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A year ago June, when the Grasping Water Institute was wrapping up, I reflected on how interesting it was to hear thoughtful, incisive talks about rivers I had never heard of, from people whose work I did not regularly follow. “It would be great,” I thought, “if some of these folks could be persuaded to write for us.” The results are in front of you…
Almost everyone has some experience with open space and with “heritage,” perhaps through visiting historic sites, or through family trips to that place “where Grandma always used to go as a girl.” Water, of course, is intimately connected to all of our most cherished open spaces and heritage places, whether the connection is evident in the landscape or not.
The world of higher education is notoriously siloed. Colleges and universities are divided into departments by discipline, which often contain particular subdisciplines. Crossing these lines is difficult and sometimes perilous. But the study of rivers and water necessarily crosses disciplines. Scientific study can tell us a lot about water, but not what the meaning of our local river is…
When I got fully engaged with Mississippi River work, in the mid-90s, there was a lot of talk about public-private partnerships. That has ebbed and flowed and morphed over the years, but the idea of partnership has remained. Pretty much anyone in any sector—public, nonprofit, or corporate—understands that work beyond a small one-time project rarely happens through just one entity.
For as long as people have been living with rivers, we have been changing them. Put up a levee to keep water away from where we don’t want it. Build a canal to move water to where we do want it. Put up a dam to stop floods or generate water power. Over millennia, the possibilities have been endless.
This issue of Open Rivers marks several new emphases for us. But then, when it’s only our third issue, there are going to be new emphases, right?
What we have here originates, I think, more from a foundation in scholarly inquiry than some of our previous work. It is less oriented to the Mississippi River. And it was proposed by guest editors, Nenette Luarca-Shoaf and Laura Turner Igoe, who are both art historians.
Water is a slippery subject: its visual and material properties spur intellectual inquiry and spiritual reverie; its fluctuating form repels categorization and confounds claims of ownership as it crosses property lines and national borders; and river and ocean currents facilitate commercial exchange along with environmental exploitation.
We commonly think of rivers as, for the most part, staying where they belong, in the river bed, occasionally coming out into the floodplain under fairly predictable conditions conducive to high water that we call “floods.” The writing in this issue of Open Rivers belies this notion of predictability, to a large degree.