats were impassible through the rapids of the falls. Over time St. Paul became the head of navigation and Minneapolis the center of industry due to the food industrial revolution at the falls. Today, the Twin Cities are the largest metro area on the entire length of the river.

Our dependence on the river is undeniable, which is why a partnership between the park services and the university is crucial. River Life serves as a teaching, research, and engagement resource to the park board, building both long and short-term capacity for partners through student interns, projects, and classes. With 30,000 undergrads on the Twin Cities campus, the size of a small city, we can bring change to help and promote the sustainability of the river.

So let a friend on campus know that they are in a national park right now, and stay tuned for further details because River Life will lead a walk every Tuesday this month!

Building Digital Capacity in Graduate Education

River-Atlas-Poster_Grad-Assembly-2014smRiver Life was thrilled to be invited to present a poster at the recent Building Digital Capacity in Graduate Education program that took place in Coffman Union on April 2.

We were asked to develop and present a poster on our River Atlas, and to comment on the digital tools we use, and their techniques, best practices and issues.  As we pulled together the poster, it gave us a nice opportunity to reflect on the digital principles of our Atlas and furthermore, how they reflect our principles and values as a program.  The poster itself is included here, and if you have any questions I encourage you to comment below, or email me directly at

However, the real treat of the day was seeing everyone else’s work.  There’s much said about the power of digital tools and techniques with attitudes ranging from that of early-adopters (something I myself am accused of being on a regular basis) and people who have a wait-and-see attitude.  We all know that all types are important to having meaningful discussions, but so often discussions of digital technologies get mired in the should-we or shouldn’t-we back and forth.  The beauty of this event was that in addition to this engaging discussion, there was a refreshing celebration of work actually being done, in multiple formats and at varying scales.

In particular, we’d like to mention the excellent work being done by U-Spatial, DASH, Zooniverse, Digital Conservancy,  and the Digital Public Library of America, whose work we saw showcased at the event and represent a compelling cross-section of digital tools and techniques that are highly relevant to our own work.  I encourage you all to take a moment and follow these links.  I find their work inspirational and humbling, and we at River Life are looking forwards to hearing more from these visionary digital pioneers.

A “Watershed Event” Indeed!

Occasionally, you find yourself at a meeting or a program where there is a sense that something really momentous has happened, that you’re in at the beginning of something that has long-lasting consequences.  Friday’s “Watershed Event” at Mill City Museum had just that feel.  From serious water geekery to a moving film about water, to important reflections on the future of water in Minnesota, this program had it all.

The meeting’s first session featured an address by Denver landscape architect Bill Wenk and a panel discussion on Minnesota’s water policy.  Important insights to be sure, but heavy on the “inside baseball” discussions of MS4 permits, CSO elimination, and the intricacies of water policy’s intersections with ag policy.  This was NOT “Water 101.”

The second half of the discussion got a little more basic, and was more accessible to folks who don’t spend all their time thinking about water.  The movie, “Watershed” focused the complexity of water management on the Colorado River through the stories of half a dozen residents of the watershed whose values and beliefs about water intersect and overlap, even if their personal experience does not.  That’s the nature of a watershed, right, all the people who share our water are people we are connected with, even though we don’t know them.

The post-screening discussion was revelatory, as such things should be.  The panelists were Matthew Tucker from the U of M Department of Landscape Architecture, Deb Swackhamer, co-director of the U of M’s Water Resource Center, and Dorene Day, a resident of the Bois Fort Ojibwe community and member of the Indigenous People’s Task Force.  When the video of the panel is available, I will post a note letting you know how to find it.  In the meantime, Dave Peters, who moderated the first panel, has posted a very thoughtful response to the event as a whole on the MPR Ground Level blog.

The hall at Mill City Museum was almost full, which means that some of you reading this were in attendance.  What did you think?  Make a comment to this post and share your views:  What was really great?  Where should this discussion go next?

Friday Favorite Blogroll: Northeast-Midwest Institute Mississippi River Basin blog

I’ve been doing varieties of Mississippi River work for almost 20 years now, and I’ve always had a sense that there’s a profound split between two basic camps of river enthusiasts.  On one hand are the folks “out here in the corridor,” those of use who live and work in states, counties, and towns that abut the Mississippi and who have immediate, sometimes tangible knowledge of what’s going on out here on the ground.  On the other hand are folks in Washington DC who know firsthand the policies, programs, and personnel in the heart of the federal government that so profoundly affect the river.

I’ll confess to seeing the local as more important than the federal for most of my career, sometimes for cause, but usually just out of narrow provincialism.  More recently, while I still think a lot of DC-based people can become DC-centric, I have adopted much more of a “both/and” recognition that it takes all of us to try to make the river more sustainable and inclusive.

Which brings me to this week’s featured site in our blogroll review, the Northeast-Midwest Institute’s Mississippi River Basin blog, curated by policy analyst Mark Gorman.

I’ll keep this simple:  if you’re interested at all in the Mississippi River, this is the place to start.  Among a small handful of “must read” sources, this probably ranks first.

Clear enough?

In case you want more details, we might try a checklist:

Calendar of river events from a policy and agency perspective?  Check.

Summary of posts on Twitter (usually with links) on fourteen particular policy and management subjects?  Check.

“Last Word” drawn from music, literature, the arts and other realms, based on something current in the world of river news?  Check.

Do yourself a favor–go read the blog, follow Gorman at @NEMWIUpperMiss, and wonder how you got along this far without knowing all of what he has to offer.


Water Walk, April 15 at Noon – Watershed Event


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 Tuesday of each month at noon, place TBA. Students, staff, faculty, and friends all welcome!

Water Walk, April 15 at Noon – Watershed Event

Join us along with Miss Emily Lowery as she talks about building a future for water in Minnesota, transforming practice and policy through a new water ethic.

Meet us on the steps in front of Northrop at noon, on the East Bank of the UMN campus.

Come with questions!

Upcoming Water Walks : April 15, April 22, April 29, May 6, at Noon,
Leaving from Northrop front steps.

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 Tuesday of each month at noon, place TBA. Students, staff, faculty, and friends all welcome!

Our Water Walks in April, as part of the April at Northrop festivities, will feature both on- and off-campus partners. If you’d like to receive email notifications of topic and meeting place before each Water Walk, please email Joanne Richardson.

For more information and to RSVP if you’d like, send a message to the River Life Program

Students, staff, faculty, and friends all welcome!

Monday Pondering: It Takes More than Facts to Convince People

I read an article in the online version of Conservation magazine that spoke to things that a lot of people have been puzzling over.  John Carey’s piece on cat predation of birds is an example of the kind of tangled web that many conservation/environmental issues become.  Both sides (and they are “sides” with little if any room for the non-aligned) stake out “moral high ground” and battle it out with people they consider wrongheaded, stupid, or evil.

Cat predation may or may not be something you track closely, but the echo should be familiar from issues pertaining to fracking, invasive carp, drought, or what have you.  There’s almost always a fight about these matters.

Here’s Carey’s close:

Whether the issue is global warming, evolution, or cat predation, researchers tend to believe they’d win the debate if only they could better educate the masses. “There is this mythology about education,” says theologian Vantassel. “We keep thinking that if we can just pile the evidence up higher, we can convince people. But it doesn’t work.” Instead, the hard lesson from these great societal debates is that they are contested on a battleground of conflicting emotions, moral values, and ideologies. Facts alone rarely break up the fight.

Lots to think about there, and rather than belabor the point on a Monday morning, I’ll just leave it at that, encouraging you to mull it over.  Comments are always welcome.


Friday Favorites Blogroll: Bdote Memory Map

It is difficult for me to know where to start in conveying how much I have learned from the Bdote Memory Map.  I could talk about the ways the map conveys Dakota names for places that are very familiar to me, thereby disrupting my complacent sense that I have figured out a lot of what makes the place work.  I could talk about the ways the map sparks my imagination, suggesting 1001 questions that might be good topics for research and inquiry, either by me as a scholar or through my teaching, to pass to students.

For me, though, the dominant impression from the Bdote Memory Map is the voices it offers.  Map creator Mona Smith has interviewed Dakota people about what specific places mean to them, and has arranged the interviews along with other important materials on a map interface that highlights well known places such as St. Anthony Falls, and offers vitally important perspectives on places such as the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers, the “bdote” of the map’s title.

These voices have turned out to generate some of the formative principles for us at River Life:

  • Listen to indigenous people.  They are still here, not just part of the historical record of the place.
  • The voices of indigenous people matter.  In programs, provide ways to hear those voices, rather than mute them in favor of what others have said about them.
  • There is much to learn from the voices and perspectives of indigenous people, most of which can’t really be expressed in summarized “lessons” or anything so cut-and-dried or reductive as that.  They just need to be absorbed, and, having been heard in a good way, the new insights will come back at times of their own choosing.

The Bdote Memory Map covers only the Twin Cities area of the Mississippi River at this point, and contains only Dakota voices.  We need to be identifying comparable ways to the voices and perspectives of Ojibwe people, and of Ho Chunk people, both of whom lived in or near these areas before whites came.  And of course, native people lived all over North America, and still do, contributing important voices, insights, and ways of knowing the world we inhabit together.

Once again, one of the beauties of the internet is the way it can put “the world at our fingertips.”  Web sites are poor substitutes for getting to know people and indigenous communities face to face, but until we have unlimited time and money for travel, the web will have to do.  Some of the groups that we attend to in particular include:  Proud to be Indigenous, First Peoples Worldwide, Media Indigena, First Nations Development Institute, and Conversations with the Earth.  An important page that does not focus so much on the cultures and voices of indigenous people, but on the relation of indigenous people to climate change is the National Geographic collection Climate Change and Indigenous Peoples.

I have barely gotten started to the richness of these communities and voices.  I welcome suggestions for more explorations.

Water Walk, April 8 at Noon – The Campus, The River, The Park


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 Tuesday of each month at noon, place TBA. Students, staff, faculty, and friends all welcome!

Water Walk, April 8 at Noon – The Campus, The River, The Park

Almost everyone at the U has crossed the Washington Avenue Bridge at least once. Almost everyone knows that the bridge crosses the Mississippi River. But did you know that most of the campus is located within a National Park? Come and hear NPS and University staff talk about the campus, the river, the park, and how you can be a part of it. Meet us on the steps in front of Northrop at noon, on the East Bank of the UMN campus.

Come with questions!

For more information and to RSVP if you’d like, send a message to the River Life Program

Students, staff, faculty, and friends all welcome!

Hold these Dates: There’s a Lot Going On!

TS Eliot famously wrote that “April is the cruelest month” (and he wasn’t even from Minnesota, Land-of-Winter-that-will-not-end).  Certainly this April promises to be “the busiest month,” at least for people in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area who are interested in water and water issues.

To coincide with the month-long celebration of the re-opening of Northrop Auditorium on campus, we are hosting Water Walks every Tuesday at noon.  We’ll depart from the front steps of Northrop, on the East Bank campus, with the following subjects:

  • April 8  ”The River, the Campus, the Park”  What does it mean that our campus is largely in a National Park?  Led by Pat Nunnally of River Life and Dan Dressler from NPS.
  • April 15:  ”Steps Toward Clean, Abundant Water in Minnesota” Led by Miss Emily Lowery of the University group Students for Design Activism.
  • April 22:  ”Bohemian Flats” The Community under the Bluff” led by Rachel Hines, independent scholar.
  • April 29:  TBA
  • May 6:     TBA
  • May 13:   TBA

But wait, there’s more!  River Life is hosting two evening events in Northrop:

“River Futures” where 14 students present the results of studies that imagine the future of the Twin Cities Mississippi River stretch in 50 years.  Will it be more urban?  A festival place?  Overrun with invasive species?  What about climate change?  Join us April 16 at 4:00 in Northrop’s Best Buy Theater to hear more about these exciting visions.

“The Irony of Carp,” a talk by Brian Ickes of the US Geological Survey, joined by a panel of innovative thinkers in diverse fields.  What might be some of the consequences if the various species known as Asian carp do come to infest our waterways?  How can we marshal community engagement and build resilience in nature to ward off these pests?  The program will be held April 21, beginning at 7:00 pm, in Northrop’s Best Buy Theater.

Learn more about events at Northrop by going to their home page.  River Life events are described more fully at our Events page.

River Life is also associated with an event taking place April 11 at Mill City Museum.  Watershed Event: Steps Toward Clean, Abundant Water in Minnesota will gather experts from across a spectrum of interests and perspectives on water.  Talks and interactive sessions, and screening of a film, will focus on necessary changes in perspective and action steps for solutions to our emerging water problems.

Finally, Conservation Minnesota and a number of other organizations are putting together the State of Water Conference, “]Minnesotans Protecting our Lakes and Rivers.”  The dates are May 1-2, and the location is Cragun’s resort near Brainerd, a couple hours north of the Twin Cities.

Don’t tell my students, but the next month looks like one of those times where there’s as much learning going on outside the classroom as there is in class, for a grade!



Friday Favorites Blogroll: What I Learned from Twitter

Yes, I know, this sounds like a bad 21st century parody of those old “what I did on my summer vacation” reports we used to have to write.  In all seriousness, though, social media such as Twitter, if used judiciously, can offer a window into a much wider set of conversations than any of us could have imagined being a part of five or ten years ago.

I recently highlighted specific accounts that we learn a lot from at River Life.  Today I want to narrow the focus to particular articles that caught our attention.

This article on Mark Twain and the Mississippi River has been tweeted many times (I saw it via @AnnEssippi).  There’s some interesting insight here, particularly about the very complex roles slavery and abolitionism played in Twain’s early life.  Other vignettes add more detail to some of the more common “broad brush” historical knowledge of the River, “Mississippi River 201″ if you will: more advanced than the intro level, but not really expert.  This is as it should be; Smithsonian is a literate, general interest magazine and a good source for many substantial topics.

Orion magazine’s project on “reimagining infrastructure” offers many reasons to click on the site, the materials, and to keep up as the project develops.  Infrastructure is one of those seemingly-wonky words to actually describes stuff we really depend on like water and sewer systems, the electrical power grid, and roads.  The fact is, we built most of these systems at various points in the 20th century and haven’t thought about them since, except when they fail.  Nothing lasts forever, of course, and when we rebuild or improve these systems it is imperative that we do so with new insights and perspectives. The project and magazine can be accessed through @Orion_magazine.

Minnesota Public Radio’s Ground Level project (@MPRGroundLevel)  continues to explore complex and vitally important issues relating to water in Minnesota.  The most recent post directly takes on the question of why not divert the Mississippi River (or the St. Croix River) to refill White Bear Lake.  Once you’ve read through that, study the remaining five or six questions posed in the blog; they’re critical to understanding water and its future in this state.

Finally, some good news this week:  water flow is restored to the Colorado River Delta.  Learn all about it, and see some beautiful and very telling photographs, in this article from National Geographic Daily News.  Link was from @americanrivers.

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
Investigate our web site and visit us at Facebook and on Twitter.

Visit River Futures for more information on the student competition to display works at Northrop Hall in April, 2014.