Effigy Mounds National Monument in Harpers Ferry, IO, preserves more than 200 prehistoric mounds built by pre-Columbian Mound Builder cultures and features effigy mounds that are shaped like circles, cones, and animals like bears and birds.
I first heard about Effigy Mounds from the National Park After Dark podcast – a former superintendent of the park stole, and subsequently irreplaceably damaged, bones of 40 ancient Native Americans in 1990, which was a real dick move. Listening to this particular episode pissed me off, but also inspired me because I realized Effigy Mounds was only three hours from where I lived.
So, the day after I turned three years sober, I drove out to the border of Iowa and Wisconsin and visited the park.
I pull into the parking lot a little before 10 am, happy to beat the crowds and clusters of families.
The first thing I notice upon walking up the trail towards the mounds is the overwhelming sense of peace and security. I understand inherently why the ancient people chose this place. The sunlight stipples the undergrowth, the trees whisper good-naturedly, the air is clean. It has the same type of calmness as a graveyard, except here it feels deeper, more weathered.
I never liked the idea of sticking bodies in the ground in coffins, but this, a pile of earth and clay and ferns makes sense to me. A plaque near Fire Point tells me that researchers are unsure of if the process of mound building was done all at once or over time. I have a strong feeling that it was a beautiful, slow ritual, covering the bodies with care over weeks, maybe even months. An intentional, quiet burying.
I see animals: a grasshopper ricochets across the path in front of my hiking boots, chipmunks dart in and out of the trees, the smallest bird I’ve ever seen, gray with yellow spots on its wings, leads me down the trail for a few feet before flying away. Eagles hover overheard and I nearly blind myself staring into the sun, trying to get a better look at them. The birds sing, and the woods scuffle with creatures.
I pass a family on the trail – a mother, father, eight-year-old son. To my horror, my eyes prick and water as I smile and say hello. Those people met, they fell in love, they decided to add another person to their unit. I watch them go and then turn away.
My heart aches for something else, something that was not buried but slaughtered and left out in the sun to rot.
Halfway through the 6 mile hike to Hanging Rock I suffer a coughing fit. I just recovered from COVID, so I this isn’t surprising, but it feels deeper than that. It feels like this place knows I have a sickness inside my chest that needs to be expelled. I cough and cough, and water doesn’t help until I get to an area called Two Views and can breathe again. The trees have cleared, I see the river.
The coughing stops.
I pass a prairie, field of green and purple, sun beating down on it. I think about swerving off-trail and marching into the thigh-high grass and laying down, letting the bugs chew me, the raccoons pick my skin. I could become my own mound.
I move on.
I reach Hanging Rock and its views of the Mississippi and Yellow River. I eat the sandwich I packed alone under a cliffside tree before turning back.
I head to the south unit, parking by the river and hiking another 4 miles to the Marching Bear Mounds, a series of bear-shaped burials in a wide open field accessible through a forest road. I kneel next to one of the mounds, place my forehead against the ground, and whisper words into the earth.
On the way back, I pass a dead raccoon on the trail. It is small, maybe a baby. Flies swarm it, my hands feel numb. It makes me sad for all the young sick things that won’t get a chance. It makes me sad for all the bad things we do to each other like dig up bones that don’t belong to us or break a heart we promised to be careful with.
I head back to my car, thinking about why I’m here.
The things we bury don’t stay buried. They are excavated or stolen or put on display. But that doesn’t mean we can’t still lay them to rest. We can take back what is ours, inter them with respect, and know that this time they will remain peaceful.
I left a part of myself there, embedded in the earth, but perhaps I brought something with me as well.