The first time I heard about Effigy Mounds National Monument was under a headline about a man who stole bones and other Native artifacts from that place and kept them in boxes in his garage for years.
It was a story of mismanagement and disrespect for historic preservation.
But it wasn’t until I drove to Iowa City to hear Terry Tempest Williams read from her new book about the national parks system, that I was inspired to go there. I read her book “Refuge” years ago about the Great Salt Lake flooding a bird sanctuary in northern Utah. I lived just over the Idaho border. That part of the world has been in a drought for more than a decade, but you can still see the stratified salt stains on rocks and shorelines. I saw that landscape better because she showed it to me -- one word-brushstroke at a time.
Standing behind the lectern at Prairie Lights Bookstore, she read about Effigy Mounds – this professional observer of the natural world – saying it was one of her favorite places in the country.
This past weekend, I talked a friend into taking the drive north, three hours. We quickly realized we were taking part in a seasonal Iowa ritual. A man in McGregor called them “leaf lookers,” lines of cars heading into the Driftless Area of northeast Iowa to see the fall foliage.
In Dubuque, a line as long as the ride itself, was standing with $3 each to take the incline railcar to the top of the hill for a fall foliage view of the Mississippi River.
In Marquette, Iowa, people were posing for photographs in front of the casino’s pink elephant.
A man at a gas station in New Vienna joked from his rolled-down window that it was a perfect day to wander around Iowa, doing nothing. Everyone was taking it in, the warmth with just a tinge of chill, and that bright, sparkling light fall that makes the whole day look clearly drawn and scrubbed clean.
Northeast Iowa is a couple weeks closer to winter than us. Farmers are preparing their fields for winter. The yellow and orange of the hickory and oak trees are interrupted by the flash of red from a sugar maple. I’ve been told, again and again, to head north. Turn this corner, just past Dubuque, they said, and the world opens up. The road follows the Mississippi. It climbs and winds in a way you wouldn’t think a road could do in Iowa. Farm ground gives way to sandstone bluffs. And the Mississippi River, that is an industrial cesarean scar in some stretches, widens and relaxes into a beautiful divider between Iowa and Wisconsin.
We arrived at Effigy Mounds early Sunday morning. The air was still cool. To get to the Mounds, you climb. There’s a steep, switch-back trail that was, on that day, deep with leaves and a below it a layer of mulch.
I’ve been to the Cahokia Mounds, just outside of St. Louis. It’s a compound of giant earthworks, statement pieces about power and hierarchy, remaining even after death and burial. Effigy Mounds is nothing like that. These are smaller, carved into the floor of the forest.
As you walk, you know the Effigy Mounds are shaped like bears and a bird, because of the aerial photos from the visitor center. But at eye-level, it takes some imagination – to picture the shape and the hands that shaped it almost 1,500 years ago.
Bob Palmer, chief ranger at Effigy Mounds, spoke to Terry Tempest Williams for her book “The Hour of Land.” He said, “Growing up here, we were always aware of the past. Artifacts and arrowheads were often exposed while plowing the fields. Effigy Mounds is a complicated place.”
The trees around the mounds give you a feeling of privacy, of being alone in nature, but the wet-sawdust smell of agriculture is in the air, as is the steel cry of a barge’s engine on the Mississippi River below.
Still, it feels sacred – it is, after all, a burial place, bones at the bottom of these massive dirt mounds. Still, it feels like a sanctuary. Still, it feels important.