Works on Water: An Impression of ‘Voices from the Roanoke River’

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In the recent year, the Trump administration has flouted many environmental protection laws within its borders. In the international scene, the administration took the U.S. out from the Paris Agreement when even war-torn Syria, the only hold-out, signed it. The administration is obviously tone-deaf to what is happening to the environment. It is bad enough that catastrophes across the globe keep occurring, but to exacerbate it? At the rate that our carbon footprint is razing through this planet, what has been happening globally should frighten even the most adamant global warming denier. What we knew of our seasons no longer apply. Spring in Winter and Summer in the Fall. Bones and carcasses of unknown sea creatures washing on shores sometimes filled with plastic. The environment is changing and it is changing fast.

Elizabeth Kolbert, in her book The Sixth Extinction, outlines the major catastrophic events that wiped out entire species on our planet. There have been five major mass extinction events throughout history. We’re currently in the middle of one of another one due to our industries. She writes: “Human impacts on the planet have increased proportionately. Farming, logging, and building have transformed between a third and a half of the world’s land surface, and even these figures probably understate the effect, since land not being actively exploited may still be fragmented. Most of the world’s major waterways have been diverted or dammed or otherwise manipulated—in the United States, only two per cent of rivers run unimpeded—and people now use half the world’s readily accessible freshwater runoff.”

Human impacts on the planet have increased proportionately. Farming, logging, and building have transformed between a third and a half of the world’s land surface, and even these figures probably understate the effect, since land not being actively exploited may still be fragmented. Most of the world’s major waterways have been diverted or dammed or otherwise manipulated—in the United States, only two per cent of rivers run unimpeded—and people now use half the world’s readily accessible freshwater runoff. 
-Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction

The human impact on waterways is most troubling since three-quarters of the world’s surface is made of water. What can we do to stop what seems to be, literally, the tide of time? To borrow a phrase from AA meetings, the first step is admitting that there is a problem. Perhaps this is why there are organizations such as Works on Water focusing on bridging urban spaces, environmental concerns and public discourse through art installations, performance art, and forums to discuss our relationship with our coastlines. Partnering with Governors Island, Works on Water created a residency to provide “an incubator space for diverse investigations of water in the urban environment.”

One of this year’s selected residents is the theater collective Creative Traffic Flow, founded by DawN Crandell, Jeesun Choi and Kristin Rose Kelly. CTF was commissioned by the Clean Valley Council for their Earth Summit event to create a piece that examines the social and environmental impact of humans living by the Roanoke River to inspire others to protect the water.

I was invited to go to the first public reading of Creative Traffic Flow’s project Voices from the Roanoke River held at Nolan Park House 5B in Governors Island on July 15, 2018 in preparation for their presentation on November 2, 2018 at Virginia Western Community College. I must shamefully admit that prior to this invitation, I had never been to Governors Island even though I’ve been living in New York City for more than half of my life. A few minutes away by a ferry ride from Brooklyn Bridge Park’s Pier 6 in Brooklyn, Governors Island is its own enclave. After disembarking and taking a brisk five-minute walk to a row of older houses, the designated space for the presentation was atmospheric. A giant canoe decorated the front steps. Inside, the peeling paint and the rustic time-worn look of the house provided a site-specific venue for CTF’s presentation.

After introductions, they showed a projection of the Roanoke River map spanning from Virginia to North Carolina. Then they showed other images related to the River as they layered the images by reading the text they created from their interviews and research. One of their interviewees was with Danielle DeHart, an Environmental Specialist from the City of Roanoke Stormwater Division who mentioned that there are people who think of the Roanoke River not as its own entity, but as an invaluable commodity: “there’s always this kind of lingering thought of like, ‘Oh you don’t go in the Roanoke River. It’s just a dumping site’ (because) there’s a lot of places still where people do that and so it’s not a place—it’s not an asset to the city. It’s just something that runs through it. It causes flooding. It’s just something that’s over there.”

What was particularly striking was their use of archival photographs of the devastation caused by natural disasters. Seeing photographs of the Roanoke River waters rising to sweep cars off the streets punctuates the point that nature is a powerful force despite the human desire to conquer nature.

When asked what the biggest thing the team learned in doing this project, Kelly answered: “You can measure a river’s health by what bugs inhabit the water. Turning over a river stone harms an entire habit of fish and bugs. Stormwater pollution is something we all contribute to and should be mindful of how to keep pollution out of stormwater drains.” Choi added: “Working on this play really made me realize how intricate the relationship we all have with rivers are – as human beings and as members of the ecosystem. When one link in the cycle goes awry, it affects the whole system. Someone once said that we like to say ‘Save the Earth’ when it comes to ecological activism, but really, it should be ‘Save Human Beings.’ I really related to that because it showed that the Earth has the power to persist, while humans have the power to destroy ourselves. It really puts into perspective the power of nature. This project made me realize that again.” 

As for me, seeing the seeds of this project as well as knowing about the Works on Water program made me realize that we need more public discourse on the impact we have on the places that we inhabit. It is not enough to learn about how we affect the spaces where we live in through books and media. Nature is not a virtual place. It is a living space. We need to go to the water and respect it for its life-giving elements. We need to go to the water and not wait for the water to come to us. By then, it might be too late.