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Can Stories Bring Rivers Back to Life?
I am a story skeptic. The abuse of storytelling in the business world combined with the falseness abound in social media has eroded any suspension of disbelief I might have when reading any story that’s trying to convince me of something. And yet I just read about a powerful use of stories (which I’ll get to below) that helped me see past my skepticism.
I do begrudgingly acknowledge the power of stories in general. They put information in context. They help convey emotions. They help us imagine ourselves in the characters’ situations which can help us try new behaviors.
But I came of age when we started to take a very meta perspective on stories. We’ve slid down a slippery slope from focusing on the craft of storytelling to an emphasis on telling stories. From conveying our personal experience to constructing narratives in order to persuade. Ick.
And that’s why I loved this Long Now newsletter about the rebirth of the Mystic River. It describes a barrage of both positive and negative stories that created enough influence to clean up a once critically polluted river:
…We think of pollution as a modern phenomenon, but in the late 19th century the Globe was full of letters, reports and opinions recalling the river in an earlier, uncorrupted state. In 01865, a writer complains that formerly delicious oysters from the Mystic have been “rendered unpalatable” by pollution. In 01876 a correspondent claims that as a boy he enjoyed swimming in the Mystic — before it was turned into an open sewer. Four years later a writer laments that the river herring fishery “was formerly so great that the towns received quite a large revenue from it.” And by 01905, a columnist calls for the “improvement and purification” of the Mystic, urging the Board of Health and the Metropolitan Park Commission to work together on “the restoration of the river to its former attractive and sanitary condition.”
These sepia-colored evocations of a prelapsarian past are a recurring feature of river restoration narratives to this day. “Sadly, only septuagenarians can now recall summer days a half century earlier when the laughter of children swimming in the Mystic River echoed in this vicinity,” writes a Globe columnist in 01993. Last year, in a piece on the spectacular recovery of Boston’s better-known Charles River, Derrick Z. Jackson quoted an activist who believes such images were critical to building public support for the project: “people remembered that their grandmothers swam in the Charles and wanted that for themselves again.” Whether or not anyone was actually swimming in these rivers in the mid-20th century is irrelevant — the idea is evocative and, as a call to action, effective.
Rivers, with their ceaseless, shape-shifting flux, remind us that none of our labor will last. The process of reclaiming a dead river is the opposite of orderly: it lurches through seasons of outrage and indifference, earnest clean-ups followed by another fuel spill, budget battles and political grand-standing, nostalgia and frustration. It is messy, elusive, and never actually finished.
Yet in Boston and many other cities, this process is working.
If you can spare a few minutes you can help the Mystic River right now by watching an underwater video and counting how many river herring fish you see.