The region may be known as the Driftless, but the mindset and the distinct bioregional culture of this Midwestern area are anything but. In fact, they’re about as passionate as you can get.“In southwestern Wisconsin there is an area roughly 160 miles long and 70 miles wide with unique features. Its rugged terrain differs from the rest of the state. The last of the Pleistocene glaciers did not trample through this area, and the glacial deposits of rock, clay, sand, and silt — called drift — are missing. Hence its name, the Driftless Region. Singularly unrefined, it endured in its hilly, primitive form, untouched by the shaping hands of those cold giants. “As the glacial herd inched around the Driftless Region, it became an island surrounded by a sea of receding ice.”
It’s early spring, and David Rhodes — who wrote these opening lines in his widely praised 2008 novel, Driftless — sits across from me at Ocooch Books & Libations in Richland Center, Wis. He wants to tell me what it’s like to live in a valley.
I have traveled here intrigued by the idea that the Upper Mississippi River watershed’s 24,000-square-mile Driftless region, which encompasses southwestern Wisconsin, northwestern Illinois, northeastern Iowa and southeastern Minnesota, is more defined by its very un-Midwestern environment of hills and valleys than by traditional state borders.
A unique bioregional culture that values all things small and local — including food, music, education and media — has grown from this area. Back in the 1970s, many back-to-landers came to the Driftless attracted by cheap land and the area’s rural nature. Another wave, this one more prosperous, came 20 years later to participate in the booming organic-foods movement and/or to send their kids to alternative schools, such as the Pleasant Ridge Waldorf School in Viroqua, Wis. Both migrant groups, though, were undoubtedly drawn also by the region’s natural beauty.
Throughout the Driftless, valleys act as a counterweight to the seemingly unending flatness of most of the glaciated Midwest. Rhodes, who has lived on 40 acres near Wonewoc, Wis., since 1972 and who, like most authors, spends an inordinate amount of time observing his surroundings, says that valley living changes one’s perspective.