Images of time
The Mississippi River on a crisp fall morning can be very beautiful. Between Wisconsin and Iowa, it is several miles wide and frosted with a thick layer of steaming fog. You can see that the sun is trying to break through, but it hasn’t yet and the trees on the river islands are a silvery gray silhouette; the water is a mirror.
And above the river on the Iowa bluffs just north of the bridge at Prairie du Chien, Wisc., there are relics of prehistoric Native Americans.
Effigy Mounds National Monument is a 1,475-acre park that preserves over 200 prehistoric Indian mounds, dating as far back as 2,500 years ago. Among them are 26 built in the animal-cracker shapes of bears and birds, only visible as such from the sky.
Indian burial mounds are found over much of the United States; effigy mounds are found in a relatively small area in northeast Iowa, southeast Minnesota and southern Wisconsin.
It’s a steep climb from the parking lot to the top of the bluff where the animals are. On a chilly, foggy morning, you breath condenses on your face. There are only the near trees and the wildflowers.
Oaks and maples make up the bulk of the trees, but there are also red osier, basswood and hickory.
The sumac is intense maroon; the maple a neon orange; the oak is the dark, brownish red of dried blood.
The understory is full of joe pye weed, queen anne’s lace gone dry and dark, and the last glories of aster.
The first “animal” you see at the top is a tiny bear, only a few feet long, spread out in profile on the ground with his nose to the left and round butt to the right. If it weren’t pointed out, you might easily miss it in the generally rocky, bumpy topography. But there he is; his function is unknown. It isn’t a burial mound, although those exist, too. He may have had some ceremonial purpose that we’ll never know.
Other mounds are simply round, conical mounds from the so-called Hopewell culture. They are all initially disappointing. They don’t seem like much more than bean hills.
And then, finally, the Great Bear, some 120 feet long, although only three or four feet tall. His outline is quite clear, however: Two legs, a long body with a blunt head at the end.
Yes, this bear is long, but he’s still only a 3-foot-high pile of dirt covered in grass.
We live in a world whose yardstick is produced by Steven Spielberg. If it doesn’t sing and shout or have fireworks, we fail to be impressed. So I sat, for a long time, soaking in the bear and the wet air. The longer I looked, the more intriguing the mound became. Why a bear? And all the other bears look to the left, so why is this single giant bear turned in the opposite direction? Who was supposed to see it? Were there trees blocking the view of the gods then as there are now? And if they had meaning when they were made, what is their meaning now?
There are many odd and inexplicable things in human experience: Whirling Dervishes; the Hindu Juggernaut; the Republican budget. This bear is among them, though in a very quiet way, sitting silently in the Midwestern forest.
I sat for an hour in the woods and didn’t recognize the passing of time.
Our lives are lived in Twitter time, with gnat-like 140-character attention spans. But the things that matter live in a different now, one that moves very slowly and pays little attention to the gnats.
The mounds have been here a long time; the trees even longer; and the rocks even longer than that.
Such a time frame is important to experience on occasion.