Last week was the anniversary of Aldo Leopold’s death in 1948. As all Leopold fans know, he died of a heart attack fighting a grass fire on a neighbor’s land. Wisconsin has a total of 72 counties, and none of them is named Sand County. There is a Richland County, which was named for the fertility of its soil, but no one had the moxie to name a county after its poor soil. The Sand County of Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac is a frame of mind, not a place. It is the hardscrabble lifestyle that either chases people away from the land or ties them to it forever. Sand County describes the Driftless Region well.
The Driftless Region is the Upper Midwest’s geological anomaly. Primarily in Wisconsin, but extending into parts of Minnesota, Iowa, and Illinois, it is a 200-mile long oval of land that was missed by every glacier that descended upon North America during the most recent Ice Age. Instead of the pothole lakes and moraines that define most of the area, the Driftless Region consists of rivers, bluffs, and deep ravines that the locals call coulees. To people who live in other parts of the state, the Driftless Region is the part of Wisconsin that does not look like Wisconsin.
Like me, Leopold did not move to the area until he was an adult, but several other people known for their bond to the land actually grew up here. They include Frank Lloyd Wright, Hamlin Garland, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and John Muir. Every bioregion can claim its own nature-loving sons and daughters, but the Driftless Region produces more than its share.