Flood of Ideas at MHC's Quabbin Panel

Posted: October 2, 2006

PanelA dynamic and diverse panel spoke on Thursday evening, September 28, in Gamble Auditorium as part of Mount Holyoke's symposium, Dis/Placement and Re/Membering: The Quabbin and Hetch Hetchy Canyon. The series of events examined the cultural, political, and environmental effects of two enormous hydrological engineering projects from the early twentieth century.

Lauret Savoy, director of the Center for the Environment and professor of geology, moderated the panel, which included Sacramento Bee editor Tom Philp, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 2005 for his editorial series on the reclamation of the Hetch Hetchy Canyon; Lawrence Buell, Powell M. Cabot Professor of American Literature at Harvard University, award-winning author of several works, including Writing for an Endangered World: Literature, Culture, and Environment in the United Sates and Beyond(2001); and Marge Bruchac, an Abenaki and historical interpreter of native peoples in New England.

Before addressing the panelists, Savoy showed a series of slides depicting before-and-after views of the sites of the dam projects. The photographs highlighted one of the key differences between the two sites: while the Hetch Hetchy Canyon was a pristine, uninhabited wilderness when the city of San Francisco acquired it, the Swift River Valley was home to four primarily agrarian towns when it was taken over to provide a reservoir for Boston. One of the most haunting images was of the Swift River Valley just as the flooding began, showing the trace of a road still visible beneath the rising water.

The three panelists' wide-ranging and sometimes conflicting perspectives reflected the richness and complexity of the subject. Buell, a preeminent scholar of literary culture and environmental history, discussed the two dam projects in terms of their historical and cultural contexts. Hetch Hetchy and the Quabbin were the two largest dams in the United States at the time they were built, but they did not share the same level of visibility and notoriety. While the Hetch Hetchy Canyon project was criticized across the country as the desecration of a natural wonder, the Quabbin remained primarily a local matter, and considered by many to be a desirable restoration of wilderness. The utilitarian reasoning behind the projects--the greatest good for the greatest number--prevailed, placing metropolitan interests over the inhabitants of the outback, who were considered expendable. He compared this callous treatment of the Swift River Valley population to the widespread treatment of Native American populations throughout the colonization of the United States.

Philp brought a politically astute, newsroom point of view to the subject. He spoke of the Hetch Hetchy Canyon reclamation project largely in terms of the interests of the different stakeholders, including Native Americans, environmentalists, and state water officials. He pointed to broad issues, such as who would control the land, as well as narrower questions, such as whether vegetative growth would be controlled to eliminate nonnative plants. He also talked about the Native Americans' ambivalence about the project. He explained that although they embraced the idea of reclamation to some extent, they also feared that it would threaten their legacy.

Bruchac, who grew up in an area of New York that was flooded to create a public water supply, criticized the "Euro-American aesthetic" for looking only at what America had lost and gained, not at how the two dam projects had changed the ecosystems where native Americans had coexisted peacefully with nature for centuries. She does not believe that the losses of Native American history and traditions are irretrievable, as others have claimed. She suggested that Native American knowledge and traditions could be "found back again" by retrieving pieces of the past and reconstructing "a sense of what was."

The symposium was sponsored jointly by the Center for the Environment, the Weissman Center for Leadership and the Liberal Arts, and the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum, which recently opened an exhibition titled Looking Beneath the Surface: The Quabbin and Hetch Hetchy Canyon, which explores the impact of these massive public works projects.

Related Links:

Migrations - Weissman Center for Leadership

Looking Beneath the Surface: The Quabbin and Hetch Hetchy Canyon - MHC Art Museum

Center for the Environment

Photo Gallery