Driftless Terroir: Finding Ephemeral Treasures in Everyday Tracks

Heather Harris

by Heather Harris

Reflecting on my journey thus far, I recognize that a certain amount of unrest has propelled me from moment to moment. This comes partially from perfectionism, control and a desire to experience everything at once — adventure, love, achievement, exhilaration, peace, discovery … an eternal list that grows with the pulse of a ticking clock.

I see this in many around me as well, a slight itch for engagement and forward movement, the inability to sit in constant calm, made more acute in our digital age of instant access. This state seems to be at a pinnacle for many in our 40s, some of us juggling high-pressured jobs, commutes, kids, relationship changes and the highs and lows of celebration and self-doubt.

Part of my own salvation has been the anchor of my childhood home, an 1840 limestone cottage, nestled in a forest, far away from the urban din. Here is my daily return to solace amidst chaos. Here I feel content for the first time in my adult life. Still, the itch can find me.

For example, when winter arrives, I seem to endure a bit of a mental crisis. Everything green or otherwise vibrant turns brown, there’s a period of bitter cold wind and rain, followed by the dull canvas turning snow-covered. Deep inside I know it will continue for many, many, many months.

That’s not to say that the changing landscape is not also beautiful. At first, the effect of the snow on the fields and forests of the Driftless Region is breathtaking. Pastel sunrises and sunsets over the hills warm my heart as I head to and from work in the city. Getting the winter sweaters and boots out is like a happy little reunion. Then there are weeks of sledding, hot chocolate, family gatherings, fires, reading, games, movies, baking, art projects, writing, playing … then I get bored. Really bored.

Last winter on one such day, I distracted myself by venturing out into the cold to visit the stallion in the orchard across from my house. The hillside is covered in glorious old oak trees, whose tangled, thick, dark branches reach out to one another, creating a beautiful network of lattice streaks beneath the stark sky. I love looking up at the leafless branches in mid-winter, taking in the gorgeous patterns that are revealed at only this time of year.

On this particular day, I happened to cast my eyes downward and noticed ice sheaths underneath the trees and down the side of the forest hill. Knowing I could awkwardly skate myself right down to the bottom with no one to help me, I decided to take the chance and do some exploring.

My excursion reminded me of how much life and beauty can be found right outside my front door. I happened upon bright green toadstools, soft feathers, adorable acorns, moss-covered branches and wintery shadows on the snow. But after navigating the ice with mostly non-embarrassing agility, I was also rewarded by a distinct treasure trove of natural wonder.

Dotted around the area were deer and horse tracks filled with frozen water, like tiny winter ponds. Leaf and dirt particles, bubbles and a variety of melting and refreezing occurrences in each little track caused ice crystals to form, painting the surface of each into an intricate design. Some were geometric and precise, with an apparent mirror image, while others were more abstract and free-flowing.

Some even took on the look of human forms — people sitting across from one another talking, a female profile from long ago. Over the coming days, I continued to search for new formations and compiled a collection of photographs.

This fall I learned that I’m not the only one fascinated by such things. Part of Overture Galleries Fall Cycle was a show titled “Studies in Stone, Ice and Memory.” Included were photographs by Steven Ralser, portraying the beauty and abstraction of ice, specifically that of frozen-over ice fishing holes, which he says “provide a different view into the ice, being both man-made and natural at the same time.”

I love Ralser’s description, hinting at the way that something a little mundane, like an ice-fishing hole, or a deer track, can provide an altered landscape for the natural world to inhabit and transform. In this case, the weather changed quickly and the ephemeral treasures disappeared within a week. So maybe the natural world exhibits some unrest as well, forever forward-moving. To me, that makes seeking out and capturing these eccentricities even more of a gift.

Heather Harris is a fourth-generation Mineral Pointer and director of marketing at Overture Center for the Arts in Madison. She is a mother, occasional writer, artist and actor and a life-quirk enthusiast.

  1. BEAUTIFUL words, reflections and photos. Congratulations on taking time to look not only inward but outward as well. Hugs