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Inspiration from the Land

Two New Books to Add to Your Reading List

Hot off the presses, these two books, arranged quite differently, contemplate the engaging quality of the land and its impact on people. Both books also feature Aldo Leopold either through his own words or through the author’s retracing of his steps. Both are sure to be pleasing reads for lovers of the land ethic. Note: The Driftless Reader was co-edited by the foundation’s Senior Fellow Curt Meine, author of Aldo Leopold – His Life and Work.

This review was originally published by Isthmus and has been reprinted with permission by the author.

In some ways, the two books are quite dissimilar.

The Driftless Reader, new from UW Press, is an anthology of writing about the part of Wisconsin and other states that the glaciers missed. Walking Home Ground: In the Footsteps of Muir, Leopold, and Derleth, from the Wisconsin Historical Society Press, is written by a single author, Robert Root, and it focuses mostly on locales in the glaciated part of the state.

But both books are fundamentally about the transformative power of the land — its capacity to ground us and make our lives more meaningful.

Edited by Curt Meine, a biographer of Wisconsin ecologist Aldo Leopold, and Kickapoo Valley native Keefe Keeley, one of Meine’s former students, The Driftless Reader consists of more than 80 short pieces on the geology, history, economy, and culture of the Driftless Area, including southwestern Wisconsin. It runs the gamut from academic papers to poetry. It includes pieces by Henry David Thoreau, Mark Twain, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Frank Lloyd Wright, Black Hawk and someone named George William Featherstonhaugh (whose last name, we’re told, is “pronounced fan-shaw”). There are excerpts from other great works on the region, including David Rhodes’ popular 2008 novel Driftless and Lynne Heasley’s lovely 2005 ecological and cultural retrospective on the Kickapoo Valley, A Thousand Pieces of Paradise.

Throughout, The Driftless Reader celebrates this patch of land as special.

“We can dwell on that which divides us, but we all dwell within landscapes that connect us,” declares the book’s preface. “By listening deeply to the voices of our diverse places, we may find many ways home and many ways forward.”

In this spirit, Walking Home Ground explores the landscapes that inspired three great writers: John Muir (1838-1914), Aldo Leopold (1887-1948) and August Derleth (1909-1971). A teacher at Ashland University in Ohio who has written more than a dozen previous books, Root literally walks the walk — reflecting on the lives and work of his subjects as he follows in their footsteps. In the process he creates a “minor nature classic” — to borrow the words used by Derleth to describe Leopold’s landmark book, A Sand County Almanac.

Root, who lives in Waukesha County near the Ice Age Trail, traces the connections among these three writers and others. For instance, a week before his sudden death in April 1948 (and on the same day he learned that A Sand County Almanac would be published), Leopold wrote a letter urging the state of Wisconsin to preserve a parcel of land that Muir had lived on as a child, while acknowledging it was “undoubtedly badly depleted floristically and otherwise.” The parcel, which some have said was for Muir what Walden Pond was for Thoreau, is now Fountain Lake Farm, a national historic landmark in Marquette County.

By exploring this and other landscapes (also including Leopold’s shack on the Wisconsin River near Baraboo and Derleth’s old stomping grounds on Lueders Road in Sauk City), Root proves himself an astute observer and a formidable commentator, like the writers he admires.

“Glancing up at the empty sky, I try to imagine what it would feel like to be here on a cloudless night, taking in the universe, as Derleth so often did,” Root writes. “I stand quietly alone for many minutes, my gaze sweeping slowly along the river in either direction, aware of how much there is to take in, afraid that too little of it will register.”

Muir, Leopold, and Derleth are among the writers whose work is memorialized in The Driftless Reader. Muir recounts his trip down the Wisconsin River “enjoying the delightful scenery and analyzing some specimens.” Leopold writes about a 1930s restoration project in Coon Valley, “a common task so large and so long as to stir the imagination of all but dullards.” Derleth is represented by his poem about an old man “fishing in water and in time.”

Root, in his book, reflects: “When you think of Wisconsin’s landscape, you think in terms of either the glacier’s presence or its absence.” This is what “has determined the nature of the terrain you see.”

Both of these books remind us of the power of landscapes to engage, enlighten, and inspire.

Have you had a chance to read one of these already? Leave us a comment below and tell us what you thought.