Driftless Terroir: The Wild Violets of Immutable Memory

Erik Flesch

There is something about the distinctive curl of heart-shaped leaves and soft simple purple petals of the wild violet that I associate with the upswing of the warm seasons in this nook of the Driftless, flagstone pathways and terraced gardens. I am no botanist, and so the fact that these shade-loving plants inspired me in my younger years to make observations about their curious habits might just be part of why I take the violet so personally. The identities I have ascribed to the violet — weed, ornament, ingredient, design inspiration, token of affection — mark life milestones as my perception evolved.

Flower in the crannied wall,
I pluck you out of the crannies,
I hold you here, root and all, in my hand,
Little flower — but if I could understand
What you are, root and all, and all in all,
I should know what God and man is.
Alfred Lord Tennyson

At my grandparent’s Mineral Point farm, heaven on earth, there was an interesting environmental condition on the shaded uphill side of the old farm house that fascinated me. Of course, here in bedrock hill country, building sites almost always require cutting into a hill and using the excavated material as fill to create a terrace. Depending on the depth to bedrock, that material could be rich soil or yellow layer-cake sedimentary rock. In pioneering days, the retaining wall for the terrace would be built of that native bedrock or stuff quarried very nearby. And so, the undulating hundred-year wall behind the house where Grandma, Grandpa and my Great-Aunt Ethel lived was a vernacular weaving of rock of many thicknesses built by hand a hundred years before by a man and his sons. The downhill side of the house faced south, so that side was hot; but the uphill side was cool, in shade. It possessed magic.

Weed, ornament, ingredient, design inspiration, token of affection: These identities I have ascribed to the violet mark life milestones.

The space between the stone wall and the house was maybe 48 inches, so pretty narrow, and almost cold in the shade. I laid a flagstone walkway through the gap to make this alternate world easier to access. One influential summer and fall I worked at Ted Landon’s quarry in Mineral Point. The quarry was adjacent to Ivey’s old lead-zinc mine and the construction yard where we would purchase gravel to repair the farm road. Landon Stone was perched high above the city, and it felt like a desert with all soil and plants peeled back to reveal the geologic reality underneath. Ted would welcome me and quarrymaster Burt each payday, fresh from the sun’s anvil scorched, desiccated and covered in rock dust, to his creek-side studio on Old Darlington Road. We were invited to drink a bottle of Berghoff, to discuss art and to receive our envelope of cash. I spent a chunk of my pay on two pallets of flag that I quarried myself to lay the walk, and Burt delivered them to the farm in the old quarry pickup dump truck. Some of the rocks had veins of calcite and galena clinging to them.

I have a strong association between violets, shady flagstone pathways, and terraced gardens. Violets and certain red wines share a characteristic flavor molecule called beta ionone. In late April, a crack in the sidewalk presented the first violet of the season basking in south-facing sunlight.

I was proud of this pathway and all summer long would drag out the hose to keep the stone looking clean and would redeposit fresh gravel in the interstices. I left a gap on both sides for flowers, and went hunting in the woods for plants that could thrive in the shade. Later, I would regret transplanting the wild grape vine that outgrew the trellises and tried to smother anything in Grandma’s garden as it looked for some tree to climb, but the violets were a source of joy. The deep purple variety was easy to find, but the woods also revealed a rarer color — white with purple centers. I strategically alternated darks and lights, and over the years, the violets got tall and broad-leafed and filled in the edges along the walk as if they had been there since creation.
This secret garden of tamed wild violets welcomed me home during my nomadic years when I would wander back from distant big cities and foreign climates to rediscover the Driftless, savoring the feelings of solitude between the benevolent hills and safety among family. Later, other things happened. In search of deep architectural meaning in natural settings, I learned that violets and many red wines like pinot noir and cabernet franc share a characteristic flavor molecule called beta ionone. In late April, a crack in the sidewalk presented the first violet of the season basking in south-facing sunlight.

Erik Flesch is the director of The Mining & Rollo Jamison Museums in Platteville, and co-editor and design director of Voice of the River Valley. His background is in architectural design and geology. He lives in Mineral Point with his wife, Sara, and can be reached at erik@driftlessterroirstudio.com.