A barren landscape is where a Cormac McCarthy novel is set, or terrain Clint Eastward squints across, or that part of a long drive you sleep through.
Or is it?
In "Sand and Fire," Dave Peters gives us reason to take notice of that scraggly field we might otherwise pass by without a second glance.
The patch of land Peters trains his eye (and significant research) on is the 10 square miles on either side of the Namekagon River in northwest Wisconsin that is known as the Namekagon Barrens Wildlife Area. This unassuming mosaic of plant and animal life is 15 miles west of Minong and 20 miles northeast of Danbury.
Perhaps you've driven by it on your way to your cabin or canoed past it on the St. Croix. The Barrens Wildlife Area would be that area of sedge, scrub oak and solitary red pine that might make you think, "Meh." And yet its ecosystem exists almost nowhere else in the world.
"Something of our relationship to the earth is determined by the particular place we stand at a given time," N. Scott Momaday writes (and Peters quotes). "If you stand still long enough to observe carefully the things around you, you will find beauty, and you will know wonder."
Peters carefully describes this stretch of scrub-oak prairie he happened upon one day while walking near his cabin. With the ruined remains of a two-room schoolhouse as a center point, he takes the reader around the landscape that he visits often, pointing out marshes, bogs and prairie, as well as unique flora and fauna. But he does more than that.
The former Star Tribune editor offers a detailed history of the place, citing treaties, interviewing forestry officials, citing DNR reports and genealogical records and quoting experts on the Ojibwe people. He includes photos and maps.
We learn how the Ojibwe, who lived on the land, were elbowed out by Scandinavian and German homesteaders. We learn about the lumber industry harvesting white pine to the detriment of the ecosystem, and about efforts to return a portion of the Barrens to its original state and form the wildlife refuge. In other words, this small book is American history in microcosm: "Indigenous seasonal rounds, westward expansion and dispossession, immigration, Dust Bowl hardscrabble farming, continued hunting and gathering, and the emergence of an environmental ethic." All in just 124 pages of prose and pictures.
"There are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot," wrote naturalist and ecologist Aldo Leopold. So, if you're the latter, grab this book, a walking stick, a pair of binoculars and a wilderness app, and head to the Namekagon Barrens Wildlife Area. Come alone or bring friends to pick blueberries. Enjoy deer, eagles, towhee sparrows, brown thrashers, porcupine, grouse, monarch butterflies, sand cherries, big bluestem, Kalm's Brome, hazelnuts, goldenrod, sunflowers, white sage and a wide-open sky.
Leave the ATV at home. Pay attention. Live deliberately.
Christine Brunkhorst is a freelance writer based in Minneapolis.
'Sand and Fire: Exploring a Rare Pine Barrens Landscape'
By: Dave Peters.
Publisher: Wisconsin Historical Society, 152 pages, $22.95.
Event: Book launch, 4 p.m June 8, Shell Lake Public Library, Shell Lake, Wis., free.