One of the down sides of struggling with work/life balance issues is that even the most mundane things that I do have the potential to slide from “life” to “work.” For example, volunteering on the Grand Forks Historic Preservation Commission as the Commission’s archaeologist has fueled my interest in the history and materiality of the city. Walking my dogs along the Grand Forks Greenway, has spurred me to think more carefully about how the Greenway and the Red River of the North shapes not only the city’s past, but also its present relationship with its surroundings.
Sometimes these two interests coincide, such as when I find myself collaborating with another commission member, Paul Conlon, on an integrity survey of the 1950s era flood mitigation features in the city. It appears that most of these features were removed during the construction of the far more substantial post-1997 flood walls. Despite this disappointing discovery, Paul’s research and my rumination have led made it hard for me to shake a potential paper idea especially as I walk the dogs on the Greenways scenic paths.
Right now, the paper is still at the “slowly crystalizing idea stage” which means that I have a title: “Cold War, Consumer Culture, and Climate Change in a North Dakota City.”
If I had to start to write the paper today, rather than, say, work on my syllabi for the spring semester, I’d start the paper with an overview of recent work on the environmental history of rivers with special attention to the goals of mid-century hydraulic programs such as the Pick-Sloan as well as more local initiatives designed to both protect communities and to provide water for recreation and irrigation. For the local situation, Kathleen Brokke’s dissertation will be an invaluable guide. She touches on the role of suburban sprawl and the growing desire for burgeoning urban communities to harness local rivers for recreation, but her work remains an expansive view of Red River region rather than an intensive one. Moreover, it appears that she doesn’t connect suburban sprawl of the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s to the region’s growing role in the Cold War.
My goal with this imagined research wouldn’t be to re-produce Brokke’s expansive environmental history of the Red River, but to zero in on the relationship between the river and the city of Grand Forks. In particular, I’d be interested in understanding how efforts to control the Red River in Grand Forks in the 1950s emerged alongside the transformation of the city itself as it grew into its post-war form and its growing role as an important regional “front” in the Cold War. The vulnerability of Grand Forks to flooding should be understood in the context of the construction of the Grand Forks Air Force base in the 1950s, the expansion of the University of North Dakota in part due to its capacity to harness federal grants and to serve military veterans, and the influx of new residents drawn to the city by its post-war amenities and opportunities.
The Cold War, post-war consumer culture, and the long-term, geological history of the Red River provides three key vectors for understanding not only the history of Grand Forks, but also the form that this investment in controlling the flow of the Red River took. As I’ve noted a few times in the past, the form of the post-1997 flood walls themselves speak both to long-standing attitudes toward natural forces especially on the Great Plains and the role that the Army Corps of Engineers plays in attempting to exert control over “nature” in these contexts.
This opens our work to a fourth vector that I would love for our article to explore. This vector would foreground the role of landscapes of control in the “late-modern” world. I have this idea that it might be a way to interrogate attitudes toward the Anthropocene. This is immediately relevant to the situation of the Grand Forks on the Red River of the North as six of the ten worst floods in history have occurred in the 21st century. More than that, the flood control systems put in place after the 1997-flood offer a visible, daily reminder of the separation, or even alienation, of humans from their natural environment. A subtle paper might observe that the flood walls, which evoke military fortifications, offer only on perspective on the relationship between the town and the river. Less visible, but every bit as important is the network of pipes and pumping stations that not only connect the city to the river for drinking water and the disposal of run off, but also prevent the river from reclaiming these same connections to flood the city. In other words, the very landscape of flood control in the city emphasizes the need to protect the community from the river itself while hiding away the deeply interconnected relationship between the city and the water.
The flood walls, of course, contribute in strikingly visible ways to the modern ontological distinctions that locate in separate categories the “natural” and the “cultural,” “human,” or “man-made.” Scholars who have engaged with the Anthropocene as not only a term useful for defining a new geological epoch shaped by human actions, but also an ontological challenge to the view that human activities represent a separate category from the affairs of nature. The challenge of contemporary, anthropogenic climate change, then, is a direct critique of the Grand Forks flood walls themselves and their militarized station dividing the unruly power of the Red River of the North, for the neatly organized settlement of Grand Forks.
It strikes me, then, that post-war efforts to harness rivers and to control the flooding in Grand Forks offers a particularly compelling example of the way in which mid-century consumer culture created new landscapes that sought to reify the division between humans and nature by making visible the power of humanity to bring it under control. To be clear, the post-war generation was not the first to do this—gardens culture, for example, long celebrated the ability of individuals to present nature in aesthetically, economically, and politically productive ways— but the mid-20th century marked the first time that humans could manipulate the landscape on such a massive scale. Archaeologists of these decades refer to this capacity as a hallmark of supermodernity in which nowhere on earth escapes the human intervention. No expression of this is more dramatic than the ability to spit the atom. This capability plays a key role in the creation of Cold War landscapes in the American West. These landscapes not only relied on the atomic power of the post-war “military-industrial-academic” complex for its national relevance, but also demonstrated how the confidence unleashed by the atomic age could introduce new levels of prosperity and security for at least some Americans and some of their allies.
Of course, the promises of prosperity and security appear increasingly illusory in light of growing evidence for climate change. Perhaps here is where the efforts to control the flow of the Red River through Grand Forks offer the most poignant or even useful metaphor. The division between the town and the natural spaces of the Greenway, while compelling in our daily lives where it is easy (and even necessary) to imagine nature held at arm’s length, is no more absolute than the collapsing ontological division between humanity and the wider relational network in which we live on Earth.