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Book Review: The Driftless Reader, co-edited by Curt Meine and Keefe Keeley

Reviewed by James Ballowe, Engagement Advisor for the Center for Humans and Nature and Distinguished Professor English Emeritus from Bradley University.

Readers of Curt Meine and Keefe Keeley’s anthology The Driftless Reader (University of Wisconsin Press, 2017) will find selections from eighty writers whom the editors describe as “eminent and obscure, bygone and contemporary, indigenous and outsider, poetic and scientific, and historic and hybrids .” Among some of the better-known writers are Henry David Thoreau, Robin Kimmerer, John Muir, Mark Twain, Frank Lloyd Wright, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Wallace Stegner, and Black Hawk. The selections are accompanied by fifty-five illustrations which help to tell the story of the Driftless region, its settlers, inhabitants, scientists, and those who journeyed through the unglaciated topography in southwestern Wisconsin and adjoining portions of Illinois, Iowa, and Minnesota.

To help the reader understand the area and its effect upon those who have lived on it, studied it, or simply traveled through it, the editors have divided the essays into eight thematic sections: 1) Geologic Origins; 2} Ancient Peoples; 3) Historical Ecologies; 4) Native Voices; 5) Explorations; 6) Early Economies; 7) Settler Stories; 8) Farming Lives; 9) Waterways; 10) Conserving Lands; 11) Communities in Transition; and 12) Futures. This convenient organization should be a model for examining virtually any geographical area of the United States to which people have gravitated because they found a welcoming and, as with the native inhabitants, a satisfying spiritual environment awaiting them.

This book, as the editors make clear in the “Preface,” is intended to emphasize the relationship between both the character of the place and the people who have lived and live within it. They write, “More than just a location, a place is built on the meanings people find and create there.” The layers of the Driftless’ are rich and their meanings are brought to life through the observations of those who have studied and lived upon it:

Geology provides our foundation for understanding the extent of the place, but from there we step into other modes of understanding. The geological, hydrological, and ecological space becomes personal and cultural through the stories and meanings that it gathers—layered, shaped, grown over, and occasionally exposed, like the strata of Driftless bedrock. Individual experience colors these lenses and layers….

The Driftless Area

The editors’ “Preface” contains brief but enlightening personal accounts of their own encounters with the area. Keefe Keeley, a native of Kickapoo Valley within the Driftless region, is currently the executive director of the Savanna Institute, an organization that helps famers develop sustainable agro-ecosystems in the Upper Midwest. He writes of standing at a rock face of dolomite where he saw “sketches of wind and water, roots and fire, claws and paws, and, most recently, human etchings.” Then he adds, “Compared with writing on paper, or uploading words into the cloud, this little cliff seems an enduring place to have made a mark, but these rocks, too, are pages of history, turning into eroded stories, myth, and mystery.” It is where the story of stories of discovery has been inscribed. But, as he continues to observe, “Yet at its most innocent, discovery is personal. As the mural on a wall of my school in the Kickapoo Valley paraphrased Proust: ‘The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.’”

Besides being known for his many books on conservation and as an Aldo Leopold scholar, Curt Meine is a Senior Fellow at both the Aldo Leopold Foundation and the Center for Humans and Nature, a Research Associate with the International Crane Foundation, and an adjunct professor in the Department of Forest and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Wisconsin. While he is not a native of the Driftless region in Wisconsin, he says that he has found himself “along the margins of long gone glaciers” for as long as he can remember. But now he lives “at the east portal of the Driftless, marginally more aware of its anomalous geology, its kaleidoscopic ecology, its deep and complex human history, its problems and its potential.” And as with Keefe’s remembrance of Proust’s words on the mural at his school, Meine also recalls Gary Snyder’s words written in the Sierra foothills: “’If the ground can be our common ground, we can begin to talk to each other (human and non-human) once again.’”

This book is not just a collection of commentaries on the Driftless region. It is orchestrated and presented by the editors in a manner that not only focuses attention on the Driftless region but also suggests a model that others might use to evoke the meanings underlying the natural surroundings that they call home. The editors’ insights and the voices they collect here become a poetic rendering of the meaning of place. In their final comment in the “Preface,” they write this: “We can dwell on that which divides us, but we all dwell within landscapes that connect us. By listening deeply to the voices of our diverse places, we may find many ways home and many ways forward.” This anthology helps the reader understand the diversity that can be found in multiple regions within this country, and it will encourage readers to look more deeply into the meaning of the regions in which they live.

The Driftless Reader

University of Wisconsin Press

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Book Review: Trace by Lauret Savoy

Reviewed by James Ballowe, Engagement Advisor for the Center for Humans and Nature and Distinguished Professor English Emeritus from Bradley University.

Lauret Savoy’s Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape is both a memoir and a study of human events within the natural landscape of the United States. As an incessant traveler from childhood and on into a career as a professor of geology and environmental studies at Mount Holyoke College, she has embraced and studied a significant portion of the ancient landscape of the United States upon whose surface the history of a people has only recently been written. Her informed perspective leads her to write, “Tumultuous histories, human and geological, formed the landscape in which I am implicated, and they continue.” Human history is, of course, but an instant in the history of the planet, particularly on the North American continent. In this book, Savoy invites the reader to accompany her on a quest to understand the human drama that has defined who she is, and she encourages us to take a closer look at our own roles on this stage we share with her.


Throughout the book, Savoy explores the many meanings of the word “trace.” Through indefatigable research in familiar and unfamiliar places she seeks to trace the experiences of her parents and ancestors. She begins by describing her childhood journey from her native California to the Grand Canyon and on to Washington, DC, a journey in which her childhood idyll is replaced with a thirst for knowledge of the world around her and her place within it. As an adult, on a determined quest to find her heritage, she brings us to locations such as Spartanburg County, South Carolina, the Huachuca Mountains in the Coronado National Forest of Arizona, and on to a summer of meditation, discovery, and writing on Madeline Island among Lake Superior’s Apostle Islands. While in the Apostles, she contemplates the haunting traces of indigenous Americans who identified closely with the natural world in which they lived, of slaves whose labor contributed to building the nation’s economy from its earliest days to the Civil War and beyond, and of their descendants who fought for the country’s freedom in WWII while enduring Jim Crow traditions of the military. And along the way she reminds the reader that all of what we call human civilization is but a recent phenomenon in the evolutionary scheme of life.

Savoy’s story is about the presence of the past in the here and now and what the past portends for the future. She surmises it was on Madeline where she might have gained her first insight into the fact she was only then catching up with the past. She writes:

Catching up with the past need not mean retrograding or living in it. At least I hope not. Dissecting learned stories might yield some retrievable fragments of context and relationship, and reveal the vector of storying’s power – its direction, its magnitude, and its agency.

. . . .

To understand the storying of any place, I must also understand the storying of myself. I must follow traces beneath familiar surfaces to where ancestral structures lie.

Savoy’s story does not end with this resolve. It is much more complex. The daughter of a father who “could pass” for white and an African American mother, she is intent on explaining her own experience of Jim Crowism and the lingering prejudice that kept it alive. In writing about Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac and the Land Ethic, she wonders, “Did Aldo Leopold consider me?” She is dubious, saying his only mention of slavery was in his reference to Odysseus’ treatment of the slave girls in ancient Greece. It can be argued the Land Ethic includes human property that has been abused and flung aside in the name of the expediency that Leopold condemns. But Savoy details the stories of more recent demeaning experiences suffered by her and her family and of the minority community at large through sheer prejudice wrought by ignorance.

Leopold does say ethical progress has been made in dealing with “the relation between individuals” and that later “accretions dealt with the relation between the individual and society.” But this does not mean, Savoy believes, these ethical standards have been accepted by everyone, in particular among those who think that their ethnicity, race, or creed makes them superior. Ethical treatment of others and the land has to be taught, learned, and abided by. Individuals need to possess a moral compass. Even Leopold’s calling for an ethic that deals “with man’s relation to land and to the animals and plants which grow upon it” is far from being accepted or understood by many. He was well aware that would be the case, even after he articulated the necessity of having an ethical relationship to the land.

For most of the population, land equals property that gives its owner the authority of control, just as slaves were legalized property until the Emancipation Proclamation and, unfortunately, have remained so for succeeding generations in the minds of many who believe there are humans fit only for subservience. After all, the English-speaking settlers to this country came to build a “city upon a hill” and often were fearful of the forest reaches into which indigenous Americans retreated and where wild beasts, if not evil spirits, lurked. They were intent upon taming the land and the natives who inhabited it. They did this by naming the territory and declaring it their property. Names meant ownership, as Savoy emphasizes, and ownership meant domination.

Even though she makes a point that Leopold’s ethical argument does not appear to reach into the present in which she and her parents have experienced unethical treatment, Savoy believes as strongly as Leopold that current-day humanity should live by the ethical prescriptions laid out for relationships between people of all backgrounds and between them and the natural world of which the human species is an integral part. Now over sixty-five years after Leopold cut the history-revealing oak on his farm (detailed in his chapter “The Good Oak”), Savoy adds a dimension to Leopold’s land ethic. She calls for an ethic of place that acknowledges people who have been there before us, a sense of their lingering presence evoked by the way the land around us has been treated.

Re-membering,” Savoy concludes, “is an alternative to extinction.”

Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape

Counterpoint Press

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