Driftless Terroir: Poetry of the Paleozoic Plateau

Falling Rock

I first tasted a slice of God’s birthday cake
as a Precambrian sophomore in geology,
my Asian professor’s ESL stony lectures
making me another of the boxes of rocks

sitting silent along the borders of the room,
remembering that as a child I was convinced
if I dug a hole in the ground, kept digging,
eventually I would see sunshine in China.

I passed the class, a falling rock dodged,
heeding the signs along mountain roads,
along timeless terrarium deep highway cuts,
revealed by the crumbling sandstone of time.

A wannabe actor, not a budding geologist,
I mastered an impeccable Chinese accent.

The Rattlesnake Den

As an adolescent adventurer
I free-climbed the sandstone cliff
housing the rattlesnake den,
a fabled venomous reptile home,

a geologically fresh layer bake,
snakes by all accounts, extinct,
but evoked by lichens and moss,
a scatter of tiny bleached bones

not a sprawl palaeontological,
but a dry buzz prickled my skin,
atavistic clinging by my nails,
avoiding a free-fall in time:

slashed red X’s for sucking venom;
consolation bounty from county clerk.


My poems are the rocks I take out of my pockets
when I Virgina-Woolf my way across a stream,
stepping carefully on all of those tiny islands, 
a Whitman water-wader in a wide-brimmed hat,

my wind-blown letters paper-weighted by rocks,
my sedimental rather than sentimental thoughts,
a PowerPoint of mortality projected by nature
(maybe nurture) when I’ve fallen, and can’t get up,

stepping stones, my poems, for a room of my own,
a geology for a driftless spirit warmed by the sun.

Gary Jones was born on a small dairy farm that straddles the boundary between Rockbridge and Willow Townships in Richland County. The Wisconsin Historical Society Press published his memoir “Ridge Stories: Herding Hens, Powdering Pigs, and Other Recollections from a Boyhood in the Driftless” last year.  

Driftless Terroir (ter-WAHR) is a series featuring guest voices celebrating the intersection of land and culture — the essence of life in the Driftless Area — with topics including art and architecture, farming and gardening, cooking and eating, fermenting and drinking, and more. To read past columns, see voiceoftherivervalley.com. To contribute to Driftless Terroir, e-mail info@voiceoftherivervalley.com.