To Jeffers with Jaf: A trip across time, space, and culture.

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There is a swath across the map of Minnesota that runs northwest to southeast across the state, separating the major biomes of the eastern two thirds of the country, and for complicated reasons. North, it is colder, south warmer. Much of the moister in the region, especially in the summer, comes from the Gulf of Mexico, directly to the south, whence air masses move north and swerve east. So, there is a west to east gradient of increased rainfall, and a south to north gradient of decreased rainfall. However, the cooler conditions to the north mean that what rain does fall counts for more, as there is less evaporation. There are other factors. Ultimately, the complex interaction between continental westerly, southerly gulf air masses with their storms, moisture gradients, and temperature gradients means that to the west of a certain line prairie (grasslands) is more likely to thrive, while woodland and forest should predominate to the east. And, north of a certain line, evergreen forest is more likely to thrive than deciduous. The exact mix of trees that thrive in each area depends on historical contingency, so each interglacial can have a different dominant species. In the present era, we see white pine in the north and oak with hickory in the south, but that changes even as we speak and various species grow back to replace the wanton, out of control lumbering of the 19th and early 20th century.

So this swath runs from northwest to southeast, and it is more like a complex woven belt than a swath. The swath is the boundary, or ecotone, between the great North American forests to the east and the vast prairies to the west. Since the forests grade from deciduous in the south to evergreen in the north, that transition is somewhat complicated. Also, the transition between tree and grass is not smooth and clean, but rather, a mosaic. So the swath is something like 100 miles wide (plus or minus), and contains wooded savanna, forest, open prairie, and all kinds of other patches. To the north there are more bogs and lakes and to the south more valleys and rivers, because of different glacial history.

The result of this is that Minnesota is actually one of the more ecologically diverse states in the US. It is said that we have one of the highest diversities of insects. Certainly, there is a plethora of plant species. We might be the only state with pronghorn and three species of deer as well as bison. Our small carnivores are pretty diverse, and here we have the transition from coyotes to wolves (and, indeed, the only truly native wolves in the US Lower 48, not reintroduced) as well as cougar. We have bobcat and lynx. And so on.

This diversity is found in the culture history of the region as well, at least, at the time of late prehistory and early historical periods. Minnesota is an area of overlap and interaction of Native American groups generally classified as Woodland and Plains, as well as those that differ along a northerly/southerly axis with respect to agriculture vs. hunting and gathering. The line north of which Native corn does not grow well has fluctuated (with climate change, horticultural technology, and the nature of the varietals) but much of the time that line has crossed through Minnesota. North of that line, Native American groups were primarily foragers, south of that line, they practiced a mixed strategy that included horticulture.

Plains Indians with horses came into the picture centuries ago and were a major factor on the cultural and political landscape in early historic times. Plains groups and Woodland groups tended to practice very different movement strategies, had different dwelling and settlement types, different language families, and so on. Added to this complex mix is the fact that Minnesota was the overlap between the French voyageur traders, the early Anglo explorers and trapper/traders, northern European and East Coast settlers and farmers, early loggers and early miners each with their own typical behaviors, demands on the landscape, ethnic mix, and history.

Ecology and culture tend to be complicated phenomena everywhere, but some regions are more complex than others, and of the seven or eight regions I’ve studied closely, the complexity in Minnesota is probably in the top two.

And, interestingly, the Twin Cities metro area is located near the middle of all of it. Go north a short ways and you see pine stands (and lots of tamarac, at first) among the increasingly rare parklands, and are pretty soon among boggy slow moving streams and evergreen forests. Go East, and you hit the forests of Wisconsin (and there are “prairie patches” there, of course). Go southeast and you’ll find mostly deciduous forests, and go west and in no time, as you leave the very suburbs of the Twin Cities metro area, you are in prairie. But most of that prairie is at first mixed with woodland, and as the woodland gives way, one finds that the dominant grass is not a wild species, but rather … corn. Corn everywhere. Well, there is variation. Some of the corn is taller than other corn. And the increasingly flat landscape is decorated by frequent preternaturally large … corn bins.

My friend Jaf and I took a drive out into the vast plains the other day in search of a particular location, which I’ll talk about later. (You can read her version of the story here.) This is her homeland, where she was born and raised, and where her family lives today, tilling the land, hunting buffalo, and trapping small fur bearing animals. Well, maybe not so much these days, I’m sure a few years back…

The landscape, as I said, is made of corn, and so is the culture and so are the people. And everything. All the roads are straight on a grid with right angles, zigging and zagging among fields of corn and looming corn bins. Every now and then you see a line of trees. That’s a stream or river, and if the road is nearing such a feature, it means a small town is nearby. Luckily for me, Jaf knew every one of these towns, had relatives in them, spent time in them, passed through them many times. The first one we came to was at first invisible … I saw no town center or houses as we drove through a couple of those right angles among the corn … and we came to a dirt track leading in a direction we didn’t plan to go.

“That’s where the Younger Brothers were captured by the townspeople. They raised a posse and came down here and there was a big gunfight. Its complicated.”

“The Younger Brothers?”

“Jesse James’ gang.”


I imagined them hiding in the corn. Then, we came into the town itself and we pointed out to each other several buildings that looked a lot like banks that the James Gang might have robbed. Banks full, no doubt, of corn money.

It turns out, actually, that the story is quite interesting and says something about Minnesota and Minnesotans. But that is quite a digression, one I’ll write about another time.

We came to another town, and as we approached, Jaf noted that this was a meat packing town. The central factory, dead in the middle of town, processed … what was it? She couldn’t quite remember at first.

I sniffed the air. “Slim Jims?” Which are made, ultimately, from corn.

“Right, that’s it!”

Another town we drove through that day had that one factory dead in the middle of it, where they put the corn into cans. “DelMonte” it said on the outside of the factory, just like it says on the outside of the can. Same green label, same typeface.

At one point we stopped for gas. But they didn’t really have gas. They had ethanol … corn … for your gas tank. I had to do special things to get gasoline instead of corn-o-line for my car. I was afraid to use a fuel that it wasn’t accustom to.

As I filled the tank, I could smell something other than gas or ethanol. It was a rather pleasant smell. Then, the breeze shifted a bit and I got a nose full of bacon. Had I not just eaten, I would have gotten hungry.

When I got back into the car, Jaf thought to tell me “Oh, in this town, they make “Bacon Bits.”

Out of corn, ultimately.

Eventually, we took a straight westward bearing, from a point well south of the Twin Cities, heading very much towards the South Dakota border. The small hills, occasional ponds, wooded stream sides and bluff-lined river valleys gave way to … flatness and corn. A lot of flatness, covered, everywhere, with corn. And the corn was no longer of differing heights. It was all identical. And, the corn silos were even larger than before. They were the size of air craft carriers, but significantly different in shape.

And then, an almost imperceptible increase in grade. We were going ever so slightly uphill. A barely visible apex, a crest, something that might have been a hill were it not for a half billion years or so of erosion, loomed ahead of us, much like an ant hill looms on your front lawn. And as the shape of this feature became vaguely evident, the corn stopped. That was strange. It was like when the air conditioner goes off after being on for a long time, or a five mile long train finally pulls out of earshot, or you go from not hungry to hungry and did not quite notice it. The corn is grass, and it sways, green and all planty in the wind. It isn’t all that much different from the prairie, which is plants all green and swaying in the wind as well.

And that is what replaced the corn: A prairie, maybe 150 or 200 acres of it, surrounding a small rise on the land that could be seen by an astute observer from miles away (if you climbed a tree first and knew exactly what you were looking for) and which could be referred to in speaking of the landscape to anyone born here or nearby. (“You know, that hill. That thing that’s kind of a hill. No really, there’s this hill…”)

A notable blood red, very hard rock weathered to brown except where it is cracked, with magic properties, lumbers broadly to the Earth’s surface here. Where the rock is broken away are waves like the waves on sand in a stream, but in the rock itself. Which, of course, is impossible. Where the rock is not broken away, striae … scratches … all going more or less in the same direction, cover most of the weathered surface. These scratches would have been visible when the first humans to arrive in this region after the glaciers left stumbled across them, as though someone from before had spent eons of time and almost no imagination making countless copies of this this strange symbol … a vague line running almost always in the same direction … with no apparent meaning.

The ripples, of course, are fossilized ripples of shores or riverbeds nearly two billion years old, now preserved in the red quartzite. Those shorelines and river beds predate any multi cellular life. The sands that formed the quartzite were deposited as part of a very large system of rivers (and some marine shorelines) that included parts of what is now Arizona and New Mexico in the Southwest, parts of Wisconsin, Minnesota, South Dakota, Iowa and Nebraska in the northeast, and presumably areas in between, though the rock does not outcrop there. It is a couple of miles thick, and the mountains from which the sand eroded were somewhere to the west, and the sea to which the rivers flowed somewhere to the east, according to modern maps (but the orientation of the continent at the time was different, of course). Some of the sediments preserved in this formation are made of finer particles, and formed what is now known as “pipestone,” a material used by Native Americans from a very large region to make sacred carvings and ceremonial pipes.

The scratches were left by ancient glaciers passing over this spot in antiquity. But humans arriving here may or may not have had an inkling of what these scratches were made by. If you came from a region without the natural scratches, but with a tradition of scratching and pecking symbols into rocks, and came across these striations, it would be a bit freaky. Added to that is the stone-preserved very obvious ripples.

Oh, and the blood red color of the rock. No culture ever studied in detail ignores red, many privilege the color of our blood, symbol of damage and death and life and the tidal forces of women and so on. The rock with ripples and mysterious scratches and red in color subtly rising above the landscape became, thousands of years ago, a place to go and peck and scratch sacred powerful symbols into the earth. Today, we fiddle around with the meanings of those symbols as if we had a clue. Here’s one thing to consider: the rock is not covered. Compared to some other sites, there is a lot of unused canvass. Is this because older symbols wore away? No. The striations would also be gone. Is it because fewer people lived here than, say, in New Mexico or Arizona? That could be a factor. Is it because the shamans restricted access to this rock? I’m guessing that would be likely. Is it because this is some of the hardest rock ever used for this purpose anywhere? Well, that may be very true, so it may be a factor as well.

At the time this all started, there is no doubt that much more of the rock was uncovered than today. Indeed, while we were visiting the site we saw a place where several vertical inches of sediment were taken off a meter-wide patch, exposing ancient Native American carvings not previously seen by the caucasio-western investigators of the site (not symbolically new, but in at least one way I noticed, unique). Since then, the earth has blanketed more of the landscape with soil, starting with lichen which captures dust, then opportunistic plants in the cracks of the rock, more sediment from wind blown sources (especially during periglacial times) filling in between the lines of plants, the roots of the plants spreading, seeds of grasses sprouting. Like the sidewalk in the neglected park that disappears under the sod, I would estimate that more than 40 acres of exposed possibly art covered rock is hidden by shallow prairie soils and wind-waving plants.

Everything around here is made of corn, except this rock and anything that has to do with it. Jeffers is a prairie site as well as a rock art site, and about half the people who go there seem to be as interested in the plants as the rocks, and for good reason. It is also a local site, and people are proud of it. We visited the site with some of Jaf’s people, and they had things to do with the site, ranging from visiting it as school children on field trips to volunteering to build the very nicely done visitors center. So, not only did I get to hear theories of symbols and names of plants I could not have ever identified, but I also got to hear about how the main wall of the visitors center had to be reinforced after they built it because it had a bit too much window for the winds in these parts, and about how that one tornado that blew off the roof probably would have done less damage had different materials been used to build it.

The trip back was memorable. As the sky darkened and the enormous storm cell that had been forming above us started to let lose, Jaf felt moved to tell stories of people from the area who had died in horrific car crashes. I was reminded of that scene from Annie Hall.

…Sometimes when I’m driving … on the road at night … I see two headlights coming toward me. Fast. I have this sudden impulse to turn the wheel quickly, head-on into the oncoming car. I can anticipate the explosion. The sound of shattering glass. The … flames rising out of the flowing gasoline….

But instead of instigating a fiery crash we pulled into a small family restaurant where I learned about a local tradition called “The Corporate” or “Corporation” or something, “The Commercial” and is apparently served at most family style restaurants in the region. It was good. The whole trip was good.

For further discussion of the Jeffers site and matters of religion and politics, see: Being a Voyeur of Religion, Politely

For more information about Jeffers, check out The Jeffers Petroglyphs: Native American Rock Art on the Midwestern Plains. This book is said by (click the link to see it) to be available for $110 or so (an earlier search found two for over $800.) But it is available for about 18 bucks at the gift shop at Jeffers . You can’t believe everything you read on, apparently!

Have you read the breakthrough novel of the year? When you are done with that, try:

In Search of Sungudogo by Greg Laden, now in Kindle or Paperback
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9 thoughts on “To Jeffers with Jaf: A trip across time, space, and culture.

  1. Does the region have any relic features from the period during the medieval era when wind patterns were slightly different? During this time, winds came from the south (and the Mexican steppes/deserts) instead of south-east (the Mexican Gulf) making the conditions much drier, which is why the Anazasi society broke down.
    There are even “fossil” sand dunes somewhere in the praire, created when the moist winds returned and grass suddenly was able to survive on the surface and freezing the shape of the dunes for posterity.
    If the Native Americans who carved the symbols in the rock were living there only a relatively short period before shifting climate displaced them, it could account for the limited amount of glyphs.
    Are there any signs of mud wasp nests covering the symbols? That would permit dating the maximum age.

  2. Darwin noted the tendency of rocks that were originally on the soil surface to sink out of sight, and concluded that earthworms buried them. He wrote it up in one of his last published works, “The Formation of Vegetable Mold Through the Action of Worms”.

  3. Taking someone unfamiliar to the territory reminded me how much history there is in southern MN!

    It was a wonderful trip. (It was super awesome to see the kids enthralled by the science, history and culture).

    I look forward to another adventure!

  4. We moved to Southern California two years ago, and I’m still trying to grasp the weather and geography. I earned my PhD in Athens, Ohio, and my husband earned his in Corvallis, Oregon. Knowing that Athens averages almost the same amount of annual precipitation as Corvallis (when we hear that it rains all the time in Oregon) really made me think about how we perceive our surroundings. Of course, Orange, California averages almost 30 inches less than Corvallis–I feel my lips cracking with the thought.

  5. A. Leahy @ 5
    Regarding the misuse of the California landscape and nature, there is a book I think is named “Farewell promised land” about how this originaly wood- and savannah-covered place has been reduced to what it is today.
    — — —
    If Minnesotans are interested in landscaping, they should make a few artificial hills, they would stand out for miles in the flat landscape. I still recall the three burial mounds outside Uppsala, Sweden. They were not big as royal burial mounds go, but they still caught both the eye and the imagination. A Ziggurat, anyone? 🙂

  6. @Birger: Prairie itself is actually quite beautiful. My parents planted some native prairie plants by their house (to minimize the area needing to be mowed, and they also planted a better, deeper rooted grass.) With prairie flowers, there is always something blooming. If you do it right (especially with getting rid of the exotic clovers early) you can have a beautiful, mostly native prairie in an area in your yard. It’s breathtaking!
    You just have to (especially initially) be diligent at keeping out the naughty plants like red and white clovers, exotic thistles, and the weedy grasses.

    Real prairie can make flat land beautiful 🙂

  7. Jaf
    Can you help praire biodiversity along? I was thinking, water holes/springs can be a limiting factor for wildlife when it is very hot, would an artificial pond or two help, or would they twist the wildlife species abundance away from the normal?
    I recall that ditches act as small micro-refugia for birds and plants in agricultural areas, so do hedges.
    Birches alas consume a lot of water, but would patches with other trees and bushes be helpful? Piles of stones buffer the temperature for insects and reptiles hiding inside, and so on. A flat prairie habitat has few rock outcroppings, and may be a bit short of stones.

  8. Birger, I’m not sure, but some people are probably studying it at the University of MN here.

    I believe the DNR works on that, too (like proper times to mow the ditches to avoid hurting ditch-dwellers.)

    My parents built 3 rain gardens. Then tend to help use water properly (although they have been getting a lot of rain this year, so they have had to pump them out a few times.)

    My grandparents’ land is prairie (with woods along the river) and they have a lot of rocks.

    Oh, also what you plant should also depend on the soil chemistry and typical moisture or whether it’s planted in a natural depression (which will get more water). Stuff like that. My parents built a new house a year and a half ago and are finishing up the touches to get it certified MN Green Star. (Like Energy Star but specific to MN). This also includes getting rid of invasive species! (Booooo Buckthorn!)

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