We continue to explore the Driftless Area with geologist Jeffrey Broberg. In December, Broberg recounted the decades-long efforts to pin down a scientific explanation for the primeval uniqueness of the Driftless, and how it avoided the glaciation that molded so much of the upper Midwest. Here, he explores the impacts of humans on these fragile lands and waters.
Driving down the Great River Road and Highway 61 south of the Cannon River to Dubuque, IA, you navigate the Driftless Area’s exceptional landscapes. You cross the trout stream coulees, face the commanding bluffs and wonder why the place is so different from the rest of the Upper Mississippi Valley. It took geologists three generations and over a hundred years to figure out why the glaciers mostly missed this area.
Even for geologists, the exact boundary of this unusual landscape is hard to define because most of it was impacted by very early glaciers; only a small area in Western Wisconsin completely escaped glacial ice. In Minnesota, the land extending from the Mississippi Gorge in the present Twin Cities and the lower St. Croix River Valley was occasionally glaciated. The entire region is underlain by karst that is still dissolving and eroding the exposed bedrock, shallow soils, and thin drift.
Although never continuously crushed by glaciers, the region did endure eons of permafrost and howling winds. When the permafrost melted about 11,000 years ago, deep-rooted vegetation took over the land and stabilized the soil.i Native tribes roamed verdant hills that held a balance between the land and the erosive forces of wind, water, and time. The windblown soils topping the ridges and filling the valleys had roughly come to an equilibrium.ii
Still gravity rules, and as Robin Kimmerer says about the persistent erosive forces of weathering under soft mosses, “The rocks are beyond slow, beyond strong, and yet yielding to a soft green breath as powerful as a glacier.”iii
Terry Tempest Williams gives voice to the Driftless’s contradictory beauty in her book Erosion. She observes that what has weathered and whittled away is as beautiful as what remains. She mourns, “Erosion, essences. What if our undoing leads us to our beginning? We are eroding and evolving all at once.”iv
Living in the Driftless for over three decades, I, too, have come to see it both ways. As a geologist and landowner of a 130-year-old farm, I watch the forces of nature and look forward to witnessing the growth of bountiful crops, but I also worry about the continuing erosion on the fields. When I look around, I accept that my Driftless home is older than humans. Historically, my farm is on Dakota land, which formerly sustained 12 millennia of nomads and settlers; perhaps more than 400 generations of Native Americans had intimate knowledge of this land. Still, the history of my farm holds a legacy of inevitable degradation and evolution.
The First People lived with the land
Scientists began studying the geologic history of the Driftless in about 1870, an endeavor that continues today. But the human narrative of the blufflands is much longer, an unwritten story recalled from the Dakota oral traditions that predate historical records. The origin stories are told in a language that gives names, personality, character, and temperament to everything that surrounds us. Barry Lopez says it comes from a time “when people and animals spoke the same language.”v
The different perspectives of the Dakota and the white settlers are highlighted in the Minnesota Historical Society online exhibit on Dakota culture:
“It is difficult to define how Dakota people have shaped Minnesota, when, in fact, the land itself has shaped the Dakota. The land—its valleys and peaks, its waterways, and seasons, all the gifts it has to offer—has influenced the way Dakota have lived, interacted, sustained, and viewed themselves. And despite the environmental degradation that occurred upon European settlement, the relationship between the land and its original people continues today.“vi
According to archeologists, the First People were nomadic bands that followed mastodons, mammoths, and giant mega-fauna for food, clothing, and utensils beginning 12,000 years ago. They roamed the melting ice’s edges and trapped their giant prey in bogs or chased them over cliffs. Later cultures and tribes moved from winter shelters to summer hunting grounds. They made their survival tools from fibrous plants, wood, bones, and brittle rock found embedded in the exposed bedrock across the Driftless.
In a comprehensive survey, Kent Bakken noted the importance of the Driftless Area as a source of suitable chert, quartz, flint, and quartzite.vii He cites numerous Native American lithic types from the Minnesota Driftless: Cedar Valley Chert, Galena Chert, Grand Meadow Chert, Prairie du Chien Chert. From the Wisconsin Driftless, the Cochrane Chert and Hixton Silicified Sandstone were essential source materials. The chipped stone artifacts are known as both raw materials and finished objects used and traded up and down the Mississippi River Basin.
We know little about what the First People believed about the Driftless Area’s origins. The Sacred Land Projects and the Minnesota Humanity Center tell us the stories of physical places that are part of a spiritual landscape that builds a sense of the Driftless as a region with profound cultural meaning. From the origin stories and place stories, we know that Native Americans recognized and revered the water’s spirit and the land.viii
Modern elders like Chief Oren Lyons, a Faithkeeper of the Turtle Clan of the Seneca Nation, talk about how the modern tribes are the descendants and caretakers of the cultural memory of the First People.ix Local Dakota elders who still speak the native language give us a sense of their connection to prehistory.x The origin stories of the Dakota people speak of the sacred nature of the rivers, bluffs, and caves that formed the Driftless Area. They recognize and speak to the karst and the Driftless Area’s spirit.
One of the key places in this geography is Bdote, the place where the rivers meet, xi where the Minnesota River flows into the Mississippi. This is where the Great Spirit called the heavenly spirits down from the Milky Way and formed the first people, mixing and molding the hearts and souls with the clay of mother earth. Bdote is in the karst at the northern end of the Driftless. Dakota elder Dave Larsen describes the Bdote as “the place where everything began and where everything began changing.”xii
Five miles downstream from the Bdote confluence, in the karst of present-day St. Paul’s river bluffs, is Wakaŋ Tipi, Carver’s Cave. Dakota stories call this the Great Spirit’s home.xiii Above Bdote, a year-round spring was the home of Unk Te He, the powerful Dakota God of water and medicine. Cold Water Spring continues to flow year-round, now from a well house in Minnehaha Park.
Unk Te He lived out of sight and roamed the mysterious underground water paths in the karst. The unseen spirit provided the gifts of clean spring water, a healing medicine for those who fell ill drinking the river water. The Native Americans clustered around this and other life-giving springs of the Driftless.
The Bdote origin stories teach that all the sky, land, and water are sacred. With the arrival of homesteaders and western-trained scientists, a new teaching took hold, emphasizing human use and exploitation. My world view as a western-trained geologist is now being shaped by the First People’s oldest stories as I continue to work defining the limits to the land and water.
New people change the Driftless
From 1820 to 1860, early settlers colonized the river valleys in the Driftless, displacing the tribes. In the early 1850s, on the western flank of the Driftless (near present-day Rochester), Dakota bands returned from their buffalo hunts on the prairie to find strange livestock occupying their traditional rock shelters, new crops overrunning their gardens, and log cabins full of new people.
The homesteaders were enterprising and enthusiastic, but they were constrained by limited technology and a lack of roads. Farmers living more than a day’s trip to the big rivers were isolated; they sold livestock and eggs for the money they needed to buy tools, cloth, and household goods. By 1867, the revolutionary inventions of dynamite and barbed wire had been introduced to local settlers. Railroad barons and speculators built the railroads. Counties and townships built crushed rock roads connecting the farms to market, and the settlers fenced the hills and valleys for their livestock. The current pattern of township roads began to define the landscape.
Soon most farmers were concentrating on wheat, and their crop was ground into flour in the hundreds of water-powered grist mills in every settlement along the Driftless rivers. As the state’s population grew (to more than 400,000 in 1870), small towns in the valleys became trading centers, and entrepreneurs quickly built sawmills, wood-fired lime kilns to make cement and brick-making ovens, along with stagecoach stops and post offices.
In 1859 the value of wheat exported from Winona, Wabasha, and St. Paul river ports surpassed the worth of furs, and Minnesota wheat production doubled every five years from 1860 to 1875.xiv Driftless area farms led the agricultural revolution, making Minnesota the wheat capital of the world. We were eroding and evolving at a fantastic pace.
As the settlers cleared the trees for firewood and fuel for steam-powered machinery, the land reacted with rapid change for the first time since the permafrost melted 9,000 years ago. Intensive farming on steep slopes drove the soils off the ridges. Annual crops, exposed black soil, eroding fields, crushed-rock roads, and rail beds created massive runoff that muddied streams and changed the face of the Driftless.
Farming rapidly depleted the naturally rich soil, and according to historical accounts, within 15 years, the soil no longer supported the crops, and wheat rust had devastated the grain.xv Low yields and higher land prices forced many farmers to move west to the Red River Valley’s prairie. The families that stayed in the Driftless consolidated farms and invested in labor-saving equipment, livestock, small dairies, and more diverse crops. But the damage to the soil accelerated.
Meanwhile, the Dakota people were pushed out of the region. The U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 resulted in a mass execution of 38 Dakota men and the forced removal of women, children, and elders to the Dakota Territory or onto reservations.xvi
One farm’s story
My farm was homesteaded and settled during the era of wheat monoculture. The original homesteaders built a cabin deep in the valley along the Township Cartway that connected St. Charles, Elba, and the Mississippi river at Weaver. The stone basement of the original log cabin still exists.
The original homesite, built around 1875 on a quarter section of land, was situated next to the valley’s big spring. The house was so low in the cold, dark valley that during the winter the sun only shone on it five hours a day. The family planted their gardens on the terrace above the trout stream and planted white lilacs and apple trees that still live today. The thick, organic, but highly erodible soils were plowed with horses and planted to small grains.
By 1910 new technology allowed a 400-foot deep well with a windmill to pump water to a new homesite on top of the ridge. In 1911 the owners built a house with a deep stone-walled basement, a wood furnace, and a 15,000-gallon cistern; the classic dairy barn was built the same year. The proud owner and builder, W.A. Ryan, signed his name in the wet concrete foundation in bold foot-high cursive.
The stones for the house and barn were from a quarry about a mile away. Boards 22 feet long and 18 inches wide were cut from the old-growth pine forests along the Chippewa River to build the haymow walls. The barn had room for 30 cows, a concrete floor with gutters, a manure scraper, and a silo. The outhouse was a three-holer, with room for an adult and two kids.
The house burned to the ground the first winter. The family’s descendants tell me that pa wanted the family to move into the barn for the winter, but mother would have none of it. Instead, they built a small 10 x 12-foot wooden shack with a steeply pitched room and a sleeping loft insulated with straw that they used for the next three winters. The six kids slept in the attic of the little shack.
The family rebuilt the house in 1914, but money was short, so the second story has only 7-foot ceilings. In the winter, the kids slept together in crowded bedrooms to keep warm, but they spread out in the summer and moved to the attic loft in a larger bunk room. Plaster and lath walls, double-hung milled pine windows, and doors from Winona finished the interior.
Over the years, the family built eleven buildings, including a corn crib, milkhouse, chicken coop, granary, machine shed, hog house, and cattle shed. Most of the buildings still exist, but they have reached the end of their utility. We are eroding and evolving all at once.
We remember the Dust Bowl in western states like Nebraska and Oklahoma, but it happened here too. By the 1920s, soil loss across the Driftless was so acute that crops failed. Many families lost their farms. Two decades of hot, dry weather turned the parched soil to dust and set the silt free to blow away in the wind. Black clouds of dust filled the sky, livestock suffered, crops failed, and outbuildings and fencerows were buried in dunes of silt. Once the rains returned, the waters caused massive erosion, cut deep gullies, carved new ravines, and choked the rivers with mud. The disaster led Congress to proclaim that wasting soil and moisture resources on farms was a menace to the national welfare.
In 1933, farmers formed the first-in-the-nation Conservation District in the Coon Creek Watershed of Southwest Wisconsin. Two years later, Congress created the U.S. Soil Conservation Service (SCS).xvii The Coon Creek District received five million dollars to fund payments to farmers for adopting new practices demonstrating how they and their neighbors could protect the soil and water.
The SCS brought a new era of mapping. Aerial photography helped soil scientists develop a more comprehensive catalog of farm conditions with the State Soil Survey program. Geologists and hydrologists accelerated county-scale mapping of the surface and subsurface, and statewide roadbuilding projects gave geologists a closer look at the subsurface. Once again, we found the region eroding and evolving all at once.
With the use of nitrogen fertilizers beginning in the 1950s, farmers found ways to grow crops on depleted soils, relying on chemical additives. As many farmers plowed the fragile land nearly to death, they unknowingly unleashed the forces of erosion that continue to pick at the earth’s bones.
Now we realize that the crops could not fully use those massive loads of nutrients and that they were polluting the groundwater. Farmers in the Driftless are now talking about precision agriculture and soil health when they think about cultivating their fields, knowing that the damaged soils cost more to operate and produce variable yields. Parts of fields with better soils and the right fertilizers can have bountiful harvests. Other areas barely grow a crop due to depleted soils, shallow bedrock, or flooded waterways that leach the unused farm chemicals into the groundwater. Unfortunately, most modern farming relies on massive equipment that is best suited to cultivate fencerow-to-fencerow without regard for the potential yields or chemicals lost.
Researchers are trying to define the scope of the problem of groundwater contamination. Hydrogeologists are mapping the mysterious sinkholes, caves, and springsheds in the Driftless. Using water chemistry and dye tracing, the investigators have shown that precipitation and surface water percolates into the groundwater, leaching chemicals into the ground in a matter of days to years—a blink of an eye in geologic time. The surface water continues to pollute the groundwater and dissolve the fractured bedrock.xviii The groundwater is no longer safe to drink on my farm, with nitrates far above the health risk. My farm’s springs are no longer medicine, and algal blooms sprout in the streams. Our groundwater-dependent ecosystems are now at risk.
Here in the Driftless, it’s a never-ending cycle: surface water infiltrates into the soils and karst, becoming groundwater that quickly flows from nearby springs to become surface water again. Hardly any water from rainfall or snowmelt on my Elba farm flows off the surface; it rapidly sinks into the ground. I’ve seen water go underground through gopher holes, and I can hear a sucking sound in the rocks at the bottom of the ravine, where I can see the accumulated flow recharge the groundwater water at my feet.
With better understanding of the processes that lead to groundwater contamination, state and federal programs have developed to help landowners preserve the soils, forests, and streams of the Driftless. Those programs and resources are more available in our digital age than ever before. We are evolving to confront the erosion.
Numerous citizen-led and nonprofit groups like The Nature Conservancy, Minnesota Land Trust, and the Driftless Area Land Conservancy are acquiring conservation easements. The Land Stewardship Project and the SWCDs are promoting on-farm measures to promote soil health. In cooperation with local anglers and funding from state and federal agencies, Trout Unlimited is engaged in TUDARE, a 10-year old program for Driftless Area Restoration Efforts that focuses on restoring and protecting thousands of miles of local trout streams.
Two other recent outreach efforts deserve special mention.
Decoding the Driftless is a one-hour Emmy Award-winning documentary produced in 2018 in Lacrosse, Wisconsin, available for streaming or DVD. The film captures the scenic beauty, geology, archeology, ecology, and other hidden treasures of the Driftless. In my opinion, this is the best and most comprehensive adventure film of the Driftless Area.
The Root River Field to Stream Partnership has produced videos and other material to show how groundwater moves in Southeast Minnesota. Beautiful birds-eye views from drones, and artists’ renderings of worms-eye views of the underlying rocks and waters are the best display yet of our Driftless bluff lands and the glaciated edge of the Driftless.
From my farmhouse window, I see the contrast between the durability of the land witnessed by the First People and the drama caused by modern farming. I think about the trout once born in the spring below the house. After the deep-rooted prairie grasses were plowed under, the stream’s upper mile dried up, and the trout had no home. I think about other Driftless streams that are still home to native brook trout, where the fish have survived and spawned in the local streams for 11,000 years, since the permafrost melted. These spring-fed watersheds each open to Unk Te He’s mysterious underground lodge and the waters that sustain the trout, the people and the land. And I am inspired to use my western-science training, along with my reverence for the land to do my part in the effort to bring clean water back.
Note: The film Decoding the Driftless is scheduled on some Minnesota PBS stations in mid-February. Check local listings.
I “Glacial Geology,” Minnesota Geological Survey, https://cse.umn.edu/mgs/glacial-geology. Retrieved January 2021.
ii Theler, James and Robert Boszhardt, Twelve Millennia: Archaeology of the Upper Mississippi River Valley. University of Iowa Press, 2003.
[i]v Terry Tempest Williams, Erosion. Macmillan Publishers, 2009.
Bioneers Conference Keynote address, 2019, https://bioneers.org/terry-tempest-williams-erosion-zstf1911/, retrieved January 2021.
v Lopez, Barry, Crow and Weasel. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, NY, 1990.
vi Peterson, Teresa and Walter LaBatte, Jr., “The Land, Water, and Language of the Dakota, Minnesota’s First People.” Minnesota Historical Society, MnOpedia, www.mnopedia.org/land-water-and-language-dakota-minnesota-s-first-people. Retrieved January 2021.
vii Bakken, Kent, “Chipped Stone Raw Materials,” in Morrow, T.A., ed., Stone Tools of Minnesota, Chapter 6, Wapsi Valley Archaeology, Inc, Anamosa IA, 2016 http://mn.gov/admin/assets/stone-tools-of-minnesota-part1_tcm36-247478.pdf, retrieved January 2021.
viii Sacred Land Film Project, https://sacredland.org/bdote/
ix Oren Lyons, “The Indigenous View of the World,” www.youtube.com/watch?v=kbwSwUMNyPU, retrieved January 2021.
x Dakota Wicohan YouTube Channel, www.youtube.com/watch?v=bHZE0aJgdXA, retrieved January 2021.
xi Minnesota Historical Society, Historic Fort Snelling: Bdote, www.mnhs.org/fortsnelling/learn/bdote, retrieved January 2021.
xii Sacred Land Film Project, ibid.
xiii Burney, C. T., Fall 1967, “Case of the Vanishing Historic Site, or What Happened to Carver’s Cave?”, Ramsey County History #4: p 8-12 retrieved from: rcxnet.co.ramsey.mn.us.
xiv Granger, Susan and Scott Kelly, “Historic Content of Minnesota Farms 1820-1960.” Minnesota Department of Transportation, vol 1, p 3-17, www.dot.state.mn.us/culturalresources/farmsteads, retrieved January 2021.
xv Granger, Ibid p 3-17.
xvi Minnesota Historical Society, “The U.S.-Dakota War of 1862,” https://www.mnhs.org/fortsnelling/learn/us-dakota-war, retrieved January 2021.
xvii Helms, Douglas, “A Conservation Success Story.” In NRCS History Articles – Coon Valley Wisconsin, www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/detail/national/about/history/?cid=nrcs143_021379, retrieved January 2021.
xviii Alexander, E. Calvin, Jr., Greg A. Brick, and Arthur N. Palmer, “Caves and Karst of Minnesota,” PDF, https://www.academia.edu/13534656/Caves_and_Karst_of_Minnesota, retrieved January 2021.