McKenzie River interdisciplinary initiative inspires students, serves community

"Leaburg Dam," by Mason Trinca. MyMcKenzie Photography project.
"Leaburg Dam," by Mason Trinca. MyMcKenzie Photography project.

For University of Oregon senior Starr Hathaway, all it took was one field trip to the McKenzie River.

“Immediately I fell in love,” said the environmental and cinema studies major. “Due to the natural qualities of the river, it’s extremely unique, but it’s also a cultural gold mine. I can’t think of too many other places that are like it, to be honest.”

To get closer to the river, Hathaway participates in MyMcKenzie, a new interdisciplinary initiative within the UO’s Environmental Studies Program. Developed in response to student demand and community needs, the initiative uses the dazzling, 90-mile river east of Springfield to help students foster a sense of place while assisting river residents and users with service-learning projects.

MyMcKenzie is part of environmental studies’ Environmental Leadership Program, which matches student teams with non-profit organizations, governmental agencies and businesses to address environmental needs.

The river initiative began in summer 2011, when two teams of students used photographs and creative writing to promote stewardship and reflect people’s relationships with the river.

Under “MyMcKenzie Photography,” students created an interpretive artistic display for the 2011 and 2012 McKenzie Arts Festivals, prints and other products, a website and a public art exhibit. Their photography is still on display outside of 150 Columbia and a selection of photos is available in a gallery with this story.

The river initiative was formally launched with a fall 2012 course titled, “Understanding Place – the McKenzie Watershed,” and culminated last spring with four complementary service-learning projects linked to the McKenzie.

“The McKenzie watershed provides a great laboratory for interdisciplinary, place-based education,” said Katie Lynch, co-director of the leadership program. “Using the McKenzie watershed as the integrating context for a suite of projects gives us an opportunity to expand our project offerings to include topics in the natural sciences, social sciences and humanities.”

Co-director Peg Boulay said the watershed offers fascinating and complex geology and geomorphology, multi-faceted and controversial land use issues and a strong sense of community and history tied to place. “Many organizations and agencies are doing work in the watershed,” she added, “which provides diverse opportunities for students to directly engage in local conservation issues.”

During the fall course, students participated in six field trips and interactive lectures with 28 guest speakers to examine the geological, ecological, historical, social and political influences that shape the watershed. The course culminated with a group project, the creation of “McKenzie Memories,” a book of photo essays.

The service-learning projects that followed last spring – River Stories, Stream Stewardship, X-Stream Team and Canopy Connections – provided students with hands-on experience and professional training while serving the community. Students explore career goals and build professional networks that can lead to post-graduation jobs.

Under River Stories, for example, students work as a team to document the cultural heritage of the river by capturing in video and photographs the experiences and insights of people who live and work there. Students learn documentary film and archiving methods and share their work through public outreach events.

Last spring, Hathaway, Jacob Sembler and Shannon Flowers videotaped an interview with organic farmer Sam Ach, co-owner of McKenzie River Farm. Ach took the students on a tour of the Leaburg-area farm, which is certified organic and uses biodynamics – holistic consideration of relationships between soil, plants and animals – to grow grains, hay, cows, chickens, pigs, vegetables, orchard crops, berries, herbs and timber.

At one point, as the group approached an irrigation canal, Sembler asked Ach to talk about the farm’s close proximity to the river and his decision to become an organic farmer.

“I’ve always been an organic farmer,” Ach replied. “That’s all I know. That’s all I’ve ever done.”

Hathaway, who did the camera work, cherishes the friendships he’s built with people who live on (and off) the river. Although MyMcKenzie is giving him interdisciplinary knowledge that he hopes could one day lead to a job working with the environment, he said the real payoff is personal enrichment.

“Especially after ‘River Stories,’ where I made genuine friends with community members, now I have a stake in the McKenzie River, I’m more connected to it,” Hathaway said. “Even after college, regardless of where I’m living, I’ll definitely visit the McKenzie River.”

- story by Matt Cooper, UO Office of Strategic Communications