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5 Ways to Ford the Dam(n)ed Mississippi River

Samuel Clemens, that 19th-century documentarian of life on the Mississippi River, was only partially correct when he described the effect of daily steamboat arrivals on Hannibal, Missouri. “Every house and store pours out a human contribution, and all in a twinkling the dead town is alive and moving,” he would observe under the pen name Mark Twain, so chosen for its elegiac reference to the act of “marking twain”—measuring navigable depth—on the river he loved.

But for all the human contributions to the waterfront, the river has never been solely of human making. Pigs, cotton, and lumber piles crammed the 19th-century wharves springing from Twain’s pages; today, sedimentation, eddies, and roiling floodwaters make all too real the dogged presence of the non-human for residents of the Mississippi’s riverside towns. “It’s going to get ugly,” local county official Chalen Tatum warned Hannibal residents in January of 2016; winter and spring floods this year, affecting 13 Midwestern and Gulf Coast states, have proven the multimillion dollar extent of that ugliness.

So how should one study both human and non-human life on a river? How can thinking at the scale of a watershed shape the questions we ask as scholars and teachers? On May 15, 2016, faculty and students from the UW-Madison Center for Culture, History, and Environment and the Rachel Carson Center in Munich will set out for a six-day “Place-Based Workshop” that will let them ask precisely these questions. Floating, walking, driving, and talking their way down the Mississippi River between Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin and St. Louis, Missouri, they’ll cross disciplinary lines and state lines to expand their understanding of Twain’s beloved geological form.

Most of you readers, of course, won’t be able to attend that workshop. So how should you see the dam(n)ed Mississippi? Here is a smattering of ideas:

After a childhood and commercial fishing career on the Mississippi, Captain Robert Vavra now leads boat tours of the river and wildlife refuge near MacGregor, Iowa. Source: <a href="http://www.visitiowa.org/business/maiden-voyage-tours.html" target="_blank">Northeast Iowa Tourism Association</a>

After a childhood and commercial fishing career on the Mississippi, Captain Robert Vavra now leads boat tours of the river and wildlife refuge near MacGregor, Iowa. Source: Northeast Iowa Tourism Association

Float the river

Yes, it’s true: you can rent a riverboat for a full week, crew it yourself, and drop anchor in whatever sleepy cove compels your vacationing self. Participants in this year’s Place-Based Workshop won’t get to spend a full week on the river, but we will get to churn past the river town of MacGregor, Iowa, paddle our way into the Upper Mississippi Wildlife Refuge, and idle through Lock and Dam 10 north of Guttenberg (that’s pronounced “Gut-‘n’-berg”). Throughout, we’ll ask: Which built forms have turned the river into managed infrastructure? Who manages this infrastructure—and to what ends?

Walk the river

The banks of the Mississippi River offer stunning vantage from which to consider how a town is shaped by its physical geography. Historian Daryl Watson will help us understand just this relationship: walking with our group through the streets and along the waterfront of Galena, Illinois, he’ll trace the floodplains, aging levees, storefronts, and native burial sites that testify to the messy—and at times, bloodied—history written into the landscape. Days later, environmental historian Andrew Hurley will lead our group through the streets of St. Louis’s Carondelet neighborhood and past the historic Mallinckrodt Chemical Company, in the process pushing us to think about how race and class constrain claims to space. Throughout, we’ll ask: How have identity markers intersected with geography to shape the distribution of groups along the Mississippi’s banks?

Bus the river

The Place-Based Workshop is at times simply a field trip for grown-ups, best evidenced by many hours spent riding on the bus. But unlike grade school field trips, we’ll choose which route we drive. Hugging the Mississippi’s meandering banks between Burlington, Iowa and Hannibal, Missouri, we’ll hear from CHE graduate Garrett Nelson on New Deal planning of the river, and we’ll watch the Pare Lorenz 1938 documentary, The River. What are the challenges endemic to planning along a river? At what scale can and should governance bodies operate?

Joshua Calhoun, Assistant Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, reads more than just monographs as texts. Source: Joshua Calhoun

Joshua Calhoun, Assistant Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, reads more than just monographs as texts. Source: Joshua Calhoun

Read the river

It would not be a Mississippi River trip without a little Mark Twain. Ditto Langston Hughes (“The Negro Speaks of Rivers” deserves revisit) and Natasha Tretheway, the State of Mississippi’s current poet laureate. With help from CHE faculty member Dr. Joshua Calhoun, our group will spend a few afternoon hours reading aloud Twain selections in whatever dramatic fashion our riverside environs inspire. Moustaches remain optional as we ask: How does art—poetry, music, novels, or graffiti—shape our relationship to a place?

Looking hard at the river means looking elsewhere for its geological traces—as <a href="https://wgnhs.uwex.edu/about/people/eric-c-carson/" target="_blank">Eric Carson</a> will do with workshop participants. Carson and colleagues have found significant evidence for Wisconsin River reversal some 3 million years ago. Source: <a href="http://wgnhs.uwex.edu/pubs/wofr201502/" target="_blank">Curt Meine</a>

Looking hard at the river means looking elsewhere for its geological traces—as Eric Carson will do with workshop participants. Carson and colleagues have found significant evidence for Wisconsin River reversal some 3 million years ago. Source: Curt Meine

Watch the river

“Every now and then, in my waking moments, and especially when I am in the country, I stand and look hard at everything,” wrote New Yorker fiction editor William Maxwell, reflecting at age 89 on lessons learned from a childhood riverboat trip through Havana, Illinois. Stand and look hard at everything. Okay, Mr. Maxwell. Whether we’re inspecting geomorphological evidence for river reversal at Wyalusing State Park, gobbling sandwiches at historic Crapo Park, or drinking libations at one of St. Louis’ many breweries, we’ll take time to look very hard at the river. What places and ways of thinking does this river connect us to? What do we gain when we look hard with others?

To participants in this year’s Place-Based Workshop: we look forward to a lively six-day trip with you. And to our other readers: we hope you’ll bring the place-based model to your own institutions or personal travels. Fording the dam(n)ed Mississippi won’t disappoint.

Featured image: The Mississippi River has gentle shores north of Minneapolis, before it widens to nearly 2 miles across at Wisconsin’s Lake Pepin. Source: Wikimedia.

Spring Greeney is the CHE Project Assistant working with CHE faculty associate Gregg Mitman to plan this year’s Place-Based Workshop, “A River and Its Watershed.” A doctoral candidate in the History Department, Spring’s dissertation examines how laundry washers, appliance manufacturers, and commercial chemists remade the smell and work of cleanliness over the past 150 years of US history. Contact.

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