University of Minnesota
University of Minnesota

Bears don’t read boundary signs: environmental history in/of the north land

An interesting post on a blog of early Canadian history reminds us (again) of how recently we have put in place structures we now think of as “inevitable” or “permanent.”

In the 18th century, as Britain and France were figuring how how to deal with their colonial ambitions in the St. Lawrence River valley, reports of “bear years” and “squirrel years” complicated nationalist efforts to “fix” boundaries.  Periodically, large numbers of black bears moved south out of Quebec, reaching into Massachusetts territory, where they excited and alarmed settlers.  Other years, the migrants were thousands upon thousands of black squirrels.  In all cases, the shifting numbers of animals were accompanied by movements of indigenous hunters, which, of course, complicated efforts to figure out where these populations “belonged,” which crown, if any they were “subject” to, etc.

These reports are interesting and fun to read about in their own right (to me, at least) but they also remind us that our tenure on these lands and waters is relatively recent.  Underneath our territorial lines and roadways, our “property” boundaries, lies a still-living continent of land and water. We would do well to remember this.

#TBT: Headwaters Dams on the Mississippi River

In the dead of winter, the Mississippi River in the Twin Cities appears sluggish, barely moving under a thin sheet of ice or snow.  Water continues to course over St. Anthony Falls, certainly, and the patterns of ice and falling water provide beautiful studies for those hardy enough to go outside and study them closely.

Over a century ago, the river would often hardly flow at all in winter, with precipitation falling as snow that stayed put where it fell rather than running off into the river.  Low flows were a problem for millers at St. Anthony, of course, since the mills operated on a combination of hydropower and electricity generated through other means.  Beginning in the early 1880s, the Army Corps of Engineers constructed dams on several of the headwaters lakes on the Mississippi River, holding back water and releasing it during autumn and early winter to allow a steady supply of water at the Falls.

MNopedia, the online encyclopedia of Minnesota history developed by the Minnesota Historical Society, has an informative article on the headwaters dams.  The article mentions, but does not emphasize, the fact that the dams flooded villages and rice beds that had been inhabited and used by Ojibwe people, and that disputes over compensation and eventual relocation added to the whole long sordid history of treaty dealings between the United States and Indian nations.

The point of bringing these matters up is that we often have to understand developments far afield, and well in the past, to fully grasp what is going on immediately in front of us.  The water flowing over the concrete apron at St. Anthony today is the result of dozens, if not hundreds, of contingent, specific decisions made at remote times and places.  It’s a truism to historians, but a revelation to many others that “things didn’t have to turn out the way they did.”  By the same token, our future courses are not inevitable either.

We Are Water: Water/Ways Goes to Lanesboro

Of course, in a literal sense, we ARE water: some 70% of our body is water.  Minnesotans often talk about their love of water as a distinguishing state characteristic: more boat and fishing licenses per capita than any other state (so I’m told), strong nonprofit advocacy around many different water concerns, powerful governance and advocacy by lake associations.

But what do Minnesotans really think about the water in their lives?

The highly popular Water/Ways exhibit opened in its fifth location, Lanesboro MN, on Saturday and once again the combination of the Smithsonian Institution’s traveling “Museum on Main Street” exhibit with a series of displays from Minnesota state agencies is inspiring over a month of local programming.  Efforts are coordinated by Lanesboro Arts, with a calendar and more information found here.

This year is Governor Dayton’s “Year of Water Action” so we’ll be hearing a lot more about agency activities to build a water ethic, and how a water ethic can materially help create a landscape of cleaner rivers and streams.  One of the virtues of Water/Ways is the development of a story map for each of the host communities, where local citizens speak their mind about the water that is important to their lives.

It would be worthwhile to make a study of what can be learned from these diverse perspectives, and what additional questions have yet to be answered.  What are “ordinary citizens” talking about that policy specialists and scientific wonks are overlooking?  What are the specialists concerned about that has not yet made it into the awareness of “regular folks”? Whose voices do we hear often, and who is not heard?

Stay tuned…we’ll be exploring these questions further.

#TBT: Chicago, 1908, Water

November 3, 2016Patrick NunnallyThrowback ThursdayComments Off on #TBT: Chicago, 1908, Water

Some of us have heard a lot about Chicago and 1908 over the past few weeks, that year being, until last night, the most recent time the Cubs won the World Series.

Here, in honor of last night’s win, is a view of the city from that year.  Notice parkland along the lake, and also the contrast between the armature of parks laid out for the 1892 World’s Fair, all in rectilinear patterns, and the fact that rivers are not included in the park system.  The north branch of the Chicago River, to the right, appears more or less to go through the city on it’s “natural” course.  By contrast, the south branch already shows signs of being re-engineered to carry waste away from Lake Michigan and down the Illinois River to the Mississippi.

Of course, there’s a LOT more that could be said about that little bit of folly!


Photo from

Announcing Open Rivers Issue 4: “Interventions”

November 2, 2016Patrick NunnallyProgram & AnnouncementsComments Off on Announcing Open Rivers Issue 4: “Interventions”

We just published our 4th issue of Open Rivers: Rethinking the Mississippi.  It is accessible at the journal’s web site; pasted below is our Introduction to the issue.

For as long as people have been living with rivers, we have been changing them.  Put up a levee to keep water away from where we don’t want it. Build a canal to move water to where we do want it.  Put up a dam to stop floods, or generate water power.  Over millennia, the possibilities have been endless.

More recently, though, we have started something new: intervening in rivers to undo some of the changes we have previously made.  My review of a couple of programs across the country gives a broad context for what has become a growing pattern of dam removal and alteration.

Close to home, the Upper St. Anthony Lock was closed in June 2015.  That decision led to a study that asked: just what do we know about how the river’s biological and physical systems are behaving at this point, now that the dam has closed? Can we establish some scientific baseline data so that we can begin to monitor how the river behaves now that the lock will not reopen?

Some answers to these questions are detailed in Jane Mazack’s feature article “The Once and Future River.”  Fellow scientists Jessica Kozarek and Carrie Jennings also contribute perspectives on the sorts of insights that come from detailed studies of particular river reaches.

Unfortunately, often rivers make the news through their destructive capacity.  Last month’s Hurricane Matthew unleashed torrents of rain, storm surge and other watery mayhem on the lowlying areas in eastern North Carolina.  In our Issue 2, published last spring, Richard M. Mizelle Jr. wrote about the racial dimensions of flooding in this landscape; we reprint his article here with a head note connecting to coverage of the recent floods.

Every issue of Open Rivers contains shorter pieces covering particular aspects of the study and understanding of rivers, and this one of course is no exception.  Laurie Moberg explores what we can learn from successive historic photographs of the site that now contains Minneapolis’ Upper Harbor Terminal, a landscape sure to change now that barge traffic has ceased.  Maxyne Friesen writes about how it felt to be an undergraduate student researcher on the bigger river study that Mazack led.  Tim Frye reviews recent scholarship on rivers in Latin America. Mona Smith reminds us that St. Anthony Falls contains much more than our scientific studies can ever understand.

All of which is to serve as a reminder for one of our basic principles: scientific study is necessary, but not sufficient, in generating the knowledge and perspectives that we need in order to plan for sustainable, inclusive futures for our relationships with rivers.


Happy reading!

#TBT: The Harahan Bridge in Memphis: A Century of Crossings

October 27, 2016Patrick NunnallyThrowback ThursdayComments Off on #TBT: The Harahan Bridge in Memphis: A Century of Crossings

It’s cheating, I suppose, to post a Throwback Thursday blog where someone else did all the work, but I’m in Memphis today with the annual meeting of the Mississippi River Network.  So when I saw that the local paper, the Commercial Appeal, had put together a slide show of the Harahan Bridge over the years, the opportunity was too good to miss.

The Harahan Bridge was opened in 1916 to increase the rail capacity crossing the Mississippi at Memphis.  Over the years it carried cars and trucks as well, until the roadways closed in 1949.  The northern side roadway is being reconstructed as a bike-pedestrian facility that is expected to open, literally, any day now and to be part of a 10 mile system that will connect the downtowns of Memphis and West Memphis, AR.

When I worked as the Executive Director of Mississippi River Trail, Inc, connecting bike trail projects up and down the Mississippi River, a bike facility on the Harahan Bridge was considered a pipe dream, a fantasy in the “if only someday” category.  Looks like “someday” has arrived!

#TBT: What Does a 1930s ‘Redlining’ Map Show about Minneapolis?

October 20, 2016Patrick NunnallyThrowback ThursdayComments Off on #TBT: What Does a 1930s ‘Redlining’ Map Show about Minneapolis?

The short answer is “lots.”  The newest project from American Panorama, “Mapping Inequality,” digitizes maps created for the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) between 1935-1940.  Of course, color-coded credit-worthiness and risk is not a neutral analysis; HOLC maps and their biases have been evidence for countless studies examining 20th century patterns of housing discrimination, uneven urban investment, and other spatial developments in America’s largest cities.

The Introduction to the American Panorama site contains a more thorough treatment of the HOLC maps and their significance.

For us, committed as we are to understanding the “water landscape” of the Twin Cities, the Minneapolis map is a gold mine of spatial information.  Sure enough, much of the Minneapolis riverfront is cross-hatched showing “business and industrial” land use.  Radiating outward, though, are broad swaths of red “hazardous” and yellow “definitely declining” blocks.  Only a small part of the Mississippi River-adjacent city shows as green “best” or blue “still desirable.”

Creeks feed into rivers, though, and all surface waters are connected, so it’s important to look at the areas around Minnehaha Creek and the Chain of Lakes south and west of downtown.  These areas show most of the city’s “green zones,” which is no surprise to historians of the city’s park system: building infrastructure for attractive neighborhoods by protecting water bodies was a big part of what the Minneapolis Park Board intended during its earliest decades.

There is much more that can, and I hope will, be said about these maps.  As always, comments are welcome, and if a comment/analysis proves extensive enough, we can post it as another blog entry.

Voices and Images from #NoDAPL Standing Rock Action

In case you have been under a rock for the past few weeks, you have heard about the actions taken by a growing number of Native people in North Dakota, standing up against an oil pipeline that threatens vital water sources and sacred sites.  The work of the water protectors (not “protesters”) can be followed on Twitter through #NoDAPL.  Here is a link to a collection of the published articles on the subject.

In the (likely) event that you don’t have time to read everything on that list, I’m going to give you a highly selective sample of some of the richness that the #NoDAPL movement has generated.  I believe that all of the links offered below are from indigenous writers, photographers, and perspectives.

Jaida Grey Eagle created a series of images #StandWithStandingRock in September 2016.

Several members of the Standing Rock Sioux community offer particular reflections of their history with water in this place in a short video “Thank You for Listening.”

Nick Estes puts the Standing Rock action in a historical context that includes the Louisiana Purchase, a series of treaties with Lakota people, and the Pick-Sloan Act that created a series of impoundments on the Missouri and flooded Sioux communities including the people of Standing Rock.

Jen Deerinwater, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, offers “5 Things Every Nonnative Needs to Consider Before Visiting Standing Rock.”

As I said, this is a highly selective list, gathered from following Twitter accounts such as @AmericanIndian8, scholar/activist Kyle Powys White from Michigan State, and indigenous feminist Eve Tuck.  “Traditional” news media have been notably absent or unreliable, with a few well-known exceptions, which you will undoubtedly run across.

Listen, read, heed what is being said and shown.  Use these voices and images to start your own journey of learning and exploration.

#TBT: Student project on Possible River Futures

October 13, 2016Patrick NunnallyThrowback ThursdayComments Off on #TBT: Student project on Possible River Futures

Okay, I’m just having fun here, playing the concepts of “throwback Thursday” and “river futures” against each other.  The “throwback” part is that, six years ago, we worked with an extraordinary team of design students on a project called “Imagine the Mississippi.”  The “futures” question is that the students proposed 30 ideas that would allow people to get closer to, even touch, the water in the Central Minneapolis Riverfront area.

Lest you think the work of students is all fantasy and pie-in-the-sky, take a good look at what’s contained here.  Remember, this was done in 2010, before “River First” had even been thought of, much less developed and adopted as policy.  Nevertheless, Idea #1, “Hall Island Swimming Hole,” is now on the Minneapolis Park Board’s list of capital projects as a signature piece of the long term River First agenda.

Lovers of irony will appreciate Idea #6 “Upper Lock Pool,” which states “Because the Upper St. Anthony Lock is facing a possible closure in the next few decades…”  Wrong: the Upper Lock closed in 2015, but no one thought it would be that quick.  Who says students are living in “their own little world?”

Take a look at the ideas in “Imagine the Mississippi”: what will a Throwback Thursday in 2026 be looking at and saying “how did they know that would happen?”  I’m hoping for Idea #5 “St. Anthony Falls Restoration.”

What Stories Should be Told at the River?

October 11, 2016Patrick NunnallyRiver MeaningComments Off on What Stories Should be Told at the River?

Because I’ve been involved in Mississippi River work for a long time, people (sometimes) think I have something to add to their projects.  I had the pleasure of spending a couple of hours last week with two people who are working on developing interpretation and planning ideas for parts of the riverfront in Minneapolis.  It’s always fun talking with folks who care about the same things I do, and this was certainly no exception, but they caught me up short with this question: What would I want the interpretation on the Minneapolis riverfront to convey?

Never at a loss for words, I warmed to the task quickly, after some initial hesitation.  I’m actually not sure I gave them what they were looking for, since I’m not necessarily inclined to name specific people, events or facts that everyone visiting the riverfront should learn.  We’ve mis-taught history as a “march of facts” for far too long.

So here, in no particular order and with much explanation left out, are the things that I think riverfront interpretation and education should convey to the public:

  • This is a place of converging biological, physical and human dynamics and stories;
  • This is a place that has been valued for millennia by people who are still here;
  • The making of this place by industrial and urban processes follows patterns common to other places but also unique to here;
  • The place that is made here does not serve everyone equally;
  • Understanding this place now means knowing its past and its possible futures;
  • Understanding this place now means understanding upstream and downstream;
  • Understanding this place means understand that it is dynamic, that it carries various things from one place to another, it is a place of flowing as well as a place of stasis;
  • Nothing here is accidental.

I hope to hear from some of you about what I have left out or what I have perhaps over-emphasized.  I’m certain I’ll be writing more about this in the days/weeks ahead.

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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.