Driftless Terroir: Walking in a Legacy of Patterns of the Living World

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Evan Larson

By Evan Larson

History resonates all around us, and the meeting of a breath of air with the boughs of pines and hemlocks above a Driftless stream carries memories of ancient times and the long, slow fit of life to the world.

The idea of a legacy is something with which many of us feel familiar, and given some thought it is easy to think of a few examples from our lived experiences where we felt the influence of an act or event that came before the moment in front of us. But what of the broader world around us? How do the plants, trees, streams and land reflect the past?

Biogeography is the study of patterns in the living world and the processes that created them — the why behind what we see all around us, and sometimes what we hear, too. I teach courses in biogeography for the Department of Environmental Sciences & Society at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville. These courses span the world in ideas, tracing the places organisms live, where they don’t, and in that process bringing life into a slightly different focus that helps show the richness of this moment in which we are living. Right. Now.

We were starting a hike along the banks of the Kickapoo River. We were there to see the pines and hemlocks.

It was late in the spring semester when the hills of the Driftless were waking. Snow lingered in patches of shade on north slopes and the spring ephemerals were beginning to reach skyward with blossoms. My students and I were on a field trip to see how changes in soils and gradients in topography created shifting conditions of light, moisture and temperature that in turn expressed themselves through the diversity of life in southwestern Wisconsin. We were starting a hike at Mt. Pisgah in Wildcat Mountain State Park along the banks of the Kickapoo River. We were there to see the pines and hemlocks. A little way on we paused. The students were familiar with the drill at this point — hike to a particular spot, sit and observe, and then write out the history of that place in as much detail as possible based on what is all around. The exercise is meant to have students see the slope of the ground, the forms and species of plants, old paths, animal browsing, charred stumps, the shape of the river … and translate these into a story of land use, logging, fires, the succession of ecological communities, changing climate, species migrations — all that the surrounding land remembers from times before.

I heard for the first time the subtle but profound difference in the voices of those trees — the pines first with an energetic “Shhhhhhh!” followed by the more gentle whisper of the hemlocks “Ffffffff.”

The process begins by sitting quietly for five minutes. No talking, no writing, phones off. Be in the moment, be in that place and open the senses to both the seen and unseen stories told by the community of life. As you can imagine, five minutes can be … a long … time. Just long enough to truly begin listening and to hear whispers of the profound. After five minutes of quiet, the students have 15 minutes to write as much as they can about the past of that place — the beauty and immensity of life in all its diversity and constant change — and how it created the setting of today. 

We had stopped where the trail curved out onto a sandstone outcrop that had been sculpted by the Kickapoo River, the view from the ledge overlooking one of many meanders. It was still — no wind and only a slight murmur rising from water moving over rock. The afternoon light filtered down through the canopies of pines and hemlocks and gave warmth and an orange glow to the needles that covered the ground. I was smiling at a view of 16 students, spread out among the stand of trees, tucked up against trunks, nestled in roots, taking in the air and view. And then a breeze came. It entered the boughs of the pines first, then moved down through the canopy to reach the hemlocks. The hemlock branches caught the movement of air and lifted so gently it was almost like a breath.

The drill was to hike to a particular spot, sit and observe, and then write out the history of that place in as much detail as possible based on what is all around.

That breeze passed on, but the movement of branches and needles opened my awareness and when the next breeze moved across the site I heard, for the first time, the subtle but profound difference in the voices of those trees — the pines first with an energetic “Shhhhhhh!” followed by the more gentle whisper of hemlocks “Ffffffff.” The difference between these voices spoke of the thickness of needles, the flex of branches, the stature of trunks, and the architecture of trees; a statement each on the outcome of millions of years of evolution producing two forms and two approaches to life:

“I am the white pine! Long needles packed in fives on branches sweeping out and up, dancing in the wind of an open forest, racing for sun above all others, reaching to present my cones and seeds to the birds and breezes so that my children may escape my shade and seek out sunny earth where fire has opened the soil in expectation of their roots.”

“I am the hemlock. My needles are small but dense upon my branches, the suppleness of which moves at the slightest touch of air to let sunlight filter through my canopy that I may soak in every drop and persist for centuries beneath the canopies of my elders, waiting for my chance above.”

Shhhhhh! Fffffff… these two voices spoke the story of evolution, their history, their truths, their approach to living, hopes for their children — all in a moment of wind. And then the breeze passed.

The story is richer for where these voices were speaking — two northern, near-boreal species not in the middle of the North Woods where their kin are plentiful, but here in the heart of the Driftless — a land of oaks and prairies and savannas. A tiny pocket of north in southwestern Wisconsin, created by cool air and shady slopes that enabled trees to linger as the ice that once surrounded these hills and streams withdrew and southern hardwoods rolled across the land. 

We wrote, gathered our things and our selves, and then hiked to the top of Mt. Pisgah. Along the 1.4 mile trail we wandered across 200 miles of latitude and 10,000 years of time to emerge among oaks and red cedars overlooking the fields and farms of the Driftless. 

The patterns of the living world hold lessons for us. Despite all we have done in this world, all our progress and development, the hills remember their history and in the mosaic of life laid out, around, and through us runs a continuous thread of all that has come before. The thousands of generations of pines and hemlocks that through slow change led to distinct approaches to life, their presence in the Driftless a memory of ice and their voices speaking of the profound. There are lessons in these fundamental patterns; guidance for who we are, how we live, and what we do in our time among the hills. We are walking within legacies.

Evan Larson is a father, husband, teacher, biogeographer and a professor of geography at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville. Evan teaches courses that blur the lines between physical and cultural geography and is an advocate for teaching undergraduate students through field and research experiences. His research uses dendrochronology, the science of tree rings, to stretch perspectives of time beyond that of human life to better understand the causes and solutions to environmental challenges. If you want to talk trees, Driftless, or simply about an appreciation for the vibrancy of life all around, you can reach Evan by email at larsonev@uwplatt.edu or by phone at (608) 342-6139.