"Neither in this country nor in any other," Mark Twain once said, "have I seen such interesting scenery as that along the Upper Mississippi. One finds all that the Hudson affords — bluffs and wooded highlands — and a great deal in addition. … Every hour brings something new."
Bluffs and wooded highlands: These features don't necessarily compute with the images of prairie and plain that many associate with the Midwest. But to those familiar with the rugged Driftless region, Twain's words ring true.
Most would describe the scope of the Driftless as stretching down the Upper Mississippi and across the borders of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa and Illinois. These hilly, wild pockets were spared the glaciation — which leaves its telltale "drift" of debris — that flattened the greater Midwest tens of thousands of years ago.
In "Going Driftless: Life Lessons From the Heartland for Unraveling Times," Stephen J. Lyons writes, "The region is more defined as a state of mind," and that state of mind is what he sets out to capture.
Lyons (who also reviews books for the Star Tribune) has written a book of people and their place: of the outsized characters who seek sanctuary in the region's hills. In particular, he's interested in the idealists — with their small-scale farms, co-ops and intentional communities — who have gravitated to the Driftless since the 1970s. It's a colorful cast, although as a result of the book's structure (farmers are introduced in one section, communal livers in another), characters have a tendency to bleed together. Still, locals such as Jon "Hawk" Stravers, a musician and birder, and David Cavagnaro, a farmer — enthusiasts whose passions and projects wildly exceed those titles — are painted with careful detail and abundant goodwill.
"Going Driftless" is anything but driftless. These character profiles anchor the book. It is grounded and earthy, inspired by the way a place nurtures us.
Lynne Diebel's "Crossing the Driftless: A Canoe Trip Through a Midwestern Landscape," by contrast, is riverine and aquatic on the author's 359-mile paddle with her husband from Faribault, Minn., to Stoughton, Wis. Diebel's memoir is more introspective and reflective than Lyons', content to meander like the wilder rivers she follows. She proves a gentle, lyrical guide to a Driftless at its finest when humans are least present.
Although the Driftless is a mostly magical kingdom for both Diebel and Lyons, shadows lurk. Lyons nods to the aging, largely white population, and the rocky transition to greater diversity. For Diebel, the problem lies partly with the farming that Lyons so lauds. On the water, sustainability is less evident than change: Here, agriculture is most visible in the way runoff shapes the river. Industry, too, is an unwelcome presence, from dams that impede fish migration, to heat pollution from power plants, to nonstop dredging. The river and its wildlife, particularly fish and mussels, suffer from these invasions.
The Driftless is a place of escape, where Lyons' characters find refuge. But these and other humans, Diebel suggests, are capable of doing what even glaciers couldn't — reducing the bluffs, the wooded highlands and the river to rubble.
Joey McGarvey is a writer and freelance book editor. She lives in St. Paul.