Discovering the Driftless

What if you lived in the middle of a geological curiosity and didn’t even know it?

Well, maybe not the middle, but just beyond the western edge? That was me, growing up in Austin, Minnesota. Austin is on the eastern edge of the prairie, flat and surrounded by corn and soybean fields. It’s a small company town, headquarters of Hormel Foods. A union town. And as a kid, the only thing I knew about the area that was noteworthy was that we invented Spam.

But I did also know that just a bit farther to the east, the terrain got… weird. Flat cornfields turned into rolling hills, and then into steep bluffs as you approached the Mississippi River. On the other side of the river, in Wisconsin, things got even weirder, with strange rock formations dotting the hilly landscape, until eventually farther to the east things flattened out again. And I knew the place was weird below the surface too, with caves and underground streams.

I often wondered what made the areas just to the east of my hometown so much different than where I lived, or anywhere else I had ever seen, for that matter. But not enough to really explore or investigate it. Even as an adult. After all, the Midwest is boring. If you want interesting landscapes, you go to Utah or Arizona or really anywhere besides what feels like the least exotic place on the planet.

Catch My Drift

Last year, while working on the Land Stewardship Project website, I encountered a term I had never heard before: “Driftless.” Specifically, the “Driftless Area,” a name applied to that “weird” part of southeastern Minnesota and southwestern Wisconsin near where I had grown up.

I wondered why it was called “Driftless.” I assumed it had to do with drifting snow. That would seem to be a logical assumption: from Austin west to the South Dakota border, snow drifting across the windswept prairie is such a problem that there are permanent gates at most entrances to I-90, so the road can be shut down easily during big winter storms. Drifting snow is not as much of a problem farther to the east, where the hilly terrain keeps it (somewhat) in check.

But I found it a bit strange that the area would be called “Driftless” for that reason. And it’s not.

Drift, in geological terms, refers to sediment and rocks left behind by retreating glaciers, which in addition to leaving behind drift, tend to flatten out and otherwise disrupt whatever landscapes had previously existed before them.

It’s no surprise to anyone who understands even the most basic principles of geology that most of the Upper Midwest was covered by glaciers in the last ice age. But, strangely, a large area was completely untouched by the glaciers, bounded roughly by the cities of Eau Claire, Wisconsin on the north; Rochester, Minnesota on the west; Madison, Wisconsin on the east; and the Quad Cities of Iowa and Illinois on the south. This is the Driftless Area, so named because it was untouched by the drift left behind as the glaciers of the most recent ice age retreated.

The Driftless Area is so different, then, primarily for two reasons: first, its landscape and features were not flattened and transformed by the glaciers themselves; and second, because the runoff from the melting glaciers further carved and shaped the already odd landscape. Where the retreating glaciers had left behind prairies dotted with lakes, the untouched Driftless Area was left with deep river gorges, sinkholes, bluffs and monadnocks. The Mississippi River runs right through the middle of the Driftless Area, and its gorge and present course were formed during the melting period.

“That Sounds Like a Desert or Something”

The biggest question I have now is not how did this place get the way it is, but why had I never heard of it before? I’m still just beginning to explore the answer to this new question, but I suspect partly it’s because the geology and geography of the area are still being studied, just beginning to be understood.

A documentary film project is underway, exploring Mysteries of the Driftless Zone. The filmmakers are exploring the area both above and below the surface, studying its strange topography, rock formations, caves and unique life forms that survived the ice age and now exist here and nowhere else.

As this clip shows, they’re also touching on the other mystery of the Driftless Area: how people who live in it (and La Crosse, Wisconsin is as “in it” as you can get) don’t even know it exists.

It’s fascinating how giving something a name can give it importance and meaning. Although I’ve always liked and been interested in this area, I find it much more compelling now that I can think of it as a distinct thing with a name. Why is that?


As another final curiosity, and harkening back to a blog post I wrote after the 2008 election — discussing the fact that the curious distribution of votes for President Obama in the Deep South in that year’s election closely followed the contours of the Atlantic coastline from the Cretaceous Period, 85 million years ago — we have this blog post by Scott Sumner.

While Mitt Romney carried most rural parts of the country except those that have a specific historical or demographic reason to favor the Democrats (African-American voters in the Deep South, non-whites in the Southwest, miners in northern Minnesota’s Iron Range), there was one fairly large, weird blob in the rural Upper Midwest, an area populated largely by white farmers, that is uniformly blue on the 2012 election map… the Driftless Area.

Sumner gives no explanation or theory for why the Driftless Area favored Obama — simply noting that it did. The county I grew up in is on the edge of that blob. It’s always gone for the Democrats as far back as I can remember, but that’s always been primarily because of the strong union presence in Austin. And I’ve always felt that farmers in Minnesota might favor the Democrats more than their counterparts in other states because of our state’s peculiar political history: we don’t have the Democratic Party. We have the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, or DFL, resulting from the 1944 merger of the Democrats with the Farmer-Labor Party, a left-wing third party that was fairly successful in the early 20th century and was a key to the enduring progressive populist bent of the state’s politics to the present day.

But that’s a bit of a tangent here… I still don’t really know or even have a theory as to why the Driftless Area — all of it, not just the part in Minnesota — went for Obama. (Especially when you consider that Romney’s running mate, Paul Ryan, is from the Driftless Area, or just east of it.) I just think it’s interesting and… weird, like the place itself.

There is no John Galt

Who is John Galt? The rhetorical question, posed frequently throughout the early sections of Ayn Rand’s epic tome Atlas Shrugged, continues to crop up here and there to this day, usually as a bumper sticker on the back of a BMW: the economic libertarian’s counterpart to the Deadhead dancing bears. It’s a codeword, the inverse of 420. If you know the answer to the question, you’re in the club of laissez-faire capitalists and would-be prime movers.

If you’ve never read Ayn Rand — and if you’re older than 20, you probably shouldn’t bother — you may still wonder just who John Galt is. Quick summary: he’s the bold visionary savior of capitalism, the person who would let the old world die so he and his disciples can shape a new one in the image of the dollar sign. If that still doesn’t answer the question for you, well, take some solace in the fact that the question probably isn’t really worth answering in the first place.

I’ve been thinking about John Galt more lately than I have in about 18 years, since the second and last time I read Atlas Shrugged cover-to-cover. I’ll admit, it can be a page turner for most of its (excessive) length, at least until the portion near then end where John Galt himself takes over the world’s airwaves and launches into a dry, rambling 80-page soliloquy laying bare Ayn Rand’s philosophy. But people don’t read Ayn Rand because her writing is so great. It’s not. They read Ayn Rand because her ideas are radical and liberating to ambitious minds that feel trapped in a society of conformist mediocrity.

In other words, her ideas are just what 15-year-old, Rush-and-D&D-obsessed nerds need to feel better about themselves in a world that rejects them for being different. At least, that’s what I thought her ideas were until I got really obsessed with them in college, moving beyond her novels to her collected non-fiction essays, along with those written by her “egoist” acolytes, including Alan Greenspan.

Yes, that Alan Greenspan.

I was pretty surprised to learn that the (at the time) Fed chairman was an Ayn Rand devotee, and it convinced me (at the time) that some day soon we’d see Ayn Rand’s philosophy rise up and vanquish the mediocrity of our soul-sucking society.

But then I grew up. I realized that her writing fell firmly in the realm of fantasy. And it wasn’t just that the “second-handers” of society that she described did not correspond in any recognizable way to anyone in the real world. It was that the leaders in her world — not just the godlike John Galt but the creators, the captains of industry, like Dagny Taggart and Hank Rearden — didn’t have any real-world counterparts either. People, in most cases, do not rise to power and wealth purely through their noble industriousness and hard work, just as people do not struggle with poverty because they’re lazy. The world Ayn Rand creates has a tantalizingly simple internal logic. Unfortunately, her world is a miserably inadequate model of the complex, messy external reality she believed her “objectivism” so clearly observed.

Still, all of this would be an academic exercise for me to ponder in my parents’ basement were it not for the likes of Alan Greenspan, and so many who have come after him: Ron and Rand (Rand!) Paul, Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, the Tea Party and anyone whose ability to follow a thought through to logical conclusion is so broken that they somehow manage to espouse both Ayn Rand’s (aggressively atheist) philosophy and fundamentalist Christianity simultaneously. Check your premises, etc. etc.

What frightens me is that in the two decades or so since I outgrew Ayn Rand myself, and especially since the 2010 midterm elections, we’ve come to a point where we have people who embrace Ayn Rand’s philosophy, however contradictory their overall views may be, in positions of government power in the United States. People who apparently know (and, for that matter, care) so little about the way our government actually functions, yet who believe so fully — so faithfully — in the economic principles described in books like The Fountainhead and, especially, Atlas Shrugged, that they would run the metaphorical ship aground on these shaky premises, believing that allowing the United States to default on its debts, allowing the economy to crumble, would actually be a good thing, and would give them the opportunity to remake our government, our economy, our society, in a way more in line with Ayn Rand’s ideas.

But Ayn Rand wasn’t even a good science fiction writer, much less a good economist, and far less an astute, objective observer of the fragile complexities of human character and American society. If we allow our economy to collapse, if we make it collapse because we think we can start over from scratch with a (non-existent) team of all-star CEOs drawing up the blueprints, we will quickly learn the answer to the question. There is no John Galt.

Update (November 16, 2011): John Galt is getting some more attention lately, as apparently Lululemon loves him.

Two reasons I love having Al Franken as our U.S. Senator

#1: He knows what he’s talking about. This video by local political blogger Dusty Trice, from Franken’s booth at the Minnesota State Fair, has made it to the top of the front page of YouTube and been featured on The Rachel Maddow Show. (I wonder what food-on-a-stick he has stuck in his teeth at 6:45, but that’s beside the point.)

#2: He can do this… SLP tipped me off to this lighthearted moment, posted by MPR.

Does Minnesota really need two crazies in the House of Representatives?

We’re all used to Michele Bachmann’s paranoid/delusional rhetoric by now, but is it not enough to have one raving nutcase represent our fine state in the House of Representatives?

Apparently not, since Rep. John Kline is afraid President Obama is going to brainwash schoolkids to embrace socialism when he gives a back-to-school address to kids next week.

Give. Me. A. Break.

He’s the president, folks. You may not agree with his policies, but he’s the freaking president. I think Dave Thul (yes, a conservative) gets it right:

In the midst of the recession, a war in Afghanistan, fears over terrorism and H1N1, isn’t it at least possible that Obama may inspire kids to study hard and stay in school, and above all to keep dreaming about what they might be or do someday? If the president uses the speech as a political tool, asking kids to help him pass health care reform or save the earth by passing cap and trade, then yes, we will have a right to be upset. But give Obama the chance to speak before you decide to take offense to his words.

I personally would not be upset if he discussed those things, but I can understand why someone who disagreed would. But I think we can reasonably assume that our president is going to eschew the hot political topics of the day and focus on promoting the value of education, hard work and ambition. Then again, maybe those values are part of a liberal/socialist agenda, too. Are they?

Update: Moments after I posted this, a link to this media resources page appeared on the White House Facebook feed. Coincidence? You be the judge. (Answer: yes.)