Ancient Landforms and Modern Inhabitants

After gazing out over the neighboring farms from my promontory those first days, my initial sense of a generalized vista refocused to a more precise mental mapping of the surrounding terrain. As a scientist I began to break down what was laid out before me. Most elements were pretty clear, and repeated in different versions on each rectangular property. There were tractors and other farming implements scattered over large corn and grain fields, and cattle grazing smaller fenced-in areas. Farmhouses and their outbuildings appeared in the midst of the few remaining older-growth trees. I could trace the line of the creek fed by my spring through four or five farms before I lost its trail beyond the hills. It turned out to be a tributary of Spring Creek, which was located downstream of my property, about one mile away to the north. My land was less manicured, not having been actively farmed for two years, but the same essential landscaping remained.

Five or six generations of farm families had carved out their livelihoods on these plots. Each had its own goals, but there would have been certain overlapping concerns. Farmer A wouldn't have wanted Farmer B leaching fertilizers into the creek upstream of his land if that supplied drinking water for him or his livestock. There would certainly have been questions regarding accuracy of fence lines, as well as questions of responsibility for large overhanging or fallen trees. For years boundary issues would have been worked out between neighbors, using fallen trees and other guides for simple solutions that kept the geometry and plot layout clear. I guessed that this community of farmers hadn't been engaged in dialogue about the intercon-nectedness of their lands within the larger landscape. They were neighbors, but they weren't exactly allies. They worked in rhythm with one another as they farmed their individual properties, but as with small children engaging in parallel play, their efforts had no significant linkage, no relation to the larger perspective in which I saw the land as a whole. There was clearly a code of mutual respect, since they were all in the same boat, and often a tool was borrowed or a tractor was lent. But there wasn't a concern with how their actions generally affected the ecosystem.

That realization made me nervous about being an outsider with a differing agenda. I hadn't decided exactly what to do with my land, but I had no intention of doing what they did. Still, I wanted amiable relationships with the surrounding families. I worried about how they would react to my plans once it was apparent that I wasn't running a commercial farming enterprise. Would they accept me if my land use deviated from what they expected? And if not, would it be simply awkward, or truly untenable?

They farmed to subsist. Cornfields engulfed their farmhouses. Cows butted against the fences encircling their yards. Everything was neat, clearly arranged, efficient in human terms. In contrast I wanted an Eden of flowers, birds, and wildlife.

Maybe a row or two of sweet corn in a small garden, sure. But my land would be unruly to the farmer's eye, and efficient only in natural terms.

The farmers worked their fields with skill, following generations of tradition. I was most interested in the remaining natural areas on their lands, slivers of wildness left behind like the remnants of fabric that have been made into a suit. On each farm I could see the same tired drama being played out between traces of free-reigning nature and encroaching cultivation. The natural elements that lingered on these lands—remnants of woodlands, meadows, and bubbling brooks—were always secondary to the pressing business of running a farm, which required maximal space for animals and crop yields. I fantasized about these vestigial parcels expanding if they were encouraged to develop naturally. Meanwhile my neighbors were calculating their bottom lines, turning land use into a purely mathematical formula, viewing these spaces as inefficiencies to be rectified.

My discomfort intensified within my first few weeks there, when the neighbor to the northeast razed a swath of remnant woodland that I had been scouting from afar. I had been considering how I might go about sneaking onto the property to witness it up close, since it looked to be a pretty mature grove of maples. Judging by the size of the trees and the settlement history of the area, the woodland would have predated nineteenth-century settlement, and therefore provided invaluable ecological records and clues to the history of the neighborhood. I had hoped to analyze soil samples, core some trees to determine their age, and experience the lively diversity of birds and wildflowers.

With binoculars glued to my eyes, I watched as the trees were razed and the area was transformed into an indistinct patch of farmland in a single afternoon. The huge maples were bulldozed into a barn-sized pile of sticks. The varied wildflowers that had dotted the woodland edge with color were heaped together and burned. The speed with which the high-tech scythe decimated the land and its magnificent heritage shocked me. I watched the entire day with the burning smell in my nose, and fell asleep where I sat with a canteen of water as the fire died down. Within days the frame for a large modern home emerged from the ashes of those beautiful trees.

That event unsettled me, and I couldn't bear to climb up to my perch and see the progress of the new structure. Instead I spent the next few days roaming the perimeter of my land and looking at the geometry of my neighbors' overtaxed fields. As I stared down perfect rows of young corn and let my vision blur in blowing wheat fields, I felt an awkward respect for the tenacity of the farmers and began worrying that my youthful idealism was a collection of fragile hopes that would shatter against the realities facing me. How did I expect to reveal Eden in this farm-belt grid?

I had questions that it would take some time to answer. Some anxieties would only ease with perspective born of experience. So I settled in and began to set up systems and routines that would allow me to develop a relationship with the soil and the trees and the creek. Naming the land helped, made it somehow more concrete for me. The name, Stone Prairie Farm, came to me while I was walking the rented cornfield, where swathes of stones were scattered across the ridge. I bent over and picked up one of the stones to find a fossilized imprint of some long-gone ocean creature. I marveled over it for a moment, then looked up to see another miraculous sight—a single remaining native prairie grass plant standing stalwart against the tug of the eroding topsoils, in the heavy gravelly clay soils.

As I settled in I could ground myself, and begin to call the land home, confident that the optimistic student that I was then would eventually integrate into the local community, and the intrepid scientist I was becoming would surely have the opportunity in the future to engage the neighbors in an ecological dialogue, and perhaps help design cooperative systems that would benefit each others' lands.

But I knew that kind of integration could take years to estab lish. I told myself to slow down. First I had to accept that the neighbors would do what they needed to do regardless of how I felt about it. I was the outsider, and I was young enough to allow things to play out. So what better thing to do than climb back up to that platform and continue my meditative daydreaming? The visioning process relaxed me and flowed into my peaceful nightly slumbers in the hayloft bed.

One muggy night I dreamed that I was flying along the creek line. From my bird's-eye view as I glided northward, I could see the riparian trees begin to thicken and the creek water become noticeably clearer. I was flying toward an unknown destination amidst a dense flock of passenger pigeons, the now extinct species that used to thrive in this neighborhood, darkening the skies with their numbers. Suddenly I was caught in an updraft and quickly ascended into thick clouds, which obscured my view of the land. No matter in which direction I steered myself, I couldn't find my way out of the clouds. A buzzing noise invaded, and I woke to find a large mosquito circling my head.

As I sat over hot tea later, absentmindedly sketching the neighboring farmhouse, I contemplated the meaning of that dream. It seemed that my subconscious was trying to go back in time to the source of the landforms. I flipped the page and started to sketch an aerial view of my property in its current state, but instead of replicating what existed, I exaggerated the creek, widening it and filling out the riparian strip. I added savanna oaks and replaced cornfields with swathes of prairie and wetlands in the lowest ground. This gave me the idea that I should do a bit of research, try to find survey records and actual aerial photos.

I didn't know exactly what I was looking for, but envisioning the stages of geographic development in the region seemed like a good exercise. The farms obstructed the interconnected pristine landscape, with its prairies and wetlands and woodlands. But the topography was still largely intact, and certain non-farmable features that still existed in the area might elucidate what had been plowed under, bulldozed down, or eroded away. I did a mental exercise, letting my mind slip backward in time to the creation of the landforms and the brook. The topography had been crafted by glaciers that stripped the earth, leaving behind flattened lands that became wetlands, then eventually forests and prairies, and finally the farm fields I had been contemplating.

A glacier is a super bulldozer two miles thick and hundreds of miles wide. It advances methodically on a slippery sheet of oozing, melting waters, propelled by its own weight like a snail. In the midwestern plains this relentless mass would grind down the underlying limestone, polishing its features while filling in eroded crevasses and canyons with millions of tons of crushed rock. And this towering, translucent, bluish wall, a behemoth that dwarfed the Grand Canyon in scale, reshaped the undulating terrain and its bedrock ridges and valleys not only once —about 10,000 years ago—but twice more in the preceding 200,000 years.

I visualized this watery slurry with its tinted, mineral-enriched rivers and streaming waterfalls, and imagined the incessant drone as it advanced and receded over my diminutive plot of land. What a calculation to consider the force of such an assault! Consider that a column of air one inch wide by one inch thick stretching several miles in height results in about fifteen pounds per square inch of pressure on the ground and on every being. This is the atmospheric pressure of the earth at sea level. Now imagine the weight of a stack of ice cubes two miles high, assuming one pound of weight for every foot in the stack. Even without calculating the encapsulated rock and other materials, the glacier would exert more than ten thousand pounds of pressure per square inch, a feat unduplicated by humankind, I am sure. By expanding that square-inch pressure over miles and millennia, I began to understand that my land had been sculpted in enormous elemental strokes: freezing and thawing, erosion and sedimentation, and upheavals of the soil that created the landforms discovered by the first settlers.

Current theory in the climate sciences suggests that the glaciers caused climate change even before completely receding, positing that the air plunging over the glaciers compressed and heated as it fell. So the air speeding away from the base created warmer conditions than one might assume next to a two-mile-high wall of ice. Warm air plus newly released nutrients and ground rock deposited by the receding glacier created the ideal growing conditions to support arctic wetlands and spruce forests as far north as the Arctic Circle. As the glacier moved even farther northward, conditions across temperate latitudes favored oak and pine forests, and grasslands took hold when seasonally warm and dry conditions eventually prevailed.

After that glacial clearing, and for several thousand years leading up the time of settlement, oak savanna and prairie vegetation spread virtually unimpeded in this part of the North American continent, interspersed with occasional wetlands. Animal habitats evolved in the balance of that perfect interconnected wilderness and existed in equilibrium for millennia. Then settlers, mostly European Americans pushing west, set into motion a tide of agriculture and development that would eventually fill in countless wetlands, plow under millions of acres of prairie vegetation, and clear-cut enough swaths of oak savanna to degrade ecosystems to their current alarming levels.

And what of those early settlers? Arriving in their new lands, they would have discovered a majestic, nearly self-regulating environment with four interdependent communities of flora: various types of prairies; oak savannas; rare and scattered wetlands; and isolated maple woodlands containing key plant species typically found only in locations resistant to wildfires. The Sugar, Pecatonia, and Wisconsin Rivers surrounding the region, as well as the steep coulees to the north and west, served as firebreaks that protected several thousand square miles within the sur rounding prairie landscapes of Wisconsin and northern Illinois from intense burns.

According to the original land surveys, my home would have rested within the region once shielded by those former fire-protected forests. I would have been able to see, half a mile north, the oak-scattered savanna whose fire-tolerant prairie grasses and other assorted plant species would have safeguarded the larger northern forests from burns stoked by seasonal southerly and westerly winds. On a misty morning it is easy to envision stalwart gnarled bur oaks still growing on the sand-and-gravel knob ridge tops rolling along the sloping northern horizon.

Prior to the European settlers, Native Americans learned and developed what was necessary to live lightly on this land for perhaps several thousand years. Arrowheads and a hide scraper found behind our home tell of their presence even on Stone Prairie Farm. Then European settlers arrived with minimal resources beyond know-how and the urgent will to survive. Instead of taking the Native American approach, these settlers would have seen in this landscape an unending resource, awaiting the application of labor. And so trees were transformed into houses and firewood; prairies became pastures for livestock and endless fields of crops; creeks and springs became sources for irrigation and potable water. For some time these systems were sustainable. But as these farmlands became vital to markets farther and farther away, the business of farming slowly whittled away at the harmonious balance of between farmer and land. I am sure this shift seemed perfectly natural to the pioneers, just as it does to modern consumers and corporations, who value uniformity and productivity over variety and sustainability, and have come to accept the segregation of nature in the form of state parks and preserves as the best solution. Cities and suburbs aren't the only denuded areas; farmlands contain mere fractions of their original richness.

When I moved onto my land only scant traces of the natural flora remained—a dozen fencerow trees, and several others scattered near the farmhouse. The box elder, black cherry, mulberry, and hackberry along the fencerows had an unnatural, flattened shape from years of tractors and corn harvesters swiping at their branches while working the fields on either side of the fence. Any limbs that ventured too far into the neighbor's lots were twisted back into the fencerow, most likely with the front-end loader on a farm tractor.

On the south side of the house, providing shade from the summer sun, were a sizable white ash and a large cultivated mulberry. There were also a couple of weedy box elders and, wedged in so close to the cement foundation that it had survived the mowers, was one hackberry that I was able to save. The black willows that lined the spring creek, tilting southeastward from decades of wind that desiccated their buds and retarded growth, stood as stoic reminders of how the open prairie shapes trees.

It was these trees that drew in the orioles, tanagers, and passing migratory warblers in the spring and fall. Even an occasional goshawk came to my land, perching on the hackberry or ash as it searched for food in the form of rabbits and mice that scurried around the farmhouse and buildings.

Once the farm had been converted to cornfields this small island of trees around the house would have been the only tangible connection to nature. Almost as an homage to these hearty survivors, I worked fervently to nurse them back to health, spending long hours pruning and irrigating all of them. I gave myself the particular challenge of saving a mulberry tree that was near death. It has since come back to life, and I have hung a hammock from its trunk.

Of course buildings stood on the land as well as these trees. My old farmhouse was a reminder of the grit and determination of the settlers. From a distance it looked like the classic simple building with two opposing A-framed rooflines that merge at right angles to each other. The roofs were covered in layer upon layer of old tarpaper. The stubs of a few torn-off lightning rods poked through, still reaching up and providing essential pathways to the ground for the zillion-volt shocks that flash out during spring and summer thunderstorms.

In those early days, I inspected the farmhouse's foundation and found it was made from layered blocks of cut limestone held with a slacked lime mortar, a rather weak glue by modern cementing standards. To add strength the builders had mixed in old pieces of knotted barbed wire, tin cans, broken glass, ceramic telegraph pole insulators, and iron farm implement parts—basically anything they could recycle instead of discard. Twenty feet above the valley bottom, the house had rested for generations on that foundation of four-hundred-million-year-old Silurian Limestone, facing the spring creek that flowed five hundred feet to the west. Both the farmhouse and barn proved to be treasure troves of local history, and lessons in nineteenth-century craftsmanship. To begin with, the wood had been cut using several distinct techniques. The main timbers were pit-sawn oak, cut with saws eight to ten feet long that would have been brought to the harvest site. But others were hewed square with a combination of broad ax and adz. The broad ax chopped vertically while the adz, an axlike tool with a blade oriented to the shaft like a hoe, chopped against the grain, allowing the worker to stand astride the log in order to facet or smooth it. Each method left telltale scars on the posts and beams of the farmhouse: the broad ax's clean, long scars, and the adz's abrupt overlapping cuts.

Unsplit red cedar posts served as columns and supports. According to the original land survey, that kind of cedar grew on the bedrock ridges a mile to the north. The building's main structural oak timbers probably came from those ridges as well. Examining all this lumber, I became very curious about the wood—where it come had from, when the trees had been felled, and how old the trees had been when they were cut. Somehow, understanding the wood of my buildings and its connection to the land seemed essential, so I decided to do a tree ring comparison to learn more.

First I took an increment corer, a hand-drilling tool with a hollow steel bit that extracts a pencil-diameter piece of wood, to both oak and cedar posts in the building. I then repeated the procedure on oak and cedar trees from the ridge where I suspected the timber had been cut. This method provides an immediate and exciting glance at the region's history. Each core shows a progression of annual growth lines, vacillating between the lighter color made by rapid spring growth and the darker banding laid down as the tree's growth rate slows in fall. Lining up the core samples for each type of wood and sliding them alongside each other, I matched together the widely spaced patterns left in the growth rings from unusually wet years and the close, tightly spaced rings from dry years. The patterns were quite clear and aligned perfectly, making it fairly easy to count back year by year from the outermost rings of the trees, which marked the present, to the time when the lumber was cut. It turned out to be just under 150 striations, meaning the trees had been probably cut sometime around 1836. Measuring the core sample from the lumber alone, it was clear that they'd been around 40 or 50 years old when felled. Moreover, the growth ring patterns of the posts and the lumber matched so closely, they confirmed that this ridge was in fact the most likely location where the both the cedar and oak logs were harvested to build this home. The live trees that I cored and used for reference were 210 to 230 years old, starting life at the same time as, and likely close cousins of, the trees that made the house!

As was typical in the surrounding community, the barn timbers were cut from white pine, likely also harvested in the mid-1800s during the heyday of the pineries in central and northern Wisconsin. Some oak timbers in the barn and house were older, likely recycled from other buildings. The original carpenters used irregular, cut-steel nails and pegged-timber joints, both of which contrast with the more standardized building materials used today. I also noted that the large timbers of the buildings created a framework that supported everything else, quite different from modern two-by-four stud construction, in which milled fir or pine boards are held tightly in a framework of similar-sized pieces of wood, and structural strength comes not from the central timbers but from the way the various walls and boards are tied together.

I particularly admired the joinery and the structural elegance in the barn. Fitted primarily with wood pegs, and mortise and tendon joinery, the structure had held together for well over 150 years. The only hardware I could find were the nails used to secure the siding and the lag bolts on the doors used to attach the hinges to the doorframes. This method of joinery used overlapping timbers for strength and inserted tendons to add length. Square-cut pieces of timber were fitted into a mortise, a hole cut to receive the tendon, and the joints were tightened by pounding pegs crafted from fresh-cut hickory, black locust, or ironwood into slightly offset holes with a large wooden mallet called a glug. The woodworkers painstakingly hewed octagonal pegs, because round ones tended to dry out and loosen. I came to appreciate the way that builders of yesteryear had to select the right tree species for their purpose—oak for strength and supports, green ironwood, hickory, or locust for the shaped pegs that were pounded into countering holes to strongly bind the timbers. In contrast, a stud wall of today is created with a very simple formula and no real connection to the properties of the wood or the tree species from which it grew.

The barn had evidently had some additions built, as evidenced by the types of wood and nails used, and the scoring from the saws used to cut the lumber. Cow-milking stanchions and stalls for draft horses were also added, as was a lean-to with newer milking stanchions. A small milk room, which housed a modern pumping unit with suction devices for the cows' teats, directed the milk to a large stainless-steel bulk milk cooling tank, which kept milk cold until a hauler arrived to take it to a local cheese factory. Early on, before the milking machine and refrigerated bulk tank, a wagon would have carted off cans of fresh milk to the local cheese factory. Later large tanker trucks pumped the milk directly in from the cooling tank. These small shed attachments were painted a nauseating pink on the outside and moldy green on the inside, just the kinds of incorrectly mixed paint colors one might find discounted at a local hardware store.

The question of how the house fit on the land had been nagging at me. Gradually, as I determined where the materials came from, and why they were used in certain ways, I came to see that the house was one with the land. It had grown up on this land, and each and every piece of its wood and stone was "borrowed" for a certain period of time from a short distance away. It was really a part of this place, of its natural resources, human culture, and history.

Feeling a bit boxed in by fences, I took some drives to check out the regional terrain. Since the farm rested only one ridge away from the Illinois state line, I headed south first, down the rolling Wisconsin landscape, perhaps along the same route that some of those milk trucks had driven—into the land of Lincoln where the flat midwestern terrain stretched out for miles. Looping westward, I came back through an area of northwestern Illinois and southwestern Wisconsin where plateaus stand unchanged by glaciers since Paleozoic times. This region is called "driftless" by geologists, and was essentially an island that had been encircled by the ice of the most recent glacial periods. Instead of being scraped away by the advancing glaciers, these plateaus stood out, and no drift—the conglomeration of rock, silt, and other materials carried by the glaciers—was deposited around or on them.

Ecological markers proliferated along the drift's periphery. I explored bedrock ridges and exposed cliffs a mile north and hiked down into a fifty-foot-deep limestone canyon a mile to the west, where I found the canyon walls blanketed with bulblet fragile fern, columbine, and numerous other native plants. The arching fern fronds had made their way down the cliff by dropping small bulbs onto each successive rock ledge, until the whole cliff face became a waterfall of cascading fronds. Along the bottom of the gorge a meandering rocky stream only hinted at the former glacial torrents of sand- and gravel-rich meltwater that had carved through the canyon like fluid sandpaper. The canyon was prospected during the lead mining days when early miners, nicknamed badgers, searched for galena, a shiny, heavy lead ore that formed cube-shaped crystals. It was mined by Native Americans for ornaments, and used by settlers to make bullets. In fact, this region was one of the main sources of the lead used in the Civil War. The mining process had initially involved hand-digging human-sized crawl holes into the bedrock along the canyon walls. Just about every exposed limestone area that I passed was dotted with these badger holes. The University of Wisconsin "Badger" owes its origin to the miners, not the furry mammal.

Heading back eastward from the driftless area, I saw how Stone Prairie Farm was spread over an elevated landform that included bedrock exposures, springs, and a spring creek. From here it was possible to see how the different glacial tides had carved out my land. The earlier Illinois glaciers that covered the region 120,000 to 200,000 years ago had deposited a finely textured clay soil whose high moisture and nutrient retention were still evident in the soils of my farm. On the perimeter of these deposits, edging right up to the neighboring farm, was coarser gravel, deposited by the Wisconsin glacier 7,000 to 10,000 years ago. Apparently this more recent glacier had missed my land altogether.

These excursions gave me a good perspective on the larger landscape that encircled my new home. Having grown up on the low-lying Illinois plain I felt curiously elated to be perched in the next state, a half mile north of the elevated Wisconsin ridge that formed when the last glacier receded northward. This ridge delineated the watershed of the area, dividing the flow of the northern and southern runoff. It would have made geographic and ecological sense to have the state line follow this natural drainage divide. But this elegant detail escaped those who carried out the arbitrary political process of laying out linear state boundaries. In any case I was now a Wisconsinite, living on a unique geological crossroads, where I could conduct experiments that reflected the ecological questions that proliferated in my mind, and in my professional life.

I was becoming comfortable in the area, but a looming problem was pressing on me. When it came to restoring this land, I really didn't know where to begin. Looking at the bigger picture didn't help me decide what smaller steps I should follow. I tried not to worry about it, but I have always hated procrastinating, and that was exactly what I had started to do. I rationalized my hesitation by thinking I had to become familiar with all the issues of ownership and community and history. But I knew I would eventually have to begin the actual work of restoration, and sooner rather than later.

chapter 3

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Homeowners Guide To Landscaping

Homeowners Guide To Landscaping

How would you like to save a ton of money and increase the value of your home by as much as thirty percent! If your homes landscape is designed properly it will be a source of enjoyment for your entire family, it will enhance your community and add to the resale value of your property. Landscape design involves much more than placing trees, shrubs and other plants on the property. It is an art which deals with conscious arrangement or organization of outdoor space for human satisfaction and enjoyment.

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