Ostergren, Robert C. and Thomas R. Vale, eds.
Wisconsin Land and Life
A North Coast Book of the UW Press
University of Wisconsin Press
Original Date

These key articles/chapters are separately indexed in this bibliography: 2, Glaciers; 17, Indians; 22; Northwoods, Lumbering; 24, Treaty Rights; 25, Wild Rice.
Page references for key topics:
Bison, 17, 335;
Climax Vegetation, 95, 108, 109 (2), 111 (21), 112 (25), 332;
Company towns, 235;
Deer, 335-6;
Dry Period, 102-3, 107;
Earthworms, 16;
Farming, 458;
Fires, 27-28, 88, 94 (fn.15), 99-100, 110 (10), 332, 335, 451;
Hurley, 250-252;
Indians, 451;
Lake Density, 27;
Maga Fauna, 335;
McKenna, 235;
Snowfall, 30;
St. Germain, 26;
Star Lake, 226, 235;
Survey Notes, 453;
Tourism, 325, 451;
White Pine, 81ff, 86 (fig.), 88, 94 (15), 110 (10), 453;
Zoning, 464.

Book Review from Environmental History, Vol. 3, #4, October, 1998:

Wisconsin Land and Life. Edited by Robert C. Ostergren and Thomas R. Vale. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1997. 567 pp. Cloth $69.95, paper $27.95.

Editors Robert Ostergren and Thomas Vale introduce Wisconsin Land and Life as an exploration, an investigation and a celebration of Wisconsin. Thus they mark that rare occasion when a group of scholars collect their research into a volume written as much for the general public as. for academic colleagues. The result is an impressive anthology from twenty-seven geographers, including such well-known scholars as Michael Conzen, Robert Sack, and Yi-Fu Tuan.

The authors travel across Wisconsin, exploring ways human society and the nonhuman world have transformed each other through time. They pin historical processes to historicized places. They make a case that these places are simultaneously unique and representative of even larger places. Finally, they demonstrate that a pristine nature free of human influence exists in myth, but not in history. At its best, Wisconsin Land and Life evokes a sense of identity one might call “midwesternness,” while staying grounded in the social and environmental histories which have created Wisconsin, and by extension, the Midwest. In all these endeavors, the authors share a strong bond with environmental historians, who will find this book a useful starting point for delving into the work of their peers in geography.

The book contains three parts: natural environments and wild landscapes, settlement processes and cultural patterns, and regional economies and landscapes. Part One focuses on Wisconsin's physical environment. Susy Svatek Ziegler follows the twists, turns, and dead ends that scientists like herself encounter when they reconstruct forest changes over vast geological time spans. Francis Hole takes soil science to poetic depths, defining soil as “the root domain of lively darkness and silence,” clarifying the work of soil scientists, who, “being sighted (unlike most denizens of the soil), quickly open up soil bodies for brief examination, as if we were surgeons doing exploratory operations on the life-supporting earth” (p. 66). Additional chapters in this section probe the state's climate, glacial landscapes, and vegetation history.

Parts Two and Three contain a melange of historical geographies with cultural, economic, environmental, and regional themes (too many to thoughtfully address here). Michael Conzen's essay, “The European Settling and Transformation of the Upper Mississippi Valley Lead Mining Region,” is one of the finest pieces in these sections. He tells a fascinating, subtle story of the ways lead“ changed the human and ecological history of Wisconsin and nearby portions of Illinois and Iowa forever” (p. 163). At the same time, he offers a dynamic theoretical framework-a hierarchy of local central places-taking the reader well beyond Von Thunen's rings and into a regional web of towns organized in space and by rank.

These themes hint at the astonishing interdisciplinary synthesis Wisconsin Land and Life achieves. The authors move through space and time without disciplinary fear, often maintaining dual identities — for instance, geographer and paleoecologist, geographer and archeologist, geographer and social theorist, even geographer and historian. This comfortable duality applied to people and their environments is a great strength of geography and this book. The collection, however, pays the usual price for its breadth. The sections offer a showcase of current work much as a conference would, with chapters unfolding like an index of ecosystems, ethnic groups, and livelihoods. A few unifying essays would have provided more theoretical depth to the book and cohesion among the case studies.

More significant is the optimistic tone Wisconsin Land and Life adopts, one very different from many environmental histories. Conquest is not an issue in the chapters concerned with settlement. Critiques of capitalism and industrialism are absent in the essays considering national trends, local places, and environmental change. Multiculturalism and ethnic identity get blended in the melting pot, rather than cut up in a chopper of uneven power relations and contested identities. Frontier is just a term, not a source of self-reflecting agony (instead of dethroning giants like Frederick Jackson Turner, this collection pays tribute to one of geography's forbears, Carl Sauer, with a title reminiscent of his most famous collection, Land and Life). These analytical choices lead many of the narratives to the same lackluster conclusion that heritage tourism may revive Wisconsin's ethnic communities.

Despite their conservatism, the authors do want to provoke the audience. But they save their most explicit and loaded challenge until the very end of the book, in a postscript by their agent provocateur, Yi-Fu Tuan. At once playful and formidable, Professor Tuan interrogates his readers: “Now isn't (Wisconsin) an inspiring model for the world at large? Isn't it inspiring to know, for example: that even gross environmental mistakes can be rectified if caught in time and truly regretted?... Isn't it plausible to say that the world should strive for the sort of environmental quality that now obtains in Wisconsin rather than, as eco-extremists would wish, for a return to some pristine wilderness inhabited by hunters and gatherers?” (p. 541) One might question such a strong stand against eco-extremists when the extremists are neither identified nor allowed their own histories in Wisconsin Land and Life. Still, whether one agrees or disagrees with the sentiment, no geographer or environmental historian can entirely ignore the questions.

Reviewed by Lynne Heasley. Ms. Heasley is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she specializes in forest history. Her dissertation, “One Thousand Pieces of Paradise: An Ecological History of Property in the Kickapoo Valley, 1930–1995,” contrasts the shared history of land tenure and ecological change in the rural Midwest to shifting ideas of property, nature, and community.

  • Bookwood Historical Collection, Star Lake
  • Olson Memorial Library, Eagle River
  • Plum Lake Library, Sayner
  • UW Madison/Wis Hist Soc