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New Visions for the Mississippi River Gorge: That Didn’t Take Long, Did It?

On Sunday, five days after the closing of the Upper St. Anthony Falls lock, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune ran a commentary piece inviting readers to imagine a “wilder future” for the Mississippi River gorge.  Illustrated with evocative drawings, the argument proposes that a “wild” Mississippi River restoration might make economic sense, make the area an even more distinctive destination, and keep invasive aquatic species such as carp at bay.

Well, maybe.  And, of course, maybe not.  It’s simply too early to tell what would be feasible, what the costs would be, what the benefits would be, and who would actually receive those benefits.  The idea is worth a look, though, and worth very careful analysis and study.  It’s not sufficient any more to say “we can’t think about restoration in the gorge because of the commercial navigation requirements there.”  The commercial navigation is gone; the question now is “What should the future gorge be?”

People seriously interested in this question should start with this report, by University of Minnesota scientist Chris Lenhart.  Lenhart’s study provides a necessary first scan at some of the key scientific questions that will need answers before the sort of system manipulation that is envisioned can take place.  What, for example, should be done with the million cubic yards of sediment (more or less) trapped behind the Ford Dam?

It’s fun to envision a Mississippi river gorge full of swirling whitewater.  That vision is closer now than it was two years ago.  If the vision of a “wilder future” is to gain any traction toward becoming real, then the conversations should be careful, intentional, and starting soon.

Upper St. Anthony Lock Closes: a Momentous Occasion

Since 1963 industrial and recreational river traffic has been able to bypass St. Anthony Falls, passing through a lock managed by the Corps of Engineers and opening the river stretch above the falls to commercial navigation.  The area, already heavily industrial in its land use since the mid 19th century, adapted development patterns to a variety of uses that took advantage of the river’s navigation capacity.

The lock never really carried as much traffic as anticipated, though, and the looming threat of invasive carp coming from downriver and potentially infecting northern Minnesota waters led to the formal closing of the lock this week.  As of midnight, Wednesday June 10, the lock will no longer open for regular traffic.

No one really knows what’s next, although as usual opinions are many and varied.  Representatives of the navigation industry point out that the material they carry has to get above the falls somehow, and predict thousands of extra trucks on Twin Cities roadways.  Advocates for environmental restoration applaud the closing as an important step in the continued revitalization of the urban river.  Staff at several local, state, and federal agencies are planning the future use of at least part of the facility.  A state commission has funded a study (which includes participation from River Life) into the ecological and hydrological impacts of the closure.

While the closing itself is significant–any action that “undoes” a 50 year pattern has to be seen as such–we don’t yet know if it is historic.  To me, if the lock closes and nothing much else happens, then this won’t turn out to be a very historic shift.  Time will tell.

In the meantime, there are two essential sources of information to be consulted.

This map and flyer from the MN Department of Natural Resources advises recreational boaters (i.e. canoes and kayaks) on how to get around the falls.  Vital safety tips.

Minnesota Public Radio continues to demonstrate the great potential of digital journalism with this very rich piece about the lock, how it works, its history, and why invasive carp are a sufficient threat to warrant closing.  This piece is an essential first step for people wanting to learn about the issue.

Stay tuned: I’m sure we’ll have more to say in the weeks and months ahead.

Living with the Mississippi: The River as a Resource

Living with the Mississippi is a blog series that examines the history of the river flats communities and what it means to almost literally live on the Mississippi River. Follow along to learn more about life on the Mississippi prior to luxury condos and clean river water, before the riverfront was considered a desirable place to live.

The Mississippi River is one of our country’s major natural resources, not only providing us with transportation routes and countless recreation opportunities, but also supplying over 18 million people with drinking water.[i] Though the river’s water was historically polluted, the residents at the river flats found that the Mississippi was a resource in other ways.

“Polish American girl and man with a wagon searching the Mississippi River shoreline near Bohemian Flats, Minneapolis. Photographer Unknown, taken in approximately 1900. Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.

“Polish American girl and man with a wagon searching the Mississippi River shoreline near Bohemian Flats, Minneapolis. Photographer Unknown, taken in approximately 1900. Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.

The river was used to transport lumber from the saw mills upstream, which the residents at the Bohemian Flats were quick to capture. The WPA Guide to the Bohemian Flats notes that “They gathered the billets of wood, mill ends, “dead heads” (entire logs), and other sawmill waste… ‘Slabs, shingles, strips, blocks, boards, and sometimes entire logs can be seen hurrying down the river.’”[ii] Photographs of the flats show piles of wood stacked against the walls of the houses, which could have been used to construct or repair their homes; the residents of the flats might have even sold the wood for extra income.

“Women Gathering Driftwood from the River on the Bohemian Flats.” Photographer unknown, taken prior to 1930. Courtesy of the Hennepin County Library.

“Women Gathering Driftwood from the River on the Bohemian Flats.” Photographer unknown, taken prior to 1930. Courtesy of the Hennepin County Library.

The WPA guide also notes that wood wasn’t the only thing the residents of the Bohemian Flats rescued from the Mississippi: “Oranges and bananas, dumped into the river by wholesale fruit houses, sometimes bobbed about in the current. “We saw a child eating one of those bananas from the river when we first came,” an old resident recalls,” and we thought he would die. The whole place was in a panic until we found out that everyone ate them here. Until I came to America I had never seen a banana.””.[iii]

At Swede Hollow, the residents would catch fish in Phalen Creek until the stream became too polluted,[iv] and it seems likely the residents along the Mississippi would have done so as well. Additionally, the river fed the flour, wool, and saw mills at the St. Anthony Falls, many of which provided jobs for the residents at the Bohemian Flats. Though the real estate at the river was some of the worst in the city, the Mississippi still had a few benefits to offer its residents.

[i] “Water Quality.” 1 Mississippi, 2011. http://1mississippi.org/water-quality/

[ii]Works Progress Administration. The Bohemian Flats. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1941.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Yekaldo, Ralph. This is about life in Swede Hallow [sic]: things I remember and the people I grew up with. Photocopy of Handwritten Autobiography kept at the Minnesota Historical Society, 1987.

Healing, Place, Water: Three Concepts that Fit

I was fortunate to be at a remarkable event last week, the first All Partners” gathering of the Healing Place Collaborative (HPC).  HPC is a Native-artist led initiative, but the participants are not all Native, nor are they all artists.  Instead, it seems that the common thread connecting all of us is a commitment to the multiple possibilities contained in the terms Healing, Place, and Water.

Put those terms together in varying combinations: We heal places; places heal us.  Water is healing, and also needs to be healed.  Places are defined by water, but also define the context that surrounds water.  Many possibilities; not soon exhausted.

I hesitate to start listing and naming individuals and organizations that were participating, for fear of leaving someone out and diminishing the richness of the ideas.  Go to the web site, follow the “About” link, and you’ll find an impressive array of talent, mission, and experience.  And that doesn’t even include everyone who participated last week!  Browse around the site; you’ll find lots to reflect on.

You’ll hear more from us about the HPC group; this is one of the most promising collective initiatives taking place that I know of.

But you won’t hear more from us for a while; we’re taking a break for a bit.  The campus is quiet with most students and nearly all faculty off doing other things.  We’ll be here most of the summer, and may post occasionally when there is something that particularly strikes us.  We’ll continue to be active on Twitter using @RiverLifeUMN.  More regular postings will resume after Labor Day.

Enjoy your summer–get out on the River!

 

“The River Is Our Future” A Post from the Sawyer Symposium

Last month we convened a symposium, “The Once and Future River: Imagining the Mississippi in an Era of Climate Change.”  Video coverage of the sessions is available here  and additional material is on the web site of the Institute for Advanced Study  as well.

The chairs of the various sessions during the symposium have written blog posts about their session, posts which we will run for consecutive days this week. This post is written by Jane Mazack, one of the two Graduate Fellows of the Sawyer Seminar.

As an aquatic ecologist, my work is based in the physicality of rivers. My field-collected data  quantify invertebrate communities, trout populations, and thermal patterns. But my work as a 2014-15 John E. Sawyer Seminar Graduate Fellow at the University of Minnesota has encouraged me to think beyond the quantitative. My research, while ecologically important, finds much of its broader significance in its context of climate change, its dissemination to the community, and its inclusion in broader narratives. My work with the seminar has made me reconsider the ways in which scientific knowledge is disseminated to and discussed with the broader public.

As part of the recent symposium “The Once and Future River: Imagining the Mississippi in an Era of Climate Change,” I moderated the final panel discussion, “River as Future.” Much of scientific research looking to the future is contextualized in the fact that climate changes will change the physicality of the river itself. However, this concluding panel looked beyond the physicality of the river to the narratives we tell, the relationships we are a part of, and the decisions that we make. The work of the symposium, and that of the year-long Sawyer Seminar, has been rooted in the premise that our narratives of the river must change along with the changing climate.

The four speakers on this final panel provided diverse perspectives on how we consider the future of the river. John Anfinson, Superintendent of the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, emphasized the key roles of triggers and rupture points in facilitating new thinking and management on the river. Kat Hayes, Associate Professor in Anthropology, considered plans for the future as necessarily drawing on a broad archive of knowledge. Pat Nunnally, director of RiverLife, proposed that “River as Future” would be better stated as “The River is Our Future.” Kate Brauman, scientist at the Institute on the Environment, looked at the river under the lenses of equilibrium, flux, and transience. But despite the diversity in backgrounds and discussions, one thread was common to the thoughts of each panelist: the future of the river depends on us. Collaboration, inclusivity, and a multi-faceted understanding of the river will be essential to its future.

If you weren’t able to attend the symposium, I hope you will take the time to watch the video of this panel and discussion and join in our ongoing conversations. The river is our future. What future do we want to see?

Video of the full session is available here.  Scroll down the page until you get to the session you are looking for.

On Science and the Past, with a Nod to Davy Crockett: A Post from the Sawyer Symposium

Some tales about the Mississippi River region are well known and are true, some are well known and are fiction, and some of the most important are true, and have been well known but are barely remembered.

Conevery Bolton Valencius, a historian of science from the University of Massachusetts, Boston, presented an entertaining and informative talk about the last kind of tale: the New Madrid Earthquakes of 1811-12. Her talk kicked off the final day of the “Once and Future River” symposium by asking us to think about what we know, what we think we know, and what difference the difference makes.

To begin at the beginning, the New Madrid earthquakes violently rearranged the landscape of the river corridor south of the junction with the Ohio.  Not only were trees flattened for miles, and the river and its lakes and tributaries reordered, but nascent settlement patterns on the frontier of white settlement were disrupted as well.  New Madrid went from being a thriving regional trade center with many economic interactions between native people and incoming whites to a backwater community.  Native people lost what foothold they had retained in the region and fled west.

Within a generation, the earthquakes, which had been felt as far away as Boston, remained so well known that Davy Crockett’s autobiography could include casual references to chasing bears down into the fissures in the ground left after the quakes.  But shortly after that, by the time of the Civil War, certainly, the earthquake history had all but disappeared.

Valencius argues that, in part, this was due to the press of other events.  Significant Civil War battles were fought along the Mississippi River in the immediate vicinity of the quakes.  But as is the case with most good history, there appear to be other elements at work as well.  As the region became more and more a rural “backwater” the accounts handed down through families and recorded in personal data collections such as probate records became less “scientific,” more “anecdotal.”  Throughout most of the 20th century, science was seen as the purview of men with instruments (and they were mostly men for the vast majority of the 20th century) conveying knowledge that was otherwise inaccessible.

This is in many ways the real story Valencius has to share: what counts as scientific knowledge, who creates that knowledge, what is discounted in this celebration of “scientific” knowledge, and who is discounted as their knowledge is marginalized?  That’s a lot of questions, but they may turn out to be among the central questions of our time.

For example, and this is a case that Valencius only alluded to, what are we to make of the debates about the “science”  concerning climate change?  Few any more doubt that climate change is real; the debates are over the causes and the actions that should be taken.  The consequences of these debates are enormous, and we should not be surprised at how the battle lines have been drawn and how fiercely they are contested.  Still, though, we can be taken aback when basic scientific facts, or, here’s the kicker, what we take for basic scientific facts, are so hotly disputed.  As the saying goes “You are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts.”

Valencius’ talk, available by scrolling down through this link, does what good scholarship ought to do: have us think in a new way about something we thought we understood.  It’s a bonus–for me at least–that the talk was presented so well and had the Mississippi at its core.

 

Living with the Mississippi: Upper Levee

Living with the Mississippi is a blog series that examines the history of the river flats communities and what it means to almost literally live on the Mississippi River. Follow along to learn more about life on the Mississippi prior to luxury condos and clean river water, before the riverfront was considered a desirable place to live.

A trip to Cossetta’s in St. Paul provides an idea of life was at the Upper Levee, St. Paul’s historic Little Italy. Covering the walls of the restaurant are photographs of smiling Italians, shabby storefronts, and flooded streetscapes. The centerpiece is a model of the Upper Levee community, each of the houses painted and arranged along the three main streets, Upper Levee, Mill, and Loreto. Before the Upper Levee was known as Little Italy, however, it was St. Paul’s Bohemian Flats, home to recent Czech and East German immigrants.[i] This was a notorious area of town, filled with recently arrived single men, and was constantly featured in the newspapers for the drunken fights and altercations between residents.[ii] As these men made enough money for their families to join them, they moved up to the West 7th Area, vacating the flats for the Italian community. By 1910, the community’s population was three-quarters Italian, and would remain so until the residents were evicted in 1959.[iii]

Model of the Upper Levee in Cossetta’s Restaurant in St. Paul. Taken by Rachel Hines in June 2014.

Model of the Upper Levee in Cossetta’s Restaurant in St. Paul. Taken by Rachel Hines in June 2014.

“Shepard Road and the Upper Levee, St. Paul” Photographer Unknown, Taken between 1950-1959. Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.

“Shepard Road and the Upper Levee, St. Paul” Photographer Unknown, Taken between 1950-1959. Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.

The residents of the Upper Levee truly formed a community, a place where members looked out for one another. Many had emigrated from the same area of Italy, Campobasso, and, upon arrival in St. Paul, traveled straight to the Upper Levee and never left.[iv] The welfare of the community was so important to the residents at the Upper Levee that, in 1931, they asked University of Minnesota student Alice Sickels to conduct a study on the community; it was the start of the depression, many young men were unemployed, and there was a high rate of juvenile arrests. The residents hoped that Sickels, a graduate student in Social Work, would find ways to keep these young men out of trouble and aid in planning programs for the new community center.[v] This report, which analyzes statistics on nationality, immigration, voting, religion, community participation, citizenship, and literacy, in addition to delinquency, provides a rare look inside one of the river flats communities, as most of the documents about these settlements are sensationalized newspaper stories or nostalgic memories from former residents. “It would have been a normal evolutionary process for the Italians in this neighborhood to give place to the more recently arrived Mexicans, as is happening among the Italians in the Phalen Creek and the Jewish immigrants in the Central Community House districts in St. Paul, but there is a sense of permanent village life among the homeowning group of older inhabitants which has held some of the foreign-born residents there in spite of the fact that their children would have enjoyed moving into the better neighborhoods which they could well have afforded.”
–Alice Sickels, page 35

Sickels noted that the neighborhood was “almost a transplanted Southern Italian village built by men who migrated from old world towns.”[vi] Village ties were so important to the Italian immigrants that 30 of the community’s 50 marriages were between people from the same town. The residents maintained traditional Italian values by keeping close family ties, establishing their own restaurants and taverns in the West 7th area, and attending the local Catholic Church, Holy Redeemer, where mass was said in Italian.

Though the residents of the Upper Levee had the means to move to a better neighborhood, they continued to remain in the community. Sickels noted that though it would have been natural for the Italians to be replaced by the newer Mexican immigrant population, there seemed to be a sense of permanence about the community.[vii] After the flood of 1952, the residents at the Upper Levee suffered extreme property damage, and the city of St. Paul decided the settlement’s location was too hazardous. An urban renewal and relocation plan was implemented by the Housing and Redevelopment Authority, and the Upper Levee residents were dispersed throughout the city. However, despite the unfavorable conditions at the flats, the community still resisted the move.[viii] The relocation plan failed to keep the community members together, placing them in homes similar to their own but surrounded by unfamiliar neighbors, disrupting the sense of unity maintained by this small settlement.

Further Reading:

Footnotes:

[i] 1880 United State Census, Minneapolis, Ramsey County, Minnesota. www.archive.org
[ii] See articles like: “Murder on Bohemia Flats.” Minneapolis Tribune 30 June 1888. “Murder in St. Paul.” Minneapolis Tribune 10 December 1888. And “The Result of Beer Drinking.” Minneapolis Tribune 21 February 1890.
[iii] 1910-1940 United State Census, Minneapolis, Ramsey County, Minnesota. www.archive.org
[iv] Sickels, Alice L. The Upper Levee Neighborhood: A Study of an Isolated Neighborhood of About One Hundred Italian Families in St. Paul, Minnesota. Thesis (M.A.): University of Minnesota, 1938.
[v] Ibid.
[vi] Ibid.
[vii] Ibid.
[viii] National Park Service. “Little Italy: A Floodplain Neighborhood.” http://www.nps.gov/miss/forteachers/upload/LittleItaly_30x40.pdf

“Living with the River: the Once and Future Mississippi” A Post from the Sawyer Symposium

Last month we convened a symposium, “The Once and Future River: Imagining the Mississippi in an Era of Climate Change.”  Video coverage of the sessions is available here  and additional material is on the web site of the Institute for Advanced Study as well.

The chairs of the various sessions during the symposium have written blog posts about their session, posts which we will run for consecutive days this week. This post is from Christopher Grenfell, an audience member at the “Thursdays at Four” session and undergraduate student in the Honors Seminar “Thursdays at Four.”

The session included three speakers plus a moderator, all speaking about “resilience” and the Mississippi River.  They were all interesting talks, although there was a lot of variation in what was said.

There is no question the Mississippi is in trouble.  Organisms dependent on the river slip closer to peril every day, as the gulf hypoxic zone grows to the size of Massachusetts.  At the same time, however, the Mississippi’s incredible biodiversity and resilience make it a champion among rivers.  No amount of damage to its ecosystem or flow will cause it to succumb.  It will always be here, but it will be different.

Rivers are absolutely essential to our survival.  Darlene St. Clair, a Native American studies professor at St. Cloud State University, talked about the Mississippi through a Dakota studies framework.  The Dakota define waterways as the lifeblood of mother Earth.  Through an ethic called “Mitakuye Owas’in,” roughly translated to “everything is my relative,” the Dakota feel a familial connection to the Mississippi and its ecosystem.  Our current society could learn a lot from this ethic, as we are just one of many species dependent on the river.  Unfortunately in today’s world it is impossible to study nature without studying human influence.  We are now the dominant source of change on Earth, and need to take responsibility.

Deborah Swackhamer, a professor of water resources and policy at the University of Minnesota, outlined three possible futures for the Mississippi.  The first was a bleak scenario where invasive carp dominate the river, water withdrawals reduce its flow, and recreation of any kind is impossible.  In this future we do nothing to stop the Mississippi’s decline, and it becomes merely a dumping ground for fertilizer and waste.  The second was a best-case scenario.  In this future the river supports a healthy and diverse fishery, it is possible to drink untreated water, and the gulf hypoxic zone ceases to exist.  Swackhamer was quick to point out that this scenario was a near impossibility, and offered her third scenario as the “future we can have.”  If we act now to reverse the damage we have caused, the Mississippi can support diverse life, its drinking water could be considered the best in the country, and the gulf dead zone could be reduced by 50%.

Pat Hamilton of the Science Museum of Minnesota addressed the Mississippi’s adaptive nature.  He defined resilience as the ability of a system to deliver goods and services while withstanding disruptive changes.  From this definition the Mississippi’s resilience is in trouble.  With an increase in pollution and invasive species, it will no longer be able to deliver, fish, drinking water, recreation, or transportation.  It will be viewed as the central United States dumping ground, transporting our waste to the sea.  He cited climate change as the Mississippi’s ultimate threat, and called upon world leaders to stem the growth of atmospheric pollutants that are contributing to global warming.

The Mississippi will exist long after we are gone.  But it is the state of its existence that determines our future.  Irreparable damage has already been done, however we can decide how much more has to occur.

Video of the session can be viewed here.

“From River as Image to River as Place” A Post from the Sawyer Symposium

Last month we convened a symposium, “The Once and Future River: Imagining the Mississippi in an Era of Climate Change.”  Video coverage of the sessions is available here and additional material is on the web site of the Institute for Advanced Study as well.

The chairs of the various sessions during the symposium have written blog posts about their session, posts which we will run for consecutive days this week.  The author of this post is Nenette Luarca-Shoaf, Postdoctoral Fellow of the Sawyer Seminar.

Art historians generally think about texts and objects much more than they do about place. We might analyze an artist’s process, the materials out of which something is made, and the meaning that is created by an artwork’s display and interpretation in various contexts. My work as the 2014-15 John E. Sawyer Seminar Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Minnesota has made it clear that the Mississippi has always been more than a line on a historical map or the setting for some of the most canonical paintings in American art. It has made me reconsider the ways in which the questions that I ask about nineteenth-century maps, paintings, and prints depicting the Mississippi River might be brought to bear on contemporary issues and be made to function within public life beyond the classroom or museum.

As part of the recent symposium “The Once and Future River: Imagining the Mississippi in an Era of Climate Change,” I chaired two panels: “River as Image” and “River as Place.” For the first, we screened Pare Lorentz’s 1938 New Deal film project, The River , an epic documentary about the deleterious effects of human agricultural and engineering efforts to shape the Mississippi. It was followed by five short videos curated by the Twin Cities-based art collaborative, Works Progress that are part of a project called Dear River.  Unlike the grand, sweeping narrative presented by Lorentz, the short films of Dear River tell a diverse set of narratives that invite viewers to reflect on their own personal, and often intimate, relationship with the Mississippi.

The organizers of the yearlong Mellon Sawyer Seminar have argued that the stories we tell about the river must necessarily change in an era of climate change. Much of what I research helped to create a largely celebratory and nationalist identity for the Mississippi River, one that is arguably still the dominant one in American culture. However, the speakers in the panel “River as Place” offered alternatives for understanding the river. Dr. Richard Mizelle’s project identifies limitations in traditional historical archives, exposing structures of power that silenced African American voices and dictated their movements during and after the 1927 Mississippi Flood. Through the Bdote Memory Map and Healing Place projects, Mona Smith and her collaborators weave together many voices to assert the centrality of indigenous history and belief to understanding Minnesota and the river. Shanai Matteson’s place-based, collaborative practice with Works Progress cuts across disciplinary and bureaucratic boundaries, uniting the modernist divide between art and science in taking an ecological approach to artmaking and community building.

I hope you will take the time to watch the video of this panel if you weren’t able to make it to the symposium. These projects reflect on the politics and ethics of studying a place where people continue to live and work, on which environmental crises have unfolded and will happen again, and where race, class, and power dictate access. They bring an awareness and understanding of the past but also provide models for how expression and creativity might be harnessed to tell the river’s stories in an uncertain future.

 

 

“River as Storied” A Post from the Sawyer Symposium

Last month we convened a symposium, “The Once and Future River: Imagining the Mississippi in an Era of Climate Change.”  Video coverage of the sessions is available here and additional material is on the web site of the Institute for Advanced Study  as well.

The chairs of the various sessions during the symposium have written blog posts about their session, posts which we will run for consecutive days this week.   The author of this post is Laurie Moberg, one of two Graduate Fellows of the John E. Sawyer Seminar.

We all tell stories: about our families, our pets, our vacations, our problems, our adventures, our experiences in the world. And we tell these stories for all sorts of reasons: to create connections to others, to inspire levity or gravity, to get advice or dispense it. These stories do more than report on our lives; through the stories we tell, we interpret and create our worlds.

In anthropology, this claim that we create the world in our words and stories is not a stretch. A key characteristic of the qualitative research process in anthropology is to listen to the stories people tell so that we might see the world in a new way through the narratives of others. This claim is also at the center of the work of the John E. Sawyer Seminar “Making the Mississippi: Formulating New Water Narratives” in the Institute for Advanced Study at the University of Minnesota this year. The year-long seminar has invited us to consider how our stories about the Mississippi River inflect not only our academic pursuits on campus, but the public and social lives of communities across the watershed. Citing the importance of narratives, the seminar explores the ways our varied stories have defined, changed, and entangled us with the Mississippi River and questions how we might collaboratively craft stories about and with the river to confront the uncertainties of global climate change into the future.

As a Graduate Fellow for the seminar, I had the pleasure of organizing and being a discussant for the panel “River as Frame” during the recent Sawyer Seminar Symposium “The Once and Future River: Imagining the Mississippi River in an Era of Climate Change.” While the symposium as a whole aggregated a diverse constellation of stories tied to the Mississippi, the presenters for this panel shared stories specifically to illustrate how we grapple with and define the Mississippi River given its immensity, variation, and material dynamism.

Based on her work with the Mississippi River Network, Jennifer Browning explained both the importance and complications of the River Citizens advocacy campaign; drawing people together across the incongruences of the watershed, the movement focuses on protecting the well-being of the river for the land, water, and people of the region despite differences of perspectives, experiences, and priorities. Encouraging all of us to become River Citizens and make a commitment to care for the Mississippi River no matter where we live, her story is one of collaboration, not only between varied human constituencies, but between people and the river as well.

Dr. Christopher Morris’ project demonstrates the limitations of historic scientific stories to engineer the Mississippi. As these scientific narratives centered on catchy words like “disturbance” or “equilibrium” gain the patina of expertise, they rationalize human behaviors toward the river. Yet Morris points out that our words to describe the river define our conduct toward it by constraining our imaginations and obscuring some of the river’s material capacities as well. His is a story of both human naïveté and hope: if our existing words prescribe the river inadequately, then perhaps different words can help us tell alternative stories that might remedy our limited and limiting understandings of the Mississippi.

Through both Dakota narratives with long oral histories and her own contemporary poetry, Dr. Gwen Westerman work invites us to see the river as a site of creation and to see ourselves as relatives of the natural world. Her story inspires us to reimagine the parameters of our relationships and responsibilities to the earth and to its other inhabitants, both human and nonhuman.

I encourage you to watch to the presentations in their entirety through the video recordings posted online. What I find most compelling from this panel is that each of the presentations demonstrates the power and importance of stories to design particular kinds of relationships with the Mississippi. Because of the immensity of the Mississippi River and the varied ways it is integrated into people’s lives – politically, socially, and physically – stories of the Mississippi are necessarily multiple and varied. Yet all these stories have real effects on the material and social world. The stories we tell about the Mississippi River are one way in which we embed the material world of the river into our social worlds. Our challenge is to intentionally consider what kinds of relationships we want with the river into the future and then to make sure we are telling the stories that get us there.

Contact Us!
Send us a note at rvrlife@umn.edu 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
The Once and Future River: Imagining the Mississippi in an Era of Climate Change
For more information about our John E. Sawyer Seminar Spring Symposium “The Once and Future River: Imagining the Mississippi in an Era of Climate Change” which took place at Northrop on April 8-10, 2015, please visit the symposium web page.