Driftless Terroir: Finding Shelter in My Place

The word “shelter,” while a useful command during a pandemic, is equally potent as a noun. Shelter in place. I have found shelter in my place throughout these months of isolation. Both my own four walls and the landscape of my town provide a comforting rhythm in the midst of uncertainty.

In fact, if this pandemic has left anything certain, it is that I want to live here for good. This is a conscious choice. I am not stuck here. I simply want to stay, and I feel I owe it to the place that shaped my life.

Courtesy of Amber Ring

I grew up on the edge of the Driftless in Cross Plains. Outside the eastern windows of my childhood home was a geologically young landscape, recently churned up by the glacier. To the west, a string of bluffs millions of years old drew our eyes out of town. It was a magical place to grow up, this village that is two places at once.

My casual interest in the land around me grew into a desire to protect its natural treasures. This in turn led me to a career in conservation. I went to college in another part of the state to study ecological restoration. Four years later, I was right back home again. Now I reside on flat land, in the footprint of the former Sauk Prairie — another spot where East and West meet.

As I embark on my 27th year of life, there’s plenty about the ground at my feet that I have yet to discover. I intend to discover as much as I can.

I have faced plenty of resistance when explaining this to others. People try to convince me to put down my roots a bit more tentatively. They mean well, but theirs is a watered-down version of a dangerous principle. Namely, that staying in one place makes me seem unambitious or even backward. That the only real opportunities come from leaving home — especially if your home is of the Midwestern variety. The way I see it, though, no progress is worth making if it can’t be made here.

Courtesy of Grace Vosen

Often when I declare my intention to stay, the first question people ask is, “What do you like about this place?” They believe that a place must be likeable to be worth knowing. “Likeability,” in this case, is relative. I see it as a thinly veiled way of asking, “Why would you want to live in the middle of nowhere?”

My answer? This is the place where I was born, the community I was born into. Its history and mine are intertwined. And I’ll admit: It’s heartbreakingly beautiful. My neighbors seem to agree, as evidenced by the proportion of people in this region who are here by choice. That says a lot about how “likeable” a place we have here.

Were I to move, I couldn’t take the land or my community with me. While I might find a better job (these days, probably not), I would be abandoning 26 years’ worth of carefully cultivated relationships. It would be the equivalent of abandoning a garden in June.

I know that not everyone is lucky enough to have a supportive community. I take no issue with people who leave home in search of something better. What’s important is to stay somewhere and become embedded there. To deeply appreciate one landscape, something we don’t do anywhere close to enough of.

Students in my field learn to observe ecological communities. We also learn that good land management involves connecting with people. If we lose our ties to our human and nonhuman communities, how can we take care of either effectively?

I was heartened this spring when our society seemed to re-learn the value of staying home. This gave me even more hope in dark times than those reports of decreased air pollution. It’s too soon to tell, but perhaps we’re starting to think more consciously about where we spend our lives.

As for me, this corner of the Driftless Area gives me shelter and peace. It has meaning for me, plain and simple. I would be devastated to leave it behind. I imagine there are a few of you out here who feel the same way.

Courtesy of Grace Vosen

Often in the past few months, I’ve walked to the river in early evening. Without checking a compass, I know which direction I’m facing: east, toward the river and my childhood stomping grounds. I turn around and watch the sun setting over a town filled with people I love. What more could I ask from the place I call my home?

Grace Vosen is an ecologist living in Sauk City. Her blog, “Driftless Grace,” can be found at driftlessgrace.wordpress.com.