I think about Schulz and Nix as I cross the Mississippi River to the Minnesota and Iowa side of the Driftless. Perhaps, in the midst of global unrest and in the wake of this nation’s recent recession — the “unraveling” that Nix referred to — the nation is catching on to the concept of locally based movements such as the Driftless Folk School. Is there, in fact, a back-to-community movement afoot? Is there a renewed embracing of bioregionalism, which is defined as the “advocacy of the belief that human activity should be largely restricted to distinct ecological and geographical regions”?
At busy Java John’s in Decorah, Iowa, the “capital” of Iowa’s Driftless area, I put these questions to Lora Friest, then the coordinator for the Northeast Iowa Resource Conservation and Development (RC&D). Friest is part of a wave of Midwesterners who left the region and then came back (with skills, talents and a strong sense of environmentalism), seeking those lost Midwestern values and a connection to community. Friest is effusive in expressing her delight in being back on native soil.
“Each community in the Driftless region has a phenomenal sense of identity. The people are passionate about helping their fellow community members. I find that is true everywhere. There’s a very strong local economy. Our entertainment is local people, poets and musicians. It seems to be almost more unusual not to be involved in something that’s helping somebody else than it is to be helping 10 different causes. It ends up creating this human contribution to the community that is a phenomenal energy. If you go to Elkader, it’s similar to Decorah. The downtown stores are still functioning. Guttenberg has had a kind of revival. Same is true for Marquette and McGregor. And they’re old-fashioned, small communities.”
Over a decade ago, Friest was instrumental in creating the Driftless Area Initiative (DAI), a “multi-state, non-profit management partnership. It strives to coordinate natural resource conservation efforts of organizations and interested people within the 24,000-square-mile area ... ”
Friest thinks, because of its environmental significance, that the Driftless region should be afforded the same “national treasure” federal protection that Chesapeake Bay enjoys thanks to the 2009 Chesapeake Bay Restoration and Protection Executive Order 13508.
Friest reminds me that the last known, native population of brook trout in Iowa, a species whose ancestors lived on the edge of glaciers during the most recent ice age, is in the Upper Iowa River watershed. And she says that what is most important is that the Driftless is the very heart of the Upper Mississippi River watershed. What happens here in this region affects the entire river — all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. I sense she is willing to fight for that protection when she adds, “I’ll never leave.”
Later that afternoon, from my fifth-floor perch in the office of David Faldet, an English professor at Luther College, I absorb the inspiring view of the Upper Iowa River and the hills that surround it. The hills are surprisingly devoid of houses. One-third of Decorah is preserved intentionally as parkland. Like much of the Driftless, this part of the region does not have room for sprawl. Faldet, the author of Oneota Flow: The Upper Iowa River and Its People, is the sixth generation of his family to live in Decorah. I ask him what new things he learned about his home when he wrote his book.
“I knew this, but it didn’t really hit me until the book: We really are an extension of the river where we live. We are part of a river system, and the water I pull up from my tap in Decorah has a certain amount of river water in it. And everything that goes back into the system goes into the river. But I think the river has become the most human part of the extended landscape around me. I really see it as a kind of extension of myself. It has a familiarity and a life that is easy for me to respond to and rejoice in.”