This past March, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency held a public hearing to discuss a proposal by Dynegy to install a riverbank stabilization structure along a section of the Middle Fork of the Vermilion River, a plan that would facilitate their larger plan to cap a series of coal ash impoundments adjacent to their now-closed coal-powered generating station. A group of concerned citizens from the area, organized by a regional coalition of the Prairie Rivers Network, Faith In Place, and the Eco-Justice Collaborative, rallied to resist this plan. A common refrain throughout the testimony from residents and various experts was a simultaneous acknowledgement of the limitations of hydro-engineering solutions and the living nature of riparian and riverine ecologies. While the human publics that showed up to testify loudly voiced concern for their own access to the river and their own immediate wellbeing, there was consistent appeal to the agency of the river and its related lifeways.
A recent text by Jodi Byrd, Alyosha Goldstein, Jodi Melamed, and Chandan Reddy titled “Predatory Value: Economies of Dispossession and Disturbed Relationalities” (Social Text 135, June 2018) makes a passionate call for a theory of “grounded relationalities.” “Grounded” in the context of their argument means
quite literally situated in relation to and from the land but without precluding movement, multiplicity, multidirectionality, transversals, and other elementary or material currents of water and air. This is a being grounded and living relationalities in which the nonhuman world and the materiality of land and other elements have agential significance in ways that exceed liberal conceptions of the human. If the grounded relationalities of Indigenous philosophies might tell us anything, then, they remind us that knowledge must always remain grounded as the land calls to us and for us to find our place within the ongoing acts of interconnectivity that surround us.
To be sure, the public testimony on view at this hearing was a far cry from realizing such a grounded relationality, and the ongoing realities of settler-colonialism and Indigenous resistance were hardly prominent. However, as Byrd et al ask:
What happens when land is understood not as property or territory but as a source of relation with an agency of its own? How might reconceiving of land as relation shift the ground of racialized and embodied histories away from the territoriality of the state?
At the least, the folks giving testimony at this hearing see agency in the ecology of the Middle Fork River, an agency that might be as important as their own.