Although just outside the boundary of Wisconsin’s Central Sands region, the place where I live is no less sandy. Once known as the Great Sauk Prairie, it lies flat but fertile between the billion-year-old purple quartz and red rhyolite of the Baraboo Range and the three-hundred-foot sandstone bluffs of the tannin-tinted Wisconsin River.
Small remnants of native prairie remain, and much of the land on which the old Badger Ordnance plant once sprawled, churning out rocket propellant for three major wars, will soon explode again with native flora. But today a few commodity crops, dependent on ever-increasing amounts of groundwater and fossil fuel, still dominate the landscape. The Cambrian sand underlying the thin layer of topsoil nourishing both corn and compass plant may soon be the next great cash crop, for lately it is being coveted as a tool to pry even more fossil fuel from Pennsylvania shale.
A geologist named T.C. Chamberlin knew well the rock of the Baraboo Range, from which much of this sand was worn. In 1897 he hypothesized that ice ages followed a self-oscillating cycle driven by feedbacks involving carbon dioxide. But Chamberlin’s greatest contribution was being the first to try to understand climate change by looking at all the Earth’s systems together.
Visible from atop the Baraboo Range are trees planted by another holistic thinker, on a worn-out “sand farm” in 1935. With his family, Aldo Leopold returned this piece of Wisconsin River bottomland to near pre-settlement condition and pioneered the field of restoration ecology. On this same sandy soil, he worked out many of the ideas that would comprise his hugely influential essay, “The Land Ethic.”
On another farm a few miles as the crane flies further east, a teenage John Muir almost died at the bottom of a well his Calvinist father made him chisel through eighty feet of Jordan sandstone. He was pulled to safety seconds before succumbing to carbon dioxide and other gases.
How fertile this sandy soil! And how strange that our own salvation now depends in large measure on what sprang from it.
*Note to editors: Although I share the same last name, I am not a descendant of the T.C. Chamberlin mentioned above.