Wisconsin’s sand county odyssey, part 2: what follows y

With thanks to Joe Skulan of the University of Wisconsin Geology Department, and Curt Meine of the Center for Humans and Nature, for their advice and suggestions. I alone an responsible for any remaining errors of fact.

In part one, I examined some of the themes evident in “Odyssey,” an essay Aldo Leopold drafted on the eve of World War II and that was eventually included in the posthumously published book for which he is best known, A Sand County Almanac: Sketches Here and There. In this post I look at another of Leopold’s war-eve essays and a lecture he delivered in early 1941, in light of current conflicts unfolding upon the Wisconsin landscape.

Only a few days after penning “Odyssey,” Leopold began a very short essay he would eventually title “Yet Come June.” Whereas the former story might be said to shine a bright light on humanity’s war against the environment, in the latter Leopold also addressed humanity’s war against itself. It is a dark, even dystopian, vision in which empires spread over continents, “teaching the good life with tank and bomb.” Leopold never finished editing the story, and (understandably) it was not included in A Sand County Almanac. 

Richard E. Chamberlin

In March of 1941, Leopold perplexed some of his new Wildlife Ecology 118 students, many of whom were preoccupied with the troubling events in Europe, with what came to be known as his war ecology lecture. “Every living thing represents an equation of give and take,” he told his class. But human technology, Leopold elaborated, ensured that our “take” exceeded our “give.” Moreover, it assumed that this imbalance could continue indefinitely. On a finite planet, he implied, this state of things could not endure forever.

War, Leopold suggested, was the ultimate taker.

Nations fight over who shall take charge of increasing the take and to whom the better life shall accrue… From president to parlor-pink, from economist to stevedore, all are preoccupied with dividing the means rather than building the end. As for ethics, each seems to write his code to fit his material needs, rather than vice versa.

Legacy squandered?

Almost three quarters of a century later, it is perhaps too easy to speculate about all that Leopold intended when he wrote “Odyssey” and “Yet Come June,” just as the United States was girding for war on a scale never before seen. By choosing atoms as his main characters in “Odyssey,” for example, was the scientist presaging the nuclear age and its attendant horrors?

Probably not. But I can assert with some confidence that both essays are in many ways better parables for our time than Leopold’s. The tragic events I enumerated in part one make it clear that we humans failed to learn many of the lessons history (natural or otherwise), might have taught us. Despite the groundbreaking work Leopold and others did to show us how dependent we are on our planet remaining as whole and diverse as possible, we continue to divide, conquer and commoditize the Earth even as we take intra-species warfare to new heights – or depths. Leopold, it seems clear, viewed the two kinds of warfare as sides of a single coin.

Rick Chamberlin

Our military wars today are waged far overseas, with most  U.S. citizens engaged only passively and indirectly in them. Unlike during World War II, there is no draft, no recycling drives for rubber and metal, no rationing (unless you count the disparities resulting from the gross wealth inequalities in our nation). The other side of the coin may be just as invisible to us because of its conspicuousness. Especially in the Midwest, no other enterprise has radically transformed more square miles of land than agriculture. Our modern system of food production and distribution relies on ever-larger inputs of fossil fuels, genetic engineering, mono-cropping and mechanization. It suffers a continual infatuation with bigness, and likely accounts for more than 30 percent of human-caused global warming. Although organic farming, farmers markets and CSAs are booming, such enlightened practices still represent only a small fraction of the ag sector. Had Leopold set “Odyssey” in our time, the part of the sole farmer in Y’s story might have been played by a massive confined animal feeding operation (CAFO), owned by a corporation, relying on unprecedented inputs of oil, natural gas and coal-fired electricity, and producing more solid and liquid waste than a small city.

Despite the way agriculture has altered the state in which Leopold spent the latter half of his life and fleshed out many of his most important ideas, Wisconsin has proven itself a leader in conservation and wildlife management. Today the badger state has some of the strongest environmental laws of any state in the nation. It has protected millions of acres from development and played a crucial role in saving species like the bald eagle, timber wolf, and sandhill crane. But the fact remains: we still take from the biosphere far more than we give back.

Lately, a new enterprise in Wisconsin is threatening to rival large-scale agriculture in its destructiveness. This enterprise jeopardizes the conservation reputation Wisconsinites have worked so hard to earn, and the legacies Leopold and other great home-grown conservationists like John Muir and Gaylord Nelson left us. This new industry has not only opened up a new chapter in humanity’s war on nature, it has left large chunks of our state looking like war zones.

In many parts of Wisconsin, frac-sand mining is gouging up the sand from which “Odyssey” and many of Leopold’s deepest ecological insights sprang, then shipping it out of the state by the train- and barge-load. Like Y in “Odyssey,” most of these particles will end their journeys imprisoned in a hydrocarbon sludge–somewhere deep beneath Ohio, Pennsylvania or Texas. What’s left behind is a leveled and cratered landscape. From the air, these places are often indistinguishable from battlefields. A few trees usually survive in even the most bombarded battlefields; not so where surface frac-sand mining occurs.

Recent discoveries of natural gas deposits in the Marcellus Shale of the eastern United States and the exploitation of that gas through fracting (short for hydraulic fracturing) have sent demand for Wisconsin sand skyrocketing. Fracking is a process whereby sand and a mixture of water and toxic chemicals are injected into the shale at very high pressure, creating cracks through which the gas can escape. The sand in this slurry, known in the industry as proppant (more commonly, frac sand), holds all those tiny fissures open, maximizing the amount of gas extracted. Unfortunately, ground and surface water is often poisoned in the process.

The fine, hard and round silica (quartz) sand that comprises more than a third of Wisconsin’s surface area and makes such excellent proppant was formed around 500 million years ago during the Cambrian Period when the land now known as Wisconsin was at a tropical latitude, part of a mother continent scientists call Laurasia. Cambrian sea levels were much higher then than they are today, in part because the planet was too warm for polar ice.

Rick Chamberlin

Over the eons, much of that Cambrian sand was cemented into stone. This relatively soft, semi-porous rock that geologists call the Jordan Sandstone Formation underlies a good portion of western Wisconsin and smaller parts of Iowa, Illinois and Minnesota. Encompassing over 16,000 square miles, this region of sedimentary bluffs, coulees and spring creeks is known more commonly as the Driftless Area because it remained un-scoured by the last three glacial advances. Outside the Driftless Area, much of Wisconsin’s sand lies loose at or just below the surface, where erosive waters and winds have deposited it.

Historically, Wisconsin sand has been mined for construction and glassmaking, but these operations were small in scale and widely scattered, resulting in few environmental or health problems. Today, however, there are 60 active sand mines in Wisconsin, and 32 processing plants where sand is cleaned and prepared for shipment out of state. To meet the demand created by the shale-gas boom, speculators and investors scour the countryside for mineable land. Twenty new mines have recently been proposed, some almost a square mile in size, and the boom is still in its infancy. The land grab precipitated by the fracking boom is of a magnitude not seen in Wisconsin since 19th century lumber barons leveled the north woods. If that was a shearing, this is deep disfigurement.

From scenic bluffs to industrial parks

Recent investigations have revealed how ill-prepared the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and local governments are for the sand-mining boom. Current regulation of such mining is patchwork. Permits are issued county by county and contain language that is often ambiguous at best. In many cases, mining companies are only required to leave the area in a “useful state” when operations cease. High-capacity wells are sometimes drilled near the mines to supply water to wash the sand before it is shipped. The wastewater, which often contains harmful chemicals used to wash the sand, is held on site in open retention ponds vulnerable to breaching when rainstorms, increasingly frequent and more intense in recent decades, occur. Just such an overflow occurred in May, fouling the St. Croix River, a federally designated Wild & Scenic River in its upper reaches.

Most of the range of the endangered Karner blue butterfly overlaps the coveted sand deposits. Because sand mining often involves removing the soil and everything in it, other rare and threatened species like the long-lived Blanding’s turtle, the polygamous eastern meadowlark and the legless western slender glass lizard may also be at greater risk.

Although the human health risks associated with sand mining are starting to draw more newspaper ink – many existing mines and processing facilities release silica dust, a byproduct proven to cause several lung diseases, including cancer, when inhaled – relatively little attention has been paid to just how radically sand mining is altering the look and character of Wisconsin. In some areas the damage rivals what is occurring in states where the actual fracking takes place. Indeed, for its aesthetic impact alone, some have likened frac-sand mining to the coal strip mining that has denuded and leveled hundreds of lush peaks in Appalachia. Describing what could be thought of as a best-case scenario, one sand-mining executive told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune last year, “The end would be a flat farm field that could be used for an industrial park 25 or 30 years down the road.”

The bigger picture

As damaging as frac-sand mining can be, the devastation wrought by climate change might someday make us nostalgic for such “simple” environmental problems. Hydraulic fracturing, and the burning of natural gas, exacerbates global warming; the only question is how much. Burning natural gas produces only about half the carbon dioxide emitted by coal combustion. Yet recent studies indicate that the climate impacts resulting from releases of methane during fracking could far outweigh the climate benefits of replacing coal with cleaner-burning gas. Methane is 22 times more effective than CO2 at trapping heat in the atmosphere.

A little context: Scientists with the Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts last year projected a 4-9 degree average temperature increase for the dairy state by 2050. The 1.1 degree rise our state has experienced since 1950 has already resulted in a rate of ice loss on our lakes of one week per decade, and a 100 percent increase in the frequency of heavy rainfall events. It does not take a climate scientist to deduce that Wisconsin is in for some jarring changes in the coming years, regardless of actions world leaders take to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

By aiding the extraction and burning of more fossil fuels by mining and exporting sand for fracking, Wisconsin is helping to increase the rate at which this already rapid change is occurring. Even if the climate impacts of natural gas extraction and burning do not turn out to surpass those of coal, destroying the carbon-sequestering capacity of our sand counties by stripping off their trees and other organic matter is foolhardy at best. Would not a far saner course of action include maximizing energy efficiency, aggressively developing Wisconsin’s renewable resources (there is enough wind capacity in the state to meet our electrical demand five times over) and investing in research and development to bring other clean energy sources to the fore?

I’m no Leopold scholar, but I would bet my copy of A Sand County Almanac that Leopold, were he still alive, would much prefer that his war-eve essays be read as cautionary tales instead of as self-fulfilling prophecies.

In the third and final installment of this series, I will explore some of the moral underpinnings of Leopold’s land ethic–an ethic we must soon revive if we are to avoid a future that looks more like the Cambrian deep past in which Wisconsin’s sand was created.




  1. Alton C. Thompson

    I feel a special kinship with Leopold because his research was done in Adams County, just west of Waushara County, where I grew up. Every year my family would go over to Adams County to pick wild blueberries, an experience I’ll never forget.
    While in college (Wisconsin State-Oshkosh) in the late 1950s, I took a course in conservation taught by Jacob Shapiro, and he taught the course as if he were a Hebrew prophet. We used a text by Raymond Dasmann, who had a passion similar to that of Leopold.
    A question re Leopold: Was he aware of “global warming,” and did he write about it? After all, knowledge about it goes back to Svante Arrhenius [1859 – 1927].

  2. Thanks for your recollections, Al. I do not know if Leopold was aware of global warming per se; perhaps Curt can chime in and give us a more definitive take. Almost certainly Leopold was aware of the contributions of Thomas C. Chamberlin (contemporary of Arrhenius, geologist and former president of the University of Wisconsin) to our understanding of the carbon cycle. Leopold did write about what he calls the “energy circuit” of the land in “The Land Ethic,” and mentions “climate changes” as either the cause or effect of “wastage” in the energy circuit in certain regions of the planet.