In August 2014 I was an artist in residence at ACRE (Artist Cooperative Residency and Exhibitions) in Steuben, Wisconsin. It is located in the lower southwest corner of the state in a region known as the Driftless Area, marked by its lack of glaciation in the last glacial period. I researched and explored the Hogback Prairie, which is located on a ridge not far from the residency. The land has a long history of human interaction- beginning with possible burnings by native peoples, heavy grazing by early settlers, and management by The Nature Conservancy and now the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. For a show at the Kitchen Space in Chicago I created an installation titled Mysteries of the Hogback based on my research which was geological, botanical, historical, religious, and folkloric in nature.
Statement included with the show:
The Hogback Prairie stands out as a partially bald ridge among the lushly forested surrounding hills of the Driftless. Its northern portion is home to a rare dry prairie, while its southern leg is covered in trees hiding caves that emit warm steam in the cool morning air. This ridge is located between the village of Steuben and the unincorporated community of Barnum in Crawford County in the southwest corner of Wisconsin. Not far from the Kickapoo River, it is situated within the Citron Valley surrounded by farmland. A road winds around its base and power lines intersect its highest peak. It sits uncharacteristically unattached to the surrounding ridges allowing it the unique opportunity for preservation of its natural history in the modern agricultural era.
The limestone bedrock in the Driftless Area formed between 500 and 400 million years ago while the entire Midwest was covered in the shallow Ordivician sea. St. Peter sandstone, formed from the natural erosion of the sea’s movements, is stacked between layers of the calcareous Prairie du Chien dolomite. The area was significantly unaffected in the latest glaciation, hence the name of Driftless. The Paleozoic Plateau landscape of this area was spared the flattening and drift-forming forces of glaciers, but as they melted and receded the area was inundated with waters that have eroded and formed the high ridges seen today. The northern tip of the Hogback was once an ox-bow in the Kickapoo River, which now sits several miles south of the ridge.
As one can imagine, this Driftless area, a small pocket in the American Midwest existed almost as an ark during the glacial period. The same plant communities may have thrived on the soil of these ridges since before the glaciation, resulting in one of the oldest ecosystems in the Midwest. During habitation by native peoples, all the ridges would have looked more like the Hogback does today. The landscape would have consisted of prairies, savannahs, and some more forested swaths. Native peoples periodically burned these more open areas to encourage new growth of low plants and grasses in order to attract grazing animals for hunting. With European settlement, this cycle of burning ended, allowing most of the area to become densely forested. The Hogback was spared this fate thanks to several homesteading families that utilized the ridge for grazing. The surrounding valley has been continuously farmed since settlement, but the ridges with shallow soil and rock too close to the surface have not. Because of this unique situation, the Hogback Prairie is now home to some of the rarest and most endangered flora and fauna of the region.
The Driftless Area was once home to a native community known as the Mound Builders, who may have migrated from the Cahokia civilization close to present day St. Louis. One clue we have about this mysterious people is the many mounds they left throughout the region and along the Mississippi. Some mounds hold ceremonial and precious objects and are believed to have held a religious importance to these peoples. Mounds were possibly constructed using different layers of dirt to access the power of the earth to mark sites with special significance and were often built in the shapes of animal. It is believed that the Hogback was once surrounded by ceremonial mounds, the remnants of which can still be seen after harvest time when the ground is bare.