Over the River Oral History Project

Did you ever chance upon a beautiful stretch of river and reflect on why it is so? Did you consider that someone loved it so much that they worked hard to keep it clear of pollution, trash, and destructive projects? The majority of the rivers and streams in the United States have been damaged by trash and pollution or have had wild habitat altered by dams, levees, drained floodplains, or excessive irrigation diversions. While human needs are important, the degree to which we have dominated and re-engineered waterways over the past 100 years is unprecedented.

Since the latter half of the past century, increasing numbers of people worked hard to save our rivers. More than likely the clear flow of water that you now enjoy is the result of a conservation action at some time in the past. Defense and care of our rivers and watersheds takes multi-generational work, all of us, all the time. And we need to understand how we got here as a growing movement across the generations. What can we learn from this history in order to do it better?

Over the River is a project that speaks with activists working for many years, some since the 1950s, in five regions of the country. Our case studies come from the Klamath in the west, the Upper Mississippi and tributaries in the midwest, the Bronx and NYC watershed in the northeast, the Chattahoochee in the southeast, and the Rio Grande in the southwest. Each river is a unique ecosystem and has been the focus of an uncommon community effort to defend, preserve, and restore it.

The life stories of river advocates are deeply interwoven with the positive changes we have seen over the decades. These stories can inspire us, link us with those who went before us, and help us bridge to those to come. We benefit from the work and words of people who stopped polluters, ended unnecessary dams on wild rivers, freed urban rivers and streams from sewage, and brought back wetlands and wildlife habitat. May their work increase through future generations until all our waterways are out of danger and free of destruction.

Over the River oral history asks each person these questions:

  • 1. What brought you into the work you are doing?
  • 2. What are the greatest successes you have been involved with?
  • 3. What have you seen change in the environmental or conservation movements?
  • 4. What are your personal sources of inspiration?
  • 5. What brief message would you like to give to young people?

Photos of these river advocates and the places they love may be viewed in the Over the River Gallery. There will be several works created from this interview series: articles on each specific site, a history and photo book, an audio slide show, and a documentary.

Over the River: Messages to the Young

Merv George Jr of the Hupa Tribe, Klamath River Intertribal Fish and Water Commission, and Forest Service Region 5 speaks for all of us:

“Many of us are relying on our future generations to keep the delicate balance of life going. By thinking seven generations ahead….may we always remember that our walk has purpose. That point in which we recognize that we can either help or hurt the ecosystem is the exact point in time that we realize our place. Life is a constant array of lesson plans that teach us many things. As humans we are always entitled to make mistakes…..but may we never lose the lessons these mistakes teach us. The world is relying on future generations to be more informed than the ones before. Our planet is dynamic…..may our attitudes and habits also be.”

For updates on the progress of the interviews for this project, please check the blog at Over the River Talk.

To listen to Diana Hartel on WVKR (Vassar College) about Over the River and Madrona Arts, go to our links page under heading Audio Madrona Arts Links.