At Hanover College on the bluffs above where the Ohio River bends from east to south, we gather for the Next Indiana Campfires event with Director Liz Brownlee and Oak Heritage Conservancy. We step off the newly paved road into thick forest and consider an excerpt from Ann Zwinger, who grew up on the banks of the White River near Muncie, Indiana, and wrote numerous books about rivers in the west. “Indiana has become a measure, my ‘type location,’ as a geologist would say, for judging and evaluating the rest of the world,” she writes in “Remembering Indiana” in The Near-sighted Naturalist. The group discussed their type locations—grandparents’ farms, small towns, little creeks, Indianapolis, the seashore in New England—the places they know so well that serve as a reference point for other places.
Switchbacks lead us down the steep ravine toward Happy Valley Creek. Throughout we see changes in the forest as we hike from higher, dryer areas to wetter areas. Some larger trees have fallen, and we discuss disturbance and its role in forest ecology. Brownlee tells us about the 1974 tornado that devastated the Hanover College campus and surrounding areas. The forest has recovered, much like it has from deforestation in the 19th century, the time period Jessamyn West wrote about in The Friendly Persuasion.
Where the trail cuts from Happy Valley to Crowe Valley, Brownlee suggests we pause to look for Ordovician fossils in the creek bed gravel. The most common is horn coral, which looks like a little devil horn. Other common fossils are brain coral, but we don’t find any. Holding a small horn coral 450 million years old in our hands makes us feel even more insignificant in geologic time while we stand on the rock and soil that forms the banks of the relatively young Ohio River at 2.5 million years, bringing into context the ideas of history and permanence we read from Scott Russell Sanders and Susan Neville.
We hike back up Crowe Valley, and on top of the bluff, we look out over the wide S bend in the Ohio here that Indiana painter TC Steele captured in 1892. We see a full forest canopy now, but power plant smokestacks disrupt the horizon in both directions. We consider Aldo Leopold’s ideas from “The Land Ethic” in A Sand County Almanac: “A land ethic, then, reflects, the existence of an ecological conscience, and this in turn reflects a conviction of individual responsibility for the health of the land.” This river before us is actually a series of moving lakes held in place by dams and locks for shipping, still under pressure from agricultural, industrial, and municipal pollution.
But the river is healthier now than fifty years ago, and the forest around us is approaching what it looked like two hundred years ago. Regenerated, and in the long view, we are in a better place, and we conclude by reflecting on what makes the Midwest the Midwest with inspiration from Kevin Young’s poem, “Ode to the Midwest.”