THE FLOW, Summer 2014

Jul 17, 2014 | Newsletters

This is the introductory article for the Summer 2014 River Alliance Newsletter. Download a PDF of the full Newsletter.

To Protect a River, You Have to Love It

As I make my way to my job at the River Alliance, I cross a tiny river.  The Yahara can be a forgettable little thread of water linking lakes Mendota and Monona on Madison’s isthmus.  From a car, you might not even notice it’s there, unless you stop and reflect for a few minutes.

Cover Page for FLOW newsletter

For four years now, the River Alliance of Wisconsin has hosted a wonderful event dubbed the Fools’ Flotilla each June.  We didn’t design the event to draw attention to the Yahara, but it is doing just that.  People show up in crazy costumes and questionable vessels. Musicians come and play their horns, fiddles and even an entire miniature drum set from canoes. Many more people line the banks and bridges and cheer on the Flotilla.

Last year, I mentioned to my good friend Jessica Becker about how this simple event was almost transformative because it had the ability to make people see the ordinary with fresh eyes. She pitched the idea of creating a temporary art installation along the Yahara timed around the Flotilla to really draw attention to the potential for turning this forgettable thread of water into a blue ribbon of beauty and reflection for the neighborhood.

Yahara reflections

My work with the River Alliance takes me all over the state. Here I was getting the chance to work on the river in my own backyard. In the fall of 2013, we put out a call for artists to submit ideas for temporary art pieces; five artists from Madison were selected. In February, we received an award from the BLINK! program of the Madison Arts Commission.

In partnership with the Friends of the Yahara River Parkway and the City Parks Division, the vision for this project was solidified: through art, people would see themselves as part of the history, geography, ecology and culture of this little river. Jessica created a beautiful project website and on May 15, the Reflections on the Banks of the Yahara installation was officially launched. Hundreds of people have been enchanted by the idea of “becoming a tourist in your own town,” as Jessica likes to say.

We certainly aren’t the first to see the potential of this little river: the Yahara River Parkway was created in the early 1900s to protect the river and the lush plantings along its banks. Over the years, the City of Madison has built a series of small, charming bridges over the river. Collectively, taken in from a canoe in the moonlight, they have always transported me to distant exotic places. When the streets were reconstructed, the Friends of the Yahara River Parkway pushed tirelessly for underpasses so residents would not have to navigate busy streets to get to the paths or the water. As a parent, I have come to rely on that river for our nature fix in 15-minute increments: our first paddle trip with infants happened in this river, and the kids learned to cast for panfish here on warm summer nights. My son even collected his first pets in this river: a bowlful of tiny filter-feeding invertebrates called daphnia which bloom in early spring and give the lakes their clear-water phase. People biking on the path that flanks the Yahara stop to watch the schools of fish that gather in the shade of the bridges. My colleague Matt Krueger marveled recently that he gets in the car and drives an hour to fish some creek and yet he can count fifteen different species in this little thread of water two blocks from his front door.

View the art, bond with nature

And that’s the heart of what excited me about this project. For most of us, the sum total of our bonding with nature will not happen hours away in pristine locations. Most of us will never know fishing Montana trout streams or rafting the Colorado River. Most people will know the little bits of nature they encounter daily in the interstices of everyday life. By the same token, we usually experience art where it hangs on museum walls. Art is no more out of place on an urban riverbank than is a “wilderness experience” of the mind on that same urban river.

These experiences – this melding of art and nature – feed our souls and allow us to fall in love with water, tree, fish, mud in little human chunks of time. The river that is essential to daily existence will create as many – and maybe more – passionate water defenders than the pristine river far away.

By Helen Sarakinos

To learn more about the project, the vision and the art, please visit