A Park Where You Can Walk Among 1,500-Year-Old Bears and Birds

Terry Tempest Williams on the sacred earthworks of Effigy Mounds National Monument.
Effigy Mounds National Monument

Marching Bear Mounds at Effigy Mounds National Monument, Iowa. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service.

There is a great bird resting in the woodlands above the great river with marching bears behind her. A seasoned peace that can only belong to the prairie creates the path on the ridgetop where she can be found. Time—not blood—is the life force animating the bird and these bears. Some 1,500 years ago, these earth mounds were made by the hands of the people who lived here in the Upper Mississippi Valley, ancestors to today’s Ho-Chunk people, also known as the Winnebago. This is the “Driftless Area” where the glacial sheets of ice that stretched across the North American continent during the Pleistocene fell short of this holy site. A Ho-Chunk woman would see these figures through the gestures of ceremony: the burying of the dead; the honoring of birds and bears. As a visitor, I experience this land as a walking meditation.

Effigy Mounds National Monument is a quiet space of contemplation in the northeast corner of Iowa, where the Mississippi River creates a fluid boundary with southern Wisconsin. For millennia, tens of thousands of these earth mounds dotted the Midwestern territory of what we now know as the United States. Archaeologists have documented 23 different shapes of effigy mounds. But Manifest Destiny plowed them under in favor of fields of corn. Now very few remain in a landscape that has been transformed by industrial agriculture. Still, within Effigy Mounds National Monument there are 207 mounds, 56 of them effigies in the shape of animals.

Most of the round mounds are believed to be burial sites housing the bones of men, women, and children who belonged to particular communities. Some burials contain bundles of bones, some charred, some dusted with red ocher. Other mounds have contained “flesh burials” where the body has remained intact. Artifacts such as Clovis points have been found nearby along with those that surprise, like a copper breastplate with twine made from basswood. Other mounds shaped from the earth are long, like a string of pearls stretched along the ridges, while others rise from the woodland floor in the shapes of birds and bears, possibly wolves, most with a view of the Mississippi River.

We approached each mound as a prayer. Death, yes, as a gathering place, writes the poet Jorie Graham in her poem, “WE.” Death, yes, honored in a seasonal pilgrimage that perhaps was the end point of a journey taken to remember one’s ancestors. To visit any grave is a solemn practice. To visit these mounds is to be brought into the presence of an unseen force where the ground has literally been raised.

Brooke and I rise before dawn the next morning. The creek bed is dry. We are walking on an old roadbed that cuts through a mature forest of red oaks. Cicadas begin their rasping chorus like an electrical current plugged in at sunrise. Diffused light follows us up the steep incline to the top of the ridge where it opens wide to a restored prairie dense with bee balm, sumac, and black-eyed Susans. Black swallowtails waft among the pale purple coneflowers. When we come to a stand of aspens, we face an eruption of birds: rose-breasted grosbeaks, redstarts, catbirds, yellow warblers, and vireos joined by chickadees, house wrens, flickers, and yellow-bellied sapsuckers. It is a charged place. We are drawn to a small path that veers right from the main trail. There in the shadowed woods is a circular mound covered in ferns. Neither Brooke nor I speak, but stand silently inside a cacophony of birdsong.

Back on the main trail, we follow deer tracks to another large stand of aspens where a first-year summer tanager confounds us. We were unfamiliar with its marbled plumage, red-yellow. With Albert’s map in mind, we turn left down a mowed pathway wet with dew. Large ferns flirt with us, brushing against our legs as mourning cloaks and tortoiseshells float above the grasses. It is lush country. We descend into shadows overtaken by stillness. There, in a shaded clearing, are two mounds with a monarch butterfly hovering over them. Brooke and I separate.

Her wings span time where the whispering of Holy Wisdom can be heard.

I do not recognize the shape of this particular effigy until I draw it with my feet. Its edge is distinct, a contrast between what has been mowed and what has not. The tall grasses suggest fur. After one full rotation, the vegetative body of ferns and forbs lets me know I have walked the contours of a small bear. I slowly walk the path surrounding the small bear twice. With the breezes, the body of the bear breathes.

From the vantage point of an eagle, 10 bear effigies march down the spine of this mountain in single file. We walk among them in silence. What was the impulse behind their creation? Love? Respect? A rising up of the relationship between humans and animals? Some say there are wolves and snakes among them. On the other side of the mountain, the green shuddering of fields registers as a single note of corn.

Continuing down the path, the glare of the Mississippi River shines through the spaces between sugar maples and hickories as it meanders below. The temperature feels cooler, the shadows deeper. Suddenly, with a white oak as my witness, the energy of the woods shifts—in the clearing is the Bird.

I stopped to see the winged effigy in its entirety. Falcon enters my mind, swift and swerving. What if the wind I have been hearing was the memory of flight? This bird made of earth glimmers as light dances on the leaves, and I want to touch her body, a garden, but I don’t. Restraint is its own prayer. The fact that a brilliant red-headed woodpecker flew down from an oak branch, landing where the raptor’s heart would be, only made the moment more miraculous. 

For the rest of the afternoon, I walk the effigy’s wings into motion. They say her wingspan is over 200 feet long. For me, her wings span time where the whispering of Holy Wisdom can be heard.

Great Bird above the Great River, what would you have us know?