Kevin Koch


Adapted from The Driftless Land: Sprit of Place in the Upper Mississippi Valley

(Southeast Missouri State University Press, 2010)

I remember it years later, plain as day, although it was, in fact, night.  We were returning to our vacation campsite in the South Dakota Black Hills—our children then ages 17, 14, and 11—about two hours past sunset.  We still had half an hour to drive on the wildlife road that winds through Custer State Park.  In the distance I could make out the tail lights of a mini-van stopped on the road.  We quickly learned why.

Hundreds of buffalo were crossing the road from the right.  They were deep, black shadows darker than the night, and then one by one they passed into the headlights of the van in front of us.  For the few moments it took them to trot across the road, they were illuminated—big snorting bulls, powerful cows, and a smattering of skittering calves.  And then they’d pass out of the headlights and back into the night shadow, until the last bull brought up the rear and disappeared with the herd up onto a hill at the left.

Then the show was apparently over.  The van in front of us moved on and so did we.  But fifty yards later, the van slowed again, and the show resumed with the herd lunging down off the hill to the left, passing through the headlights a second time and into the shadows at the right.  But this time, while the main pack was still passing before us, the front of the herd began swooping up behind.  Buffalo to the front, buffalo to the rear—we were encircled by buffalo!

The second act ended quickly, too.  The herd tired of the game, satisfied their curiosity, or finally decided where they wanted to bed down for the night.  And we headed back to the campsite to bed down as well.

Nothing spectacular had happened, nothing horrific.  And I have never forgotten a single detail.

* * *

I carry in my mind an even older photograph, nearly thirty years old, of a clear November sky.  My wife and I had been hiking in the bluffs along the Mississippi River with our oldest child—still a baby—perched in a carrier on my back.  We’d started on the valley floor at Catfish Creek in the Mines of Spain, followed a trail up into the woodlands past remnants of century-old lead mine pits, through thickets of overgrown forest, into a cedar grove, and then turned a corner—a glorious turn—where the bare white branches from a stand of birch etched themselves sharply against a brilliant blue sky.  It was the kind of pale blue that whispers in your bones that it’s the last warm day of autumn, not the deeper shade of blue that drips with sweat in summer.  It was a blue so thin that it couldn’t hold up a cloud.

We’d left the camera home, so I told myself that memory would have to suffice.  I haven’t forgotten the image.

* * *

I was thinking the other day about the  memories we carry, the kind that don’t require a camera but burn themselves onto our souls.  The big events are easy: graduations, weddings, births of children.  Far more interesting is how the plainer moments form the landscape of memory.  The family all-night card party in my parents’ kitchen when, at dawn, Uncle Norb proclaimed with startling clarity that the coffee we’d been drinking for hours tasted “like shit” and set us doubling over with laughter.  The scout camping trip with the boys in November when I abandoned the tent and climbed inside the pickup’s covered topper and listened to muffled soft clumps of wet first-snow descending for hours through the night.

The landscape of memory gives birth to the sense of “place.”   My family kitchen, the city I live in, the river bluffs along the Upper Mississippi, all take form from layers of memory. Mine, yours, and the dead and gone.  The deeper the layering, the richer the place.  Walter Brueggemann, in The Land, writes,

Place is space which has historical meanings, where some things have happened which are now remembered and which provide continuity and identity across generations.


Or, as Philip Sheldrake puts it, in Spaces for the Sacred: “Place depends on relationships and memories as much as on physical features.”   The blufftops along the river where I frequently hike are awash in old, spent conversations, not to mention the rusting barbed wire fences of past farmsteads and the silent, hidden presence of Native American burial mounds.  The bird shaking snow off the feeder in the yard next door takes my thoughts immediately to old fence-line conversations with my neighbors, and how they’ve watched our children grow.  Space becomes “place” when bestowed with meaning.  

Alternatively, I can speed down an interstate—as I have—taking no notice of the land and not even reading the names of the towns bypassed, and imbue no sense of place at all on where I’ve been.   I can spend all day in virtual space and never make physical contact, forfeiting again the chance to connect to place.

Place is space that has been contemplated.

But we spend much of our lives as if enveloped in cotton, with the world distant, muffled and blurred.  As the saying goes—and it is true—I may remember the buffalo and the birches from years ago, but I can’t remember what I had for lunch yesterday.  Life gets busy and our cultural tendency toward excess crowds out true awareness of the world.   Still, the 19th-century American transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson told us to be a “transparent eye,” taking in all things.   Contemporary author Annie Dillard implores us to empty the mind, to quell the ongoing chatter between the ears, to be fully aware in the present moment.  

* * *

I light out on a winter’s hike toward the preserve near my house.   Today it’s hard going.  Repeated cycles of ice and snow and thaws have left the wooded bottomland with a thick and icy crust that I sink into about every third step.  

It’s a long way back into the woods to where I’d intended to go, past 50-foot rock towers and 100-foot bluffs, past century-old lead mine pits, past a limestone formation called the Twin Sisters, past the railroad tracks, to an overlook of the Catfish Creek valley.  I’m not up to crunching all the way back through the ice, so I decide instead to exit the valley through a steep, wooded hillside, digging in with my snowshoe crampons and hoisting myself with a hiking stick.

I find a cave opening at the top of the hill, with a vertical shaft sinking twenty-five feet beneath the forest floor, walled with bedrock limestone, with an opening about twice my girth and ominously ringed with sloping ice.  My stomach crawls at the mere thought of what a slip could do, as there would be no way to climb back out and—judging by lack of footprints in the snow—I ought not to count on a passerby.  Instead, I find a stone to toss inside, to hear how long it takes to clatter to the cave floor.  It takes…long enough.  

Switching tactics, I grab a handful of snow and fling it across the opening, and the light puff of warm air escaping from the depths scatters the powder as if it were confetti.

This yawning of the earth intrigues me!  I could tell you about the consistency of cave temperatures, cool against summer air and warm against the winter, could tell you how the warmer air will rise out of a vertical shaft in winter.  But if it’s all the same to you, I must tell you instead that the earth itself is breathing, and its mouth—one of many I am sure—is located on a hillside near my home.

You will find it if you venture out across the snow, if you know which valley to enter and which hillside to climb, if you can locate the vertical cave shaft in the overgrown woods.

I won’t guarantee that I will find it back when I go there next.  I’m notoriously bad with directions.  Or  maybe, like fairy rings in Ireland, it will simply pick up and move.  But for a moment, I was in contact with the bedrock of my home.  I felt its breath.

And the moment seared itself onto my landscape of memory.

* * *

The world is spiritual, the world is physical.  The world is rain and sun and mud and clay.  Henry David Thoreau nearly trips over himself in The Maine Woods regarding its tactile marvels: “Talk of mysteries—Think of our life in nature—daily to be shown matter, to come in contact with it—rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks! the solid earth! the actual world! the common sense! Contact! Contact!”   Then turns inward, regarding the intangible as if pondering the gaping hole in the ground: “Who are we? where are we?”

* * *

I once spent twenty-four hours visiting New Melleray Abbey,  near Dubuque.  I was preparing to teach a new course, called Monastery Voices, and I thought a twenty-four-hour stint with the Trappists would lend validity and authenticity.  Such as it were.  I would be alone with my thoughts in the Guesthouse.  I would go to the chapel seven times to watch the monks file in—grey and bent with age.  I would read.  I would write.

I remember this: I took a walk in the single-digit chill of a January afternoon.  Across the road lay a country Catholic Church where my aunt and uncle were parishioners and where they’d hosted some lazy, summer family reunions.  Now under the chill of winter I wandered through the cemetery, pondering the Irish immigrant pioneers who’d thrown in their lot next door to the Irish monks, and who’d already racked up a century of sleep in their smallish plot of prairie real estate.

And I remember this: The next morning at 3:30 a.m. I joined the monks for Vigils, the first gathering of the day.  The empty chapel was dark, save for a single orange-colored light suspended above the altar.  The light shone as the monks shuffled in one by one, shone above their chanting voices, shining forever, as it were, a rising and setting sun shining forever and ever, amen.   I remember that.

Trappists, or Cistercians, are an offshoot of the Benedictines, and follow the Rule of Saint Benedict.  The Rule requires that, among other things, “They will regard all utensils and goods of the monastery as sacred vessels of the altar, aware that nothing is to be neglected” (RB 31:10-12).  But it’s not just the monastery tools and goods that are sacred here.  Joan Chittister, OSB, takes the Rule out of the monastery and interprets it for the broader world, imploring us, in a word, to “awareness”:


Everything is sacred and everything is one….Awareness of the sacred in life is what holds our world together and the lack of awareness and sacred care is what is tearing it apart.  We have covered the earth with concrete and wonder why children have little respect for the land.


Sacred land.  The word “sacred” conjures up cathedrals, mosques, and temples, cemeteries, burial mounds, and Holy Lands walked upon by Jesus, Mohammed, and Buddha.  The word will empower some people and chase away others.   But consider the roots of the word “sacred.”  Its long etymological history says the sacred is that which protects us and binds us—to each other and to the land.  Moreover, the story of “sacred” includes the story of “sacrum,” a bone at the bottom of the spine, an earthy, profane term if ever there were one.  

Sacred is within our bones, it is our holy bones, it is the rock and bone of the physicality of earth made holy.  Turn it into Christianity or Druidism or Islam if you will, but at base it is the sense that there is more to this place than physicality.  A layering of memory swirls about a place like a fine mist, if you move slowly enough through it to be aware.  That is sacred place.

* * *

There is still one more story imprinted on my memory from that Black Hills family vacation.  We went off the beaten path at least once, on a four-hour round-trip hike up to and down from Mount Harney, the highest point east of the Rocky Mountains.  My young daughter complained about the long hike, but she trekked it just like the rest of us.  When we arrived at the summit, my son Brian climbed atop the domed rock at the very top, just beyond my sight (I being too chicken to follow him). The wind at that height howled so loudly that he couldn’t hear me when I called to him to come back after several minutes, and I, having lost sight of him, began to worry that he had fallen.  

Later I learned that Black Elk had had his famous shamanistic visions on that very ground, at what he called the center of the world.  It too is sacred place.

But near the domed summit of Mt. Harney is another vantage point, an old abandoned fire tower that I could climb.  From here I could see what Brian had seen. From the fire tower I could see that this sacred place is connected inch by inch and mile by mile, summit by summit and valley by valley, is connected across the plains and the rivers and the cities, back to the Driftless Land where I live and to every other square inch of earth, and it is all sacred land.  

Such is the landscape of memory.



Brueggemann, Walter.  The Land: Place as Gift, Promise, and Challenge in Biblical Faith.  Philadelphia, PA: Fortress, 1977.


Chittister, Joan, OSB.  Wisdom Distilled From the Daily: Living the Rule of St. Benedict Today. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1990.


Lane, Beldon C.  Landscapes of the Sacred: Geography and Narrative in American Spirituality.  Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1988.


Sheldrake, Philip.  Spaces for the Sacred: Place, Memory, and Identity.  Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.


Thoreau, Henry David.  The Maine Woods.  New York: Viking Press, 1985 reprint.






Kevin Koch teaches creative writing at Loras College and hikes, bicycles, and cross-country skis the hills and valleys of northeast Iowa.  His books includeThe Driftless Land: Spirit of Place in the Upper Mississippi Valley and Skiing at Midnight: A Nature Journal from Dubuque County, Iowa.  His work has appeared in The North American ReviewBig Muddy, and other publications, and he writes a bi-monthly nature column for The Telegraph Herald.