A History Full of Flooding

The other day I drove past the oxbow in the Connecticut river that winds along the edges of Northampton, Massachusetts. As is often the case in early spring, the river, swollen with melted snow and spring rain, had spilled over its banks and flooded the local soccer fields and surrounding corn fields. Groves of trees sprouted up from the water as if they had lost their footing and floated out to sea.

Looking out at that scene I couldn’t help think of the images of the Red River in the mid-west that have been frequenting the evening news for the past two weeks. The media has been covering the flooding there with all the sensationalism and lust for tragedy that they have honed covering hurricanes and tornadoes. We get minute by minute precipitation reports and inch by inch measurements of the river’s steady rise. We are berated with heroic stories of bravery and terrible stories of loss. But in the end it is the images that stick with me, rooftops poke through the surface like capsized ships, bare tree reach upward out of the flooding like grasping hands.

In recent years our springs and autumns in southern New England have been punctuated by flooding. Two years ago I stood on a bridge overlooking the Connecticut River just before Halloween and the surface of the river was alive with bobbing pumpkins, swept off of flooding fields before they could be harvested for pie and jack-o-lanterns. For many, a few lost pumpkins were the least of their concerns. Nearby towns began to question the reliability of upstream damns, and farmers watched as their late season crop disappeared beneath the rising waters.

Long fascinated by the power of water, and the historical and social consequences of those places and events where humans and water have collided, I can’t help but see these most recent floods in a long context of human and natural flooding that has shaped much of the American landscape. Just in recent years we saw terrible flooding in the Pacific Northwest, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, flooding in the Northeast and now in the Red River.  Sometimes an idea seems to permeate your life, so that, regardless of what you are engaged in, the events in your life keep circling around a certain theme. For a number of reasons, I have found myself consumed by the idea of floods and flooding.

A few years ago I went to a talk at Mount Holyoke College entitled Dis/Placement and Re/Membering: The Quabbin and Hetch Hetchy Canyon. The event was a powerful exploration of the history and connections between these two places. In both cases immense reservoirs were created to provide water for urban centers. In the case of the Quabbin reservoir (just miles to the east of where I live) three towns were displaced so that the state could flood the Swift River Valley. The state then had to clear the land as best as possible, cutting down all vegetation and dismantling, destroying, or relocating all the buildings in an area that stretches nearly the entire length of the state, north to south.  Because there is no filtration system at the reservoir, the state has imposed a dramatic boundary around the park where little or no human activity is allowed. In doing so, the state created what has been called an “accidental wilderness.”

The irony of calling anything related to the Quabbin accidental became hauntingly clear that evening as I listened to people who had lived in the Swift River Valley talk about their displacement, and their efforts to remain somehow connected to a place they still called home even though it was submerged over fifty years ago. The few living members of those communities spoke with such passion and care for their lost homes. But what was most interesting was the way that the flooding of their home had not only reshaped the land but also their way of talking about that land. This was a flooding of a piece of land, but also very much a flooding of language. All their talk was infused with metaphors of flooding. Yet, they did not seem angry, and while they were surely reminiscent, they did not seem mournful. Their love for a home lost has, in many cases, translated to a love of the reservoir and it’s surrounding landscape.

If the Quabbin is an “accidental wilderness” what do we call Hetch Hetchy? A wilderness submerged? Hetch Hetchy is often offered as the key example of a major schism in American conservation between the idea of wilderness and the idea of wise use. In the case of Hetch Hetchy, John Muir and his newly minted Sierra Club represented the wilderness advocates and Gifford Pinchot, first chief of the US Forest Service, led the charge for a wise use policy. In the end, Pinchot and wise use won out and the valley was dammed. However, at Mount Holyoke, a number of speakers pointed out that while there were no towns and villages in the Hetch Hetchy valley, there was an active Native American population who camped and hunted there. Their displacement, for the creation of a reservoir that would serve San Francisco, like the displacement that occurred around the Quabbin project, resonates with a long history of displacement and dislocation related to flooding.

However, this flooding imagery is not just a part of our past, it is also a vivid part of our future.  As we face a swiftly warming planet, one of the most powerful images of climate change is the flooding of our coastal cities as illustrated in movies like An Inconvenient Truth. Neither displacement or flooding are new themes in our culture. Indeed, Kelpie Wilson, in an article published on Orion Magazine’s website, reminds us that “nearly every culture surveyed has myths of a cataclysmic flood.” Wilson suggests that in these ancient and diverse cultural myths we may find powerful tools to respond to the flooding we see around us today. He writes, “the most transfixing narratives in present-day culture are those that build on old familiar stories—Plato’s Atlantis, for instance; or Noah’s flood.” In these flood narratives, across cultures, the rising waters are caused by some human action that has upset the gods.

Built into these narratives then, is the idea that our action have profound consequences for our earth’s systems, related to both land and water. Wilson points out that “The logos of our science tells us that human behavior is a primary cause of today’s climate chaos; but we have as yet no mythos that allows us to take it to heart and to admit our guilt. And we will never act to save ourselves until we do.” Wilson argues that we need new stories, and new interpretations of these old stories, that draw on the resonances of these myths and our current situation. In essence, we need storytellers as much as we need scientists, because our current climate crisis is not just a problem of the mind, but also one of the heart.

While we may find some important resonance in the mythology of flooding for our current time, what that mythology ignores is the role of social factors like race, class, and power in situations like the Quabin, Hetch Hetchy, and of course Hurricane Katrina. In flooding, as in war, the history book are written by the victors, or in this case, the flooder. Too often, the voices and stories of the people who get displaced by flooding are forgotten or never heard. We hear the triumphalist narrative of taming nature, or providing clean water for Boston or San Francisco, but we don’t hear about what was lost to achieve that.

Part of this untold history of flooding is a history of struggle against flooding. A prime example of this is happening right now in India and too few people know about it. A few years ago I went to a presentation and slide show being given my my friend Mike Levien. He had just spent the last year traveling through India with the Save the Narmada movement (Narmada Bachao Andolan, or NBA). His presentation focused on the grassroots resistance to the Sardar Sarovar dam which along with other dams built in the last 60 years has already displaced an estimated 50 million people. The increadible author and activish, Arundhati Roy, has written extensively about this struggle:

Construction work on the Sardar Sarovar Dam site, which had continued sporadically since 1961, began in earnest in 1988. At the time, nobody, not the Government, nor the World Bank were aware that a woman called Medha Patkar had been wandering through the villages slated to be submerged, asking people whether they had any idea of the plans the Government had in store for them. When she arrived in the valley all those years ago, opposing the construction of the dam was the furthest thing from her mind. Her chief concern was that displaced villagers should be resettled in an equitable, humane way. It gradually became clear to her that the Government’s intentions towards them were far from honourable. By 1986 word had spread and each state had a peoples’ organisation that questioned the promises about resettlement and rehabilitation that were being bandied about by Government officials. It was only some years later that the full extent of the horror – the impact that the dams would have, both on the people who were to be displaced and the people who were supposed to benefit – began to surface. The Narmada Valley Development Project came to be known as India’s Greatest Planned Environmental Disaster. The various peoples’ organisations massed into a single organisation and the Narmada Bachao Andolan – the extraordinary NBA – was born.

In 1988 the NBA formally called for all work on the Narmada Valley Development Projects to be stopped. People declared that they would drown if they had to, but would not move from their homes. Within two years, the struggle had burgeoned and had support from other resistance movements. In September 1989, some 50,000 people gathered in the Valley at Harsud from all over India to pledge to fight Destructive Development. […] On Christmas Day in 1990, some 6,000 men and women walked over a hundred kilometres, carrying their provisions and their bedding, accompanying a seven-member sacrificial squad who had resolved to lay down their lives for the river.

One of the lasting images I have from my friend’s presentation is a photograph of a group of activists crammed inside a tiny home, as the water rose around their neck and shoulders. In the picture, they held hands and turned their faces up to the roof, drawing in what might have been their last breath. This scene was repeated over and over again in village after village as the water rose. In almost every case, state or local police would rush in and drag the activists out of the houses before the water could drown them, not out of concern for their safety, but because they did not want their deaths to end up in the news.

Roy writes that “The millions of displaced people in India are nothing but refugees of an unacknowledged war.”
Work on the Sardar Sarovar dam continues and people are still being displaced, but unlike the news coverage of the Red River, no media outlet here is keeping track of the communities struggle around the Narmada river. And so, like the communities of the  Hetch Hetchy and the Quabin, we risk forgetting the story of those people who were displaced, even as the water continues to rise.

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