Some notes on Tributary @ La Esquina, May 12th-June 10th, 2017, from the Chief Hydrologist.
Trace a river to its headwaters and you will swim through any number of aphorisms. The clearest of which might be, river is as river does. Same might be said of artists. And scientists. From a managerial perspective, each can appear uncontrollable; yet boundless inquiry and unfettered meandering are not without purpose. Rivers mark time but also create it. They erode physical and mental obstructions. They challenge extant notions and forge new paths. Same might be said of artists. And scientists.
Despite legislature dating back nearly two centuries to ‘improve’ the nearly 4000 kilometers of the Missouri River, the longest river in the USA, the groups charged with enacting said changes can’t agree as to what this means. A river master plan requires us to create false notions about the nature of a stream, i.e., human existence stands outside the river rather than being integral to its flow. Such hubris allows us to minimize floodplain connectivity, disregard centuries of community history, and undermine the concept of water as giver. This neglect is done in favor of bullet points from an agency founded on building forts. Such thinking has shortened the river by 320 km and eliminated 12,000 km2 of riparian corridor habitat. Your taxes paid for the disappearance.
Thirty American Indian tribes reside in the Missouri River Basin. Many of those nation’s sovereign views are at odds with the notion that it takes an act of Congress to establish the river’s purpose. They (Congress) decided on six: flood control, navigation, power, recreation, and water supply. Attorneys and environmentalists later convinced them they meant to include fish and wildlife and water quality. Taste-makers constantly review the list but currently (2017) we are stuck on eight. Note that metaphor is not considered an authorized purpose. Unless one happens to be an artist. Or a scientist. River is as metaphor does.
Countless tributaries drain into the Mighty Missouri and endless stories arise from it. Here’s one you might want to finish. Begin with, how did we get here? What was formerly a river is now called a System. A system with benefits. From such great minds the concept of a river protected by a Master (manual) was born. Should we be surprised that the manual has been protected by an army and the troops (the Corps of Engineers) reside in castles? The scaffolding surrounding such thinking has been buttressed by concrete, revetments, and Congressional acts. Only massive floods can disrupt such malfeasance but truth told, such events more often serve to deepen manifest destiny conspiracies. Your kingdom in exchange for a piping plover, interior least tern, or pallid sturgeon.
The first bridge to span the largest tributary to the Missouri River (the Mississippi) was designed by James B. Eads, a former salvage-man, who walked not on water but on the river bottom. The knowledge gained from such intimate interaction with the rich sediment load produced a steel arch bridge like none before. This project helped Eads restore his reputation and finances. His astute understanding of stream sediment dynamics was eventually turned into a new, national philosophy of environmental control: streams make money the old-fashioned way, they earn it.
Today it is not uncommon for decision makers to stand at podiums and surf terms like expected outcomes, effects analysis, and preferred alternatives above the audience. Language so invasive that it sometimes burdens the campfires of recreationalists who prefer to swim in the river rather than profit from it. There is always fortune to be found on a river. As well as a supply of misfortune. But understanding each is, like the difference between praying for rain and surviving a flood, often a matter of perspective.
It can take days, weeks, even months for a drop of water to filter down through tributaries to the main stem of the Missouri River. However, once that water reaches the channelized, lower section it will typically reach the river’s mouth within 10 days. This means a variety of physical and chemical pollutants travel largely unabated to St. Louis. At St. Louis, the Missouri River comingles with waters draining the eastern half of the US and onward all will flow down the Mississippi. In another couple of weeks those waters, along with their burdens, will swim in the Gulf of Mexico.
The works collected for Tributary ask you to change your perspective on the Missouri River and its tributaries. Some works catalogue streams but wrap it anew, be it in a shroud of media, consumer goods, or waste products. Others produce experiences that link human actions to environmental consequences. Some works provide a lens through which to see through the mud, the vagaries, or the endless change. Together these works imagine a future for the river without disregard for the resource. Rivers can confound us but the recent past doesn’t have to predict the future. It’s not a clever idea to test the depth of a stream with both feet. Instead, baptize your heart and soul in the murkiness and surrender to the undulations of wind, waves, and current. Swim in Tributary then take a river bath and stand naked of fear.
Big Dam Era, 1993. John R. Ferrell, Missouri River Division, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Omaha, NE.
Dammed Indians Revisited: The Continuing History of the Pick-Sloan Plan and the Missouri River Sioux, 2009. Lawson, Michael L., South Dakota State Historical Society Press, Pierre, SD.
Draft Missouri River Recovery Management Plan and Environmental Impact Statement, December 2016. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 6 volumes, variously paged.
Flood Control Act of 1944, An act authorizing the construction of certain public works on rivers and harbors for flood control, and for other purposes. Act of 22 December 1944, ch.665, 58 Stat. 887.
Missouri River, 1935. Letter from the Secretary of War transmitting report from the Chief of Engineers on Missouri River and tributaries, covering navigation, flood control, power development and irrigation, House Document 238, 73rd Congress, 2nd session, US Govt Printing Office.
The Great Flood, 2014 (Icarus Films release date). Film by Bill Morrison, music by Bill Frisell, performed live at the Nelson Atkins Museum, April 2017.
The Great Flood of 1903: Being A Graphic Story of How Two Mad Rivers, the Missouri and the Kaw, Deluged Kansas City and Its Suburbs, 1903. Hill, W.R., Enterprise Publishing, Kansas City, MO.
The People of the River's Mouth: in Search of the Missouria Indians, 2011. Dickey, Michael, Univ. of Missouri Press, Columbia, MO.
We Remember Rivers: An Oral History survey of the River Valleys in the Harry S. Truman Dam and Reservoir Project, Missouri, 1980. Sprunk, Larry, J., Historical and Archaeological Surveys, Garrison, ND.
What the River Carries: Encounters with the Mississippi, Missouri, and Platte, 2012. Lisa Knopp, Univ. of Missouri Press, Columbia, MO.
Wild River, 1960, directed by Elia Kazan. 20th Century Fox.