Badger Bookshelf: “The Driftless Reader”

The “Badger” in Badger Bookshelf does not refer to UW-Madison sports teams, or even the state of Wisconsin as a whole. Rather, the reference is to the original meaning of the word as an identifier of place, predating both sports and statehood. The early 19th-century lead miners in what would become southwestern Wisconsin were said to be “badgers” because of the shallow holes they dug to gain access to lead ore. Books reviewed here will be selected from works of authors who either live (or lived) in southwestern Wisconsin, or who write about natural, cultural or historical aspects of the area.

The Driftless Reader
Edited by Curt Meine and Keefe Keeley
The University of Wisconsin Press (2017)
348 pp., $26.95

By Peter Schmalz
Most people like to think that their home turf is special, or at least above average, as a place to live. Everyone living in the Driftless Area knows that our physical environment is something unusual; most would support the observation that it is also beautiful. Life satisfaction, however, has requirements that go beyond the aesthetic reward we feel when taking a drive through rolling and varied topography, or even looking out the window on a sunny day after a snowfall. Good government, clean air and water, cultural resources, access to health care and food sources and good schools are all important for a rich and rewarding life. Above all, personal relationships with caring and generous people are vital to a positive sense of home.
If you are curious about the geologic foundations and ecology of our area, its settlement and use by humans, and how it looks to locals and outsiders, “The Driftless Reader” may be of interest to you. The book is made up of excerpts from a wide variety of sources. The oldest of these dates from 1674, the most recent from 2015, with most excerpts written in the last 100 years. The selections range from two to nine pages in length; reading several items in one sitting is a stimulating way to spend a half hour. The most common sources of the selections are scientific, historic and literary, and each is preceded by a short introduction. The editors have grouped the excerpts by subject, in a rough chronological order. Writing quality varies from the staccato statements found in early sources to the facility and smoothness of recent writers like William Cronin. The longer essays provided by the editors at the beginning of each major section are a valuable aspect of the book. These are well-researched, and bear repeated reading.
The Driftless Area is the geologic identification of a unique portion of the upper Midwest that was glacier-free during the last several ice ages. The “drift” in the name refers to the boulders, gravel and sand left on the landscape after glacial retreat during a period of warming. Hence, “driftless” is land without “drift.” Other names for this special landscape include coulee country, uplands and ridge and valley region. It encompasses about 10,000 square miles, mostly in southwestern Wisconsin, but also includes significant portions of southeastern Minnesota and northeastern Iowa, and a sliver of northwestern Illinois. Although the land has not been touched by glaciers, its flora and fauna have been in flux over many thousands of years. A geologic interpretation of the Driftless was first proposed in 1805, with the first correct explanation dating from 1877. The area has been settled by humans for about 12,000 years; the first European exploration occurred in 1673 during the expedition of Joliet and Marquette, which began in Green Bay, negotiated the Fox River, and followed the Wisconsin River into the Mississippi. Mining by Europeans began with the arrival of Julien Dubuque in 1785, and led to conflict with the American Indians, who were already removing ore from surface mines. Britain, Spain and France all had claims in the area. Control of the Driftless by the United States resulted from the Treaty of Paris, which ended the Revolutionary War in 1783, and from the Louisiana Purchase of 1803.
I learned much by reading “The Driftless Reader,” including some unfamiliar facts about the area. Land use, for example, is currently 47 percent agricultural, 34 percent forested, and only 13 percent developed, providing those beautiful vistas we enjoy. Another interesting fact is that the honeycrisp apple was developed at the University of Minnesota specifically for Driftless Area soils and weather. For those readers wanting to experience the entire books from which the excerpts are gleaned, a list of sources is provided. For those wanting to go beyond the resources of this single volume, a list of further reading is included for each chapter. The production values of this book are high, due in part to the many black-and-white illustrations, which include maps, drawings, woodcuts and photos. Especially appealing visually are the 16 pages of color illustrations. I enjoyed everything in this collection, even the excerpts about subjects of minor interest to me. I am impressed that specialists have devoted time (sometimes lifetimes) to the exploration of important aspects of Driftless nature and culture.
The hours spent with this book will stimulate your curiosity to learn more about the area we call home, and will clarify why people here are so attached to the Driftless, as a special geographic area and as a satisfying way of life.

Peter Schmalz is a retired high school teacher with interests in classical music, philosophy, history, literature, visual arts, model railroading, and cooking. He lives in Mineral Point.