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Canoe Rebellion: Method and practice on an Anthropocene river

The master’s tools cannot be used to dismantle the master’s house.

—Audre Lorde (1984)

The face of the water, in time, became a wonderful book—a book that was a dead language to the uneducated passenger, but which told its mind to me without reserve, delivering its most cherished secrets as clearly as if it uttered them with a voice. . . . There never was so wonderful a book written by man; never one whose interest was so absorbing, so unflagging, so sparklingly renewed with every reperusal.

— Mark Twain (1901, p. 69)

 

The scope and scale of the Anthropocene are grand—geological, global, denoting a set of grim and fundamental changes (Barnosky, et al. 2011; Crutzen and Stoermer, 2000; Crutzen, 2002; Steffen, Crutzen, and McNeill, 2007).  Viewed from this planetary, deep-time perspective, we find global-scale technologies generating path dependencies and constituting a kind of macro-robotic rebellion in which the machines are so large and all-encompassing that it is difficult to discern the extent to which they control our lives (Haff, 2014).  If we are to emerge—somewhat pale and bleary-eyed—from the energy-intensive infrastructures and the wild blur of the supercomputer labs, shake ourselves loose from the arcane disputations of graduate seminars, come down from the heights of earth systems science, and take instead a terrestrial perspective (Latour 2018), what do we see?  To use Kyle Whyte’s (2019) allegory, what is the view, not from the “aircraft carrier of state” or huge corporate “hovercraft” circling overhead, but from the canoe?  We get a glimpse of this perspective from series of educational expeditions, starting in 2015, which traveled the length of the Mississippi River, primarily by canoe, with a diverse group of students, scholars, artists, and watershed citizens (Underhill 2017; 2019).  In a deliberate political move to decelerate and remove as many barriers between themselves and the world, the group experienced directly some of the contemporary particularities and political realities in the context of an Anthropocene River running through the American heartland.  These realities on the ground are more complex than dreamed of Anthropocene philosophies.  Many of them are certainly troubling, but they also include signs of hope, life, beauty, and resilience in the midst of the various dysfunctions of the day.  As grand in scope as the Anthropocene and its attendant technologies may be, from a canoe, it is still the river itself which is the dominant shaping force.

 

The view from the canoe on the Fall 2019 river journey (Photo by the author).                       The view from the canoe on the Fall 2019 river journey (Photo by the author).

The Anthropocene asks us to consider the impact of humans on earth systems on a geological timescale.  But in the moment and in the particularities of experiences like these—out on the river with little sheltering us from the varied complexities of the realities on the ground— we see both how the Anthropocene shapes our experience (e.g. through extreme weather and the profound modifications of the river) and at the same time how the idea of the Anthropocene often seemed distant and largely irrelevant. The lived experience on the river entail responding to the immediate challenges and complexities of the journey.  If the Anthropocene connects us to deep time, the immediate needs on the trip pull us back into shallow time, in which there plenty of life and space for agency.  These expeditions constitute an alternative methodology and way of being and knowing—carried out at the regional or watershed scale—that, I argue, provide ways forward toward some kind of meaningful existence and sense of agency in the Anthropocene.  It is as well a form of rebellion, by way of canoe, against business as usual in higher education and grounded in the central questions: What is to be done? What kinds of methodology and epistemology are called for as we seek a way through the Anthropocene toward some livable future or home? (Underhill 2020)

This form of critical, place-based pedagogy and knowledge production emphasizes the centrality of embodied, place-based experience (Johnson 2008; Gruenewald 2003) and the forms of daily practice related to such things as energy and resource consumption (Illich 2009).  Given the unavoidable entanglement between energy consumption, inequity, and environmental destruction, we need to be mindful of how the normal practices in higher education so often facilitate a separation and disconnection from the world, and how these technology- and energy-intensive systems create artificial environments that conform to certain socially constructed ideas of comfort and civilization.  At the same time, we need to resist the counter impetus to take off to the wilds or the ivory tower, live off the grid, or retreat to consolation of philosophy.  Given how high the stakes and how dire the need for immediate action, it is imperative that higher education provide a living example of what alternative ways of living can look like.  Even if “there is no right life in the wrong one” (Adorno 1974, 39), we can still find ways of being and knowing that are better than others within the existing system.

The remainder of this essay begins by exploring the epistemology and praxis that have shaped the Mississippi River, as these were experienced on the river expedition.  It then proceeds to sketch out alternative ways of knowing and living on and along the river, and concludes with some discussion of implications for the “shape of a practice” for an Anthropocene Curriculum that will allow us to navigate the waters that lie ahead without reproducing the dynamics that have brought us to where we are today.

 

Upon the Deepening of the Mouths

The evocative subtitle to Andrew Humphrey and Henry Abbot’s (1867) seminal report on the “Physics and Hydraulics” of the Mississippi River, (“deepening of the mouths”) refers to their challenge of maintaining the stubbornly unstable navigation channel at the mouth of the Mississippi delta.  Their survey and resulting recommendations, guided by a new confidence in human ability to scientifically study and thus control the river, initiated a century of extensive river engineering.  In conjunction with the massive alteration of the watershed through industrial agriculture, ongoing impacts of the plantation economy, and development of extensive petrochemical industries, a century and a half later, the mouths have indeed been deepened.  New Orleans is now the busiest ports in the U.S.,1 the river carries millions of tons of cargo each year, and the full effects of the wholesale re-engineering of the river and its watershed, including the rapid loss of Louisiana coastline and the large hypoxic Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico, are well-documented (Weller and Russell, 2016; Anfinson, 2003; Fremling, 2005; Bentley et al., 2016; Osterman, Poore, and Swarzenski, 2008; Turner and Rabalais, 1991; Melilo, et al., 2014).  The Mississippi is indeed a prime example of an Anthropocene River (Kelly, et al., 2018).  Communities along the river have suffered as well—from settler colonialism, slavery and the plantation economy, segregation, toxic trespass and environmental injustices, a burgeoning prison-industrial complex, and a hollowing out of the American dream as jobs disappear and incomes remain stagnant (Alexander 2010; Case and Deaton 2020; Hochschild, 2016).  Given this long list of dysfunctions associated with Modernity’s Great Acceleration, what has brought us to this place?

Of the various places to start, one of the more telling is the founding of the Mississippi Company in 1719 by the Scottish financial innovator and avid gambler John Law.  He enticed investors and new settlers to the region before the whole scheme turned into one of the first major speculative financial bubbles.  The venture collapsed, but it established the Mississippi and its watershed as a site of entanglement in the muddy mix of military conquest, industrial development, speculative capitalism, modernist engineering, and settler colonial/plantation economy (Arrighi, 1994; Crosby, 2003, 2015; Harari, 2011; Moore, 2015, 2017; Braudel, 1984; Yuval, 2017; Davis, 2018; Pastor, et al., 2006; James, 2011).  It would take another 150 years for the engineers to manage the river to the point of realizing its full economic potential of the river as a transportation system linked through the plantation economy to global markets. Fundamental to the success of river engineering was Humphrey and Abbot’s attempt to work at gathering “the hydrometrical data for completing the determination of the laws governing the flow of water in natural channels” (1867, p. 3).  The Bureau of Topographical Engineers in the War Department engaged in extensive data gathering and produced a series of topographical and hydrological maps to understand the river system in terms that rendered it amenable to transportation, commerce, and urban settlement.  This would eventually lead Humphreys to recommend the “levees only” policy of flood control, the apotheosis of which was the catastrophic flooding of 1927 (Barry 1998).

The “master’s tools” used in creating these Anthropocene infrastructures were guided by these reductionist, mechanistic models of the natural world.  The forms of data gathering were derived from abstract formulae that rendered the Mississippi River intelligible to the energy-intensive capitalist economy which employed increasingly sophisticated technologies to manage, in T. S. Eliot’s words, the “strong brown god – sullen, untamed and intractable.”  This was the work of both the state and corporate actors to render monitored landscapes intelligible and amenable to political control and resource extraction (Scott, 1998).  On our journeys undertaken by the River Semester program we saw these methods and epistemologies in the huge petrochemical and other industrial facilities along the river, with their faint odor of benzene and formaldehyde, and in the monumental river control structures.  Perhaps most tellingly, they were reflected in two physical models of the river that were visited by the river expeditions.

 

“Rainbow tour of the Mississippi River Basin Model Waterways Experiment Station, located near Clinton, Mississippi, was a large-scale hydraulic model of the lower Mississippi River basin, covering an area of 200 acres. The model was built from 1943 to 1966 and in operation from 1949 until 1973. Construction crew included WWII prisoners of war from Rommel's Afrika Korps. Photo by Carlina Rossée.” (John Kim Field Note)“Rainbow tour of the Mississippi River Basin Model Waterways Experiment Station, located near Clinton, Mississippi, was a large-scale hydraulic model of the lower Mississippi River basin, covering an area of 200 acres. The model was built from 1943 to 1966 and in operation from 1949 until 1973. Construction crew included WWII prisoners of war from Rommel’s Afrika Korps. Photo by Carlina Rossée.” (John Kim Field Note)

The river travelers visited the Corps’ original river model near Jackson, Mississippi, which was part of post-1927 efforts to better understand the flooding.  It now lies abandoned, a bizarre Lilliputian landscape through which the USACE engineers would walk like Gulliver through this “effigy of Old Man River” (Cheramie 2011).  Now the space, overgrown with poison ivy, is a memorial to the limited success of attempts to model the river.  Never fully completed and eventually abandoned in the early 1990s, it could not capture the complexity of the watershed (most notably in its omission permeable surfaces, vegetation, mud, or people).  Starting in the 1970s, frustrated with the ongoing delays and technical problems with the model, the Corps vacated the 200-acre model and moved instead to even more abstract computer models that further separated them from the unruly mess of the river (McPhee 1989).  A new sense of urgency, and influx of funds, after Hurricane Katrina, however, led to a new attempt to construct a new and strikingly sterile simulacrum of the Mississippi.

 

The Human Delta as tabula rasa (Amalia Field Note)           The Human Delta as tabula rasa (Amalia Field Note)

Following the catastrophic effects of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and with increased awareness and alarm regarding rapid coastal erosion, the engineers doubled down on the project of re-creating the river in terms that allow for the control that always seems just out of reach.  The latest model of the lower 180 miles of the river, is located at Louisiana State University’s Center for River Studies in Baton Rouge.  Created and funded as part of the state’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Agency (CPRA), the model’s main function is to help efforts to guide efforts to counter the land-loss that the previous two centuries of river engineering had caused.  It has moved indoors and consists of 10,000 square foot screen on which “twenty high-definition projectors illuminate the model and bring the river and coast to life,” while simultaneously eliding the human communities and environmental injustices that are such a salient part of the region.  The LSU River Model is described by its director in characteristically militaristic language, as “the tip of the spear on some of the most challenging issues confronting coastal and deltaic populations around the world” (Hardy 2017).  Its simulations allow researchers to compresses the hydrological processes of a year into an hour of modelled sediment flow.  Standing on the observation deck above the model, it is easy to imagine oneself as Homo Deus (Harari 2018), master of all that one surveys.  The sterile and sanitized tabula rasa onto which they could project scenarios of imagined mastery over the river is a particularly telling example of the master’s tools (see also Kolbert 2021, 36-42).

 

Bonnet Carré spillway; an acknowledgement of the need to give the Mississippi some breathing room, but always on terms dictated by New Orleans and local Petrochemical interests. (Joe Underhill Field Note)Bonnet Carré spillway; an acknowledgement of the need to give the Mississippi some breathing room, but always on terms dictated by New Orleans and local Petrochemical interests. (Joe Underhill Field Note)

These models and engineering reports have been crucial in informing the ongoing work of the Army Corps, charged by Congress with maintaining the navigation on the river, reducing risks of flood, and regulating the discharge of water into the various natural distributaries (most notably the Atchafalaya River) and artificial spillways.  Having created models to understand the hydrology of the river, the Corps then returned to the river to re-create it in the image of the models originally created to understand the “natural” river.  The riparian landscape is dominated by the massive concrete flood control projects, such as the Bonnet Carré spillway pictured above.  The Corps has had to conceded some breathing room, the major spillways signaling some level of retreat and accommodation.2 After Katrina, they were also forced to close the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (MRGO). The Corps speaks of this work in terms of battle with this foe, maintaining vigilant watch over the river (Anfinson 2003; McPhee 1989; Pabis, 1998; Misrach and Orff 2014; Alexander, Wilson, and Green, 2012; Barnett, 2017; Kolbert 2021).  The outcome of this battle remains unclear, but the long-term trajectories do not look good.

Contemptuous of attempts to master the river, Mark Twain’s relationship to the river stands in sharp contrast to the engineers that followed Humphreys and Eads.  Rather than seeking to tame and control the river, Twain’s (1901) romantic and highly personal relationship to the river was grounded in an attitude of humility and acceptance of the river’s sovereignty.  He spoke with contempt of the increasingly ambitious attempts to control the river:

“One who knows the Mississippi will promptly aver—not aloud but to himself—that ten thousand River Commissions, with the mines of the world at their back, cannot tame that lawless stream, cannot curb it or confine it, cannot say to it, “Go here,” or “Go there,” and make it obey . . . Captain Eads, with his jetties, has done a work at the mouth of the Mississippi which seemed clearly impossible; so we do not feel full confidence now to prophesy against like impossibilities.  Otherwise one would pipe out and say the Commission might as well bully the comets in their courses and undertake to make them behave, as try to bully the Mississippi into right and reasonable conduct.” (Twain 1901, p. 207)

Since Twain’s prescient observations from the 1880s, the system has suffered a series of devasting floods, although avoiding total collapse.  With each new disaster, the Corps responds with ever larger and more massive structures. But with sea levels rising by at least 1-3 feet this century, continued land subsidence, and increasing frequency and severity of both rain events and hurricanes, it seems only a matter of time before there is the right confluence of factors to bring about a collapse of this hydrological regime.  The resulting Anthropocene River is a highly engineered, and ultimately self-destructive, system.  The “deepening of the mouth” has resulted in the river now “eating itself” as the Delta is cut up by pipelines, starved of the sediment needed to maintain itself, and sea levels rise (see Grey 2020).  The writing is on the wall, and it is only a matter of time before most of the Delta will dissolve into the Gulf of Mexico—the mouths gaping so wide open that they are literally engulfed by the oceanic mouth itself.

 

The “wreck of the Anthropocene future.” A toy Landspeeder washed up on a beach on the Lower Mississippi (Joe Underhill Field Note)The “wreck of the Anthropocene future.” A toy Landspeeder washed up on a beach on the Lower Mississippi (Joe Underhill Field Note)

 

Getting off the train:  embodied epistemologies and expeditionary methodologies

One significant implication of the challenges of the Anthropocene is that we cannot just “rethink” things while still living in the same resource-intensive ways.  We have to actually stop, get off the train, and live differently, as this is what these times require of us.  All the theoretical or technological sophistication will not save us if we just keep operating within academia as if the current trajectory could just continue.  Instead we must find ways to teach and do research in ways that disentangle us from the technocratic and fossil-fueled dynamics that have brought us to this place.  This entails, first, a stepping “outside” the machinery (while acknowledging that it is impossible to completely extract oneself from it).  We can choose to minimize out entanglements and find what opportunities for agency remain (Haff, 2017).  The second move is exposing oneself directly to the Anthropocene and gathering data and knowledge by means of this embodied methodology to generate knowledge based on human-powered movement through an Anthropocene and, in this case, regional landscape.  And third, we must frame this work in terms of the particular goal of understanding how to live in the Anthropocene, and to claim what agency we can, given that we always live within systems over which we have limited control.

If the Anthropocene presents us with the challenge of the elision of nature and culture, scholars and academics are likewise presented with the challenge of then recombining “life” and scholarship.  Without a neutral or distantly objective vantage point from which to engage an “othered” natural world, the question then becomes how to produce knowledge without reproducing the dynamics and dysfunctions that have brought us hurtling out of the Holocene and into the world of climate change, pandemic, and mass extinction.  As there is no longer a timeless or pure “nature” out there, we likewise need to break down the barriers between campus (life of the mind), and real world of work and worldly problems.  This requires a return to the terrestrial (Latour 2018), or, to put it differently, an immersion in the river.

The other major figure in 19th Century river engineering, the polymath James Eads, focused his engineering recommendations on the river’s ability to dig its own channel and “deepen the mouths.”  In contrast to the more abstract and quasi-scientific framing of Humphrey and Abbott’s report, Eads’ insight can be traced to a seminal moment of embodied experience in the river.  Eads began work salvaging wrecks from the river, spending extended periods of time in his self-designed diving bell in St. Louis (Barry, 2007, Ch. 1).  As Barry writes, “the experience changed him . . . without light he could not see the river.  He felt it.”  In Eads own words, “The sand was drifting like a dense snowstorm at the bottom. . . . I found the bed of the river, for at least three fee in depth, a moving ass and so unstable that, in endeavoring to find a footing on it beneath my bell, my feet penetrated through it until I could feel, although standing erect, the sand rushing past my hands, driven by a current apparently as rapid as that on the surface.”  His experience of working on the bottom of the river in the pitch dark and feeling so viscerally the force of the river and the work it did in sediment transport was crucial to the development of his ideas of river channelization.  This resulted eventually in the jetties at the mouth of the Mississippi Delta that would produce a navigable channel there.  This was a key turning point in creating New Orleans as a major port, but also a tipping point in the process of land loss and coastal erosion.  These jetties (or wing dams or weirs), in combination with increasingly extensive levee system, funneled and contained the flow of sediment out of the Mississippi, thus depriving the delta of the sediment it needed to replenish itself.  From this experience he gained an undeniable truth of the sediment-transporting power of the river.  In retrospect, we can see that Eads was both literally and figuratively working in the dark in terms of his understanding of the larger geomorphology and fluvial dynamics (let alone all the complexities of the river ecosystem).

But both Eads and Twain drew on their direct, embodied, subjective knowledge of the Mississippi (Johnson 2008). This very particular and subjective kind of knowledge allowed them to gain a deeper understanding of the river.  This is a way of knowing and praxis that was shared by those on the river journeys.  These direct experiences give us a sense or feel of a place—operating in what Connolly (1999) terms the “visceral register”—that help enable a sense of its gestalt. They impart the complex and multifaceted results of the Great Acceleration as they manifest themselves in ways that are comprehensible to those living in their midst.  These are different ways of knowing than those we get from satellite sensors or water quality monitors.  Using the human body as instrument and lived experience (swimming, breathing, drinking, sleeping) as a mode of inquiry leads to an embodied epistemology.  In contrast to Lockean empiricism, this form of knowledge production is rooted in the human organism’s ability to take in and get a richer, phenomenological sense of a place and to understand it in the terms in which we as humans will be living in that space.3  The travelers on the journeys of the River Semester viscerally and palpably experienced the flow of the river as they paddled along and swam in it.  Along the way, they experience the multiple sensory disruptions of the near-constant noise of the machines and massive petrochemical and industrial food processing facilities, the light pollution, and the range of smells.  This way of knowing a watershed is simultaneously immersive, synthetic, sustained, phenological, embodied, and lived.  As with Twain’s experience, these experiences engender humility, nostalgia, appreciation for complexity, a sense of mystery, and kinship with the river.

 

Camp site on an island in the Mississippi River near La Crosse, Wisconsin in 2019.  A way of living with enough comfort while being connected and immersed in the world. (Christoph Rosol Field Note)Camp site on an island in the Mississippi River near La Crosse, Wisconsin in 2019.  A way of living with enough comfort while being connected and immersed in the world. (Christoph Rosol Field Note)

How do we research what it means to live well in the midst of the Anthropocene?  The expeditionary method on the Mississippi consists of a variety of particular modalities.  Like matsutake mushrooms (Tsing 2017) or uranium ore, the Mississippi River is a richly informing interscalar space (Hecht 2018) that provides multiple opportunities for “making kin” with the river and its multispecies communities (Haraway 2016).  Beyond frequently swimming in the water, at a few points the group was literally drinking water from the river (boiled and used to make coffee).  In this sense, walking down to the river and getting into a canoe are profoundly political, risky, intimate, and counter-cultural acts (Diaz 2011, 2016). In regard to the exploration of a regional-scale watershed, this constitutes a methodology of the journey in which the “shape of this practice” is as transect.  This meandering passage from north to south would take these academic vagabondi on the river journey from the relatively pristine stream of the headwaters, through the Twin Cities, the Driftless (unglaciated) region in Wisconsin and Iowa, to St. Louis and Memphis, through the so-called “Wild Miles” to the heavily industrialized and polluted Chemical Corridor between Baton Rouge and New Orleans.  This revisiting of the “Fourth Coast” (Brown and Morrish 1990) likewise traversed the political landscape through deep red (white, mainly rural, and largely pro-Trump) and deep-blue (diverse urban) communities.  This kind of mobility, carried out by a predominantly wealthy and white group of academics, required the group as well to acknowledge the inherently problematic nature of an expedition with its colonial and imperial legacies and implications (paperson 2017).  These postcolonial tensions require a great deal of intentionality and awareness, and active work to collaborate with indigenous communities and communities of color, and to practice both humility and openness, considerations that were seriously addressed by the travelers (Kaplan-Seem and Kim 2019).

Travelers on the canoe expeditions did so as human-canoe-paddle-smart-phone cyborgs, using a set of technologies that included rubber boots, raincoats, compost buckets, “dromedary” bags for carrying our potable water, mobile wi-fi, and the usual assortment of cell phones and laptops.  As a mode of transportation, the large canoe is particularly well-suited for the embodied exploration of watersheds at this regional scale.  These vessels use an energy system that consists of caloric intake (eating food), solar panels, and some propane and firewood for cooking.  It thus has a minimal carbon footprint.  This kind of expeditionary method likewise has a particular pace, typically of no more than five knots (or ten kilometers per hour).  It must attend to economic and budgetary concerns with staff needing to receive livable wages, and relying on grants and financial aid to make this affordable for students, and recruiting students so that there is enough enrollment to support the endeavor.  The expedition likewise came to have its own culture, including elements of diversity, inclusivity, and building connecting across ideological differences.  It has its seasonality, with the group heading south in the Fall with the migrating birds, when the river tends to be lower, and the biting insect are not as bad as in the spring or early summer (Whyte 2017, 2019).  It also came to include a set of spiritual and ceremonial practices, with water blessings, and songs and storytelling around the nightly fires that naturally became part of the nightly routines.

What do we get from the approximately 250 days spent living on the river over the course of 15 years?  What does the Anthropocene feel like? smell like? taste like?  What emotional states does it elicit, and how can we create homes and ways of life within it?  In contrast to the knowledge gleaned from the river models, this form of travel, with its minimal separation from the world, made the group aware of a strange mix of realities, none of which fit neatly into the engineers’ constructed realities. Our experiences included the manifold hazards (natural and man-made) along the way, such as when canoes were damaged when hitting submerged stumps or rocks and had to be repaired.  And on the river, there is need for constant vigilance and awareness of the huge barges and freighters.  Physical health could also be an issue, as when one student got appendicitis and had to have an emergency appendectomy in Hannibal, Missouri.  And well-being would be a factor, as when a student experienced post-traumatic stress disorder during an intense storm; or when a Hmong student was afraid her soul would leave her body and be claimed by the river, necessitating a shaman to come retrieve her from the waters.  The dangers also came from human sources.  Bullets whizzing by our tents when the group was camped out in the backyard of a house in St. Louis near Ferguson, MO, and students of color had very real fears about their safety when spending time in the South.  During one visit to a bar, we overheard one very drunk patron bragging that he would shoot any person of color who came into the place.

Reflecting the “all white” river found in the LSU River model, the community of engineers and commercial operations along the river is strikingly white, male, and heteronormative.  In contrast, and reflecting our global interconnections, the river trips have included Palestinian, Jordanian, Israeli, Norwegian, German, Portuguese, and academics; and a diverse group of students including Mexican, Colombian, transgender, Dakota, gender non-conforming, Hmong shamanist, recovering addicts, white middle-class suburban athletes, and students with Asperger’s syndrome.  Life in the Anthropocene highlighted the need for the group to adjust and accommodate to the changing circumstances and varied needs of the group.  This led at times to small-scale rebellions, as students took umbrage with what they considered to be unreasonable demands along the way.  These travelers met up with, among others, duck hunters, white supremacists, Cherokee water walkers, oil pipeline workers, sugar farmers, ex-cons, mayors, a boxing champion, organic farmers, doctors, and radical black queer artists, all of whom are living in the Anthropocene along the Mississippi River and somehow making a go of it.  The experiences of the group have included being stopped for questioning by police and the Exxon Mobil security officers at a refinery; being welcomed and hosted by conservative families at places like “Poche Park” in Pauline, LA and the “Duck Dynasty” hunting camp near Prescott, Wisconsin; and on one occasion being sprayed by a crop duster in the Chemical Corridor. In the midst of the wettest twelve-month period in recorded U.S. history (NOAA 2019), the 2018 River Semester expedition experienced straight-line winds of over 90 mph that blew six of the eight tents, two of them ending up in the river.  Stranded in Trempealeau, Wisconsin by severe weather the river travelers were hosted by the Mt. Calvary Lutheran Church during Yom Kippur, where a lay rabbi in the group led an observance of the Day of Atonement in the sanctuary of the church.  Put that in your river model.

 

Conclusion: Paddling the Meanders

In these disturbed and disturbing environments, what forms of flourishing, knowing, and investigation are called for?  The dominant forms of understanding and engineering the Mississippi River should raise serious concerns about the risks of doubling down on the techniques and geo-engineering that have brought us to this place.  Although we cannot fully extract ourselves from these systems, we can work to create more space for human thriving along what remains of the functioning river ecosystem.  The river journey described here can serve as a different kind of “model” for the kind of radical change that is needed to thrive within the dramatically altered realities of the Anthropocene.  There have been various suggestions for new epistemological approaches in the Anthropocene, such as the data gathering and recycling of “waste data” (Edwards, 2016) and formation of new ontologies and ways of knowing in the Anthropocene (Pickering, 2009; Morton, 2016).

The experiences on the river suggest the need to build new epistemologies grounded in place, humility, reciprocity, all of which can be found in traditional indigenous methodologies with their resistance to these grand, global, abstract classificatory schemes (Carlson 2020; Kimmerer 2013; Rixecker and Tipene-Matua 2003; Todd, 2016).  As Irene Klaver (2018) has argued, the structure of the river itself, and challenges of navigating in a canoe, suggest various riverine and meandering methodologies.  This points to the value of a more complex, nuanced, and ground-truthed understanding of the river, as a way to engender greater humility and sustainability.  These direct experiences help as correctives for the various imagined Anthropocene futures (dystopian or utopian) and “views from above.”  The trouble with concepts such as the Anthropocene and Technosphere is that they operate at such an abstract, macro-scale that they can easily overlook or work to remove us from the lived realities of the moment.  We need to understand the space as defying these efforts to model it.  Following Latour’s exhortation to “come down to earth” and find more locally grounded ways of knowing and dwelling in these Anthropocenic landscapes, we can develop new maps (Solnit and Snedeker, 2013) and new ways of making kin with critters, paddlefish, warty-back mussels, and white pelicans that share the river with us (Haraway 2015).   These extended, lived experiences of the Anthropocene defy disciplinary boundaries, and this kind of expeditionary learning entails further strengthening transdisciplinarity projects (Toivanen, et al., 2017) and the ethnographic interrogation of complex interrelationships along the river, informed by the norms of attentiveness, curiosity suggested by Tsing (2017).

One of the values of this kind of expeditionary learning is as a model for how to undertake the long journey ahead.  As the disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic amply demonstrate, the path ahead will itself be a long and perilous journey.  To weather the increasing impacts of climate change, we will need real experimentation and exploration.  We have to figure out how to thrive within the Anthropocene, and the ways in which we can begin to disentangle ourselves from these dynamics and imagine new ways of living and generating knowledge as we move into whatever kind of system emerges from the current set of crises.

Paddling on the river is a powerful source of hope, inspiration and beauty. It is not a dead river, certainly highly engineered and radically altered from what it was prior to arrival of humans on the continent, and particularly since colonization.  As a stream ecologist on one of the trips, observed, the Mississippi is indeed a “hurting river.”  The river ecosystems are greatly diminished, with far fewer species and some extinctions, with loss of the massive freshwater mussel beds, and dramatic decline in migratory bird and fish species.  Countering this sense that the river has somehow been so overwhelmed by human activity that it subsumed within these larger systems, the direct experience of the river simultaneously reveals the human impacts on the river, but also the river’s ongoing presence, even agency (Mitchell 2002).  We will end with the uneasy balance between control and helplessness, informed, at its heart, by humility and love, with a fierce insistence on human agency in the midst of the Technosphere and momentum of global carbon-fueled capitalism (Vine 2018; Haff 2017).

The epistemology and methodology of the Anthropocene are disembodied, “objective,” disconnected, abstract, secular, quantitative, narrowly empirical, predominantly guided by white patriarchal heteronormativity, and energy- and technology-intensive. The alternative is embodied, personal, visceral, directly experienced, spiritual, emotional, diverse, inclusive, and personal.  It is as well disentangled as much as possible from the operations of the Anthropocene, with minimal use fossil fuels and the infrastructures that support that energy system.  The resulting understanding of the Anthropocene river is both troubling and inspiring.  Immersed in the literature of the Anthropocene, one would expect to find the Mississippi a desolate wasteland of toxic waste and social anomie.  Viewed from a canoe, we are struck most by the force and presence of the river itself, and the indefatigable riot of nature in all its forms that fill the watershed.  The river is polluted, is “hurting,” but all the workings of humanity fill but a small portion of the Mississippi, as, over the course of a year, it carries close to two trillion gallons of water, draining out of 3.2 million square kilometers (1.2 million square miles) catchment basin.

Once outside the bubbles we have created in our laboratories, malls, and cloistered and gated subdivisions, this canoe-based knowledge production answers a particular kind of question and provides us with particular information: namely what is it like to live and exercise agency in the Anthropocene.  It is simply that—the knowledge gained, not from the panopticon of Earth System Science, but from the perspective of those living exposed to the effects of the Great Acceleration.  It might be appealing to think there is some more intellectually sophisticated or complex answer to the question of how to proceed, but the history of previous intellectually ambitious schemes has not worked out well.  Instead we might be better served by walking down to the river, getting into our canoes, as we seek—and, in the process, create—other sites and practices of resistance within the Anthropocene, grounded in place, in the mud, in love for each other and the world.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to HKW, MPI, Christoph Rosol, Carlina, Cornelia Wagner, Nell Gehrke, Steven Diehl, Audrey Buturian-Larson, Emily Knudson, John Kim, Benjamin Steinegger, Augsburg University, and the entire crew of the 2019 Anthropocene River Journey for insights, support, and feedback on earlier drafts of this post.

Notes

1 The volume of cargo at ports is measured in a few different ways, but by the measure of tonnage, the Port of South Louisiana is the largest in the Western Hemisphere.  See http://portsl.com/facts-at-a-glance/

2 This is an idea that had historical precedent. As early as 1850, the engineer Charles Ellet Jr. had recommended using a system of outlets and reservoirs to protect the Delta (Pabis 1998, 424).

3The “post-human” and multi-species perspective is worth noting, but I am not sure if I can really say what the river is like, for example, from the perspective of a paddlefish that was raised in a fish hatchery and then released into the river.

 

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