UR Here: Boundary Waters

UR Here: March 2010 – Eastern Iowans nervously watched the snow pile up in their yards and fields this winter. While we did not threaten any records, the memory of 2008 lingers like the shadow pain of a broken bone recently healed. Indeed, the news outlets are running stories that tell us forecasters are worried about flooding—again—this coming spring.

No one would have ever asked for the devastation of 2008. But if there were any microbe of a silver lining in that monstrous storm cloud that was the flood, it was that people in our community started paying more attention to how we should live with the river—and not just by building ramparts against it, but by building human life in concert with it.

One thing that still has not resulted from greater river awareness is a reorientation of our minds to natural—and as a result cultural—boundaries and relationships. During June of 2008, I heard innumerable people—in the media (both national and local) and in private conversation—look to the unfolding inundation in Cedar Rapids and claim that that’s what was heading toward Iowa City. In the vaguest, most general sense, this was true. Floodwaters from the north were heading to the south toward Iowa City. But they were not the floodwaters from Cedar Rapids. It seems ridiculous to have to say it, but many people seem not to understand that the Cedar River runs through Cedar Rapids, and the Iowa River runs through Iowa City.

In fact, many still haven’t figured this out. A recent local newspaper article about local flooding concerns said, “Along with the snow, including as much as 12 to 16 inches already on the ground in the Waterloo area of the Iowa River, river levels are higher than normal for this year in many parts of the state.” Waterloo is the northernmost satellite on I-380—and of course is nowhere near the Iowa River, which is 50 miles to its west in Iowa Falls. Yes, it’s the Cedar River that flows through Waterloo.

What this confusion belies, I believe, is an imbalance between cultural and natural relationships. It’s not surprising that Iowa City and Cedar Rapids have societal relationships, as they are large cities (for Iowa) not far from each other. Cedar Rapids is north; Iowa City is south. So I suppose that’s why people sometimes think that everything that travels south from the north—like river water—flows between the City of Five Seasons and the Athens of the Midwest. Unfortunately, this is pure ignorance—and I mean that in the literal sense of being unaware or lacking knowledge.

Bioregionalism is a way of thought and way of living that urges us to orient our conceptions of place and our human activity more toward natural boundaries, as opposed to the arbitrary and artificial boundaries of political designations (cities, towns, counties, states, etc). When we align our lives with respect to the natural flows, processes, and ecologies of the real “real world,” the bioregionalists say, we will organically become better environmental stewards. But bioregionalists also urge a more wholistic approach—to orient our cultural activities and practices (our commerce, our art, our education) to these patterns and places that nature has created, as opposed to imposing capricious designs on the landscape, often at cross-purposes with nature.

One of our most potent geographic tropes ‘round these parts is “the Corridor.” I’m not denying that it’s great that culture and commerce flow between Cedar Rapids and Iowa City, as well they should. But it’s healthy to look at the negative aspects of our conceptions, too. The core of the “Corridor” is an interstate highway. Aside from the entirely depressing idea of identifying one’s home by a ribbon of concrete, we cannot ignore the problems that interstates bring along with their advantages, pollution and sprawl at the top of the list. Another little-discussed problem is that the “corridor” phenomenon—which happens elsewhere—is actually a factor in rural economic decline. As geographers like David Harvey and Doreen Massey say, communities today compete for finite global capital, which tends to come to rest in areas like the “Corridor.” The dark side is that other places, like small towns and rural areas, are left with little to nothing except decline.

Even though admirable initiatives like the Iowa Cultural Corridor Alliance hitch their wagons to the concept, the “Corridor” idea in its origin is squarely about placing our faith, our social structure, our destiny, our conception of self and society in commerce and technology. The “Corridor” certainly has absolutely nothing to do with our relationship with the natural world and environmental stewardship—which, according to most definitions of “place” these days, is in fact the foundation of our life in place.
One of the most common “boundary” principles in bioregionalism is the watershed. The EPA on their website defines a watershed as “the area of land where all of the water that is under it or drains off of it goes into the same place.” Even the EPA understands the cultural importance of the watershed, though, as they also quote the 19th-century geologist and explorer John Wesley Powell, who said that a watershed is “that area of land, a bounded hydrologic system, within which all living things are inextricably linked by their common water course and where, as humans settled, simple logic demanded that they become part of a community.”

So where are we in Iowa City in terms of “watershed?” Of course, on a grand scale we are part of the Mississippi watershed, as is the Cedar River valley (and the Cedar and Iowa rivers meet at Columbus Junction before flowing into the Mississippi). But if “community” begins on a smaller scale, which I think it does, we have to look up and downstream of the Iowa River. On the smallest level, Iowa City/Coralville is located basically where the “Middle Iowa” and “Lower Iowa” watersheds, as defined by the EPA, meet. So if we were to reorient our lives more along bioregional lines, we would need to turn our attention and relationship-building more toward Columbus Junction, Lone Tree, Riverside, the Amanas, Belle Plaine, Marengo, Tama, Marshalltown.

I’m not saying that we should—or even can—turn our backs on our relationship with Cedar Rapids or that we have no relationship now with these Iowa River communities. But what would happen if we took the bioregionalists’ advice and started defining ourselves at least as much in terms of our connections with those who share our natural lifeflow? What would happen if we put the Stream, the Current, the Valley on the same footing (or higher) as the Corridor? What new stories would we tell about ourselves and each other? What new cultural relationships would we build with our “natural” neighbors? What new economic vibrancies might be sparked from this concourse? What reimaginings of who and what we are might renew our lives in this place?

I’d certainly like to find out.