Thinking Like a River

Confluence brings together river histories and the people who study and write about them throughout North America. This project never assumes that only someone with a PhD should present river history or that there is one way of doing river history, but it does privilege perspectives that highlight the relationship between people and their river. The various storymaps and other formats presented here can hopefully offer inspiration for generating your own projects within your communities whether you are a scholar, environmentalist, community activist, or all of the above. In tandem with this blog post, I’ve launched a new collection of resources that brings together other river histories and archives from across the web. The coming months will also include several new river histories created specifically for this site.

In much of my own work, I return to knowing a river. The title of the documentary I produced on the threatened Neches River over fifteen years ago was called “To Know A River” and this is a major theme in my dissertation on the Trinity River. Certainly, many people come here to learn more about rivers, but creating this project has encouraged me to think like a river and how it creates connections. Confluence generally refers to two or more rivers coming together–rivers unite entire landscapes through their watersheds and the people who live along them. Furthermore, unlike engineered canals, rivers do not make a direct line towards their destination, they meander with confidence knowing they will reach their destination. I’ve tried to mimic these river forms and processes through Confluence and set it up to take on a life of its own, no matter what grants come through or what I do with my career. The success of last fall’s All Water Has a Memory shows the value of bringing in a diverse range of experiences and perspectives even as we seek common ground and a better future. I look forward to continuing to learn from all of you and please feel free to reach out to me directly with ideas for new events and collaborations. 

Rivers Change

This semester I am teaching a course, “Rivers, Politics, and Power in the US,” that has allowed me to consider the purpose and challenges of thinking about river history.  In our first class, my students were a bit disappointed to learn that there was no single definition of a river and that one person’s ditch was another’s river.  Yet as we have reached the middle of the semester, we have come to appreciate the uncertain boundaries of what defines a river.  This vagueness has helped people to use rivers while fleeing enslavement or to seek independence on fertile, if also flood prone land.  And a river’s porous boundaries also suggests why restoring urban rivers can be particularly effective at fighting environmental injustice since this work extends so far beyond the river channel.  Though neither law nor science offers a compelling definition of rivers, history, my students and I realized, actually offers the best definition of a river, mainly that every river is itself historical and is defined by constant change.  Our readings have shown how a range of historical actors have attempted to deny this fundamental aspect of rivers.  Attempts to fix rivers as unchanging in law, the headwaters of the Mississippi River, or as a border have resulted in the exclusion of many of the rivers’ residents who have known their own local rivers.  However rivers themselves have also challenged these attempts to fix themselves in space such as when the Rio Grande shifted course and hundreds of acres of land rested uncertainly between the United States and Mexico.


 While the letters, oral histories, and images presented on Confluence will show how the river and its residents have changed over time, what about the maps upon which this history is overlaid?  River maps, such as the one created by Thoreau on the Concord River can raise many questions about the relationship between people and place, but most maps still leave rivers fixed in time and space.  In 1944 a Louisiana State University Geology Professor, Harold Fisk, published a series of maps on the Mississippi River that incorporated the centrality of change into his design.  The maps, pictured below, show the variety of paths, called meanders, taken by the Mississippi River.  The fact that these maps were published by the Army Corps of Engineers is especially surprising since no organization has done more to attempt to fix the Mississippi River, and many other rivers, in time and space.  Despite, or often because of the Corps’ efforts, rivers continue to change, a fact that has only been heightened by climate change, a term that likes rivers, is defined by change and human influence.