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.