Re-envisioning the Life and Death of American Rivers

Friday, January 3, 2014: 10:50 AM
Columbia Hall 10 (Washington Hilton)
Sigma Colón, Yale University
In their movement through time and across space the material shape and composition of rivers changes due to natural and human-directed processes. In tandem with their literal lives, rivers become visible and invisible to human beings sometimes because of, and other times despite their physical existence. The Colorado River currently disappears most of the year. It literally becomes invisible by never reaching the sea. In human terms, the river is described as experiencing a kind of death. A social and historiographical trend has been to describe rivers, such as the Colorado, as dead and dying. In keeping with this course, the Los Angeles River has long been described as a virtual river, a non-river, a dead river. As such, many projects have been put in place to revitalize it, to bring it back to life and to set it free by unfencing, unpaving, re-envisioning, and returning it to a natural state. This paper compares moments when the Colorado and Los Angeles rivers become invisible and visible in the historical record. Whether these rivers are seen or unseen during moments of transformation, periods of crises, times of catharsis, or as part of the routine of everyday life depends upon human vision and accompanying narratives. The prevailing truth, however, is that rivers are disappearing, they are drying up and problems of water shortages are more pressing because of it. This paper considers river historiography in a network with river landscapes, human and nonhuman actors—focusing on the ways the Colorado and LA Rivers can and do disappear, sometimes to be reimagined and given new life.