Living with Floods: A Conversation with Caroline Gottschalk Druschke

Flood water on concrete near an old building

This month marks the three-year anniversary of a series of historic floods that devastated the Driftless Area in southwestern Wisconsin in 2018. To commemorate, we look back on this flooding event through the lens of an oral history project, Stories from the Flood, that seeks to help the Driftless community find healing through storytelling.

Dr. Caroline Gottschalk Druschke is an associate professor of English at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and director of the Headwaters Lab. We met virtually at the end of July to discuss her work with Stories from the Flood, the importance of flood resilience planning in an era of climate change, and the challenges and opportunities of community-university partnerships.

Stream or download our conversation here.

Interview Highlights

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Richelle Wilson: I’d like you to take us to the Driftless Area of Wisconsin, as it’s known. What’s this region and how does it differ from the rest of the Wisconsin landscape?

Caroline Gottschalk Druschke is associate professor of English at UW–Madison and director of the Headwaters Lab.

Caroline Gottschalk Druschke: The Driftless Area is geologically distinct: it’s hilly and deep and very beautiful, and it’s challenging in a variety of ways. It’s a flood-prone landscape because it’s steep, filled with cold-water streams, and naturally lake-less, so a lot of water rushes through it. It’s an area that is resistant to a lot of the efforts to mechanize agriculture because it’s so steep, and that has shaped the economy and culture of the region. The Driftless Area was home to the Ho-Chunk people and several other tribes that moved through the area. Euro-American settlement started to happen in the 1840s, and there’s still a lot of diverse agriculture in the region and a lot of Amish communities. It’s also the home of an outstanding brown trout and brook trout fishery, which brings people from across the country and means that there are some tensions between this arguably necessary focus on tourism and the sort of challenges that sets up for folks who have lived in the area and are trying to make a living in a pretty rural and under-resourced region. It’s a dynamic and beautiful and complex landscape.

RW: There was a major flood event in 2018. Can you tell us about that?

CGD: There was a major flood event in August 2018 followed by another major flood event in early September 2018 that was the worst in recent memory, worst ever perhaps. The Kickapoo River and Coon Creek watersheds received a ton of rain in late August 2018 that set off a massive flood event through those two watersheds. These are watersheds that have flooded periodically. Flooding is part of the cycle of life there. People mark time through floods, and recently (since about 2007/2008) they have been happening more often and getting worse, partly because of climate change and partly because of agricultural land use. People in these watersheds have been struggling to respond to the large flood event in 2018, which took out buildings, bridges, infrastructure, and homes (unbelievably there was no loss of human life). There’s a lot of work underway with a number of flood recovery plans and planning meetings to really think about how to move forward from here.

Flooded highway bridge in the Driftless Area. Photo by Emma Lundberg, August 2018.

RW: In the aftermath of something like that, you have the disaster relief, you have the logistics, but you also have the trauma and the stories. That’s where the project Stories from the Flood comes in—tell us more about that.

CGD: The idea behind the project (a partnership with the Driftless Writing Center and faculty member Margot Higgins at UW–La Crosse) was to get a group together to support residents of the Kickapoo River and Coon Creek watersheds to tell their flood stories through a massive oral history project. The initial goal was to collect 200 stories and then eventually to deliver that archive, which we just did a few weeks ago, to the UW–La Crosse Oral History Program and the Vernon County Historical Society. Because of the complications of COVID, we were able to collect about a hundred oral histories that are now recorded, transcribed, indexed, and will be available to the public. The primary goal of the project was to support community healing through trauma, and the secondary goal of the project was to think about how those individual stories could potentially help to inform flood resilience planning moving forward.

People mark time through floods, and recently they have been happening more often and getting worse.

RW: What were some of the big takeaways for you about implementing this project?

CGD: I’ve been reflecting on the challenges and opportunities of doing this work in a university setting. In some ways working at UW–Madison has been really useful for this project because of the Wisconsin Idea and the focus on extending the work that we do on campus to the lives of folks around the state. The Wisconsin Idea is problematic in some ways, and our position as a land-grant institution is problematic in a bunch of ways (which should be the focus of another podcast), but I think people on campus thought that the work had value. I think the challenge of universities is that they’re not necessarily set up to support and reward slow work. It was very clear from my colleagues at the Driftless Writing Center that this was not research to them—this was not another chance for faculty to come out and turn trauma into research. So that has been a good challenge for me to learn how to navigate and negotiate that and think about how to advocate for a truly reciprocal relationship.

Students Tenzin Woser and Aleksandra Grulkowski speak with Angie and Elmer McCauley on a story collection visit. Photo by Sydney Widell, October 2019.

RW: What about in the classroom? I know the Stories from the Flood is part of your teaching.

CGD: Every semester I teach an undergraduate English class called Writing Rivers with a community-based learning designation, and every semester since fall 2019 the class has been focused entirely around Stories from the Flood. Students collect and index the stories, identify audio clips to embed in a map we are working on, and do pieces of thematic writing thinking about what’s coming out of these oral histories to move towards policy recommendations. I think the undergraduates have a certain magic in a project like this, where when they go out to meet with folks who experienced flooding, their openness was really appreciated by people—and we’ve heard that feedback from a lot of storytellers who felt nervous about sharing their story. Having a very small audience of undergrads who are interested to connect with them, learn from them, listen to them was a really important part of the experience for storytellers.

RW: What have you seen to be the successes of this project, where you walk away and feel like “that was the thing we wanted to do”?

Tamara Dean speaks at a Stories from the Flood student orientation. Photo by Caroline Gottschalk Druschke, February 2020.

CGD: Those are still in process, but [I’d say] the fact that we are now at just over 100 oral histories and that we have created an archive where people who have contributed stories have been able to see that they are not the only person who experienced flooding and trauma. I think that even though everyone knows that everyone was experiencing the flood around them at the same time, it’s still a really isolating experience. So, I think the fact that there is now this growing community archive that shows all the different ways that people have gone through this experience and points not just to trauma but to all the creative and beautiful problem-solving and community building that people have done to respond to flooding. We’ve heard from many contributors and storytellers who felt that it was a good experience to tell their story and to realize that other people were listening to it and interested in it, so I think that’s important.

RW: Who is it that you’re hoping to hear these stories and what would you want them to take from it?

CGD: I think it’s really important for policy-makers around the state to be listening to these stories, and I think it’s important for scientists who are working on the impacts of flooding and climate in the state also to listen to some of these stories to personalize the effects of these events on the ground as they are experienced by people in their homes as water is rushing in around them. We want to make sure that these stories get in the hands of the storytellers, that they get in the hands of people who are making decisions about flooding in the state, and also people who are doing research about aspects of flooding in the state.

Featured image: Flooded buildings in the Driftless Area. Photo by Emma Lundberg, August 2018.

Podcast music: “Gloves” by Julian Lynch. Used with permission.

You can hear more about the 2018 Driftless floods on the second episode of the Human Powered podcast from Wisconsin Humanities, Love Wisconsin, and Field Noise Soundworks.

Dr. Caroline Gottschalk Druschke directs an interdisciplinary group of researchers at the University of Wisconsin–Madison working at the intersection of public engagement and freshwater ecosystems. Through a solid foundation in the study of rhetoric, she builds critical theory and conducts social and biophysical research about stream restoration, flooding, and watershed-based conservation. Her work takes a community-based, equity-informed approach to better understand and intervene in dynamic, multispecies aquatic systems. Website. Twitter. Contact.

Richelle Wilson is the managing editor of Edge Effects and a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of German, Nordic, and Slavic at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. She also works as a talk producer at community radio station WORT 89.9 FM. Twitter. Contact.