The Mississippi River Needs “Placeness”

Anne Lewis
Authored by: Anne Lewis, Founder, America’s Waterway

May 8, 2010

According to Wallace Stegner, renowned American author and ecologist, there are two kinds of Americans: placed and unplaced.

Being “placed” means you know the earth where you are or have been. You know it physically and spiritually. You know it because you fish in it, work beside it, walk its river banks and, even, possibly, make your living on it.

But if you are “unplaced”, you’re part of the American adventurer psyche – the migrant families moving across the country for generations for better work, better weather or just because you can – you know only the barren structures of a place.

Stegner says George Stewart’s book, Names on the Land, provides a good explanation. Stewart posits that Bear Run, Kentucky isn’t a certain spot just because Daniel Boone killed a bear there. Bear Run became a place when people lived there, traveled through it and settled in it, raised families and built schools and swimming holes. It was the sense of place that resulted from the collective understandings of a shared life that gave the town’s name, Bear Run, meaning. “No place is a place,” Stegner goes on to say, “until things that have happened in it are remembered in history, ballads, yarns, legends or monuments. Fictions serve as well as facts.”

His points are well taken. They also support the argument that we’ve made about the National Dialogue for the Future of America’s Waterway. We believe the best people to form a shared vision of the Mississippi River are the people with a sense of place about the Mississippi River: the grass roots community residents along the River. I’ve advocated a shared vision for the river can be developed using a deliberative, decision-making model augmented with technology, and relying on the people who live along the River. It’s using civic engagement to build a unified constituency for the Mississippi River. Going grass roots doesn’t exclude people with expertise or authority. Rather it draws for local experts and authorities from all walks of life along the Mississippi. It’s the best way to ensure that the people who set the agenda for the Mississippi River are the people whose decisions are intertwined with their sense of place about the River.

What a sense of place does for the Mississippi River is ensure a more complex understanding and a more comprehensive vision. It ensures that a National Dialogue participant with the expertise of a Fish and Wildlife researcher also kayaks on the River, watches sunsets and enjoys picnics on its banks. It ensures that a participant managing a River tourist destination also goes to meetings with barge company executives and Corps of Engineers administrators. Ultimately, it ensures a greater openness to collaboration and ideas that go beyond single-issue solutions.

Wallace Stegner had it right. We need to give up our tradition of restlessness, and it’s probably time we, as a country, settle down. “History was part of the baggage we threw overboard when we launched ourselves in the New World. We threw it away because it recalled old tyrannies, old limitations…plunging into the future through a landscape that had no history, we did both the country and ourselves some harm along with some good. Neither the country nor the society we built out of it can be healthy until we learn to be quiet part of the time, and acquire the sense not of ownership but of belonging. Only in the act of submission is the sense of place realized and a sustainable relationship between people and earth established.”