The Mississippi River and The Driftless Area
Along the northeastern Iowa border, the Mississippi River cuts through an area known as the Driftless which features deeply carved river valleys and is so named because the area was untouched by glacial action or drift. Designated a National Wildlife Refuge the area includes northeastern Iowa, southeastern Minnesota, southwestern Wisconsin and northwestern Illinois. Close to the water the area still feels primal despite having been brought to heel in the 1930’s with the building of a massive lock and dam system that created vast lakes and quiet sloughs. Hundreds of species of wildlife call it home, and thousands of birds continue to use the river as a flyway for their annual migrations as they have for centuries. Meanwhile, the recreational craft of all sorts dodge the enormous barges filled with grain and coal that ply the river. Before the earliest European explorers found and used the river to establish trade routes that evolved into major transportation systems, the river supported indigenous populations for centuries and their ancient burial mounds in the shapes of bears, fish, and falcons are scattered on the tops of the tree-covered limestone bluffs 400 and more feet above the water.
The limestone bluff named Mt. Hosmer after the 19th-century sculptor Harriet Hosmer towers 450 feet above the town of Lansing, Iowa where our part-time studio/gallery is located. The best part of the two and a half hour drive from Cedar Rapids to Lansing is the 35 mile stretch on Highway 35 north from Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin which has nearly continuous inspiring views of the Mississippi River which can appear cerulean blue and pale gold with the winter ice and choppy pale maroon in the summer breezes. It has been said that the mostly tree covered bluffs parade along both sides of the river like a herd of giant buffalo and they are sometimes perfectly reflected on the still surface of the pools. Some mornings particularly in spring and fall the giant beasts disappear in the morning fog.
Sometimes with theological reverence 19th-century, American landscape artists celebrated the natural beauty of the New York’s Hudson River, even as they recognized the effects of man’s encroachment. I view the Mississippi River and the Driftless area in much the same way. Despite power boats and barges, 100 plus tanker car trains racing along either side, expensive homes tenuously clinging to the bluffs and the modern agricultural practices around the edges, the area remains a very spiritual place. Here natural beauty still overwhelms everything.