Often considered the starting point of the Mississippi River, Lake Itasca is known as the “Headwaters of the Mississippi.” Here the river flows over 2,550 miles to meet the Gulf of Mexico. The river’s emergence from Lake Itasca carries particular cultural significance as the outlet has been memorialized and ritualized by tourists making their pilgrimage to Itasca State Park so as to cross the Mississippi River, barefoot and atop sunken boulders, posing for a quick photo as they stand atop the Mighty Mississippi. At Lake Itasca, the headwaters narrative has been constructed, quite literally, around the source of the river’s waters.
Throughout much of the 18th and 19th century, the search for the source of Mississippi River by Zebulan Pike, Joseph Nicollet, Henry Rowe Schoolcraft and others among a cadre of lesser-known, amateur explorers garnered considerable attention in Minnesota and across America. Determined to settle the question of the Mississippi River’s source, in 1889 the Minnesota Historic Society commissioned explorer and geographer Jacob V. Brower, Esq. to conduct a “careful and scientific survey of Lake Itasca and its surroundings, with the view of determining by a thorough examination of the spot and all of its physical features, under all circumstances, what is the true and actual source of the Mississippi River.”
In the spring of 1889, Brower and his team set forth to complete a detailed scientific and ethnographic account of the Lake Itasca area. In the following year, Brower presented his team’s findings in a report to the Council of the Minnesota Historic Society. His report observed a landscape in transition, from Ojibwe villages along lake shores under increasing threat from colonial expansion, to the destruction of the iconic old growth pine forests through rapid and illicit logging by Weyerhauser and others. As to the question of the source of the Mississippi River, Brower’s report asserted that the “true and actual source of the Mississippi River is the Greater Ultimate Reservoir from which the principal portion of the waters of Lake Itasca are drawn” and “To proceed on the basis that the source of the river is a particular spot most remote from its mouth…force(s) upon the student of geographical explorations, a limited and narrow rule. Resulting in the discovery of an inferior point…yet ignoring the existence of the real source from which the water may be drawn.” In short, Brower’s report noted that there can be no one singular source of this river.
However, while the Itasca landscape was protected from logging, the park’s own designation brought upon new pressures in the form of tourism by those seeking to see the source of the mighty Mississippi. Ignorant or otherwise unconcerned with Brower’s findings as to a watershed itself being the river’s source, in the 1930’s, Itasca Superintendent Earl Lang found the existing state of the Lake Itasca outlet to be visually unappealing, and thus, he directed the outflow of Lake Itasca to be re-designed and shaped so as to turn this “muddy, swampy and sluggish” lake outflow into “a point of beauty…that will really make it the Source of the Father of Waters.”
And so, concurrent with Works Progress Administration efforts throughout the US to improve public parks, and in response to the early-20th century rise of State Parks as regional tourist destinations, the bogs, beaver lodges and wetlands at the Lake Itasca outlet were removed and an earthen levee—along with concrete, steel and boulders—was formed to create a new outlet of Lake Itasca. This is the boulder crossing we know today to be the “headwaters” of the Mississippi River. Without irony, the WPA records noted that the resulting work “restore(d) this area to the state in which it properly should be, that of a scenic historically interesting spot to be preserved in it’s (sic) natural form.”
As Stephen Ambrose once noted, the Mississippi River encodes and communicates potent stories and symbolism of American identity. So perhaps the fact that the Lake Itasca outlet was intentionally shaped with earth, concrete and steel to form a proper river source in order to conform to our values and expectations of the world around us—aesthetic or otherwise—should come as no surprise. The early 20th century changes to the outlet of Lake Itasca constructed the headwaters narrative and landscape that one experiences today. And it is symbolic of our linear thinking towards water, and that our sources of water must be somewhere natural and far away and not of infrastructure of our own creation. But look around. We have modified the Earth’s landscape—its atmosphere, lithosphere and hydrosphere—to such an extent that we are at the dawn of a new geologic Epoch for the Earth, the Anthropocene. More than a simple geo-stratigraphic marker of geologic time, the Anthropocene marks a paradigm shift of profound realization of human geologic agency on the future of the Earth. No longer external to the environment; we cannot restore or otherwise go back. Rather, we are now committed—without choice—to the ethical shaping and writing of the future fossil record made evident in our land use, infrastructure and other changes to the world.
One of the most profound ways we have re-shaped the Earth is through our values and actions towards water. The alteration of the Lake Itasca outlet is one small, but important symbol of how our values have shaped the hydro-narratives and physical landscape of the Anthropocene. Continue downstream and one may witness other more complex and irreversible modifications of the river, through a network of locks, dams, levees and other channel modifications that have fundamentally changed the course and composition of the river. But these are often the easiest changes to see.
One needs to look closer to find that the true sources of waters are not found in places like the outlet of Lake Itasca, but in the everyday watershed that surrounds us. The modernization of water infrastructure in the 20th century and the methods to extract, collect, move, store, consume and dispose of water now results in an anthropogenic network of water infrastructure that carries not only water, but our values towards water. This hydro-social infrastructure, comprised of the network of drain inlets and ditches, downspouts and gutters, treatment plants, pumps and pipes have become a hydrologic prosthesis enmeshed in our watersheds and equivalent to and operating alongside other “natural” seeps, streams, ponds, lakes and rivers.
This is a hydrologic network where socio-cultural values, and political and economic decisions, govern the course and flow of water in today’s world and through our lives. The rain that falls on your yard or roof, on your street or parking lot are now the true and actual sources of the Mississippi River, or any river. The anthropogenic network of rainwater, blackwater and potable water infrastructure that interlaces the water-stained landscapes that surround us have become our Anthropocene Headwaters.
This realization opens important new questions about our relationship to water, to the planet and to each other within the emerging Anthropocene paradigm. What new explorations are necessary for the modern Anthropocene explorer to map, understand and question the ways in which we shape the hydro-social networks of our landscape? What new words and stories are needed to share the hydro-social processes of blue-green and grey infrastructure that we are enmeshed? What new hydro-social rituals of crossing the Anthropocene Headwaters must now begin as we write our own future history?
First published in Hydrosocial Reader #1 Anthropocene Headwaters
© 2017 Water Bar & Public Studio, GBC
1st Edition printed on Wednesday, June 8th, 2017 for the occasion of Northern Spark 2017: Climate Chaos | People Rising.
Available for download here.