Going with the Flow: Reflections on Dams, the Wild, and Interrupted Rivers

This essay is adapted from an assignment in the Colby College course Environmental Humanities: Stories of Crisis and Resilience, taught by Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Environmental Humanities Christopher Walker. 

Installation shot of Interrupted River: Penobscot by Maya Lin in Occupy Colby. Photo by Luc Demers.

Interrupted River: Penobscot by Maya Lin addresses our cultural perception of rivers as the embodiment of all that is free-flowing, wild, and unconfined. The work, composed of clear marbles glued directly to the gallery wall to depict moving water, includes blank, white gaps in the flow to indicate the presence of dams along the river’s course. By illustrating these interruptions, Lin acknowledges the fallacy of the idea of the wild river. She does so through absence as opposed to presence, however, foregrounding the river and not human interventions. Lin’s view of the Penobscot is not one of hopelessness, but one that leaves room for creativity as a means of mending our relationship with the wild.

The work—impossibly large and complex—is full of energy, sprawling across the space. To trace the entirety of the piece with the eye takes several moments. It stretches from floor to ceiling, the clustered small marbles echoing the texture of the moving water. Lin’s decision to show the Penobscot and its many tributaries from a satellite view makes the river look immense, as if it were trying to rupture the gallery walls. The piece stands alone, creating a focused viewing experience.

Humans have long looked to nature to feel before thinking. We project our thoughts and worries onto the spaces that we inhabit as a means of externalizing the internal. Rivers stand in as metaphors for that which is unconfined and wild. When we control the movement of rivers, we lose something beyond biodiversity or ecosystem productivity: we lose the sense of emotional release that comes from the appearance of free-flowing water, and all of the visions of wilderness that come with it. In this work, Lin highlights the many dams that prevent the Penobscot from flowing naturally. The gaps illustrate how the river’s value as a channel for human emotional needs is diminished.

Lin acknowledges the ways human beings have interrupted the flow of the Penobscot River, but does so in a way that decenters the power of humans to destroy and instead concentrates on the river’s ability to heal. In rendering the dams as an absence—just white wall—as opposed to a presence, Lin suggests how easy it would be for the marbles to simply fill in these breaks. The viewer can see that it would be simple to glue in a few more marbles and let the river flow. Lin creates a hierarchy in which the dams, depicted as breaks, appear insignificant in comparison to the strength of the remaining river. Interrupted River emphasizes creation, not destruction, leaving room for the river to have agency and power, and leaving room for hope.