Soul of Glacier Country
L. Merritt, Ph.D.
Published in Mythos Journal,
1994, Vol. 1 (2): 33-37.
(Small editorial changes were make for this reprint.)
A Jungian analyst friend dreamt she should live where the glacier had been. To sense the depth of the dream she had to re-imagine glacier country. Given that every landscape has a particular soul, what is the soul of glacier country? How does a post-glacial landscape impact the psyche?
I have been asking myself this question since returning to Wisconsin, having been away from this state for several years doing graduate work in entomology in Berkeley and training at the Jung Institute in Zurich. I had two powerful dreams about Wisconsin near the end of my analytic training in Switzerland that made me realize there was more to the natural environment of Wisconsin than I was consciously aware of. The dreams prompted me to look more carefully at the Mid-western world and feel into its subtle geography and moods. A pleasant discovery occurred in an area I was practically ignorant of when I lived here previously--the effect of the glacier on the Midwest in general and Wisconsin in particular. Learning about glaciers and recognizing the evidence of their past presence has helped me resonate with the soul of glacier country.
My awakening to the dreams began with a geology professor who had come to Wisconsin to research a topic that was his life's passion--glaciers. Wisconsin, I learned, was glacier heaven; even the last Ice Age named after it. A relief map of the state next to a map of glacial deposits leaves no doubt about the geological forces that imprinted this environment. The signs are everywhere--if one has the eye to see. The prof took me to the passion pits of glacial geologists: gravel pits and garbage dumps. These holes gouged out of the earth save geologists the effort of digging. There one can see a thick layer of soil called glacial till created by that giant rotor-tiller, the glacier. The soil was a mixture of material the glaciers had scoured off the landscape in its march down from Canada. Scattered throughout glacial till are rocks rounded by tumbling in the bowels of the ice mass. Most are scarred by straight lines scratched across them by other slowly churning rocks. Their mineral content and composition belie an ancestry different from the bedrock layer of limestone indigenous to the landscape's foundation. These openings to the underworld reveal a history of vast changes from long ago.
But not that long ago. It has only been 10,000 years since the last glacier melted and ran off the upper Midwest landscape. Its land markers are reminders of the end of the age of mastodon hunters and the beginning of agriculture and civilization in the Western world. Geologists tell us there were five major Ice Ages over a period of 2.1 to 2.5 billion years, with Kansas marking the southern-most advance of a glacial mass. The last glacial period, the Wisconsin Ice Age, ended about 10,000 years ago, having begun 110,000 years ago. Wisconsin has risen 160 feet since getting all that ice off its back and is still rising 1/2 inch a year: It was that depressed by the glacier.
The soul of the Midwest is in many ways indebted to the past lives of glaciers that have come and gone over millions of years for still unknown reasons. The Midwest had been part of a vast inland sea back in the Age of the Dinosaurs. The relatively flat topography exposed by the drained sea bottom was further leveled by the onslaughts of water in solid moving form. We were left with something like a gigantic shallow bowl, open to the south, between the newer Rockies to the West and the ancient Alleghenies to the East.
We can use topographical metaphors to begin to get a sense of the essence of glacier country. Contrasts help us become conscious of that essence.
The sharpest contrast to a level, almost flat, surface is mountains. The basic landscape of the Midwest is not one of highs, peak experiences, elevations and depressions, or ruggedness. Mountains and mountaintops are generally associated with spirit. It helps in developing metaphors to try on several images for the same theme. Picture a person living in the mountains and we might imagine a rugged, adventuresome character, maybe a little crazy to go mountain climbing and driving icy mountain roads. We might see him as a survivor of harsh, challenging environments; a rough and ready person; a Marlborough man, probably riding a horse or driving a beat-up 4-wheel drive Jeep.
Contrast this image to someone living on a rather flat landscape. We might see someone more down to earth, materialistic, not extreme in highs and lows, with flatter emotions; not radical or extremist, but moderate, middle of the road, probably bland. Compared to the insular, surrounding effect of mountain valleys, glacier country feels more open, horizontally expansive, and unprotected.
It is not fair to say the only effect of glaciers is to flatten topography. They do provide some relief. Moraines are hills that form at the end of glaciers and between their lobes. They're constructed from debris scoured off the land and dumped at the glacier's melting end point or the squeeze line between lobes. You know when you're in moraine country when you start seeing a lot of gravel pits. Moraines often contain interesting features such as kettles–big pits, often round, formed when huge chunks of debris-buried ice took a thousand years to melt, creating a glacial sinkhole.
Erratics are huge rocks carried great distances, sometimes hundreds of miles, in or on the glacier. They get deposited on the land in an erratic pattern when the glacier melts, left sitting there atop the soil. These lost souls fascinate the psyche. Many of the larger ones are sacred to Native Americans.
When you've got ice a mile or more thick and spread out over half a continent, interesting things happen within it. Entire rivers form inside glaciers and their riverbeds gradually fill with debris. When the glacier melts, the riverbeds of debris are dumped on the land, creating snake-like hills called eskers crawling across the landscape. Or you can get cone-shaped hills in the countryside called kames. They were formed when debris carried by melt water washed through holes in the ice and settled into an ice cavern below. The debris was deposited in an inverted V, like sand settling on the bottom of an hourglass.
My favorite glacial landscape is drumlin country. Imaginations still haven't figured out how some of these hills were formed. It's believed they were built up in layers beneath the moving glaciers. They occur in groups called schools, sometimes in the hundreds per school, behind the end moraine. From above they look like a flattened half teardrop. The tapered end of the teardrop points in the direction the ice was moving, like the V of water that forms behind an exposed rock in a river. You don't have to get up too high in an airplane to see geological history being pointed out by clusters of these massive markers. The freeway between Madison and Milwaukee, Wisconsin (I-94) could be named "the drumlin special" --it goes straight through some of the finest drumlin scenery in the world.
When I look out over a school of drumlins I see a vast sea of gigantic land waves frozen in earth time. These paradoxical waves formed under water in its solid form. It seems like a giant hand played in a sandbox to create them. The smooth, contoured, gentle glacial hills remind me of the sensuous curves of the woman's body that Native Americans respectfully call Mother Earth.
I get a sense of immense time frames from drumlin country. These hills remind us that in this place, just over 10,000 years ago, was a pile of ice thousands of feet thick. It is also a reminder that it can happen again --we don't understand the mysteries of earth's warming and cooling spells. Every spring when I see glacial hills greening, I'm thankful for the gift of warmth returning life to glacier country.
The varying glacial topographies generate subtle but significant effects on the earth-sky relationship. Glacial hills, often accompanied by their crown of trees, are just high enough to intrude into the sky horizon. The sky becomes a backdrop leaving the earth to have the prominent effect on the psyche. It doesn't take much to lose the sky as the dominant element. One need only cross the state line into Illinois prairie country to get the Big Sky effect on a statewide basis, and no sky drama can compare with a thunderstorm over the prairie.
The small elevations of the hills in the Midwest give the land a human dimension. Contrast this to the Rockies, where one is overwhelmed by awesome size and grandeur. Glacial hills surround and comfort the psyche. The flatter landscapes allow the topography to sustain non-permanent vegetative cover, favoring farming and lower rates of erosion. It introduces the effect on the psyche of cultivated plant life.
A secondary, yet important, agricultural effect of the glacier is not noticeable unless studied scientifically. Glaciers tilled the soils, creating a better physical mix of particle sizes and minerals. This results in a good physical base for topsoil development and plant growth. Consider how difficult it is for plants to grow on sandy soils or the wastelands created after rain forests are cut and the clay hardens into a form forever useless for farming.
The creation of glacial features, the vast time frames involved, the information buried beneath our feet--this is knowledge generated by science. This is science with soul, information that connects us to things while adding a sense of mystery to the lives of those who know, who see.
There is an interactive effect of glaciers to consider in the Midwest--their effect on water. Glaciers ruined the arboreal (tree-like) drainage system of little streams leading to larger streams feeding increasingly larger rivers. Glaciers cut across these watery limbs forcing water to congregate into thousands of lakes, ponds, potholes, and marshes.
The particular size and shape of the watery container has specific effects on the psyche. Lakes in contrast to oceans are bounded water in containers the human mind can wrap itself around. Oceans are immense, impersonal; they generate feelings of cosmic forces, of extraterrestrial influences from the moon and archetypal ebbs and flows. The water itself is not fresh and does not nourish human life.
In the upper Midwest we have that unusual phenomenon of masses of water lying in giant beds carved out by glaciers--the Great Lakes. We have the element of the water of life on a most massive scale. The Great Lakes States have a different type of continental environment, with moderated weather within miles of the lakes and a Windy City created by the cooler lake air deflecting passing air masses around the southern tip of Lake Michigan. It is a maritime psyche of ocean-going ships, mammoth lake storms--some of the worst in the world, large fish, and port cities with all that that implies.
We must bring all our senses to bear to imagine lakes in the Midwest. Consider being on a lake in a boat on a hot day, or swimming in it: fluidity, dissolving, splashiness and playfulness, invigorating coolness. We are buoyed up, supported. Midwest waters have a lot of plant and algal life in them, they are teeming with life. They are not like crystal-clear mountain lakes, but murky and rich with organic watery smells.
Some of the ponds and small lakes are actually kettles, those glacial sinkholes formed when huge chunks of buried ice finally melted. Pot holes, bogs and marshlands are important for birds and purifying water. They ooze rich, mucky smells from ages of decaying vegetation. Smell is a sense that is direct, strong, immediate, and particular. Smells cannot be easily described, and reach us from unseen sources. It is a primal, animal sense particularly feared by over-spiritual types, especially the lusty smells of sexual and earthly activity. The dead in Hades orient by smell and so do salmon in finding their river-origin homes after ocean journeys.
Glaciers are a major contributor to creating a good earthy dimension of the earth, air, fire, and water quaternity necessary for the Midwest's most distinctive quality--agriculture. Glaciers tilled the land, creating good mixtures of soil particles and minerals, and generated tillable topographies. Glacial land has symbiotically joined with rainwater in amounts properly distributed for abundant plant growth, and heat from our local star that produces warm summers and a long, frost-free growing season. The result--the Corn Belt, the breadbasket of the world, and America's Dairyland. It is the most vast, prolific agricultural area anywhere and the best example of the Great Goddess in her nurturing form. The cultivated landscape, humans working together with nature to produce the food of life --that's the Midwest. Its human emblem is the farmer--independent, democratic, close to the land, down to earth, and practical. America's image of itself is its Heartland--and glaciers laid the groundwork for that image.
So, what is the soul of glacier country? What does it mean to live in a place where the glaciers have been? It is basically a country of gentle hills or rather flat landscapes. It is not a landscape of extremes, of highs and lows, but of very human dimensions. Some relief is provided by unusual formations in its snake-like eskers, tear-drop drumlins, gravelly tree-topped moraines, cone shaped kames, and pitted kettles. Each formation demands an imagination of vast amounts of time and ice to conceive of its creation. It is a soul that reminds us of the mystery of planetary heat and cold cycles and the ultimate uncertainties of climate. It's a watery, pungent domain of lakes--even Great ones, and marshes and bogs and potholes. Finally, the glacial landscape of the Midwest provides the foundation and topographical matrix for the archetypal manifestation of the nourishing side of the Great Mother and her apprentice, the farmer.
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