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Director’s Almanac: Ways of knowing

In solidarity with the Ways of Knowing Water Collaborative

Have you ever discovered a place, a group of people, or a way of thinking right under your nose that you didn’t know was there? Sometimes the smallest of discoveries reveals new ways of seeing a world that you thought you already knew. Before the discovery, you were missing a key piece of information or perspective, one that you only realize in hindsight.

Over the past several months, I’ve been having discovery experiences as part of a group that is exploring diverse ways we know, value, and preserve water. The latest manifestation of our group discovery was Saturday at the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary in St. Paul, Minnesota.

The Bruce Vento Sanctuary lies in the shadow of high rise buildings, is nestled under a freeway and is doused with the clanging of a nearby railroad yard. It rests in the floodplain of a gorge cut by the Mississippi River when Lake Agassiz broke some 12,000 years ago, and in 2005, it became a public park. A neighborhood advocacy group, the Lower Phalen Creek Project, was the primary engine behind the park’s creation, convincing the city to convert an abandoned rail yard and trash dump to native prairie, seasonal wetland, and an area for recreation. Today, the Sanctuary represents what cities can bring back for their residents: a green asset worthy of a world-class metropolitan area.

Signage and a prescribed burn with downtown St. Paul in the background; May 4, 2019

I was visiting the Sanctuary as a part of an experimental art and science collaborative. We call ourselves the Ways of Knowing Water Collaborative, and with support from the Institute for Advanced Study, the Weisman Art Museum, Water Bar, and the Institute on the Environment, we gather once a month to see what we can learn from one another, where we can take our relationship, and what we can create and do if we open our minds to shared learning. Collaborative members share an appreciation for water, a commitment to social and environmental change, and expertise in the arts, science, or community engagement. In previous months, we’ve tasted hand-harvested wild rice and brainstormed about experiences we could have together that would help us understand each other and the communities we represent.

This time we went to the Bruce Vento Sanctuary to learn about the history, spiritual meaning and water ecology of a place right under our noses.

Members of the Collaborative.

Members of the Collaborative and Maggie Lorenz (at right in checked shirt).

Like the group itself, our afternoon was a mash-up of culture and science. Maggie Lorenz, the interim executive director of the Lower Phalen Creek Project and director of Wakan Tipi Center, spoke about the organizing necessary to restore the park and the vision required to make sure its protection was connected to ecological and cultural values.

Ecological reconstruction lies at the heart of the park’s purpose. The vision is to bring Phalen Creek, a stream that once flowed from a nearby lake to the Mississippi River, out of its forced stormwater pipe and back to the surface. This restoration is called “daylighting” and can be a powerful way to re-create recreational amenities and account for increasing stormwater flow from urbanization and climate change. Daylighting prevents stormwater from overwhelming undersized and aging underground infrastructure, provided water can flow through a natural flood plain. Parts of Phalen Creek have been daylighted elsewhere, but Bruce Vento remains a future project. Collaborative member Beth Fisher brought water quality detection equipment on our excursion and deployed that equipment where stormwater does flow on the site, explaining that data from the sensors can be uploaded directly — by scientists or by citizens — to an open-source EnviroDIY data community aimed at promoting environmental science and monitoring by citizens.

But cultural preservation and restoration is just as important as ecological restoration at Bruce Vento. Like many sites along the shores of the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers, this is Dakota land where settlements, fishing, and spiritual life took place, and cultural meaning exists for Dakota people today. Water flowing through sandstone sediments carved out the Wakan Tipi cave, now in the Sanctuary, the site of an important origin story for the Dakota – a story recorded in drawings on the cave ceiling more than 2,000 years ago.

I knew about daylighting. I knew how to measure the conductivity and other chemical properties of water. But I didn’t know about this place. I didn’t know about Wakan Tipi. I didn’t know that there’s a democratic movement of water monitoring that empowers concerned citizens.

These things I didn’t know are humbling because I’m often the expert in the room, the person with the advanced degree and the professional experience to tell others what they need to know about the environment, how it is changing, and what to do about it. But in this group I’m not always the expert — or not the only expert. My fellow Collaborative members know things that I do not, things like Dakota language and culture, performance art, and organizing in marginalized communities.

I like being part of shared discovery. As part of my job and my own, personal ambition, I want to understand other ways of knowing and other methods people use to make change. The best way — the only way — to learn more is to broaden who you know. For me, that’s getting outside the university and outside the sciences. This week was discovering the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary. I’m looking forward to what we will discover next and, ultimately, what this group might create together.

In planetary prosperity,


The Ways of Knowing Water Collaborative includes: Jewell Arcoren, Bill Arnold, Vicente Diaz, Aaron Dysart, Beth Fisher, Amoke Kubat, Amanda Lovelee, Ethan Neerdaels, Richa Nagar, Mankwe Ndosi, Patrick Nunnally, Boris Oicherman, Daniela Sandler, Keegan Xavi, and me—in cowboy hat at left.


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