River Talk

November 2009 Archives

The work of reconnecting communities to the Mississippi River has parallels across the country, indeed, around the world.  In the United States, a group of 14 rivers were designated "American Heritage Rivers" in 1998.   The Mississippi has two designations, for the Upper and the Lower, to go with other significant rivers such as the Hudson, the New, the Cuyahoga, and the St. Johns.  American Heritage Rivers vary widely in size from the largest river on the continent (the Mississippi) to one of the smallest in the country (the Hanalei, in Hawaii).

We'll have more to say in future posts about the American Heritage River program, but to start with the basics, each designated river proposed a work plan consisting of actions in three areas:  environmental protection, heritage preservation, and community development.  The river communities--for the program was about river communities, which often, but not always, meant local governments--worked with a federal official known as a "river navigator" to identify opportunities for funding and program support, assistance with planning, and opportunities to enhance local capacity to achieve the goals of the work plans. 

The American Heritage River program celebrated its tenth year last year, and is making every effort to solidify and expand on the success stories that have been written across the country.  The tricky part is combining community development, environmental protection, and heritage preservation into a package that truly enhances the community and the river that it depends on.  We haven't always seen things in this integrated manner, but if we're going to thrive on our rivers for the next century or more, we're going to have to.  From the Hanalei to the Hudson, American Heritage Rivers are showing the way forward.

Young people from disadvantaged communities within the Twin Cities have been involved in restoration of Mississippi River natural areas for years through programs of the Community Design Center of Minnesota.  The long-standing Green Team program in St. Paul brings together youth from the city's Hmong, Hispanic, African-American communities with gardeners and nonprofit restoration ecologists to clear invasive vegetation species and replant areas of the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary.  In 2008, the Green team concept expanded to Minneapolis, where youth worked with staff from the National Park Service Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, and the Mississippi Watershed Management Organization to begin ecological restoration work at the Father Hennepin Bluffs Park, located on the east side of St. Anthony Falls.

Ceramic artist Anna Metcalfe, a graduate student earning her MFA at the University of Minnesota, approached project coordinators in early summer with a new idea: why not ask the program's members to draw and write their "river story" on paper outlines of boat shapes, which Metcalfe would then fire into a series of "story boats," each illustrating an individual's expressive relationship to the Mississippi River?  The coordinators agreed that the expressive opportunity offered by the story boat project provided the students a chance to reflect in a different way about their evolving relationship with the river that they had been working with all summer.  Metcalfe held workshops for both the Minneapolis and St. Paul teams, collected their drawings and writings, and fired a series of clay boats, nearly 60 in all.

Toward the end of the summer, students had the opportunity to see their boats as artistic objects, co-created between themselves and Metcalfe.  Many of the drawings were exquisite, and the stories quite moving accounts of the students' ongoing emotional and personal attachment to the River. This is just one example of the transformative work that can take place when a bright student, active community partners, and engaged teens all work together.

Drawing River Stories

The process begins with the program's members drawing and writing their own personal "river story" on paper outlines of boat shapes.

Story Boats by Anna Metcalfe

Metcalfe then fired the stories into a series of "story boats".

Story Boats and the Stone Arch Bridge

Metcalfe held workshops for both Minneapolis and St. Paul teams, collected their drawings and writings, and fired a series of clay boats, nearly sixty in all.

The Story Boats in the River

Toward the end of the summer, in 2008, students had the opportunity to see their boats as artistic objects, co-created between themselves and Metcalfe.

Images courtesy of Anna Metcalfe.

We believe that the University of Minnesota is the only large, comprehensive university located directly on one of the major rivers of the world (The Mississippi keeping company, in this respect, with the Amazon, the Nile, the Yangtze, the Congo, etc.).  Furthermore, we are virtually certain that the U of M is the only comprehensive university located in a national park.
So what?
Answering that question occupies much of the effort of the River Life Program and will be, in one form or another, one of the recurring themes of this blog.  But for now, let me use an upcoming public event as an example of one of the things that it can mean to be a university on a river.
Map of the Gorge of the Mississippi River
On December 3 at 4:00, the regular "Thursdays at Four" series hosted by the University's Institute for Advanced Study will feature "Imagining the River:  the Mississippi Gorge."  During this event, which will feature presentations from two scholars associated with the University and two who are not, we will examine possible futures for the Mississippi gorge from a number of angles.  We'll hear from a scientist who is near completion of a study of the feasibility of ecological restoration in the gorge.  We'll hear from two artists--one from the University and one a well-known community artist--and learn their visions for this place.  And we'll hear from one of the Commissioners of the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, the public entity that perhaps owns more of the gorge land than any other.  The gorge, for those of you not from the Twin Cities, is that reach of the Mississippi located between St. Anthony Falls and the junction with the Minnesota.  The steep-walled bluffs and narrow floodplain mark this as the only "true" gorge on the entire length of the Mississippi.
I don't know what the speakers will come up with on December 3.  If you're in the neighborhood, you're invited to come by and listen.  I'll post a comment or two afterwards, I am sure.  But I'm also sure of this:  one of the defining characteristics of being a "university of the river" is that we talk with community members, not just to them, that we listen as much as or more than we talk, and that we orient our teaching, learning, and research as much for the benefit of the broader community as for ourselves.

The River Runs through All of Us

Many of us work on improving the Mississippi's water quality, or on bringing more people to the water.  For some communities along the river, it is becoming their "front door," after generations of being treated as the back door or mud room.
For many eastern Dakota, the Mississippi is simply home, the place of their origin. Created by Dakota media artist Mona Smith the piece speaks powerfully and elegantly:  "we will always be here."

Voices such as these should be heard by all who want a "river experience," and a collaboration of Twin Cities-based organizations is working toward just that goal.  Staff from the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, Wilderness Inquiry and the Mississippi River Fund are working together on something called the Urban Wilderness Canoe Adventure.
A signature element of the Adventure will be learning from Dakota people about Dakota relations to the river and the region.
The river may run through all of us, but I think it is fair to say that it runs more deeply in some than others.
Boats in the Mississippi River Gorge

This blog is one of the primary products of River Life, a program of the University of Minnesota's Institute on the Environment (IonE).  We hope that it initiates thoughtful conversation on the myriad problems faced by planners, scientists, designers, programmers--indeed, all of the professionals who dedicate their work to establishing a sustainable Mississippi River.

So who are "we"?  River Life's programs are managed primarily by staff, students, and faculty at the University of Minnesota, in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul.  The Twin Cities are the first major metropolitan area located along the Mississippi River in its 2,350 mile descent from Lake Itasca in the Minnesota north woods to the Gulf of Mexico.  The University is a large, research- and teaching-oriented comprehensive university, with nearly 50,000 students enrolled in over a dozen separate colleges.  The University is also home to dozens, if not hundreds, of specialized institutes, centers, and research groups.  Taken together, the University of Minnesota includes pretty much any academic or professional specialty that would be needed to understand a large river like the Mississippi, the watershed surrounding the river, and how to move the river, watershed, and the millions of people living in the region toward sustainability.

So the Mississippi is our "home" river and the stretch of the river in the Twin Cities is our "lab," where we examine first-hand the processes that make up the intersection of river and city.  Here, where complex biological and physical systems encounter complex human systems, is one of the leading battlegrounds, if you will, in the global human effort to live well on the earth.

We are more likely to report on developments in our most immediate neighborhood, or along the Mississippi, simply because we know that work better.  But we are also making a concerted effort to "listen in" on river restoration conversations from around the world.  We believe that healthy urban rivers depend on healthy cities, and vice versa, so you'll hear about efforts to establish urban sustainability here also. 

Our goal is to promote the exchange of information, and to leave our readers knowing more about how they can do their work better.  We hope that our readers will also be contributors to the blog, and the associated web sites that we are developing, so we invite you to register, to comment, and to let us know what you're doing that you think others might find informative.

Welcome to River Talk!

Welcome to River Talk, the blog of the River Life Program, at the University of Minnesota's Institute on the Environment!

Look to this space for comments and reflections on the subject of sustainability along the Mississippi River and in the watershed.

Those are awfully big topics, so we'll try to keep our observations relatively short and to the point, mindful that everyone these days has a lot to do and not much time in which to do it.

We'll be back shortly with more to say on who "we" are, what our mission is, how we go about our work, and what we hope for from this blog.

Welcome to the conversation--stay tuned!

-Pat Nunnally

  The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author(s) and not necessarily
  of the Institute on the Environment/University of Minnesota.