Over the River?

Colorado’s Arkansas River, flowing through Bighorn Sheep Canyon is one of the most majestic and storied rivers in Colorado and the nation.  Thousands of citizens raft and fish the river every year and it has served the needs of the Ute people for more than ten thousand years.  Over the past century, the Arkansas has been at the heart of water disputes, damaged by mining pollution, and subject to numerous dam construction proposals.  Despite these challenges, many people, myself included, view the Arkansas as an elegant, powerful, and dynamic natural masterpiece.  She is as perfect as God or Mother Nature made her. 

For those of us who hold rivers in such high esteem, we find it puzzling and perhaps a bit disturbing that the contemporary Belgurian artist Christo, based on a collaboration with his late wife Jeanne Claude, proposes to hang cloth over 45 miles of the Arkansas for a two week display entitled “Over the River.” In our view, any effort to embellish or improve upon the majesty of the Arkansas River, is “gilding the lily.”  But a difference in values and aesthetic alone are probably not enough to stop this project, and in a democratic society, that’s probably a good thing.

The artists and their contractors claim that their “installation” will cause no irreparable harm to the river, its banks, or the fish and wildlife that depend upon it. They are required to submit substantial evidence supporting their contention.  State and federal officials charged with protection of these resources must evaluate this information, as well as that of opponents, against the requirements of law, and decide the project’s fate.  Read more in an article in the Wall Street Journal.

The proponents of the project claim that the project will bring a significant increase in tourism and international notoriety and recognition to the river and the region.  Local residents have concerns about corresponding traffic congestion and other pressure on infrastructure, reminiscent of concerns raised by citizens of Olympic host cities.  Perhaps both are right, but not being a resident, I don’t feel equipped to judge.  What interests me more is, if the project is constructed, what will visitors and those viewing the installation from cyberspace actually see?

Will they see the drama and passion of Jeanne Claude and Christo’s fleeting adornments or will they see the combined strength and fragility of the 75 million year old Arkansas River?  Perhaps both?  There are many assaults to our rivers – and to the Arkansas River itself – much worse than “Over the River.”  I don’t believe in pouring gold on a flower but if this project moves forward, perhaps a silver lining is that the increased attention will introduce millions more people to the beauty and majesty of the Arkansas and other rivers and motivate them to become advocates for their protection.  I certainly hope so.