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Reflections on the Water

The Schuylkill river is talking.

Listening is Bethany Wiggin ’94, who creates imaginative, collaborative ways to teach its mysteries.

“It’s a living laboratory,” says Wiggin, associate professor of Germanic languages and literature and founding director of the Penn Program in the Environmental Humanities at the University of Pennsylvania. Since 2014, she’s connected the public with the river’s history, health, and ecology through the arts and sciences.

Most commuters “commit a willful act of forgetting this river belongs to us,” she says, but it’s urgent to embrace our role as environmental stewards by discovering—and enjoying—the Schuylkill’s tidal ecology.

When the Trump administration shuttered the EPA’s climate-change webpages last year, an alarmed Wiggin rallied her colleagues and spearheaded rescue sessions of climate and environmental data, earning her national media attention, including an interview on The Daily Show.

By teaming with artists like Jacob Rivkin, whose raft of native wetland plants acts like a floating filter, Wiggin is bringing new energy to her fight; last fall, Penn was awarded a $1.5 million Andrew W. Mellon Foundation grant supporting Wiggin’s environmental work and the Penn Program in the Environmental Humanities.

“We’ll spark conversations about how the lessons we’re learning in Philadelphia about rising waters might be of use to other communities in port cities across the planet,” she says.

Of special interest, Wiggin adds, is her all-liberal-arts-on-deck Floating on Warmer Waters project, which unites Bartram’s Garden, Penn Libraries, and Drexel University to investigate relationships between people and nature on the river.

“We’ll be able to offer an on-water intensive seminar,” she says, “with topics from shipping history to riparian ecology, oral histories, art history, and digital design.”