Relay of Voices: The Altered State
by Guest Blogger on Monday, January 9, 2023
In 2019, the year of another great flood on the Mississippi River, I traveled the length of the river on foot in order to listen deeply to the voices shaped by the landscape. As we made our way into the heart of Iowa, we landed in Dubuque and met up with Jared McGovern at the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium. He explained the fact that Iowa as a state is so unique in that it’s the most altered state in the country. “99% of Iowa—its native cover is gone,” Jared explained, “it’s been changed into something else, whether it’s row crop or urban or highways or something else.”
And here’s where his eyes lit up as he said, “so I like coming back here because it’s a challenge. You can go anywhere. I can work in California, Washington, Oregon, and it would be a heck of a lot easier because so many people have a different mindset out there…in the Midwest, in the most altered state in the country, if you’re going to be working around water and you have a passion about the outdoors, there’s no bigger challenge than Iowa.”
I almost stopped him there, but he got to it before I could. “Maybe Louisiana,” he added, “but for different reasons.” I was like, that’s my home state, and I hate to be vying for the most challenging situation, but I think we’re up there. “Well you’ve got the ag and the natural gas down there,” Jared acknowledged. “Up here it’s mostly agricultural.”
What Jared was alluding to here, whether with Iowa or Louisiana, is that most of the native prairie and forest land in these two states has been converted to agriculture or industry, eliminating the natural process of topsoil replenishment and overall habitat growth. But you might be wondering why a woman from Louisiana was running the length of the river to begin with, working to have conversations in Iowa about agriculture and its effects on the Mississippi River. Well it goes back to what Jared said about having a passion and bringing it home.
By way of a delayed introduction, I am an artist, athlete, and activist who was raised on the Louisiana Gulf Coast and left home to pursue my career, always seeing at a distance the struggles of my homeplace. From hurricanes, to land loss, to poverty and healthcare concerns, and dysfunctional government, Louisiana always ended up coming up last. At a certain point, I started to feel a call home, like it was time to give back.
My plan, convoluted or genius - you decide - was to travel the waterway that shaped my home state, gathering up the insights of other communities dependent on the River, but who also influence the River’s path south. Here you have why Iowa is decidedly important to Louisiana and the River with all it contributes to the waterway.
Since my journey concluded I have compiled all the materials into an interactive story map that you can explore. The first round of stories from Iowa were just released in January and the next batch will come out in February. I hope you will enjoy exploring the connections found along the river as much as I did.
Explore the journey at relayofvoices.com.
About the Author
Victoria Bradford Styrbicki (b. 1980) is an artist and cultural producer working across the lines of performance, research, and activism. She currently works as executive and artistic director of A House Unbuilt, a non-profit organization built around whole body listening practices, a way of reading and writing movement from life through field and studio research. This work of “social choreography” has led to such noted projects as Dinner Dance (in collaboration with Hannah Barco), Skirts (in collaboration with Jessica Cornish), Neighborhood Dances, and most recently Relay of Voices. Victoria now lives and works between Stillwater, MN and Lake Charles, LA.
- land stewardship
- water quality