Sean W. Fleming on Where the River Flows

Rivers are essential to civilization and even life itself, yet how many of us truly understand how they work? Why do rivers run where they do? Where do their waters actually come from? How can the same river flood one year and then dry up the next? Where the River Flows by Sean W. Fleming is a majestic journey along the planet’s waterways, providing a scientist’s reflections on the vital interconnections that rivers share with the land, the sky, and us. Fleming recently took the time to answer some questions about his new book.

Your book is unique in that it explores the geophysics of rivers: where their waters come from, why their flows vary from day to day and decade to decade, and how math and physics reveal the hidden dynamics of rivers. Why is this important?

SF: Every aspect of our lives ultimately revolves around fresh water. It’s needed to grow food and brew beer, to build cars and computers, to generate hydroelectric power, to go fishing and canoeing, to maintain the ecological web that sustains the world. Floods are the most expensive type of natural disaster in the U.S., and droughts are the most damaging disasters globally. Yet as the margin between water supply and demand grows narrower, and tens of millions more people congregate in megacities often located on floodplains, we become more vulnerable to the geophysical subtleties of the global water cycle. It’s an important part of life that we need to understand if we’re going to make smart choices going forward.

Your book anthropomorphizes a lot. Is this just a way to make the subjects more accessible, or is there a little more to it?

SF: I ask questions like “how do rivers remember?” and “how do clouds talk to fish?” and “can rivers choose where they flow?” It’s a fun way to broach complicated topics about the geophysics of rivers. But posing questions like that also prepares us to open our minds to new ways of thinking about rivers. For instance, modern information theory allows us to quantitatively describe the coupled atmospheric-hydrologic-ecological system as a communications pathway, in which the weather literally transmits data to fish species using the watershed as a communications channel—modulating water levels almost like Morse code. There may be no intent in that communication, but mathematically, we can treat it the same way.

What are the main threats that rivers face? Are these challenges consistent, or do they vary from river to river?

SF: It does vary, but broadly speaking, watersheds face four main threats: pollution, land use change, climate change, and deliberate human modification. Pollution ranges from industrial effluent to fecal contamination to emerging contaminants like pharmaceuticals. Converting natural areas to urban land uses increases flooding and erosion and reduces habitat quantity and quality. Climate change is modifying the timing, volume, and dynamics of streamflows. And civil works like dams, flood control structures, and of course water withdrawals and consumption, alter river flows and ecosystems more profoundly than perhaps anything else. The common thread behind all these concerns is that human populations and economies—and therefore water needs, and our direct and indirect impacts on rivers—are growing much faster than our development of sustainable technologies.

How will climate change affect river flows?

SF: Global warming is expected to accelerate the water cycle, increasing both flooding and drought. Other impacts are more regional. Some areas will enjoy larger annual flow volumes, whereas others may suffer reduced water supplies. More precipitation will fall as rain instead of snow, and snowpack will melt earlier, changing seasonal flow timing. That may interfere with salmon spawning migration, for example, or render existing water supply infrastructure obsolete. In part due to anthropogenic climate change, mountain glaciers are retreating, effectively shrinking the “water towers” of the Himalayas, Andes, Alps, and Rockies—the headwaters of the great rivers that support much of the global human population, from the Columbia to the Yangtze to the Ganges.

What’s so important about understanding the science of rivers? What does it add to our view of the world?

SF: Just think about floods. Knowing how urbanization or deforestation may affect flooding, or how some kinds of flood control can backfire, or how the flood forecasting behind an evacuation order works, is important for making informed choices. There’s also a philosophical aspect. A dramatic view of a river meandering across a desert landscape of red sand and sagebrush at twilight is made even richer by being able to look deeper and recognize the layers of causality and complexity that contributed to it, from the rise of mountains in the headwaters as a continental plate split apart over millions of years, to the way the river shifts its channel when a thunderstorm descends from the skies to deliver a flash flood.

A consistent theme across the book is the interconnectedness of ideas. Why this emphasis? What’s the significance of those connections?

SF: A fundamental and amazing fact of nature is that not only can so much be so effectively described by math, but the same math describes so many different phenomena. Consider debris flows, a sort of flood-landslide hybrid posing serious dangers from Japan to California to Italy. It turns out we can understand phenomena like debris flows using cellular automata, a peculiar kind of computer simulation originally created to explore artificial life. What’s more, cellular automata also reveal something about the origins of fractal patterns, which occur in everything from tree branches to galaxies to the stock market. Recognizing that ideas from one field can be so powerful in another is important for pushing science forward.

The book seems to present a conflicted view of global water security. It paints an extraordinarily dark picture, but it is also very optimistic. Can you explain?

SF: Grave challenges often drive great achievements. Consider some United Nations numbers. Over a billion people don’t have sufficient water, and deprivation in adequate clean water claims—just through the associated disease—more lives than any war claims through guns. By 2050, global water demand will further increase by a stunning 55%. Little wonder that a former World Bank vice-president predicted the 21st century will see water wars. Yet there’s compelling evidence we can get serious traction on this existential threat. Advances in policy and technology have enabled America to hold its water demand at 1970s levels despite population and economic growth. A focused science investment will allow us to continue that success and replicate it globally.

FlemingSean W. Fleming has two decades of experience in the private, public, and nonprofit sectors in the United States, Canada, England, and Mexico, ranging from oil exploration to operational river forecasting to glacier science. He holds faculty positions in the geophysical sciences at the University of British Columbia and Oregon State University. He is the author of Where the River Flows: Scientific Reflections on Earth’s Waterways.

Susan Scott Parrish on the current significance of the Great Mississippi Flood

Parrish“Because of the 21st-century ecocatastrophes we have already witnessed and future events caused or intensified by climate-change, we can now understand that how we communicate about environmental disaster and degradation is as important as how we communicate about war. Indeed, we can also see that when a nation doesn’t take into account all of its citizenry in its environmental management and disaster response, what may ensue is a kind of undeclared civil war. 2017 marks the 90th anniversary of the “Great Mississippi Flood,” but in many ways it anticipated—or inaugurated—our current moment.”

In 1927, the south experienced one of the most extensive environmental disasters in U.S. history: heavy rains led to the flooding of the Mississippi river, spanning nearly thirty thousand square miles across seven states. More than a half million people were displaced, and due to the speed of new media and the slow progress of the flood, it became the first environmental disaster to be experienced on a mass scale. Drawing upon newspapers , radio broadcasts, political cartoons, vaudeville, blues songs, poetry, and fiction, The Flood Year 1927: A Cultural History by Susan Scott Parrish shows how this disastrous event took on public meaning.

There were other major disasters in the early 20th century U.S. What was unique about the flood you focus on?

SP: Unlike other devastating floods of the era—in Johnstown, Pennsylvania (1889), Galveston, Texas (1900), and the Lake Okeechobee area of Florida (1928)—which all occurred in a matter of hours, this Mississippi River flood moved so slowly and lasted so long that national audiences could be pulled in, through newly established media circuits, to the events as they unfolded. One of William Faulkner’s narrators called it “the flood year 1927” because the disaster truly lasted an entire year. Moreover, unlike the Johnstown and Okeechobee floods, both also man-made disasters, in which the powerful industrialists involved in the first case and the Florida boosters in the second sought to avoid publicity, in 1927 white southerners, as well as African American pundits and environmentalists throughout the nation, were determined to bring attention to the flood. I would argue, in fact, that not only was this the “worst” flood of the entire 20th century in terms of displaced persons and property damage, but it was also the most publicly engrossing U.S. environmental disaster. As such, it allows us a signal opportunity to ask the following questions: How do—and how should—humans communicate with themselves about politically charged eco-catastrophes? What are the stages through which mass-mediated societies encounter disaster? Do certain media entail better, or more productive, or more democratic epistemologies of crisis? What can we learn from 1927 about how to make transformative expression, and knowledge, out of disaster today and in the future?

Why was this flood so meaningful to people?

SP: Because the course of the flood moved from north to south, retracing the 1863 river-borne assault on the Confederate strongholds of Mississippi and Louisiana, this flood had the peculiar power to make sixty-four-year-old history feel unfinished—to make it feel even biologically reenacted. Advocates for southern black farm laborers likewise found old politics written all over the flood. As conditions in the evacuee camps spelled for their black populations both forced labor and violently guarded movement, it seemed to many that slavery had returned to Dixie and that Federal institutions like the Red Cross and the National Guard were abetting its reestablishment. Though the death toll from the flood was less extensive than that of other contemporaneous disasters, it was the way that this flood—for northern, southern, white, and black publics—uncannily rematerialized the defining American nightmares of slavery and civil war that made it so culturally engulfing. Moreover, the flood gave the lie to many of the early 20th-century promises of a modernizing, technocratic society: here was, in the words of environmentalist Gifford Pinchot, “the most colossal blunder in civilized history.”

The subtitle of your book is “A Cultural History;” can you explain what you mean by that phrase?

SP: Well, I began the book as a literary history, something along the lines of an environmentally-oriented version of Paul Fussell’s The Great War in Modern Memory, which considered the literary reckoning with World War One. I eventually came to see, though, that this flood became a public event across multiple media platforms. Fiction was important for our long-term memory of the flood, but other media were crucial to how the flood became significant while it occurred. I first discovered that William Faulkner, living a few counties away from the river in 1927, took up the flood beginning with the book he wrote in 1928—The Sound and the Fury (1929)—and kept writing about it through As I Lay Dying (1930) and If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem (1939). I found a number of stories and pieces of life writing that Richard Wright, living in Memphis in 1927, wrote about the flood in the 1930s. And I came upon many other literary chroniclers as well: Sterling Brown, Will Percy, Lyle Saxon and Ruth Bass, to mention just a few. As I dug deeper into the archive, though, I realized that this flood represented an important moment in the histories of radio and print journalism, theater, and music as well. How northern and western media sought to package the South to raise money for evacuees; how an environmentalist critique went national; and how black journalistic protest remained largely enclaved are all important topics for the history of how media manufacture events which in turn create “publics.” Among the major pundits who weighed in on the flood were W.E.B. Du Bois, Ida B. Wells, Walter White, H.L. Mencken, and even, on the radio in Berlin, Walter Benjamin. After I noticed advertisements in newspapers for “monster” flood benefits—the biggest ones produced in the “Vaudeville” variety mode—I gradually realized that the way most citizens around the country came in live contact with the flood was in a theater. In particular, international comedians of color who hailed from the South, Will Rogers and the duo “Miller & Lyles,” offered a trenchant but popular kind of critique of white disaster consumption. Their messages crossed the color line in the way that newspaper editorials did not. Finally, Bessie Smith’s song, “Back-Water Blues,” also popular on both sides of the color line, and on both sides of the Mason Dixon line, offers a remarkable example of the way that black experience of displacement moved across space through sound. All in all, my book tests some classic ideas—expressed by the likes of Walter Lippmann and Jurgen Habermas—that the optimal form of democratic public reckoning with reality occurs through deliberative print media. “Entertainment,” for these theorists, is anathema to truth seeking. By contrast, the archive convinced me that, during the flood itself, Vaudeville comedy and blues entertainment communicated evacuee experience more wholly and more broadly than any other media.

One of your sections is titled “Modernism within a Second Nature,” can you explain how your book contributes to our understanding of modernism?

SP: And what does “Second Nature” mean? For many, the flood was an example of modernization adrift, of a kind of temporary drowning of that Progressive-era sense amongst Americans that theirs was a time of “the perfection of method and of mechanism” that could “spread well-being among the masses.” We have understood that artistic movement known as modernism as expressing at times enthusiasm, but at other times, profound doubts about various kinds of modernization, on the battlefield, in communications, in politics. We have not tended to think enough though about how modernist artists responded to the eclipsing of “nature” with a “second nature.” Second nature is a phrase Henri Lefebvre used to describe how, increasingly with modernity, “nature’s space has been replaced by a space-qua-product” of human design. I think this sense that industrialism’s second nature was not necessarily a “perfection” that would spread “well-being,” but was rather an imperious blunder that could bring intense misery especially to “the masses”—this sense was felt acutely amongst both whites and blacks in the South in 1927. Richard Wright and William Faulkner were the southern modernist authors who, in their stories about the flood, communicated that a rural environment could be thoroughly fabricated by humans, and fabricated in such a way as to intensify its inherent risks, so that these environments could become—indeed, had become—as political and modern and violent a product as a machine gun or a tank.

Given that the flood inundated the lower Mississippi Valley, do you see the book as primarily about the South?

SP: Yes and no. The environmental history leading up to the flood involved the entire Mississippi watershed, and how it was altered (through logging, wetlands drainage, grasslands removal and a levees-only engineering policy). And the media history, in so far as communication about the event was produced and consumed nationally, and internationally, also involves a much wider geography. It was a disaster most keenly and physically experienced in the Deep South, but the event took on meaning across a much broader mediascape. Though the South is often associated with “disaster” (of slavery, of defeat in war, of underdevelopment), it may surprise readers to find southern editorials in 1927 explaining this flood not in terms of God, but in terms of human miscalculation. Scholars who work on southern cultural topics today tend to be interested in how “the South” was created within global systems like mercantilism, empire and slavery, and also how it was partially invented by chroniclers outside its regional boundaries. My book is likewise concerned with that intersection of regional experience and broader environmental and representational patterns.

Why is yours an important book to read in 2017?

SP: Because of the 21st-century ecocatastrophes we have already witnessed and future events caused or intensified by climate-change, we can now understand that how we communicate about environmental disaster and degradation is as important as how we communicate about war. Indeed, we can also see that when a nation doesn’t take into account all of its citizenry in its environmental management and disaster response, what may ensue is a kind of undeclared civil war. 2017 marks the 90th anniversary of the “Great Mississippi Flood,” but in many ways it anticipated—or inaugurated—our current moment. We live in an age in which human impact on the earth is indelibly intense. We live this material reality—in our bones and cells—but we often come to perceive it in a way that is so technologically mediated as to be vertiginously virtual. For the sake of history, it is important to appreciate that the Flood of 1927 represented perhaps the first major coincidence of the “Anthropocene” and what Guy Debord has termed the “Society of the Spectacle.”

Susan Scott Parrish is a Professor in the Department of English Language and Literature and the Program in the Environment at the University of Michigan. She is the author of American Curiosity: Cultures of Natural History in the Colonial British Atlantic World. Her latest book is The Flood Year 1927: A Cultural History.