Making the L.A. River a River (Again)

August 1, 2018

Erin Ulrich ’18

Man with a white goatee and glasses
Professor of English T.S. McMillin
Photo credit: Jennifer Manna

Professor of English T.S. McMillin’s first trip to the L.A. River in 2010 led him on a long and winding undertaking to chart the direction of the notorious river—both literally and metaphysically.

Professor of English T.S. McMillin’s latest essay is a reflection on nature, culture, and what divides us. Published earlier this year in Rivers and Society: Landscapes, Governance, and Livelihoods, in “The End of the Los Angeles River: A Paradox,” McMillin asks his reader to think critically about the nature of thinking in a society increasingly detached from the natural world.

Since 1992, McMillin has taught courses in both English and environmental studies at Oberlin. He was a participating member of the United Nations Knowledge Network on Harmony with Nature in 2016 and taught environmental humanities courses with Janet Fiskio in spring 2018 through the Danenberg Oberlin-in-London Program. Thanks to funding from the English department’s Chute Fund as well as grant money from the Great Lakes College Association and Oberlin College, McMillin has become a pioneer in an emergent academic discipline—textual potamology.

He studies the synergetic relationship between potamology—the study of rivers—and literary studies. “The End of the Los Angeles River” paints a picture of the L.A. River littered with trailer parks and power cable towers, flooded with green water and parched in places—one that feels far from what many might consider a “real river”.

Although McMillin notes that the L.A. River is referred to as everything from “the sewer” to a home for graffitied concrete, he is far from pessimistic about his project. He says that while many L.A. transplants bring with them ideas of what a river “should” look like—picturesque indigo waterways filled to the brim—this perception of rivers portrays only a single perspective. McMillin says that his task as a textual potamologist is to ask why the L.A. River has become “un-rivered” and how literary studies can influence the ways we think about the L.A. River as a part of, not apart from nature.

While the obvious and rampant effects of climate change and exponentially increasing consumerism may seem obvious culprits of the L.A. River’s decline, McMillin sees the way we as a society conceptualize nature as equally responsible.

“It’s about getting people to think about the category of a river and what they’re accustomed to, and the ways in which that colors their ability to make sense of what’s before them,” he says.

McMillin’s essay is part of a larger book project in which he creates his own fiction, nonfiction, and poetry writing about the L.A. River and the nature/culture divide. He says that by working on his essay and book project, he has begun to see holes in his own thinking.

McMillin believes that transforming cultural narratives around nature requires the help of the humanities. “Art, and especially fiction, by combining imagination with unaccustomed associations, is particularly adept at revealing fault lines in the stories by which we live, and in some instances these fault lines take the form of paradox,” he says in his essay.

McMillin says the way we as humans conceive of ourselves as estranged from nature only further distances ourselves from the physical space we inhabit. The more culture dissociates itself from nature, the more the latter suffers. Thus, we can’t just point fingers at climate change and unsustainable big businesses—our cultural narratives around nature are also to blame for the L.A. River’s degradation.

So, what would it take for people to start thinking about the L.A. River as a “real river”? For McMillin, the answer lies in literary studies. 

“If it’s literary, it’s allowing you the possibility to think differently,” he says.

McMillin says he finds hope for our planet in the humanities. By complicating our thinking, literature allows us to distance ourselves from the ways we have been conditioned to think about our home on earth.

“In splitting nature from culture, that’s often gone with a kind of hierarchy in which culture is better than nature and that split lets humans off the hook. To separate these things doesn’t work, so what we need is to think more complexly about the way we think about being in the world.”

In a city like L.A. where nature has become so divorced from culture, McMillin believes that we need to think broadly about whose minds literature can change.

“When I wrote The Meaning of Rivers, I was trying to bring rivers to the attention of people who care about literature, but maybe not rivers. I was also trying to bring the humanities and literature to the attention of people who care about rivers. This book is trying to reach a diverse audience and bring the humanities, the river, as well as the connection between those two things to their attention.”

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