Since 1994, the Mellon Foundation’s John E. Sawyer Seminars have helped scholars address the kinds of large, complex contemporary developments that demand to be studied by several disciplines at once. Bridging the humanities and social sciences to create, in effect, temporary research centers at major universities, the Seminars have enabled collaborative research on subjects as diverse as vernacular Islam outside the Arab world (Vanderbilt University), surveillance democracies (University of California at Davis), the meaning of freedom in the 21st century (University of Illinois at Chicago), and Cuban futures beyond the market (New York University). As Mellon takes an increasingly expansive approach to cross-disciplinary collaboration, the Foundation is supporting Sawyer Seminars, for example, in which scholars from fields such as environmental science join with colleagues from the humanities and social sciences. A case in point was the three-day symposium held in April 2015 at the University of Minnesota: “Making the Mississippi: Formulating New Water Narratives.”
The Right Vantage Point
The setting of the symposium was a lesson in itself on the past, present and future of the “Big Muddy.” The university’s main campus sits on bluffs just 250 miles south of the source of the Mississippi River, with the older halls (academic structures) that house the science departments overlooking the water from the east bank and the newer buildings for the arts and humanities located on the west. Participants in the symposium met just seven minutes from a place of historic significance for the social and economic culture of the river: the site of the 2007 St. Anthony Bridge collapse. The scholars could view the barges passing by (a reminder of the continuing, centuries-old commercial role of the waterway), sip the tap water that the Twin Cities draws from the river, and note the sewage and storm drainage that Minneapolis and St. Paul pour into the southward flow.
Decades of sewage and agricultural run-off have ravaged the Mississippi’s extensive network of waterways and ecosystems. A dead zone the size of Connecticut seethes off the river’s delta. And yet images of the Mississippi, in the academy and popular culture alike, remain dominated by the histories of Lewis and Clark and other 18th- and 19th-century explorers, Mark Twain’s tales of the steamboat era and the romance of the birth of jazz. In “Making the Mississippi: Formulating New Water Narratives,” scholars took on the challenge of changing the way we see the Mississippi, to improve the way we frame our relationship to the river going forward.
A Community as Big as the River
To open the way toward a better understanding of current realities, University of Minnesota faculty members Patrick Nunnally and Katherine Hayes sought insights from well beyond the university itself. The symposium brought together environmental scientists, historians, academicians and artists from around the country. Filmmakers joined experts from the National Parks Service. Native American scholars, historians, and artists from local Dakota and Ojibwe communities were invited to share their perspectives.
Topics of discussion ranged from clean water initiatives to environmental law, with the work of Nunnally and Hayes exemplifying the way lines between disciplines are blurring.
Nunnally, the coordinator of the university’s Institute for Advanced Study’s River Life Program, acts as a liaison between his school’s science and humanities departments and environmental and urban planning organizations around the city and state. Hayes, an associate professor anthropology, has undertaken studies such as a history of Bohemian Flats, a neighborhood in the area of the university that was a landing spot for many immigrant groups from the 1870s to the 1930s, and has also been tracing the routes that European trappers and Native American guides took through the Mississippi’s tributaries during the fur trade.
Another example of the work represented by the University of Minnesota was the blog series of Sawyer Seminar Graduate Fellow Jane Mazack, “Exploring Daley Creek,” which monitors biological changes in a Minnesota stream that feeds the Mississippi. Mazack has charted small developments with significant repercussions—a drop in the population of tiny midges, for example, which has begun to impact the number of trout all along the smaller waterways.
The seminar provided an exceptional opportunity for these researchers to share insights with Native American counterparts such as James Rock, a Dakota historian who is the program director at the Marshall W. Aiworth Planetarium of the University of Minnesota-Duluth. “We Dakota were taught that the best time to plant corn is when the leaves of oak trees are the size of squirrel ears, or when the plums have bloomed,” Rock says, citing the oral histories he collects. “But we haven’t been able to apply those adages now that weather patterns have been disrupted, and we have early thaws followed by frosts that destroy crops.”
Art history provided another stream of information for the seminar, with Sawyer Seminar Postdoctoral Fellow Nenette Luarca-Shoaf tracing the image of the Mississippi in the visual arts, from panoramic panels to the genre scenes of George Caleb Bingham. Participants also heard from John Anfinson, an environmental historian and superintendent of the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area for the National Parks Service, whose work focuses on government efforts to manage and manipulate the river, in everything from the construction of dams and levees to an early 20th century initiative of the Bureau of Fisheries to help the manufacturers of apparel by seeding parasitic larvae into the Mississippi, to boost the supply of pearl buttons made from mussel shells.
In the Wake of the Seminar
New cross-disciplinary work is already starting to emerge from the seminar. Hayes, for example, is now starting to consult with Native American historians who chronicle changes in soil, flora, and fauna, so she can help solve the mystery of the recent northern migration of earthworms, which have overrun Minnesota forests along the river. Thanks to the platform the seminar gave to her environmental work, Mazack is now being asked to visit groups around Minneapolis to report her findings and discuss the role that neighborhoods play in preserving ecologies.
And Ann Waltner, a historian of China, who along with Hayes and Nunnally headed the grant application team for “Making the Mississippi,” has begun working with the Institute for Advanced Study to organize a workshop that will bring scholars from China, Africa, and North America to discuss similarities and differences between ecological changes affecting river systems like the Yangtze and the Mississippi. “The big picture questions are still there to answer,” says Waltner: “how to imagine the futures of rivers and how to balance what we want and what’s actually best for the river right now.”
The best way to respond to a Sawyer Seminar, it seems, is with another Sawyer Seminar.