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BARBARA ECKSTEIN A student of places and stories looks to the endangered Iowa River and the communities it links

When Barbara Eckstein read that the environmental organization American Rivers had named the Iowa River—which bisects the University of Iowa campus—the nation’s third most endangered for 2007, she saw a chance for action.

“I realized this wasn’t a scientific designation—the Iowa has a lot of competition when it comes to polluted rivers,” she says. “But I knew this was a political and communal opportunity. This campus defines itself by east bank and west bank, yet we don’t always think about the source of those banks.”

Eckstein also hoped to build connections between communities that make up the watershed, breaking down political divisions and other barriers. So she organized a series of tours that took participants up and down the river and introduced them to their neighbors and the issues.

The Iowa River project is a natural fit with Eckstein’s broader work on space, place, and storytelling. A professor of English in the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and interim associate provost for academic administration, Eckstein draws connections between literature, social questions, and geography—and between universities and the communities they serve.

The first river tour met residents of Iowa Falls, who shared concerns about the influence of agribusiness and ethanol on local farming practices. Heavy corn planting, overused farm chemicals, livestock confinement facilities, and outdated water plants all threaten the Iowa.

Farmers, Eckstein says, express an acute sense of environmental problems and a feeling of frustration in the face of market and political pressures, notably the federal Farm Bill, which includes controversial subsidy programs.

“In discussions about the Farm Bill, I’ve heard people ask farmers, ‘How can you convince your fellow farmers that something has to change,’” she says. “They respond that it’s the rest of us as voters and consumers who have the power to shift policy.”

Eckstein traces her interest in people, the landscape, and their stories back to the steel country of northeast Ohio. The daughter of a steel mill foreman and one of her family’s first-generation college students, she didn’t necessarily plan an academic career. “I sort of backed through a doorway, then turned around and discovered where I was,” she recalls.

Upon completing her PhD, she took a teaching job at the University of New Orleans, a demanding appointment that left little time for research. Busy as she was, she couldn’t resist the call of the city and its people, particularly the activist Catholic nuns she met and volunteered with.

“That immersed me in the political, cultural, social, and economic complexity of a place in a big way,” she says. “It was exhausting, but it showed me that I couldn’t think about literature apart from the geography that surrounds it.”

Since coming to Iowa in 1990, Eckstein has looked to storytelling and oral history as forms of literary record. She has teamed with urban planning experts to examine stories and city life, and developed a service-learning course where students collected veterans’ accounts of war and coming home.

She recently returned to her roots with a project that looks at foremen like her father as keepers of the border between labor and management. Like her environmental work, it raises questions of stewardship and the complex, often competing, responsibilities that individuals face.

Eckstein had just published a book on New Orleans when hurricanes Katrina and Rita swept the Gulf Coast. Even today, she reflects on how the collected literature of New Orleans hinted at the environmental and social tragedy that befell the city, and the odds that other places will meet similarly predictable—but perhaps preventable—fates.

“Many cities worldwide, and certainly quite a few in the United States, live in a kind of hydrological dream world,” she says. “Is what’s happening in Phoenix or Tucson or Las Vegas any crazier than the way New Orleans was set up?”

As for the Iowa River, the threats may be less stark, but the writing is on the wall. Pulling together different perspectives can help us decipher it.

“This is the kind of work I like best,” Eckstein says, “getting people on their feet, away from the University, not only to get more University expertise into the community, but to bring community expertise into discussions of problems and solutions.”

Story by Lin Larson; Photo by Tim Schoon

June 2, 2008