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2021 Expedition Log

A record of the 2021 River Semester Expedition (beginning May 1, with the boat-building project)

October 17: Day 51

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Today, we spent the whole day “portaging” by van from the Quad Cities to Memphis TN. Most of us spent the night at Elias’ brother’s apartment and we woke up at 6:30 to leave and get to Memphis in time to unload to boats before dark. We left a day later than expected because of technical difficulties coordinating with a truck that took our boats there. But we made it! I made a guide to “life on the Mississippi” to pass the time while in the van.

Oct. 16: Day 50

This is about the halfway point of our journey (we are scheduled to return to Minneapolis about 100 days after we departed) and marked the transition from the Upper to the Lower Mississippi River.  We have finished our initial 350 miles of “saiddling” or “paddailing” (Chris Fink’s neologisms for our hybrid mode of transport) and today the guides and students loaded the disassembled Water Striders onto a 40-foot “hotshot” trailer for the shuttle down to Memphis.  After various back-and-forth exchanges with the transportation broker and a high degree of uncertainty regarding the timing of the transport, the driver Hugo showed up at the Illiniwek State Forest Preserve campground and “Team Gumption” sprung into action.  Gumption has become a key part of our vocabulary (first introduced by Steven in reference to the spice level of particular dishes we were cooking) and captures some of the spirit of the group–capable and determined (and maybe a little spicy sometimes).  The students are getting to know these boats and the gear very well by now, and with the guidance of Hannah, Nell, and Steven, got it all loaded onto the flatbed, with a little energy left over for some inverted posing at the end.

The boat pieces fit nicely onto this 40′ X 8′ flatbed–just the tool for the job of shuttling them down to the Lower River.
Team Gumption in action, after having loaded the six large pieces of the disassembled catamarans onto the trailer.  Hugo (on the right) was patient and good-natured with our antics.

The boats now head to Memphis, and the lower river.  In the Quad Cities, the Mississippi flows at a rate of about 37,000 cubic feet/second (CFS).  In Memphis, below the confluences of the Illinois, Missouri, and (most notably) the Ohio, the current volume of the Mississippi is around 260,000 CFS or about seven times as much water.  The river is low now (average flow in Memphis is more like 700,000).  And the river levels can fluctuate wildly, with the record discharge recorded at 3,000,000 CFS, and the record low of 159,000 CFS) We will be entering into a different kind of space, in many ways, and it is exciting to be entering into this next phase of the journey.  The students have had their training period, and will begin to take on more leadership roles on the trip, as we enter into the so-called “Wild Miles” or relatively undeveloped river that characterize the lower Mississippi in between the cities of Memphis, Greenville, Vicksburg, Natchez, and Baton Rouge.  But it is also very much an Anthropocene River, profoundly shaped in a myriad of ways by engineering, agriculture, industry, and climate change.  We will explore these entanglements and interventions through an online course developed in conjunction with the Haus der Kulturen der Welt, and the Anthropocene River Project.

[Joe]

Oct. 15: Day 49

Today was another layover day outside the Quad Cities. This morning we had a visit from Olivia, who works with American Rivers. We were able to hear and learn from her and her work, which is mostly working to mitigate the consequential effects from the Army Corps of Engineers and other harmful groups on the wildlife and habitats down the river. She talked to us about her efforts for dam removal, habitat restoration, and the different social movements that the organization promotes on the river and off of it. 

After that, we headed into Davenport to walk around the city to bookstores, libraries, and cafes to study and work. 

Olivia then generously offered to cook dinner for us as part of her family’s Friday Pizza Night tradition. She told us how she had helped host other River Rats, but since the pandemic has not recently. We enjoyed the family’s company and meal (and couch) and entertained their kids and pets. We ended the night with some hot cider and thank you’s & goodbyes.

October 13: Day 47

This very morning . . .

  • The refreshing waves of hot shower water dripping down my back
  • The smell of essential oils being ever so gently combed into your soft hair
  • The sound of birds chirping about how joyous the morning sun is
  • The kisses of rainfall on a fresh clean shirt
  • The texture of a soaking wet bagel as you try to scarf down a breakfast in the thunderous downpour
  • The rattling headache that remind you that you haven’t had a cup of coffee yet
  • The cool fall breeze that carries a prayer off of your lips to the soul of the world
  • The gratitude of a dry tent
  • The hardness of the ground you have become accustomed to by the unfortunate fate of a malfunctioning sleeping mat
  • The heartwarming happy birthday tune sung to Kelly
  • The flutter of butterflies when you receive a morning text from that special someone

I would have never noticed these simple things if I would have stayed indoors.

-z

October 12: Day 46
Today we all were able to experience a different side of the Mississippi river. As we left our layover site outside Clinton, Iowa, we went out of the main channel in order to go through what is called “Beaver Slough” This slough is a heavily industrialized area of the Mississippi in which we were able to see all of the barges being unloaded that we typically pass along in the main channel, and now are being transformed into some of the food that we eat each and every day. As we went further south down the slough, we experienced a new variety of smells, sounds, and views of the river. As we paddled through this manufacturing central area, I kept thinking about how unique of an experience it is we are being able to have for this semester. We have the ability to see not only the gorgeous sunsets and landscapes that surround the river in-between towns and cities, but also the industrial and extraction-centric businesses that rely on the river for their means of production. We continue to live “life otherwise”, and see this large, powerful, and important being that is the Mississippi continue to adapt and flow to all that is happening around it.
Paddling through Beaver Slough, site of a number of large corn processing facilities, including two ADM plants–a “wet mill” that turns corn into high-fructose corn syrup and one that makes corn-based plastics.
[Megan]

October 11: Day 45

Cooking over the fire, and with the “rocket stove” as we lay over near Fulton, IL, on a rainy, stormy day. Living comfortably in the woods.
[Joe]

October 10: Day 44

Zoe, MJ, and Angelica getting some schoolwork done at camp. Part of class on the river.

October 9: Day 43

The fire line for loading boats from the island we stayed on in “Pool 13.” Team work (and muddy feet)!

October 8: Day 42

THE BONEYARD ISLAND

Today, we spent the night on an island where we met up with Chris Fink, an English Professor at Beloit College, a writer, and lover of poetry.

Chris Fink (seated on bucket at center), Creative Writing Professor from Beloit College, joined us for a few days. It was great having him work with students on some creative writing projects and readings.  (Kelly was very excited!)

The island that we chose to stay at is filled with bones! Chris Fink noted that some of the bones that we saw (that kind of looked like shells) were actually bones that hang out inside of fish ears to help them hear. He said that certain indigenous groups have traditionally used them to make jewelry.

Photo picturing Nial (left) and Angelica (right).

We finished off the day well when Angelica and Zoe made some incredible enchiladas for dinner. We had a group “check in” in a circle at the fire where we played “rose, bud, thorn”. My rose today was setting up the Latrine with Elias- we found an ideal location and it filled us with pride.

[MJ]

October 6: Day 40

Today was another transit day to our layover spot at Santa Fe Beach (River Mile 539.5). We had oatmeal for breakfast and then packed up the boats and set off. We got to paddle and sail a bit today and set up camp and prepare for rain in the coming days. We made chimichangas and brownies to enjoy by the fire. 

Tonight was a new moon, and we celebrated by sitting around our fire and taking time to reflect on the past month and think about the next one. We each got a piece of paper and wrote on one side what we would like to keep or take into the next month. On the other side, we wrote down things to let go of or give up while entering the next moon phase. Then when we were ready, we threw the papers into the fire and burned them together. We ended the night with some guitar playing and singing before hitting the hay.

[Sarah]

October 4: Day 38

Massey Marina greeted the crew with a lovely campsite and the cool fall breeze. The relaxed pace of the day helped the crew reset, reflect, restock,  and revel in the beauty of the day. This layover day was sent catching up on readings and exploring Dubuque Iowa.

On this day I have been reflecting on this prompt “My life is a miracle that cannot be recreated. Each day should be lived on purpose. Shifting intentionality about being with others as well as getting in touch with my body and emotions in real time and learning to express them” – adrienne maree brown

[Zoe]

October 3: Day 37

To begin our morning, we all enjoyed some delicious banana pancakes as we loaded up the boats for another transit day on the river. Before we left our campsite, we had a Zoom call together with Dr. Catherine Russell. Dr. Russell is working with us distantly from the University of Leicester as we conduct sediment research all along the Mississippi to look at how sediment evolves and changes with the river, and what appears to be present in the sediment samples itself at different locations along the riverbanks. This Zoom call was especially impactful for me, as I am working in conjunction with Dr. Russell for my independent research project. For my research project, I will plan out different locations along the river in which I expect there to be a shift in the sediment and what it would contain. These locations may be by major bends in the river, confluences of other rivers, before and after locks and dams, and near various industries who extract and pollute the river directly. Along with examining the sediment, I will also conduct research on some of the environmental injustices that exist in major cities located along the Mississippi river, and how the sediment may be able to illustrate some of these injustices. I am thrilled to be able to work with Dr. Russell, and conduct this research for the semester! Stay tuned for the end of the semester when I will compile all that I have learned in my final project!
[Megan]

September 29: Day 33

Today was a paddling day. We left Prairie Du Chien yesterday morning and have had two full days of paddling since (~25 miles!!). We are getting very strong. After a strenuous few hours of paddling and class in the sun there is nothing like jumping off the boat into the Sippi!

This afternoon, we arrived at an awesome island where we will lay over for a couple days in order to get a tailwind and wait out expected rain.

Stargazing has been amazing on this island. Joe gave us an enlightening tour of the galaxy this evening using a light laser to point out constellations including Arcturus, Big Dipper, Little Dipper, Corona Borealis, Delphinius, North Star, a couple astrological constellations like Libra and Cancer, and the Summer Triangle (and Swan).

All in all, we are in our #growthzone. Yesterday, we had a group check in and collectively determined that it was a good time for students to start taking on more tasks. This will help us develop a sense of agency and competence and take weight off of our guide’s shoulders!

After about 30 days on the river, I’m already feeling like I have more confidence and mental fortitude. Things like setting up latrines, paddling all day, and having group check-ins seem to be making us a more trusting and cohesive group. Excited to see where we go from here and watch everybody grow, vibe and thrive <3

[MJ]

Water Strider Watercolor art by me too, sunset photo by Joe Underhill

September 27: Day 31

River Mile: 636

Today was another full layover day in Prairie du Chien. As the morning started, we made banana pancakes and split off to work on our respective plans. Some of us went to revisit Effigy Mounds National Monument in Harpers Ferry and others went into town to continue our readings and studying for our courses. 

Later in the day we got to shower, thanks to the kindness of Cindy, who lent their time to drive us. 

We then ate dinner in a spare tent to escape the mosquitoes together to end the day!

[Sarah]

Day 30: Sept. 26

The generosity of river people is something special – as the famous song Proud Mary goes “people on the river are happy to give” is no joke. In the morning we were greeted by Prairie Du Chien local named Wendy. She worked at the town’s only fair trade organic coffee shop and offered to bring us all hand crafted drinks. We sipped coffee and shared stories over a delicious omelette breakfast bar. Next in the day was our Sunday water blessing. We shared a land acknowledgment, history of the land and thanks for the water. We then played a riveting game of soccer where the crew worked make shift a field and goal post with possessions around camp. The day concluded with some relaxation and time to catch up on class readings.

Day 29: Sept. 25

Reading a copy of Emergent Strategy at the local coffee shop, I want to share with you some of the teaching from adrienne maree brown

Ways in which western contents are socialized to work against respecting the emergent process of the world and each other:

  • We learn to disrespect indigenous and direct ties to land
  • We learn the testing deadlines are the reason to take action
  • We learn to deny our skills and longing to do work that occupies hours without inspiring our greatness
  • We learned that the natural world is to be manicured, control and pillaged to support our consumer lives

People keep asking “why did you choose to do river semester?” I would answer in response to the text stated above. It is one thing to read these words, put the book away and go back to life as we know it. It is another to live with these ideas and how they shape how we move and present ourselves in the word. As I young person I want to be challenged and unlearn these ways in which we disrespect the natural process. I want to feel rewarded by intentional community and time in outdoor spaces. I want to pay closer attention to how the natural world solves problems and how that can transform the world I grow up, and the world my children will one day live in.

Day 28: Sept. 24

Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin has welcomed us with many different opportunities to become involved with the local community. As our campsite is located on the edge of the Mississippi river on St. Feriole Island, many different visitors have driven, walked, or biked by to see what is going on with the odd-shaped blue boats and line of matching tents set up off of the road. Due to our particular interest by the public, there have been a variety of people who have offered to help us in any way that they can. This came in the form of offering vehicles for grocery runs or suggestions on where to go downtown while we are staying. I was shocked to see that so many of the people are ready to help without even knowing who we are. Along with the generous hosting that Prairie du Chien welcomes us with, we also were gifted with a gorgeous sunset as we finished cooking dinner and observed the beauty of the world around us. The wind began to pick up in the evening, so to stay warm, all of us piled into one of the tents to eat our dinner together in a more sheltered setting before cleaning up and going back to our respective tents for the night.
[Megan Parkinson]

Day 25: Sept. 21

Today was a transit day so we got started early. After our big rainstorm and water blessing from the night before, on the night of the full moon, we were ready to go. Later in the day, we spotted several bald eagles while on the water. We ate homemade hummus, tabouli, and yogurt sauce for lunch “on deck” and a delicious papaya salad and tea for dinner on shore that night.

As we were paddling through, we touched on the violent histories and current realities of Victory Wisconsin and surrounding areas. We offered some blessings to the spirits here. This led to a bigger discussion about how to talk about and process historical traumas together as our journey continues.

That night as we slept, we encountered the sounds of coyotes howling and what we believe to be a screech owl.

[MJ]

Day 23: Sept. 19

Today was another layover day in La Crosse which is around river mile 697. There was a south wind so instead of paddling into a headwind we had some time for class where we began to talk and learn about sediment along the river. As a semester-long project in partnership with Catherine Russell at the University of Leicester we will be taking samples of sediment to look at its plastic content. Later in the afternoon we reviewed for our first exam and became more familiar with our remapping project in partnership with Brian Holmes. You can find the project here and look into the many features including following our personal entries about the sites we stay at or other geographic information like indigenous lands, pipeline systems in the Mississippi river watershed, Army Corps navigational charts and more.

[Kelly Shono]

Day 22: Sept. 18

River Mile: 697

Today was our first full day in La Crosse, WI. After many days of transit, we dedicated the day to be able to relax, study, and explore the town. We were excited to replenish our travel necessities and be on land for a while. 

We also took advantage of having our full crew here to take pictures with our hats and outfits! We were inspired by the movie The Life Aquatic to dress as the sailors in it. 

We were sad to say goodbye to our guide, Emily, as they went back home today.

While in the town, a few of us went to coffee shops to study, or shopped around in bookstores, thrift shops, and restaurants. All in all, it was another great day on the journey!

Day 20: Sept. 16

Today started with a stunning sunrise and chocolate chip pancakes. After this we enjoyed class under the big pin oak tree. Part of class is learning different sailing knots so our creative wilderness guides set up a thrilling obstacle course that had the crew running up and down the beach (all while becoming faster and more efficient at our knots). After class we trekked through the woods to forage for mushrooms. While exploring through the woods we found signs of beavers along the shore, bones of different animals in the underbrush and dry signs of vegetation from the drought we are currently experiencing. Foraging mushrooms required a sharp focus on location and identification. From our readings we learned about the honorable harvest and held these points close to our hearts while completing this tasks. We were able to bring chicken of the woods and oyster mushrooms back to be cooked and thrown in our pasta dinner.

Much love, Zoe

A Chicken of the woods mushroom on Richmond Island

Day 19: Sept. 15

  • Location: River mile 712, “Richmond Island”, located outside Trempealeau, Wisconsin.

  • Conditions and Surrounding: Beautiful sunny day with minimal cloud coverage across the sky. The large pin-oak tree provides shade and cooler temperatures to those who hang in hammocks, sit around the tree trunk, or sit on top of the wide and welcoming branches.

  • Today we welcomed several guests to our camp set-up on what is now known as “Richmond’s Island”. In the morning, we heard from our guest, Natalie Warren, who spoke all about her expedition to Hudson Bay and how it has impacted her life ever since. After Natalie spoke to us all, and we discussed some of the themes that paralleled to our own expedition, we met two new guests who arrived on the shores of the island in a curious form of why there were two catamarans tied up to an island off the Mississippi river. Our first curious guest, Cathy, paddled in her kayak to our shores, and timidly approached us all. As we were talking with Cathy, and were beginning to cook our lunch, we had another guest arrive on the shoreline. Fritz arrived in their self-made vessel and was kind enough to help us with shuttle services for our guests. Natalie and Richard left our crew with the gracious help of Fritz, as Nell and Emily made their way to the mainland to pick up our remaining guide for the semester, Steven! As all these shuttle services were occurring, we had the opportunity for the rest of our crew to clean and organize both Water Striders while the lunch crew continued to make a delicious pasta salad. After a fulfilling meal, we began our class session on knots and boat terminology, with our favorite professor and captain, Joe. All of us students began practicing the bowline knot, from all different angles, how to tie a line in a hanked coil as well as making it off on a cleat. These are the three basic skills that we will soon be evaluated on to have a successful and safe journey south. For the remainder of our class, we did a writing exercise to practice our field note entries. These field notes are a baseline for one of our courses, in which we will each have a unique approach to recording the things around us. We then went around and shared a bit about what each of us wrote about for the 15-minute duration. It was so intriguing to see how each of us took our individual approach to recording the place we are in, and how it relates to what we are doing at this moment. Later in the evening, we welcomed our guides back, and noticed that we now have our full crew for the duration of the semester! As the dinner crew was cooking, and a group was sitting around the campfire singing the “rhyme real good” tune, we were approached again by our friend Fritz from earlier in the day! Fritz informed us that as they were passing through lock and dam 5A, our group was remembered by the lock master and they graciously gave us two books to add to our traveling library. What a day to appreciate all our river friends that we have made in our expedition so far!! The day turned into night as we ate a meal in community with one another around the campfire, which was filled with stories, connection, songs, and laughter as the stars began to appear in the clear night sky.

Class Discussion under the pin oak on Richmond Island.
[Megan Parkinson]

 

Day 16: September 12th:

Today was a short travel day as we had traveled quite far the day before. We woke up to an overcast and cloudy sky. As the morning went, while packing up the boats the wind started to pick up and the sky was looking like there was a ‘storm a brewin”. As we continued packing boats Joe called out to find our rain gear as it may rain. Soon after the wind really picked up, even picking up one of the empty tents (ready to be taken down) and causing it to roll down the beach. Luckily the tent was caught soon after beginning to roll. The wind finally died down and we expected to get quite wet from the coming rain. We launched on a still overcast sky, leaving the sails down as we had to paddle through some back water of the Mississippi. We paddled away, maybe a mile or two through the back water. One boat was towing our small tender which is named the Plankter. As one boat paddled away it began go get harder and harder to move. Longer than some would like to admit later, it was realized that the issue was with the line pulling the tender, which had caught upwards of a hundred pounds of weeds now stuck being pulled along, causing more drag.
Once the boats landed at the destination, a small boat launch, we unloaded only what we would need for the night. We were then picked up by Broken Paddle Kayak Guiding to tour their shop/store, learn their story, and then camp on the associated farm, Dancing Gnome farms.
The tour was fantastic, as was the farm. Alex and Michael, our main hosts were nothing but gracious and kind. They gave us a tour of the farm and made us feel welcome. We returned their generosity by helping prep lots of garlic, and inviting them to our dinner. Michael was happy to provide some farm fresh veggies for the dinner as well. It was an organic farm growing a variety of foods. The farm was tucked into the bottom of a valley of a hilly area near Wabasha, Minnesota. We set up camp for the night on a small pasture field on the farm that goats were grazing on a few weeks before.
I have attached one photo of the farm and the sunset with Niall walking to set up their tent. As well as a photo of Dylan alluding to the dream works image with the moon in the background, alluding to on another level the funny mishaps some have when trying to take the photo commonly used where people put something in the background appearing to be in their hand.

[Elias]

Day 14: September 10th

Today we woke up at our campsite in Hok Si-La and for breakfast we had a delicious egg bake then we had our first official class session of the year and learned about each of our independent study projects. We have a wide range of topics from studying the sediment of the shores to an examination of environmental topics in science fiction literature. Class ended and we had some cheese and crackers for lunch which was delicious! We had the afternoon off to relax and enjoy our lovely campground where we found a giant puffball mushroom which we unfortunately couldn’t eat. The dinner crew made us some delicious personal pizzas which were a crowd favorite and for dessert they made peach banana cobbler over the fire which we put candles in for a late birthday celebration for one of our guides Emily!

A puffball mushroom found at Hok Si La camp.

Day 13: September 9th:

Today we spent another day at our campsite in Hok Si La. We dedicated the day to be unstructured to help us get some more rest as a break from the fast-paced nature of the trip so far.

In the afternoon, some of us visited a local mussel propagation center. We met Bernard, who graciously showed us around the facility and taught us a lot about the mussel populations in the Minnesota rivers.

Bernard Sietman of the DNR’s Center for Aquatic Mollusks Program (CAMP)

We got to ask questions and learn about how mussel propagation works and understand the amount of time and work it takes to grow baby mussels to recover the populations that are suffering in the river regions.

During dinner we got to chat with our Hok Si La friend, Joanne, and eat together with her. She has shown us a lot of kindness and generosity in the past few days and we loved getting to talk to her more.

We also had a campfire and enjoyed the use of all of our instruments, which have now accounted to a fiddle, mandolin, guitar, maraca, mouth harp, harmonica, and everyone’s oh-so-talented voices.

[Sarah Egertson]

Day 12: September 8th

Today we discussed the importance of self-advocating, and doing it sooner rather than later. Poor mental state and being overall worn out is less than ideal for learning and teaching. School should not be stressful to the point where the idea of learning causes turmoil. 

“Seems pretty counterproductive if you ask me…” –Joe Underhill

[Dylan Garbow]

 

Day 11: September 7th

The wind was favorable yet again for our crew! We packed up from our river island and set sail early in the morning.

Sailing into Red Wing

We stopped for a lunch break in Red Wing and continued sailing into the afternoon while wearing funny glasses, getting lost in conversations, reading books and signing a song that goes like this:

Can you imagine a way
Canoe to carry us home
Dig, dig into the water
Dig, dig into the water
Heave e-oh
Heave-e-oh
Heave-e-oh

Heave-e-oh

We were greeted by river angel Joanne at Hok-Si-La and set up camp on a terrace landscape that gave us a stunning view of Lake Pepin.
Another day in paradise
-z

Day 10: SEPTEMBER 6th: 

  • Happy Layover Day! Today our river crew took time for self-care, as we stayed on an island from the night before located south of Prescott, Wisconsin. We had nothing on the agenda right away in the morning, and simply woke when our bodies told us too. We then took time to have our weekly water blessing, followed by a swim in the channel to immerse ourselves in the joy that the water brings us. The afternoon consisted of a variety of activities and discussions led by members of our crew that highlighted our gifts and passions, and individuals selected which activity they wanted to partake in. As the sun began to set, we gathered together again for a meal. The dinner crew utilized our ¨rocket stove,¨ loaned to us by John Kim for the semester, to cook a vegetable coconut curry dish. The ¨rocket stove¨ provides us with the opportunity to use firewood to cook with a single burner and not rely on any fossil fuels. After the delicious meal, we continued to immerse ourselves in each other’s company around a campfire and slowly moved back into our tents for the night.

  • Pictured below is an in-progress photo of the vegetables cooking in the wok on the ¨rocket stove.”

Megan cooking over the rocket stove. “Just say no to fossil fuel!”
[Megan Parkinson]

Drawing by Nial from the Day:

Day 9: Sept. 5

This was our third day traveling on the river and it feels like we’re starting to get into the rhythm of traveling.  After the long day of sailing yesterday, we had a more leisurely morning and less than ten miles to cover to the island where we set up camp.  Four lovely folk who traveled the first leg of the journey with us (three people and a dog) left the group today.  

With a more relaxed travel day we were able to spend a bit more time discussing the things we were seeing.  In the morning Joe read to us about the mayflies and the confluence of the St. Croix and the Mississippi.  The mayflies we saw a few days ago in St. Paul.  We learned that they had lived almost their entire lives in the water- all but the say that we saw them.  The mouth of the St. Croix, we learned, is a very important place to the Dakota people.  At the confluence there is a sand bar which we read about in Mni Sota Makoce by Gwen Westerman and Bruce M. White.  In the Dakota tradition it was created by a man who turned into a fish.   

With a wind from the north, it was a great day to sail down the river.  I’ve sailed quite a bit before, and I am so happy to be traveling by boat this term.  A few different folks in my boat took turns at the tiller and it’s really fun to see them getting a feel for sailing.  

We set up camp on an island that we are planning to stay on for two nights.  Despite some poison ivy, it’s a lovely place. 

[Nial Howley]

Day 8: Sept. 4 (St. Paul to south of Prescott, WI)

[Angelica Bello Ayapantecatl]

Day 7: September 3 (St. Paul, MN)

Launch day!
Today was an early day as we had lots to do. We had to get get to the marina by 8 which meant waking up before 6 for some of us. We originally planned to be launching with a small ceremony and crowd at 10:30, but we had to push that back as we could not safely sail away at that time. We still had to put the last boat in the water and bolt it all together. As with any expedition, we ran into a few hiccups while bolting together the boats. We discovered some of the bolts’ threads were stripped so we could not attach them, and that some of the bolts were too short. After lots of trial and error, and laying in awkward and sometimes precarious positions to attach and tighten the bolts, we got to a point where we could call the work good enough for the time being. Nell and Emily officially christened the boats Water Strider I and II before our official launch and we were off for our adventures!
We made it a little ways, but we launched so late we had to adjust our plans for the day. We ended up camping a little ways down, as we were already so tired from the day. Our campsite had hundreds of mayflies which fascinated many of the students. We slept well, some of the campers noticed drag racers in the middle of the night which woke them up. All in all a great launch day!
The Tik Tok for the day can be accessed here.
[Elias Wirz]

Day 6: Thursday, September 2: Day Before Launch Day (The Final Push)

I would describe today as stressful, taxing and exciting.

My first activity of the day was going to the Augsburg Campus and making some screen printed bandanas for our trip!

After that it was another hot day of packing and assembling the boats at the marina. A lot of physical work had to be done today. I kept morale high today by meeting many river dogs and their people at the Watergate marina, doing the daily “wake up shake up” with my river comrades, and sharing laughs and maybe a couple tears.

The group was somewhat separated today as we prepared for our journey. For me, the day ended with eating some delicious celebratory pizza after a long days work, buying a last-minute cold weather sleeping bag at 8:30pm at Cabellas (a fascinating experience :-P), and doing some late night packing and water jug filling at Camp Knudson (Emily’s house that they have been generously sharing with a few of us), in preparation before the big day tomorrow.

Already, I feel I am learning and growing a lot. I am excited and curious about this beautiful project we are co-creating. Although we are all bringing knowledge, experience, and other gifts along with us, we are embarking on something completely new. I look forward to seeing where we go together.

[MJ Whitaker-Long]

Day 5: September 1

Happy September! Today started off with silliness. We showed up to the marina singing tunes and dressed as the characters from Wes Anderson’s “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” (all blue clothes and red beanies).  This set the tone for our day of work together.

We got back to priming the boats and finishing up the rigging for the mast. After working for a bit, naturally we got thirsty and were pleasantly surprised with a cooler full of ice cold lemonade, sparkling water, soda, and fresh fruit from Joe! This held us over to late afternoon when we finished putting together the first boat which was a moment of pure joy!

The crew excited to see the second Water Strider coming together. Now just to get them in the water!

Finally, we ended the day with an opportunity to connect with past river semester students at a bonfire on the shores of the Mississippi.

[Kelly Shono]

 

Day 4: August 31

River Dan here, reportin’ the exciting events and encounters of our river semester.  Today started off with a rendition of Happy Birthday for Elias, who turned 21! We then packed up our things from Big Sandy Camp and headed on the road towards Minneapolis.

The “Before”….

Once we got to the Marina, we got to see our (deconstructed) boats and start touching up their exteriors. We sanded and painted and started the rigging process on the masts. After a hot few hours of work, we called it a day and packed up our things to prepare for the next few days in Minneapolis.

The hulls and bridge decks of the two Water Striders, ready for touch-up painting.

In some relevant news, River Dan has started an Instagram account (managed generously by MJ). It will update our encounters with many of the dogs (and possibly other animals) that we will see.

Follow us on Instagram to see it all:  @riverdanriverdawgs

River Dan and friends ready to get paintin’
[Sarah Egertson]

Day 3: August 30

  • Met Alan (at the Line 3 Protest Welcome Center near Palisade)
    • Talked about work they were doing with Line 3
    • Talked about puppets

Learned about the work environmental activists such as Alan were doing in relation to Line 3. Told us about lawsuits that unfortunately did not proceed. Talked about working with Winona LaDuke, being at the forefront of much of the operation.   

[Dylan Garbow]

Day 2: August 29

Today we centered ourselves around the water. We sang to nibi, we wished our intentions into it, and we prayed for its protection. We offered it Copan and Angelica sang to it in a language of her ancestors. The wild rice danced and a bald eagle circled overhead. We have been told that an eagle’s presence is a sign that we are going in the right direction.

We visited the place where the water first pours from Lake Itasca into the Mississippi River, and discussed how this space is completely constructed and artificial. The start of the river was originally a wetland swamp, but gravel and stones were brought in so that tourists could visit a neatly defined start of the river.

We walked over the iconic stones and one by one returned a gift to the lake – a jar of water collected by river Semester 2019 at the Gulf of Mexico after their own 100 day journey. Each 2021 student pored a bit of the gulf water into Itasca, and afterwards each student scooped up some Lake water back into the bottle, to begin the cycle anew and to have something to return to the river at the end of our own 100 day journey. We baptized ourselves in the water, took a family picture on the iconic log crossing, and waded down the stream until the riverbed became too muddy to comfortably continue.

Swimming at the outflow from Lake Itasca, in water that within about 100 days will be at the Gulf of Mexico. We hope to join it there.

We returned to camp to rest, draw, journal, discuss class work, and look over architectural blueprints of our water strider boats. Joe told us that six months ago these boats didn’t even exist as an idea, but dreaming, teamwork, and hard work brought them into reality and brought this river semester into reality. Joe has put an insane amount of energy and dreaming into all of this and for that we are all thankful. He told us that he wants us to think about what kind of boat we would like to build – what seemingly impossible dreams we would like to bring to reality through our own incessant dedication and hard work.

Our first paddle, at sunset on Lake Itasca.
Our first paddle, at sunset on Lake Itasca. From left to right: Angelica, Joe, Megan, MJ, Sarah, Kelly, Nell, Elias, and Nial (Dylan is just out of the frame to the right).

Day two has been filled with laughter, deep discussions, and the delirious joy of being able to come together after such a long time of pandemic isolation. We walked down to the lake to catch the sunset, and ended up taking canoes out just in time to catch the view from the water. When dark fell we gazed at the stars while we chatted until we were too tried to stay awake any longer. We are thankful for the incredible beauty of this natural space on earth, of this new community, and of this incredible journey that we are about to embark upon.

[Emily Knudson]

Day 1: August 28

Love today…

Looked like- new smiling faces

Smelled like- fresh pine surrounding camp

Sounded like- the first zipper of a new tent

Felt like- connecting with fellow crew mates

Tasted like- spiced vegetables over hot rice

Setting our first camp at the University of Minnesota’s Biological Field Station at Lake Itasca.

Excitement was in the air as the 2021 river semester crew took off on the first day of their grand adventure. The day started off at Augsburg University where they gathered their gear and got to know each other. Later in the afternoon they made it up to Lake Itasca (despite the strong winds and heavy downpour). This location had a biological field station where the crew talked about science, land and place based work. They conversed and connected with river semester alumni about what to prepare for and expect on the journey ahead. The crew wrapped up the night and enjoyed their first camp dinner of curry and fresh vegetables.

[Zoe Barany]

August 25

We’re pleased to report that the shakedown cruise or “river trials” of the first Water Strider went really well.  We had great luck with the weather and were able to sail most of the time, and the boat really exceeded expectations.  It carries plenty of weight, scoots right along under sail, is maneuverable, and has “nice lines,” as they say in the business.  The students will be helping with final painting, modifications, minor repairs, and improvements during the course of the semester, but we are very close to ready now.  Students arrive in two days, and we leave for the headwaters in three days!

At anchor at the end of day 2 of the shakedown cruise. Looking very much like a water strider.
Getting some questions from the captain and crew of the White Rock (who got quite close!)
Heading out from the Watergate Marina at B’dote.
Getting the mast, rigging, and sail in place on the first Water Strider.
John, Alicia, Mark, and Hannah hard at work priming and painting the four hulls.

July 31

The past two weeks have been a blur.  The weather has been hot and the skies full of smoke from the wildfires in Manitoba.  The reddish glow of the sun and the record-breaking levels of particulate matter have lent an apocalyptic air to scene, are are further evidence of how climate change is increasing.  We have been working nonstop to get the boats done in time for the August 10th shakedown cruise, and it has been a frantic pace.  We are on the verge of overdoing, with machines breaking down, the table saw blowing blue sparks (had to buy a new table saw!), muscles cramping up, and the floor (and bottoms of our shoes) covered with epoxy drips.  We’ve thankfully had various folks stopping by to help out–Steven and Audrey from the 2019 River Semester, John Kim, Alicia and Mark have all been a great help.  And Hannah has been consistently amazing.  It’s safe to say the boats would not have happened without her!

Alicia, Mark, and Hannah getting ready to apply the epoxy resin to hull # 3.  The fiberglass cloth starts out white but becomes translucent once it is saturated with the resin.

Working the epoxy resin into the fiberglass.

This photo by Claire Pentecost shows Hannah and Joe on the assembled (but unfinished hull parts) in the black box theater.  Floating in the void.

July 18

With a little less than seven weeks until the launch of the expedition, we have the first mast glued up, using “birds mouth” joints to make a tapered, hollow octagonal spar (one could say we are starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel!)  These are the most complicated part of the boats, but this design makes for a light, strong mast.  We will use the same technique for making the two “sprits” that hold up the “peak” (the upper, back corner) of the sail.

 

The main pieces of one catamaran:  the two hulls, the central cargo hull, and the mast.

 

Trying out the mast in place–it just fits in the shop’s 20-foot height.

July 9

After a few weeks off for some travel and visiting with family, we are back to work with a certain sense of urgency.  We are scheduled to depart in 50 days, so the clock is ticking.  As a result, we’re doing more building than blogging these days, but I will try to post more photos as we go.  In the past two weeks Hannah and Joe have been busy, and John Kim has stopped by several times to lend a hand, and things are moving along.  All four hulls are now planked, and we have disassembled the molds to make space for the next phase, which is building the central cargo hulls.  The first of those is now almost complete, and is starting to look good, with plenty of room to carry all the gear and supplies we’ll have with us.  It took a little doing to bend the frames and plywood for the bow, but this rig with the pipe clamps did the trick.

The first of the central cargo hulls in progress.

 

June 10

Another very hot day and we are confined to working inside.  Hannah and I finished the second hull and wrangled it off the molds.  The hulls are definitely heavy (and sturdy) and are not made for portaging.  These are boats, not canoes, meant to stay in the water, where the amazing power of water’s hydrogen bonds will do the heavy lifting for us.  With two hulls completed we needed to see what the boats would look and feel like when assembled, so, despite the heat, we wheeled them out into the parking lot and set them up temporarily with the two cross beams.  They begin to feel like something substantial.  There is a deep and undeniable pleasure in seeing an idea come into being in the material world, and this is certainly part of the motivation for this project.

Setting up the first two hulls with the cross beams to get a feel for the size of the assembled boats.
Hannah admiring some her her handiwork.

Elias stopped by in the afternoon and helped with the start of the third hull, and then in getting the first two hulls back into the shop and stacked up.  The space is filling up with boat parts and it’s getting a bit cramped in the space.  There will be a bit of a break now, while I am visit family.  Construction will resume on June 28th.

Date: June 8, 2021

Weather: high 90s (heat advisory and air quality alert)  We’re in the middle of a heat wave here in Minnesota with some record heat for this time of year (more signs of a changing climate).

Observations, events, encounters: After a two-week break for a little travel and rest, we are back in the shop and making good progress on the second hull.  We are getting into the grove with the building, having worked out some of the processes and techniques for making the plywood scarf joints and the frames and stringers.  The heat is an issue, and we’re glad to be inside for now.

The second hull framed out in Augsburg’s scene shop.

Date: May 18, 2021

Location: Augsburg University (Scene Shop)

Weather:  80 F,  clouds and rain moving in from the South with wind at 10-15 knots

Observations, events, encounters:  We are now moved in to the Scene Shop at Augsburg and appreciating the space and ability to work indoors.  It’s also nice to have folks stopping by.  Arlie from our Facilities Department came by to check out the project today and talked about how he used to watch his uncle build skin-on-frame kayaks on the coast of Oregon.

Entered by: Joe Underhill

Meryn and Hill helping with the move.
Meryn and Hill helping with the move.
The luxurious new shop space!
The luxurious new shop space! Thanks to Michael Burden and the Theater Dept. for letting us use it.
Hull # 1 of 4. Now we go into production.

Date: May 15, 2021

Location: Minneapolis

Weather: Sunny, 71 F, North wind at 5 knots

Observations, events, encounters:  The first hull is now roughed out.  Hannah and I finished the frames yesterday and glued and screwed the three hull panels on.  This morning I managed to raise it up off the molds, turn it right side up, and trim the sheer.  The hull has a nice shape, I think,  with lots of rocker (curve) and plenty of volume, so it will have plenty of buoyancy to support all the weight of our gear and supplies.

Entered by: Joe Underhill

                         First hull with panels on, being removed from the molds.

 

Seeing what the seats look like in the hull, and putting on a bit of the “fairing compound” to smooth out the rough spots in the plywood.

Trying out the transom flag mounts on the first, unfinished hull.

 

Date: May 9, 2021

Location: Minneapolis

Weather: Sunny, continued cool

Observations, events, encounters: I’m working on making the stringers, which entails scarfing (joining) together several lengths to create the 24-foot long pieces.  The cool weather is making the gluing & epoxying difficult, but we’re getting the system worked out.  I’m getting to know the wood, and the glue, and the form of the boat.  It takes some trial and error each time, and getting back  into “carpentry mode.”  It is getting crowded in the garage & driveway, so it will be good to be moving into the Scene shop this coming weekend (and nice to be able to store stuff inside).

Entered by: Joe Underhill

Hannah and Joe working on gluing up the first of the laminated cross beams.

Date: May 6, 2021

Location: South Minneapolis, near Minnehaha Creek

Weather: still cool but bright sun and a nice breeze from the NW.

Observations, events, encounters: The ash lumber and more plywood was delivered on the 5th, and we have begun milling that up for the cross beams, hull stringers, frames, mast, and sprits.  It is nice wood–one of the strongest native hardwoods, but also heavy!  The 500 board feet of it weights close to a ton.  Hannah Conner (the intern from Macalester College) worked today and we got the first of the cross beams glued up.  It is quite a process to get the 6 layers of ash all glued up, but we got it clamped and trued up and will be very strong.

Entered by: Joe Underhill

The patterns from the sawdust on our old driveway. What strange divinations do you read therein?

Date: May 4, 2021

Location: Minneapolis

Weather: Clear skies, 50s, north wind.

Observations, events, encounters: Trees are mostly leafed out, the fruit trees are in full bloom, but there is risk of frost this evening. Robins are nesting, cardinals are singing, and along the river the pelicans are heading north.  The Water Strider molds and forms are taking shape in my driveway.  It’s nice to work on creating a nice looking hull, that will hold four paddlers comfortably, stand up to some heavy use on the river, and carry somewhere between 3,000 and 4,000 pounds (for each catamaran).  Today the aim is to work on “fairing” the hull’s lines, meaning that we want nice, clean lines at the sheer (the top edge of the hull) and along the bilge (bottom) chine (corner).  The new flags for the River Semester arrived today–two of the new images of the Mississippi watershed as the tree of life, one of the original River Semester “badge” and one Augsburg University.  I like the new logo as a symbol that is intrinsically about this natural space, and which recognizes the archetypal significance of these fractal, branching forms (the tree and the watershed).

Days until Sept. 3 launch:  122

Entered by: Joe Underhill

 

Water Strider hull molds
Water Strider hull molds roughed out.
One of the centerboards being glued up.

What to do during a flood

The rain has been falling, hard and steady, the past few years.  After the 2016 election, the daily barrage of vitriol, meanness, and narcissism emanating from the White House; the forest fires, the pandemic, the murder of George Floyd, it’s been a lot. I say this as someone in a position of great privilege, who has mostly just had to observe these troubles without being so directly affected by them. This in contrast to the realities for so many, particularly in BIPOC communities.  In my own world, there have been other, more personal, challenges as well.  In 2019 my mother died of cancer, and both my kids had fairly serious health crises.  In the spring of 2019, as my mother lay dying, I was in the midst of trying to keep the 2019 river expedition alive, as it faced a whole range of logistical and financial challenges. In part as a testament to who my mother was as a person, we managed to salvage the trip and help take an amazing international crew down the Mississippi as part of the Anthropocene River project.  Thankfully, the River Semester wasn’t scheduled to run in 2020, as we had more than enough to deal with that year.  Then, in early 2021 my nephew took his own life, and my father was diagnosed with congestive heart failure.

While visiting my Dad in early March of this year, helping my sisters with his care, I began thinking again about vessels and building projects. My father is a bronze sculptor who helped me with my first building projects (making skateboard ramps when I was in high school).  His work making vessels has inspired my interest in boatbuilding as well.  My father’s house is full of sculptures and drawings, plans, and self-designed contraptions of various sorts, fruitful ground for scheming.  His studio (pictured below) is even more so.

One of the many workbenches in the studio where my Dad has made bronze sculptures for the past 20 years. He made his first bronzes in the late 1950s.

At the time I was visiting him we were also at another crucial decision point for the River Semester.  COVID had made it hard to recruit students, our outfitter came with a hefty fixed price tag, and it looked like we might not be able to run the program again.  Sitting with my father in his home, in the midst of all his creations, I wondered, could there be a way to perhaps organize a slightly smaller expedition and do the outfitting ourselves?  This would make it possible to run the program this fall, but it would require some kind of new boats, since the only boats that are readily available (and within our budget) are tandem canoes, which are too small and unstable for taking a large group of inexperienced paddlers down the Mississippi.  The Voyageur canoes we had been taking in the past are great boats, but had their limitations as well, and are very expensive to buy (or build and maintain).

As I’ve been doing since I was a kid, I began to make some sketches.  Growing up in a household of artists, there was always some kind of project going on.  I started building things out of wood as part of my initial infatuation with skateboarding, building larger and more elaborate ramps. In my late teens, I became infatuated with, of all things, old wooden sailboats and boatbuilding.  I’ve always been drawn to the beauty and symbolism of the vessel, of the boat, the ark, that which carries us across, gets us through.  Starting in my late teens I worked as a carpenter, deckhand and rigger on traditional wooden schooners, and during grad school started building a 20-foot wooden sailboat that we now sail on our local lakes.  After moving to the Twin Cities, I soon connected with the local nonprofit Urban Boatbuilders, and then began dreaming about taking students out on the Mississippi.  At my father’s house in March, thinking now about our experiences on the Mississippi over the past twenty years, and what might work in terms of some kind of sailboat on the river, I sketched out the following:

The first drawing of the river catamarans, done at my father’s house in early March 2021.

Given all that had been going on, globally, nationally, and personally, I was feeling a sense urgency for change and action.  One way of understanding art is as the process of making beauty out of pain, and in the midst of these times one wonders what kind of beauty might emerge.  The increasing complexity and alienation from the technology which permeates our lives likewise reinforces the importance of some kinds of simplification, a bit more self-reliance, and the need to help students cultivate an understanding that we have the abilities and wherewithal to take care of ourselves, navigate the waters ahead.  In my ongoing efforts to find a way of teaching that extracts itself as much as possible from the fossil-fueled, colonial, racist, and excessively rigid and screen-dominated institutions and infrastructures I have remained dissatisfied with academia’s entanglements in these dysfunctional systems.  We need to minimize our dependence upon institutions and technologies that facilitate the perpetuation of the current destructive, extractive, and unjust set of practices.  Part of the response to this entails empowering ourselves, getting local, simplifying, connecting with the world.  These boats take us one step closer to those goals. Last fall, during the height of the pandemic, I did what I could to take class out of the COVID-infested confines of our stuffy indoor spaces and indoor the fresh air and sunshine outdoors.  More of this kind of action is needed.

So now, thinking ahead to prospects for self-outfitting for the 2021 River expedition, I mused about constructing a whole mobile classroom and floating circus of sorts, and thus (why not?) of building two sailing catamarans.  Based on our experiences on the river of the past twenty years these struck me as the appropriate craft for educational expeditions on the Mississippi.  Over the years of going out on the river, we’ve learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t, about this particular river and how to navigate it. So it seemed plausible that we could build some craft that would be easier and more comfortable to paddle, able to travel further, with various adjustments and bits of gear (seats, tables, white boards, carts, etc.) to facilitate learning in this itinerate, river-based mode.  The boats would use traditional technology, be relatively simple to build and repair, and relative easy to transport (designed just to fit inside a big U-Haul).  I laid out the rationale and design parameters for the boats in this concept paper.

I also wanted to draw on the wisdom of the world and of the community, of Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK), the beauty of evolution, our own experience, as well as a modicum of the wonders of modern chemistry (the boat does involve some epoxy and fiberglass).  It is important that the boats honor the nautical traditions and geomorphological realities of place.  The original boats on the Mississippi were dugout canoes, built and used by the Dakota, the Mdewakanton, the “people who came from the water.” Further north, the Ojibwe built lightweight birchbark canoes on the lakes, that evolved into the Voyageur canoes, and modern lightweight boats we use up north.  The canoe form and paddle would be part of the design.  But we also needed something more stable and capable of carrying a lot of gear. The Pacific island proa or waʻa kaulua a form that my colleague Vicente Diaz has worked with and connected to our local waters as well, provided further inspiration

Model of a Micronesian Wa outrigger sailing canoe, part of the “Why Canoes?” exhibit at the University of Minnesota. https://twin-cities.umn.edu/news-events/why-canoes-exhibit-opens-northrop-gallery

In thinking about this outrigger or catamaran design, I was also reminded of the water strider bugs, their wide stance and light feet, and their ability to stand still on the water.

water strider

Our journey takes us along the great flyway of the Mississippi River valley, so it also seemed appropriate that we could draw on some of the powers of the migratory birds—like my favorite the pelican—allowing us at times, when the wind turns and pushes on our backs, to spread our wings and fly. The addition of a set of wings (sails) allows us to ride the wind.  Harvesting that form of solar energy, further reducing our reliance on fossil fuels, deepening our connection to our physical surroundings and helping to attune us to weather patterns.

This spring I’ve been reading and taking some inspiration as well from Harlan Hubbard’s interesting account of building a “shantyboat” on the Ohio River.  He and his wife Anna built the boats themselves on almost no budget, grew their own food, made their own music, and lived this incredibly simple, adventurous life on the river.  This also seemed like a welcome antidote to much of the dysfunction of our times.  Given that I’ve got a limited budget as well, I liked how they were able to create this craft using mostly found and salvaged materials.

Anna and Harlan Hubbard with their shantyboat (and john boat) on the Ohio (photo credit the Kentucky Historical Society, https://peoplesriverhistory.us/blog/tell-us-about-shantyboat-communities/)

Needing some additional guidance on naval architecture and structural engineering, I reached out to John Marples, a naval architect of multihull boats, who made a number of helpful suggestions and design modifications.  When I asked the Mississippi’s two most experienced river rats—John Ruskey and Mike Clark—about this idea of building some catamarans, I was pleased (and not surprised) to learn that in 2010 they had built what they called either a “canoemaran” or a “catamacanoe,” using two of their large, Voyageur-style canoes as the hulls, with a large central platform for paddlers and gear.  With two sweeps on bow and stern, they had taken the hybrid craft from St. Louis to New Orleans.  There it was disassembled, with one of the canoes going to Clarksdale, MS and the other to St. Louis, where they are both still in service.  John’s sketches and plans for the boat resonated with me as well.

 

Junebug Canoemaran
Junebug Canoemaran, original drawing by John Ruskey.

That all led to more drawings, and then this one-twelfth scale model, then more detailed drawings.

Photo of scale model built in mid-March 2021

So, what to do during a flood?  Build a boat.  Construction of two full-size versions of these paddle catamarans began in April, and we hope to take them out for a shakedown cruise in August.  To follow the boat building project, you can find an ongoing account of progress in the 2021 River Semester Expedition Log.

 

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 Asberger’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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Where to begin?

We are looking for ways to live in an era in which the wealthy and powerful—working in a modernist, capitalist, big business, big government, imperialist system—have extracted obscene riches, killed millions, and wreaked havoc on the environment (#Anthropocene). And yes, an era of amazing technological progress, economic prosperity, strident nationalism and xenophobia, pathologically narcissistic leaders, and so on.  We launch from the here and now, from what might be seen as a dilapidated dock on a muddy, polluted river, unsure of where exactly we are going except that it is downstream. We begin in a room full of boats and paddles and life jackets and tents and raincoats, in the ongoing attempt at systems change, while still having to work within that system.

We are at the headquarters of Wilderness Inquiry, an outfitter that started with the premise that the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness could be accessed by people in wheelchairs without having to pave paths, build docks, or allow motor boats into that small remnant of relatively undisturbed nature.  Two pieces of federal legislation–one to preserve wilderness, the other to make public spaces accessible–seemingly clashed, and a scrappy group of Minnesotans were determined to show how you could do both. The result was an organization with the mission of making wilderness experiences available to anyone.  An iconic image for their work is a photo of a person in a wheelchair repelling down a sheer rock cliff.

We have a long journey to take, and we are all differently abled, all fallen, all falling.  We lack the wisdom to be able to see clearly what lies ahead, we are short-sighted and selfish and often can do hurtful things.  But we are also powerful and thoughtful and caring and hard-working, all in our own ways. So we will enter into the wilderness, into the fog, and work on finding our way to camp.

Overview Report on the 2018 Expedition

paddling in front of St. Louis arch

Program Overview

In fall 2018, the second offering of Augsburg University’s River Semester program spent 100 days traveling down the Mississippi River from Minneapolis to Memphis while offering a full semester of college courses in a range of disciplines.  The program is itself an experiment in low-carbon high-impact education, with the students on most days consuming a small fraction of the power and emitting almost no carbon emissions, while immersed in multidisciplinary inquiry of the Mississippi River, its watershed, and river communities.  The program takes seriously the need for a radical change in our socio-economy system to respond to the global challenge of climate change. It seeks an authenticity not typically experienced in higher education, where most institutions may study climate change, but rarely make the significant changes needed to address climate change in their daily practices.  The River Semester attempts to lead by example and model for students what a post-carbon society might look like, by living a very low-carbon life. On the river, the transportation and labor is human-powered, with attendant benefits in physical fitness, mental health, and a sense of independence.

As of 2018, the River Semester is now a regular part of the programming offered by Augsburg’s Center for Global Education and Experience (CGEE). River Semester will run annually in the Fall, allowing both Augsburg students and students from CGEE’s partner institutions to enroll on the program. Students that are interested can review the program brochure and online application at our website.

2018 students

Diversity in an outdoor education setting

In contrast to earlier expeditions, the 2018 cohort of students was a diverse group, consisting of 15 undergraduate students, two field staff/supplemental instructors, and two faculty (one in Political Science/Environmental Studies and the other in Biology).  The group included seven students of color (3 Latina, 1 African-American, 2 American Indian, and 1 Asian), one transgender, and three gender non-conforming students. All but two students were from Augsburg University; one was from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, and another from Dickinson College.

Reflecting this diversity, discussions and student interests were focused more on issues of race, equity, and environmental justice.  This was reflected in the independent study projects chosen by the students and the site visits and discussion topics taken up by the group.  The diversity likewise provided significant opportunities for learning from and about the diverse perspectives and life experiences of the group.  Participants were all made more aware of the various ways in which race, class, and gender can present barriers to engagement with environmental issues and outdoor education, and the ways that these barriers can be overcome.  Those discussions informed some of the decisions around revising the itinerary and program design. Drawing on these discussions and lessons, in 2019 the program will engage in more initial orientation to raise, and help address, the concerns of those coming from different cultural backgrounds and life experiences.  Given the importance and interest in these issues, there will also be more of a focus on race relations, equity, and environmental justice in the readings, courses, and discussion topics.

Curricular and extra-curricular learning

Students came from a range of majors and programs, and elected to take a wide variety of the courses available. As such, some amount of flexibility and virtual supervision was required for certain projects. The 2019 program will see a simplified set of course offerings and a streamlined curriculum and set of readings to allow the whole group to engage in that learning and discussion together.  

The 2018 cohort of students’ included students majoring in:

  • Biology
  • Biopsychology
  • Environmental Studies
  • History
  • International Relations
  • Management
  • Political Science
  • Psychology (Clinical Psychology)
  • Sociology
  • Pre-law

The River Semester curriculum draws on critical, democratic, and place-based pedagogy, which allowed students significant input into the structure of the program.  Much of the learning on the trip takes place outside of formal class activities and in addition to their coursework, the students in the program engaged in a wide range of activities, including:

  • paddling over 500 miles, including several days when it was snowing or below freezing
  • planning, shopping for, and cooking almost all the meals, and doing all the dishes; (including slaughtering, cleaning, and cooking their own turkey for Thanksgiving dinner!)
  • managing the library, IT needs, and shared resources of the group
  • setting up camp, rain tarps, solar panels, and latrines along the way
  • helping make some of the arrangements for site visits, libraries to study in, laundromats, showers, and churches to sleep in
  • hosting an international contingent of guests, including some of the world’s foremost water experts
  • sending in their absentee ballots in the 2018 election
  • gaining greater discernment of their vocations: as educators, lawyers, historians, field scientists, farmers, and policy analysts
  • writing dozens and dozens of thank you cards to the “River Angels” that helped the group along the way
  • sampling nine different streams and sorting thousands of benthic macroinvertebrates
  • observing Yom Kippur in the sanctuary of a Lutheran church in Trempealeau
  • carrying thousands of pounds of gear to countless campsites and back to the canoes
  • engaging in political actions and connected with various environmental and social justice groups and activists along the way
  • holding numerous group meetings and supported and advocated for and worked with each other in a way that was quite remarkable and which reflected their care for each other, and ability to work through differences in a way that bodes well for their life in community in the days ahead.  

In sum, this group of students bonded and shared an experience that they will almost certainly take with them, in deep and profound ways, for the rest of their lives.

Student Reflections from 2018

“I learned that my education came from my experience rather than solely writing papers and reading books, although they provided context for my experiential learning. I feel as though my education was comprehensive in that my courses on the river were not separate, they fed into each other and they never stopped, I was continuously learning all day everyday on the river. I learned about my surroundings and myself simultaneously.”

It was difficult to balance chores, canoe, stay warm, and do schoolwork, and maintain good mental health, but through all of this I realized that I can really do anything.”  

I feel incredibly empowered by the program. For the first time in a long time I am beginning to realize I am capable of so much more than I ever imagined. I actually feel like I can travel almost anywhere and can do almost anything. I also feel as though I have found my voice and figured out what exactly I want from my life.”

Compared to the average student on Augsburg University campus, I can state that my experiences on the River Semester have accounted for my endurance, flexibility, and resilience skills to be more well-rounded and adaptable to changes.”

This trip has taught me adaptability and has shown me how resilient I really am. I also did not expect living in a community to be difficult. I am very adaptable to personalities, so I thought it would be fun all the time. I was wrong. Living in community takes a lot of patience and open communication with each other. This trip has shown me my strength, resilience, and adaptability.

“Learning is what I did almost every day I was on the trip. Whether it be learning how to cook something different all the way to learning to stern a voyageur canoe. It was lesson after lesson. We also explored a lot, and this was soul filling. What I mean by this is that I found nature to be healing. I was dealing with a lot emotionally and mentally. Every day we were on the water and the sun shined on our faces, I felt hopeful and was ready to conquer whatever came my way. It gave me a new sense of self. I learned a lot about myself and what I was capable of and how strong I was.

To see all the ways we have grown and learned both individually and as a family was both encouraging and inspiring.  The lessons of gratitude rang true for myself and my fellow River Kids. Now, almost more than ever, I am excited to see where life takes me and my peers and I’m excited to see what we do.  We all have unique perspectives, but now we’ve all had the powerful and formative experience that was river semester to influence us on our paths ahead.  I am so thankful for the wisdom I was able to glean from them.”

moving canoes

Articles and presentations on the River Semester 2018-19

Here are a few articles and presentations from 2017-18 that give some background and context for the River Semester program.  This slide deck overview of our experience from the 2015 expedition.

This article, by program director Joe Underhill, gives an overview of the learning outcomes of the first River Semester in 2015 and was published in the online journal Open Rivers in Spring 2017.

This recording and slides is from a presentation from the launch of the Anthropocene River symposium at the Weisman Art Museum in Minneapolis on June 20, 2018, which offered an opportunity for organizers and collaborators of the project to present, examine, and reflect on their research paths and epistemological approaches. The symposium first considered the Anthropocene concept’s potential to transform human-environment interactions and secondly examined how the analysis of local articulations of anthropocenic processes may help to turn an otherwise seemingly incomprehensible concept graspable and intelligible.

And Open Rivers published an issue in Summer 2018 on the Paradox of Water.  Many of the authors attended the Nobel Peace Prize Forum in September 2018 at Augsburg, and a few of them joined the river expedition for a few days.

Black and White

Our journey has been defined by the serpentine path of the Mississippi as it carves its way through the middle of the country. As a feature of our geography, it has facilitated a particular path through the world.  In our canoes, we stick to the main channel, and the charts or the river tell us how to navigate and avoid the rocks and submerged stumps.  But our trip has also been through a human landscape–the chain of communities, towns, and social networks through which we have moved as we head toward the sea.  It is a rich and varied set of communities, and I noted earlier some aspects of “river culture”–the sense of generosity, a certain wildness, and shared connection to the rhythms and flows of the river.  But as our trip winds down, one of the most salient aspects of this human geography has been its racial segregation.  In exploring “democracy in America” today, we were repeatedly struck by the fact that we do not live in a post-racial society.  This shouldn’t come as a surprise, but nonetheless, spending 100 days slowly meandering the breadth of the lower forty-eight has certainly affirmed the ongoing importance of race (and class and gender) as socially significant categories. This manifested in various ways throughout our trip.

To begin with our group (in 2015) itself was comprised of people descended from immigrants from England and Germany, Scandinavia, Italy, and the like. I had originally hoped to have a group of students who would reflect the diversity of Augsburg and the Twin Cities, and there was interest from a wide range of students on campus.  But in the end, for a trip of this nature (long, expensive, camping), those that ended up being able to go were white.  We come from families that had taken us camping, or at least traveled; our families have the financial means; we have the support networks needed to be on the road for four months; and we saw this as an exciting and fun way to get a college education.  For any of the students of color who were at least slightly interested, one or the other of these conditions were not met. (Note: in 2018, thanks to a variety of factors, there were almost 50% students of color on the trip.  See blog post on 2018 expedition.)

This may have been slightly disappointing, a missed opportunity.  Diversity in the classroom and on campus enriches everyone’s experiences so much, and I really wanted to create an opportunity that would be accessible to anyone interested in going.  But there was a more troubling aspect of the trip–with rare exception our group moved through a white world, meaning that almost all our substantive interactions have been with people of European descent.  As water seeks the path of least resistance as it moves towards the sea, our path of least resistance through the human landscape has been through those networks of people with whom we shared most ties and affinity.  In setting up the trip, trying to contact people to meet with, and partner organizations, my list of connections was predominantly white (and male, but that’s another story).  Not that I sought any of this, but that was who ended up on my list.  Any time I asked someone who we should meet with, or looked online for a local expert, I found whites.  In the boats on the river (whether through-paddlers, towboat crews, or pleasure boaters) it was whites; in the houses and towns along the river it was whites.  Here and there we saw some people of color:  Latino farm workers or an occasional African-American on the shore fishing.  When I tried to set up meetings or visits in communities of color–in Ferguson or at the Prairie Island Reservation–I couldn’t find anyone to contact, or the people I tried to contact didn’t reply.  The lead I had for visiting Ferguson was a white photojournalist who had shot the photos during the protests and riots there.  In the Lower Ninth Ward, our bike tour guide did live in the neighborhood, but he was white and a recent transplant to the area.

We live in a society and country in which there are parallel worlds separated by invisible walls; we paddle a white river, and somewhere on the other side of an invisible partition are different rivers.  There are people of all ethnicities and countries of origin along the river, and that diversity is increasing, but it is as if they move in different universes.  In many cases, as Michelle Alexander has pointed out so powerfully in her The New Jim Crow, the walls (and bars) are very real.  But part of the “new Jim Crow” is spacial as well. In other cases the separation is created by the lack of social interconnections between the different races and ethnicities that could be described, in contrast with institutional racism, as “spacial racism.”  As the “war on drugs” becomes a “race-neutral” way to imprison thousands of young black men, the higher levels of mobility on the part of the wealthy, becomes a “race neutral” was to maintain a highly segregated society.  There was been plenty said about this in terms of housing patterns and school segregation, but it is always another thing to experience it so powerfully first hand, as we traversed the country from near the Canadian border, all the way to the sea.  Regardless of intentionality, our lived spaces and social networks remain racially segregated (with some exceptions that I’ll discuss further below).  This was the second feature of our experience of race on the trip.  The third was a shift in the kinds of racial attitudes we encountered as we traveled south.

At various points along the way, we encountered examples of whites who either had chosen to separate themselves from the diversity of the city, or expressed some openly prejudicial views.  The further south we got, the more extreme those views became.  There was, for instance, the mother who moved from New Orleans to small-town Minnesota, enamored of the Laura Ingalls Wilder stories and the pioneer mythos, and troubled by the violence and unrest she experienced in the south; she did not want to raise her children in New Orleans, and sought a context in which the mythic life of Ma and Pa Ingalls prevailed–even if it was mostly a myth.  The constant moving of the Ingalls family itself could be read as, in part, a very early example of white flight (whenever things got too crowded, Pa would want to move further out into the wilderness).  Here there was no overt expression of racial bias or prejudice, but the all-too-familiar act of spacial segregation.  Mobility has always been a powerful vehicle for racial and class-based segregation.  Those with the means have been able to leave; those without are stuck.  Our mobility along the river was a manifestation of our white privilege as well.  All along the river we noticed the spacial segregation in terms of socio-economic status.  On the high ground were always the nicest houses (often palatial mansions), and the closer you got to the mud and flooding of the river, the more marginal the housing.  This was true from the Twin Cities all the way to New Orleans and out into the disappearing bayou country.

A little further south, the manifestations of prejudice became more overt.  One evening, I hung out at a bar at a hotel in Alton, Illinois.  Bars are often a good place to get a feel for a place, with alcohol often thinning the veneer of social proprieties.  There was a group of about a dozen white guys in their 60s, laughing raucously and talking in loud voices about golf, strip clubs, homes in Flagstaff, fast cars, and referring to anyone who stingy as a “Jew” (and singing “Hava Negila” to emphasize the point.)  They were having the time of their lives, really yucking it up.  I was struck by the contrast between that groups’ realities and that of the African-American cook at the “custom-made omelettes” station at the hotel I saw the next morning. He seemed to bear the weight of endless hours of labor on his shoulders; labor that would not lead to fast cars, or houses in Flagstaff, or to raucous reunions with high school buddies.  These men moved in different worlds, worlds shaped by structures of opportunity and constraint that would lead their lives in very different directions.  The rules stacked in favor of those who “won the war,” so to speak; to the victor go the spoils–for them the hard work pays off; for those in that parallel, black, universe, the hard work much less often does.  Because unfortunately, to a large degree, the distribution of economic resources in a community is a zero-sum game.  The money accumulated by the few can only come from the many. (Yes, the economy can grow and the pie can become larger, but far more important is how that pie is divided up, and that division is still largely structured along racial lines.)  Robert Putnam’s, Our Kids, focuses on the growing gap between rich and poor and the importance of education in decreasing that gap in opportunities.  But the correlation between race and SES is still so strong it seems almost quaint to pretend otherwise (although I can understand the political utility of his approach, making it palatable to a much wider swath of the polis).

In St. Louis, Memphis, and New Orleans, the major metropolitan areas, the picture changed abruptly.  No longer in the land of Laura Ingalls Wilder, the city was richly diverse.  Here, paralleling the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, the two worlds met.  Here we finally talked with people of color, but in almost all cases these were with staff, low-paid employees at places like the City Museum, taxi drivers, wait staff, or the musicians in the Big Easy.  In urban America–Chicago, St. Louis, New Orleans, New York–black and white mix, peacefully coexist, but also clash, as seen in the confrontation and riots following the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson and the depressingly common examples of this kind of violence.  When we arrived in St. Louis and Memphis, I was struck by how many of the whites there expressed fear and concern about not going to certain parts of town.  Some of this is warranted, I suppose, and a certain level of prudence and common sense is always warranted.  But we didn’t have any problems, and it seemed that this palpable fear was a big part of what has helped maintain these walls of separation.  So much of American politics is driven by fear that, to my mind, just is not supported by the facts (see, for example, Corey Robin, Fear: the History of a Political Idea, or Frank Furedi’s The Politics of Fear).  Where the fear seems much more warranted is within the African-American communities, which have experienced domestic terrorism for decades, and for whom encounters with the police are fraught with very real risks.  Ta-Nehisi Coates recent Between the World and Me is a poetic and powerful account of that reality.

In the fairly posh neighborhood where I stayed in St. Louis, the owner of the B&B (who was, perhaps needless to say, white), made a point of talking about how he had successfully taken on crime in his neighborhood through a series of neighborhood policing measures and by seeking maximum sentences for any convictions.  Neighborhood residents would show up at trial to testify or just be a presence in the courtroom to provide greater pressure to apply harsher sentences.  This was referred to as a “Neighborhood ownership model” that consists of citizen patrols (eyes on the street), victim advocacy, a local police office, and stiffer penalties.  It reduced crime in the neighborhood, but it also helped reinforce the segregation of the city, and rather than get at the root causes of the crime, to my mind, would only help maintain the sense of alienation and economic desperation that feeds the decision to pursue a life of crime.  The owners of the B&B had worked very hard to fix up that old house, which was now packed full of old silver and china (one guessed that a good bit of it inherited), and they were now working on a second home in Arizona as well.  Crime was hurting business and driving down property values, and so the lines had to be drawn.  It was hard to blame him for his efforts, but the end result was again a society in which the whites got richer, and the blacks ended up in jail.  What would it take to be in a society in which, when I wanted to find a place to stay in St. Louis, I would look up the B&B’s and find one owned by an African-American who was fighting to keep his neighborhood safe from the white criminals?  Or better yet, of course, a society in which the opportunities were there for everyone, and thus the incentives to take to a “life of crime” were that much lower.

In St. Louis it felt like we had begun to enter “the South.” The language and demeanor, and demographics, began to shift as we entered territory in which slavery had once been the foundation of the economy.  By the time we reached Mississippi and heart of cotton country, this was very much the case.  In the hotel in Greenville, Mississippi (not long after a terrorist attack in Paris), four white hunters in camo gear were talking in the lobby about the influx of Muslims into the U.S., and how they were quite certain Obama was getting ready to impose martial law.  In loud voices they seemed convinced that the nation’s first black President had clearly malevolent intentions and was working in cahoots with Muslim terrorists.

At the southernmost point of our journey, in Chauvin, Louisiana at a local bar, we encountered the usual warmth and hospitality we have in Bayou country, but also ran into a very drunk man, a self-proclaimed fighter, who bragged about being able to kill black people (referred to as “n—-s”) and that he would “probably get away with it.”  Being from Chauvin, I guess he could rightly be called a chauvinist. He was unbalanced and full of a kind of pent up energy that I guessed came from some deep pain or injury at some point along the line.  On some level I think he too was driven by fear.  There is certainly a lot of loss, even desperation, in that marginalized edge of the world.  There at the end of the line, as deep into the south as one could get, there sat racism and bigotry in its rawest form, and one could easily see a situation in which, if a black man had come into town he might have, like so many thousands before, ended up dead.  There is, of course, a great diversity of views, of tolerance, and open-mindedness in people we met in Mississippi and Louisiana, and plenty of racism throughout America.  But it was interesting that on our trip at least, the further south we got, the more openly people expressed racist views.

New Orleans is now considering taking down four statues to Confederate war heroes, including the towering monument to Robert E. Lee that sat just outside our hotel room on “Lee Circle.”  It is a heated debate in the city now, with a petition against that move having recently garnered 31,000 signatures.  When students from two Louisiana HBCU’s were in town last week (for the Bayou Bowl) they staged a rally in Jackson Square calling for the removal of the statues.  As with the controversy over the Confederate flag, feelings run strong on both sides.  But it is time to put those symbols of slavery and oppression into a museum (so we not forget), and not have them stand in public as expressions of our shared values.

All this has made me appreciate all the more the need to actively work to bridge these divides and gaps, find ways to make it easier to interact with people from different backgrounds, experiences, and points of view.  For future trips it will be a priority to work harder to reach out and make those connections.  We need people whose work and skills help us cross those divides–what we are calling now “intercultural competence.”  I so appreciated those people who played that role for us on the trip. When we did manage to break through these walls that tend to separate black and brown from white, we had some of our richest and most rewarding meetings.  Schools, like Augsburg University, that have succeeded in diversifying their student body are crucial to this process, and we need to continue to work on desegregation of schools, workplaces, and other public institutions.  And my hat is off to faculty who have made it a priority to reach across color lines and build bridges between North and South. As but one example, my good friend and colleague Jeff Kolnick, who teaches history at Southwest State U. (in Marshall, MN) has down amazing work with the Fannie Lou Hamer Institute in Jackson, MS.

Our first bridge-builder we met was in Winona, MN, at the Dakota gathering there.  Lyle Rustad, a Vietnam Vet, runs the Diversity Foundation, whose mission is “Bridging the Cultural Gap.”  He went out of his way to bring a Dakota elder Emmett Eastman to our campsite to share his story with us.  It was a raw and unsettling story of historic and personal trauma, resilience, and ongoing struggle.  Visiting the Dakota gathering there and sharing a meal with our Dakota brothers and sisters felt like a little taste of the way things should always be.

With Augsburg’s President Paul Pribbenow, we did take our trip to Ferguson, MO, and visited the site where Michael Brown was shot and killed. But without any local contacts we felt very uncomfortable and out of place as the only white people there.

memorial

We were the outsiders, those with the means and privilege to be able to visit, and many of our students expressed discomfort with walking through that place.  But this made it real.  We were able to chat a little with some of the local residents at the burger place we went for lunch, and drove to the other side of town where the police station is as well.

In Clarksdale, Mississippi John Ruskey and the crew at the Quapaw Canoe Company have done great work as well in bringing together black and white in Mississippi and taking them out on the river (including us!).

greenville

In New Orleans, Nick of “The Confederacy of Cruisers,” took us on a bike tour of the Lower Ninth Ward, where we encountered a community of great resilience; a solid working class neighborhood with 70% owner-occupied homes prior to Katrina, the Lower Ninth is slowly but resolutely rebuilding.  We had a great meeting and conversation there with Mr. Lewis of the House of Dance and Feathers, a museum to the culture of the Mardi Gras Indians and Skulls and Bones Krewes.

On our 100th day of the expedition, thanks to the persistence of our own Hannah Arvold, and the help of Tracy Fredin of the Center for Global Environmental Education, we met with 4th and 6th graders at International School of Louisiana.  It was a beautifully diverse group of kids, at a school with a leaky roof, where our students talked about our trip and shared some of what they’ve learned (from Gulf hypoxia, to hydrophone recordings, to what we ate at camp.)  After talking with the teachers there, Hannah decided to use the money she had raised to go towards some badly-needed lab equipment for the environmental science classes.  The students there have been working with the Rivers Institute, getting out onto the water and into local swamps and marshes; perhaps one day some of those students will be able to travel down the river as well and experience some of the beauty and magic that we have on our trip. All-in-all a fitting way to close out our stay in New Orleans, sharing some of what we’ve learned and what we’ve grown to love about the river with some younger students.

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The arc of history may bend toward justice, but it curves slowly.  We have a long row to hoe, and we had a long way to the travel the length of the Mississippi River.  But with each swing of the hoe we make a little progress, and each time we dip our paddle into the river, lean back and pull the water back, we move a little closer to the sea.

The Nile, the Mississippi, and Anhydrous Ammonia

cocodrie1

Cocodrie sits at the end of Louisiana’s Route 56, about two hours south of New Orleans on Terrebone Bay.  It’s name is the Cajun word for alligator (crocodile being the closest thing they had for those fabulous reptiles).  But there are no “cocodries” or alligators here any more.  In fact, there almost isn’t any Cocodrie at all.  It sits in an area where land is disappearing at an alarming rate.  Alligators are fresh water creatures, and here the water is distinctly salty.  Now the local “charismatic megafauna” is the bottlenose dolphin.  The community started out as farmland for the Acadian refugees; over time it shifted to fishing; now it is mostly temporary fishing “camps” hoisted up on the 20-foot pilings pictured above.  Carl, the Cajun captain of the research vessel we went out in, recounted driving out to the barrier islands with his father (in a car, that is).  Today, it took us an hour in a fast boat to get to the one remaining remnant of barrier island left, and that island’s days are numbered.  At the Louisiana Marine Consortium (LUMCON) in Cocodrie, where we are staying this week, we learned that their 50-year plan is, and I kid you not, to be under water.  That would certainly make them a thoroughly marine consortium.

The coast here is dissolving into the sea, primarily because of three things:  the fact that all the sediment coming down the Mississippi is funneled far out to sea between the high levees of the navigation channels, rising sea levels (and coastal subsidence), and because of the maze of channels cut into the bayous by the oil companies.  The maze of interconnections here between our use of fossil fuels, our desire to control and channel the river, and our modern industrial economy are complex and far-reaching indeed. Paul Tidwell’s Bayou Farewell, chronicles this process vividly (and is well worth reading).  The state of Louisiana has responded slowly, and the people of the Delta are bitter about this fact.  Currently Louisiana is building its “Morganza to the Gulf” flood protection wall, pictured here:

morganza_to_gulf

This is the region’s new Maginot Line against the next big hurricane.  At present at LUMCON their parking lot floods any time there is a high tide and a south wind of any strength.  During Katrina, the winds blew from the north, and they were left temporarily on dry ground.  Whenever (and it is a matter of when, not if) they get a hurricane that tracks a little further west, that would mean 150 mph winds from the south, with nothing between them and Venezuela but open water.  They are, to put it mildly, in big trouble.  When Carl took us out to look at the new storm levee, his summation of the effort was blunt and bitter: “They shoulda done this forty years ago.”  He is a man whose people have been abandoned by their government.  You will note from the map above that Cocodrie (and therefore LUMCON) is outside the line of defense, left to fend for itself.  The state is already withdrawing vital services from the area–no fire department, no post office, no schools.  Only four families still reside in Cocodrie.   Forty years earlier the storm protection levee could have been built south of Cocodrie and that community might be able to think about raising children there.

All this brings to mind the ongoing discussion about the seriousness of humanity’s impact on the natural world.  We should, by all accounts, be involved collectively in the process of what theologians like to call “discernment”– a period of careful, even prayerful, reflection and meditation on the best path forward.  Much of what passes for that today is either ignorant denial, outright panic, or a kind of depressed fatalism.  In Louisiana, when it comes to coastal land loss, we seem to get a healthy mix of all three.

On our trip down the river though the realities we have seen, smelled, heard, and swam in, are more complicated, hopeful and troubling in various ways.  I have been left at times reassured by nature’s resilience and by human determination to steward our resources; at others I have been impressed by the relentless onward push of industry and consumer capitalism.  Authors writing about environmental problems often play up the problems.  We all like a good story, something that scares us, and a lot of environmental writing tends to fall into that genre (witness my dire account of land loss above).  In some cases it is entirely warranted.  But on the river, many of the horrors I had expected to encounter did not materialize.  The river was much cleaner than we expected, the fish abundant, the restoration projects were showing many signs of success.  Yes, many things had changed, and the river had been radically altered by engineering;  but, at the same time, nature abhors a vacuum, and in that new river there was plenty of life.  Not always the life we would want to see (the silver maple, kudzu, bighead carp, or water hyacinth), but life nonetheless.  We were repeatedly surprised by the beauty and wildness we found along the river in places such as the “wild miles” of the lower Mississippi.

One of the stories that originally prompted me to take this trip was John McPhee’s vivid portrayal of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineer’s ongoing efforts to keep the Mississippi River from jumping its banks and flowing down the Atchafalaya basin (which empties into the Gulf just to west of where we are now).  His The Control of Nature is a compelling tale, full of dramatic floods, impressive figures, and what seems to be impending catastrophe.  When we visited the actual “Old River Control Structure,” we found a set of impressive structures to be sure, but little of the sense of imminent disaster implied by McPhee’s account.  It is hard for journalists to resist a little hyperbole, and the experience of actually going there is almost always less dramatic than the accounts.  This to me is one of the most important things to be gained from experiential education–in James Joyce’s phrase, “the ineluctable modality of the visible” or more simply the inestimable value of first-hand experience.  The world has its own truth that no book or account (and God knows, no web site!) can capture, and we are well served by visiting the “real thing” and studying it carefully ourselves.

That said, there is still a real possibility that the Mississippi will, at some point, overwhelm the set of huge walls, dams, locks, and spillways that the Corps has constructed.  The whole lower Mississippi has been engineered by the Corps to be able to handle what they call a “Project Design Flood.”  This is a scenario in which the flow of the river hits 2.7 million cubic feet per second (cfs).  They think they have designed a system that can handle that amount of flow.  In 2011, the flow at Vicksburg was 2.3 million cfs (surpassing the amount of the great flood of 1927), and the system was able to handle it with room to spare. But when I asked our tour guide at the site what would happen if there were a flood that exceeded 2.7 million cfs he gave a shrug and said, “well, that’s what insurance and the government is for.”  An odd statement coming from a government official working for an agency was to defend the country. By government there, I suppose he meant FEMA and not the Corps.  If climate change kicks in as predicted (with a hotter atmosphere able to hold and then precipitate more water), they may have to come up with a new plan.

We are far from having achieved anything resembling balance or sustainability on the river.  In addition to the land loss in the Delta, the Herculean efforts to keep it flowing past Baton Rouge and New Orleans, Louisiana is also plagued with one of the world’s largest “dead zones,” an area of water largely devoid of marine life because of the huge blooms of phytoplankton that are fed by excess nitrogen fertilizer that flows out of the farm fields of the Midwest and into the Gulf.  Upstream we witnessed a bizarre and troubling development that exemplified other disconnections between what happens upstream and downstream on the river.

When settlers first landed on the Mississippi they generally had grand plans and hopes for their new communities, giving them names like New Boston and also made frequent reference back to the ancient cities of other great river civilizations, most notably the Nile’s Cairo and Memphis.  Through a complicated set of global dynamics, that connection back to Egypt has been realized, although not in the way those earlier settlers had first imagined.

In a strange twist in a very rural corner of southeastern Iowa a huge Egyptian conglomerate is constructing a $2 billion plant to produce fertilizer for the cornfields that stretch out from it in all directions. Orascom Construction International (OCI) is Egypt’s largest multinational corporation, part of the Orascom group founded by Onsi Sawaris.  When I was in Egypt in 2011 we could see the huge fertilizer and cement works there, many of which were run by Orascom during the business-friendly regime of Hosni Mubarek.  Reflecting a familiar kind of modern dysfunction, the need for fertilizer in Egypt came about largely because of the damming of the Nile River at Aswan, which cut off the supply of nutrient-rich sediment that would replenish the soil during the annual floods.  For millennia these floods were the original source of Egypt’s great prosperity.  Now those nutrients must be supplied by the energy-intensive process of creating nitrogen fertilizer in the form of anhydrous ammonia.  We saw the tanks of fertilizer scattered across the farm fields in Egypt, and see the same here in the Mississippi River valley.

Orascam_Wever_plant

The plant in Wever, Iowa is located in an old floodplain that, like the Nile, was once fed by periodic flooding of the Mississippi, but is now separated by the levees that line the river almost continuously from the Quad Cities to the Gulf of Mexico.  Our contact in Burlington, Steve Brower, mentioned that “Aldo Leopold actually recommended the area adjacent to the plant (Green Bay Bottoms) as a wildlife refuge in the early 1930’s when he was helping with plans for the IA Conservation Commission (forerunner Iowa Planning Board). The financing help at the National level fell through.” Financial help for the fertilizer plant, on the other hand, has been more than forthcoming, with the state, county, and local municipalities providing 100’s of millions of dollars in tax incentives to Orascom.  The incentives stem largely from the bidding war between states (in this case Illinois and Iowa), the result being a perverse kind of “beggar thy neighbor” policy.  Iowa gains a few hundred jobs, but at the estimated cost of about $1,000,000 in lost tax revenue for each permanent job created.

The process of producing (and using) the ammonia is energy intensive.  It uses the newly available fracked natural gas as a feed stock, and the fertilizer, once applied on the fields, releases the powerful greenhouse gas nitrous oxide (yes, laughing gas).  In addition, the run-off of excess nitrogen from the millions of acres of fields in the Mississippi watershed contribute to a myriad of environmental problems, most notably the hypoxic dead zone in the Gulf about which the shrimpers and fisherman of the Louisiana Delta are so acutely aware.

All in all it seems a really misguided and unsustainable way to go. Below the radar (we certainly hadn’t heard anything about this) we are investing billions, incentivized with millions of dollars, in a set of practices that will make both global warming and hypoxic dead zones worse.  This to over-produce a commodity that provides cheap feedstock to industrial agricultural processors that crank out a cornucopia of unhealthy foods, mostly laden with high fructose corn syrup (the nutritional equivalent to crack cocaine) that is driving the obesity and diabetes epidemic in this country.  We keep building walls and levees, separating ourselves from the river, trying to shelter ourselves from the storms and floods, all the while cutting off the supply of sediment needed to rebuild the coastline and pumping excess nutrients and greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere.  Seems we could do a better job of discernment than that.

Thank God that the world and the river are so big, for otherwise it seems we would have used them up long ago; and thank God that nature is so vibrant and strong that it so often recovers from our countless assaults upon it.  But certainly we can do better.  Leave as much of the fossil fuels in the ground as possible (while transitioning as quickly as possible to renewables and greater efficiencies); to a much greater extent, we should get out the way of the river and let it do its thing.  The river has, for millions of years, worked amazingly well and created habitat and land, providing water, and carrying away waste.  If given have a chance to keep doing that, we still have a chance to live along an amazingly beautiful and productive river.  Concerted national and international and collective efforts are needed to shift our economy from its present course, and we must patiently and diligently organize and mobilize ourselves to push for these changes at all levels of government.  Pick your issue, focus on it, study it, and work on it. On a daily and more personal level, I will take the hard work and simpler life that comes from planting vegetables in the ground, paddling the river, paying attention to the wind and the cycles of the seasons, meeting with the kind and wise people that have gathered by the river, and smelling the pungent wild sage that grows on its banks.

Off the River

Another gap in the blogging, as our schedule continues at its usual frantic pace.  We have been through St. Louis, Memphis, and out on the big river with Quapaw Canoe Company from Clarksdale to Greenville, MS.  I made a quick trip back to Minneapolis to see family and take care of business back on campus and rejoined the group in Memphis.  As I write, we have switched to vans and arrived at the edge of the Gulf of Mexico in the last leg of our journey.  Between the demands of life on the road; the ongoing class schedule of exams, lectures, and papers; and the transitions from canoeing to city living, to bus, and back into canoes; we haven’t had much time for extra writing.  A few partial drafts of earlier blogs remain unfinished (I hope to get those wrapped up before too long, but then again, looking at our schedule for the remainder of the trip, I can’t make any promises.)

After Memphis we shuttled to Clarksdale, Mississippi in the heart of Blues country, where we met up with John Ruskie and his crew.  They took us out for a wonderful eight days of paddling on the big river, and there is plenty more to say about that.  But at the end of our last paddle I wanted to check in with each of the students as we ended the paddling and camping portion of the trip.  We had been “on the river” for ten weeks at that point, hadn’t showered in a week, and had paddled and hauled something like two tons of gear with us the whole way.  We had been roused very early that morning by the Quapaw crew for a breakfast that they had already cooked for us over an open fire, and then cross the river to Greenville before a big storm hit.  It was a frantic morning, packing up damp gear, hauling it down a steep, muddy slope, and then paddling out with (yet another) strong headwind.  The crossing went fine (the storm didn’t hit until that night) and we arrived at the landing by 7:30 AM.  We unloaded the three 30-foot canoes that we had traveled in with Quapaw and lugged the gear for the last time up the boat ramp to where the vans would meet us and transit the canoes back to Clarksdale.

Camera-phone in hand I asked each student for a “word of the day,” something that captured how they were feeling. I caught them off guard and they had to think of a word to describe their experience at that moment, so students were searching, thinking.  I wanted to capture that moment of coming off the river after 10 weeks before we transitioned back to the “modern world” and took to the vans as we drove south to explore the Bayou country and New Orleans.  What had the river taught them?  How had they changed or grown in that short time?

I ran into Hannah first, who does not like getting her picture taken, but she is always game for whatever we have going. It was still early in the morning and Hannah can be a little grumpy in the morning, but even then, she is a good sport.Hannah

Bobbie, sporting his Augsburg soccer shirt, and his “river beard” smiled as he lugged up a heavy load, declared that the word was “inspiring.”  I liked the sentiment, and found it fitting coming from Bobby–someone who is genuine and kind.Bobby

Izzie, with a big grin on her face declared that her word was “rad.” Back from her 2 week absence (due to an appendectomy) and not yet suffering from the stomach virus that would hit her the next day, she was very happy to have been with us all for the final week of paddling.  She is the “connector” in our family, and it is great to have her back.Izzie

Mike was pleased to be done and paused to pose slightly for the picture, hand on hip.  As I write, neither he nor I can recall his word, but I’m sure it was interesting and probably slightly humorous, and probably related to his favorite topic, light pollution! Mike

I caught Ricky off guard for once, and so he wasn’t he his usual “rapper” pose, and I was so pleased to have succeeded at this that I forgot to get his word.  He only got as far as “uhhh” and I had moved on.  I’m guessing he would have said something wise or mischievous.  One or the other.Ricky

Noah, in his playful, thoughtful way, figured that “water” sort of summed it up, and we certainly have been surrounded, immersed, submerged, inundated, and sated by the waters of and by the Mississippi.Noah

There is a lot of laughter in our group, which is a good thing.  Everyone, despite or perhaps because of the hard labor we were engaged in, smiled when I asked them for their word, and Blair was no exception.  At first she wasn’t sure about her word (decisiveness not been her most prominent trait), but she decided on accomplishment (more on that later).Blair

Katie declared very matter-of-factly that we were “finished,” and in one sense that was true.  In another way of course, as the river has taught us, there really is no end, just the constant and unceasing flow.  The paddling was done, but a month of the trip remained.  And once the trip was done, there would be the next thing, and so on.Katie

Karl with his loping walk and nod of the head, didn’t stop but answered philosophically that the word was “reward.” By putting ourselves out there in the world, pushing ourselves, we had been rewarded by, among other things, a real experience of the river and the world.Karl

Glen was loaded down with our large coffee pots and heading up the hill as well, and I had to catch him as he passed.  “Awesome” he said, and his smile seemed to reflect that sentiment.Glen

Jubilee, our resident Amazon, thought for a bit (with Blair, per usual, at her side) and decided that the word was “mud”–that thorough mixing of water and soil that is so much a part of the natural river.  We have learned to appreciate and embrace the mud of the river, and perhaps the “mud” of life as well on this trip.  Some lessons there to be sure.Jubilee

Emily, as exuberant and enthusiastic as ever, said her word was “amazing” and I think we would all say the same of her.Emily

Lily, with a playful shrug and easy laugh, thought that “rain” sort of summed it up.  We had paddled hard and hurried all morning to beat the rain, and had done so.Lily

Popeye, one of our guides for Quapaw, was too exhausted to speak, and lay prostrate but content on the grass, having expended his last ounce of energy for the trip. He had that nickname for a reason, but even the strongest have to rest every once in awhile.

Popeye

Natasha didn’t want her picture taken, and at first wouldn’t answer, but at last she agreed, and her word was, like Blair, accomplishment.  I would agree.  The pictures seem to reflect this–that everyone on the trip, despite how early we had risen, and how tired we all were, felt happy.  Part of this was, I think, the fact that we all did sense that we had just accomplished something significant, taken on a large challenge, and had an experience that would stay with them for the rest of their lives.

Natasha

All-in-all a contented group, who, with their two professors, and countless other support people, had paddled around 750 miles of the Mississippi River, carrying all their gear with them the whole way, seeing some amazing landscapes, meeting some wonderful people, and learning about what it means to try to live a good life in this world today.

In the Land of Flying Fish

It seems appropriate that, as we draw nearer to the land of Twain, our imaginations would become a bit more active, and that nature and man would cooperate to supply us with some extraordinary tales.  Places affect us, and it is hard not to think about Clemens and his cast of characters, his reflections and tales from the river.  A long time has passed since he was here, but still somehow one feels that we look on the same land and river that he did, despite all the changes that have occurred in the interim.

Even Tom Sawyer never told stories about flying fish on the Mississippi, but we had been warned about the Silver Carp below the Keokuk Dam, and sure enough not ten minutes after we had passed out of the massive lock, we were startled by several of these good-sized fish leaping out of the water as we passed.  They have a startle reflex that can send them easily as high as our heads, and to top it off they are covered in a pungent slime.  Leaving the Kibbe research station, one leaped up and smacked Hannah in the back of her head as it passed, to the delight of all and sundry (including Hannah, who finds just about everything amusing).  The next day we encountered more, and I had the pleasure of having one adventurous fellow leap into our canoe at my feet, where he proceeded to flop around in a muscular fashion until I succeeded in grabbing him by the tail and holding my prize up to display for the group before ignominiously heaving him back into the river.  Easiest (and so far only) catch I’ve made on the river.  But my boots still smell like fish.

The river is rich in life below its murky surface, despite the volume of waste we continue to dump into it, with the students having hauled up paddlefish, gar, blue gills, crappies, catfish (as well as plenty of carp) in their gill-netting and electro-fishing outings with our generous host Jim Lamer from Western Illinois University.  It is a rich, subaqueous ecosystem, although we remain largely oblivious to the menagerie swimming about below us as we paddle along.  More reminders of the resilience of nature in the face of our relentless consumption of its resources and use of it as a receptacle for our waste.

North of Hannibal the river opened out, and we paddled through largely unsettled country, quiet, a little melancholy, and conducive to contemplation.  The land feels poised between seasons, the turning of the leaves has caught up with us, but the air is still warm.  Our last day heading into Hannibal we at last got a break from the incessant winds and enjoyed a more pensive paddle across glassy water, as we are solidly into the “Middle Mississippi” and no longer in the Upper.

Approaching Hannibal it is hard not to think about this place and what it was like for Samuel Clemens to grow up there.  The acerbic critic Clemens would have much to say about his home town today (dubbed by the local Chamber of Commerce as “America’s Hometown”), and he almost certainly would be saddened by what he saw.  No town of course could live up to that standard of one’s romanticized youth, no matter how well preserved, but Hannibal is now just another fairly rundown midwest town.  He left it as an adult, settling in the more urbane and cosmopolitan New York and Connecticut, and looking around Hannibal today, I’d have to say he wouldn’t want to live there now.

Some of the less touristy parts of Hannibal. A town cursed with one claim to fame and little active commerce.

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The gross commercialization, the commodification of those figures he created, has  left little of the vitality and excitement of that mythologized town of his youth.  The tour of the “Mark Twain Caves” was geologically interesting, but had all the mystery and excitement of a rerun of the Disney movie of Tom Sawyer.  In the gift shop (where the tour inevitably ended) there were plenty of knick-knacks made in China, but no copies of any of Twain’s more interesting political works (my favorite being his deeply satirical “War Prayer“), nor his new and controversial Autobiography (which is so long and strange and convoluted that no one seems quite to know what to do with it).  No room for critique or satire or complexity (not that I had any expectation of finding them there), just Americana and little statuettes of Becky Thatcher in America’s Hometown.

I wish Twain were around to respond to the businesses that have sprung up along the river though. Just upstream we passed the sprawling industrial complex owned by BASF, the largest chemical manufacturing company in the world (revenues in 2014 of over $74 billion). It produces the following list of delightfully named products:  PROWL, PURSUIT, ARSENAL, RAPTOR, CADRE, PHANTOM, and EXTREME herbicides and pesticides, spread no doubt on the vast expanses of cropland that surround us.  BASF was the first producer of nitrogen fertilizer and is the latest incarnation of the I.G. Farben company that manufactured chemical weapons and the poison gas used in the Nazi gas chambers.  With a little rebranding and repurposing they are still at work mass producing poisons (and plenty else besides).  In 2009 the plant in Hannibal “accidentally discharged” carcinogenic hexavalent chromium into the Mississippi, although the extent of the damage caused remains unknown.  Rivers fortunately are constantly flushing themselves out (which is why so many factories are located along their banks).  Next to them is the General Mills plant where they make processed pork (fed the corn and soybeans grown in the fields that have been purged of anything else by those BASF pesticides). It was formerly the Underwood Deviled Ham factory, located there because of Mr. Underwood’s fondness for Twain’s legacy. I’m not so sure that the feeling would have been mutual.  Given Twain’s interest in Lucifer (see his Letters from the Earth), he would probably consider it aptly named.

The town itself has its core of well-labelled landmarks with any link to the young Sam Clemens, surrounded by dilapidated buildings, empty storefronts, and the remains of the blue collar town of the mid-twentieth century.  The grocery store we stopped in was notable for the stacked cases of cheap whiskey (shades of Huck’s alcoholic father), and many of the patrons appeared to be in very poor health (this has been true of other small river towns in which we’ve stopped).  The taxi driver shared how he got very busy at the beginning of the month when everyone got their government checks and would spend them all on taxi rides to restaurants for a few weeks until they ran out of money.  There were certainly signs of vitality in town (I passed one small business with a group of men gathered inside, engaged in lively conversation), and I’m sure if I stayed longer we would get to know more of the good people of the town.  But it seems unlikely to inspire any tales of the spirited hi-jinx and river adventures for which it takes such credit now.

But for us the river remains, and I’m confident that Twain would still want to travel the river, as he did later in life and wrote about in his Life on the Mississippi.  Even then, in the 1880s, he noted the ways the river had been tamed and caged in by the Corps of Engineers.  But it had then, and certainly still has now, the splendor and power and timelessness that we are experiencing now, camping as we are on sand bar on Shuck Island.  From across the water, with the lights shining on the water, and the tour boat the Mark Twain cruising slowly upriver, Hannibal does still have some magic to it, and we look forward tomorrow to loading our boats, and like Huck and Jim, heading downstream toward St. Louis, not knowing who or what we will encounter along the way.