Agate is pleased to share this excerpt of an essay by Kevin Koch, Professor of English at Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa. The essay is one of more than 80 selected texts by various authors in the anthology, The Driftless Reader (University of Wisconsin Press). In the book’s preface, co-editors Curt Meine and Keefe Keeley set the stage, describing this storied region:
“During the most recent ice age, massive glaciers repeatedly shouldered their way south across the northern hemisphere. As the climate warmed, the ice giants melted back in retreat. They left behind land flattened and littered with their aftermath: the boulders, gravels, sands, and other sediments collectively termed glacial drift. But this island of odd topography in the upper Midwest, spared the glacial razing, lacks such drift. It is driftless.
Glaciers defined the edges of the Driftless Area. Waterways vein its interior. The Mississippi, Wisconsin, Upper Iowa, Kickapoo, Zumbro, Root, and other rivers flow through the region, each fed by fractal tributaries branching up into their valleys of origin. The Driftless Area includes southwestern Wisconsin and parts of neighboring Minnesota, Iowa, and Illinois. Geologists and other Driftless aficionados recognize different boundaries—areas that were partially covered during earlier episodes of glaciation, that escaped the last “Wisconsinan” phase, that were under pooled waters during the Great Melt.
However defined, the Driftless is overlaid with modern political boundaries. Across those boundary lines, it is distinguished by its layered foundations of sedimentary rock; by its rolling ridgelines, hilltops, and bluff lands; by its dendritic network of waterways; by soils born of bedrock, blown in as loess, and carried in its running waters; by its mix of remnant prairies and savannas, woodlands, forests, and wetlands; by a rich array of wildlife adapted to its variety of wildlands, farms, woods, waters, towns, and cities.”
Where the Earth Breathes: A Vow of Stability
by Kevin Koch
I light out on a winter’s hike toward the preserve near my house. Today it’s hard going, though. Repeated cycles of ice and snow and thaws have left the wooded bottomland with a thick and icy crust that I sink into about every third step.
It’s a long way back into the woods to where I’d intended to go, past 50-foot rock outcroppings and 100-foot bluffs, past century-old lead mine pits, past a limestone tower formation called the Twin Sisters, past the railroad tracks, past an overlook of the Catfish Creek valley. Can’t say I’m up to crunching through the ice crust all the way back to the far reaches of the preserve, so I decide instead to use the crusty snow to my advantage and climb a steeply wooded hillside, using a hiking stick and digging the edges of my boots down into the snow.
I’ve been up through these woods and on the top-land clearing before, but not for a couple of years. The lead mine pits are more numerous up here. A scraggly woods has grown in around them in the 150 years since they were last mined, but here and there a burr oak with great lateral branches attests that these hills were once savannas thinly forested with the massive trees that had leisurely spread their branches above the prairie.
The lead mine pits are, for the most part, easy to spot. They dot the upper third of the hillside (although there are others in the bottom lands as well) with deep circular scoops and tell-tale rock-strewn edges. Most stretch about six feet across, although they can be as wide as twenty. In some cases they were the entry points to lead mine shafts, but the older pits merely scratched along a surface vein, so it’s not uncommon to find four or five in a row—usually east to west—where someone had scored a hit along a backbone.
If this were Ireland—and these miners were Irish immigrants, by and large—and if my ancestors had come upon these rounded pits with no prior knowledge of their making, no doubt we’d attribute them to fairies.
Sometimes, however, in rocky terrain like this it is hard to tell which is lead mine and which is cave. I find the latter at an indentation in the hill I’d spied on my climb up. Instead of a shallow scooped out pit, I find a vertical shaft walled with bedrock limestone sinking away beneath the forest floor. The mouth of the cave is about twice my girth and ominously ringed with sloping ice. My stomach crawls at the mere thought of what a slip could do, as there would be no way to climb back out and—judging by the lack of footprints in the snow—one ought not to count on a passerby. Curiosity doesn’t even tempt this cat, except to find a stone to toss inside, to hear how long it takes to clatter to the cave floor. It takes…long enough.
Switching tactics, I grab a handful of powdery snow and sprinkle it above the opening, and the light puff of warm air escaping from the depths scatters the powder as if it were confetti.
This yawning of the earth intrigues me! I could tell you about the consistency of cave temperatures, cool against summer air and warm against the winter, could tell you how the warmer air will rise out of a vertical shaft in winter. But if it’s all the same to you, I must tell you instead that the earth itself is breathing, and its mouth—one of many I am sure—is located on a hillside near my home.
You will find it if you venture out across the snow in the Driftless Land, if you know which valley to enter and which hillside to climb, if you can locate the vertical cave shaft in the overgrown woods.
I won’t guarantee that I will find it again when I go there next. I’m notoriously bad with directions. Or maybe, like fairy rings in Ireland, it will simply pick up and move.
But for a moment, I was in contact with the bedrock of my home. I felt its breath.
▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪
Along with the bleak stories of those who have abused the land are the stories of connection, of those who have learned the Benedictine quality of stability, of those who have rooted down in a particular place for the while they are here. A professor I know brings his students to the Mines of Spain to collect prairie seed for new plantings. Citizens in Dubuque fight to save the river bluffs from overdevelopment. A wildlife refuge is procured by the County Conservation Board. Students and their teachers haul away brushy trees and restore an oak savanna.
My [own] students will be graduating in a few weeks. One will go off to study in Ireland. Several are returning home to Chicago. Their flight patterns from past years have been varied, landing them for work or study in Seattle, Denver, Washington D.C., Texas and Michigan. One of my former students taught in the Peace Corps in Eastern Europe, wrote for a computer magazine in Egypt, and then found himself back in the states in Milwaukee and then Rochester, working for non-profit organizations.
The vow of stability does not mean living life in one place, going back to one’s hometown and staying there forever. In fact, rooting down and connecting to place is more of a frame of mind than a matter of time lived in a single place. Some people, like me, have lived most of their lives in one place, but you can root down just as certainly when you move from place to place.
I am invited to speak to a small gathering of graduating seniors. When you move to a new place, I tell them, look around. Find out what brought the people here, learn how the land was formed. Understand what grows here, and why, and what creatures live here, and have lived here before. Pause and think before you turn a spade of ground, whether for a new house, a new shopping center, or a new shed in the back yard. That is not to say don’t build that house, supermarket, or shed. But pause and think before you begin: Is this what is best for this place, not just now, but for the long run? Sometimes the answer will be yes, sometimes it will be no. But it is important to ask the question.
I tell them, I don’t know how much you have explored this place that is right now still your home in the Driftless Land. At the Mines of Spain south of town, the area’s first lead miners scraped out small conical ore pits, and today the weathered indentations lie silent and recaptured in the woods. Go there, find them. Near the Little Maquoketa River north of town, a brisk hike up more than 100 railroad-tie steps will bring you face to face with the Native American past in the form of burial mounds. Go there. At Swiss Valley you will find rock outcroppings that puncture the soil like the great bone of earth piercing through skin. Here and there are prairie remnants. And even if you’ve rarely left campus, surely you’ve seen, across the river, that mound on the horizon, Sinsinawa, but did you know that it was holy ground, not just to the Dominicans who have called it home for 150 years, but to the Native Americans before them, who called the region “Manitoumie,” Where the Great Spirit Dwells? Go there, too.
▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ ▪
The monks take their vow of stability.
How well they must know, over time, the sounds their footsteps make in the cloister, the smells of food in the refectory, the slant of light in the chapel at Vespers. The tactile physicality is the contact point leading inward to the spirit, much like the corpus Christi leads to the eternal.
You and I may live in a different world than the monks. But a vow of stability—of looking and seeing and touching that which is right here before us—may help us find that place in the hillside where the earth opens its mouth and breathes.
That ice flows like slow-motion liquid
might be news to some,
inscribed as it is in drumlins
and moraines the ancient
glaciers left behind.
Slowly, repeatedly, the glaciers awakened
and crept down from the north,
scoured the plains,
around, beside, behind
the Driftless Land.
An island in a sea
of creeping floes
a rugged boat
with rocky masts
that prick the ice pack
in some polar vertigo.
But it is the ice that floats,
secured to bedrock
in the Driftless Land.
Kevin Koch is a Professor of English at Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa. This excerpt is from the essay “Where the Earth Breathes: A Vow of Stability,” which first appeared in his book, The Driftless Land: Spirit of Place in the Upper Mississippi Valley (Southeast Missouri State University Press). Koch is also author of The Thin Places: A Celtic Landscape from Ireland to the Driftless (Wipf & Stock) and Skiing at Midnight: A Nature Journal from Dubuque County, Iowa (Loras College Press).
Agate encountered this essay via The Driftless Reader, an anthology co-edited by Curt Meine and Keefe Keeley. The Driftless Reader gathers writings that highlight the unique natural and cultural history, landscape, and literature of the region. Selected texts include writings by Black Hawk, Mark Twain, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Frank Lloyd Wright, Aldo Leopold, David Rhodes, and many other Native people, explorers, scientists, historians, farmers, songwriters, journalists, and poets. It’s available from the University of Wisconsin Press and your local independent bookstore. Special thanks to Curt Meine for his assistance with this story.