I mentioned to a friend that his name appeared in one of my recent blogs, so he looked at my website for the very first time. He later told me his initial impression of the site was that it had a good feel to it, but he didn’t like the fact that I called our bioregion the Driftless Region. Without me asking, I knew why he objected. I feel the same way.
Here in La Crosse, use of the term Driftless has become too trendy. In barely a decade, the word went from a relatively obscure term in physical geography to a pervasive back-to-the-earth status symbol. It now appears on coffee cups, tote bags, and water bottles (i.e., NPR-type trinkets, no schlock). Local businesses that cater to the NorthFace and Patagonia crowd (which includes me) slip references to the Driftless Region into their marketing. A popular bumper sticker with white lettering on a plain black background simply reads “driftless.” It can be purchased at our local food co-op. Without changing my address, I have gone from living in nondescript southwestern Wisconsin to residing in the more fashionable Driftless Region.
The gentrification of the term is unfortunate. Its original use describes well a special geological anomaly. Primarily in Wisconsin, but extending into parts of Minnesota, Iowa, and Illinois, the Driftless Region is a 200-mile swath of land that was missed by every glacier that descended upon North America during the most recent Ice Age. Drift is the sediment and rock left behind by receding glaciers. Because the area had no receding glaciers, it is driftless. Instead of the pothole lakes and moraines that define most of the Upper Midwest, the Driftless Region consists of rivers, bluffs, and deep ravines the locals call coulees.
A Driftless Area tote bag shouldn’t bother me any more than a Mt. Rushmore shot glass or a Statue of Liberty paperweight, but it does. Maybe it is because I don’t live in the Black Hills or on Liberty Island. For the same reason I don’t want a billboard in my backyard, I don’t like the term describing my backyard to be name-dropped. The mystique of the Driftless Region is tied to the romantic notion that the place is a secret paradise, so heralding it with a bumper sticker on a SUV (no matter how tastefully designed the sticker or the car) is a step in the wrong direction.
I realize that my dismay over the expropriation of the word Driftless hints of the same exclusivity I am criticizing. I am as much a snob as anyone else. The difference is that I prefer to keep my pretensions to myself.