Landscape embodies the evidence of natural events, and “the cumulative evidence of human adjustment to life on earth.”[*] Culture, embodies our human response.
Rivers play a big part in culture; few have dominated culture in North America as much as the Mississippi River. Entire volumes have been written on the history and culture of the Mississippi River Valley. I spent several days exploring and hiking in the many parks bordering its shores. Two hikes were most impressive tying the past of the land to the present, Wyalusing State Park in Wisconsin and Effigy Mounds National Monument.[†]
Evidence of human occupation here goes back about 11,000 years. The most evident of their presence and culture are the hundreds of Effigy Mounds built in the last 1500 years. Some of the mounds were used for burial, others, whose purpose is unknown, are constructed in the shapes of animals. The Wisconsin River flows from Lake Superior into the Mississippi at McGregor Iowa and Prairie du Chien Wisconsin. Native Americans apparently considered this region a neutral land, with at least 14 different tribes living or trading in the area.[‡]
Here, at the confluence of these two rivers is where the first Europeans, Father Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet, entered the Mississippi in June 1673. On a bluff in Wyalusing State Park called Point Lookout, one can view their probable approach and imagine their awe of the swollen river on a late spring day. With the abundance of wildlife and the richness of minerals embedded in the hills, the fur traders followed shortly with thereafter with miners not far behind. The landscape surrounding the Upper Mississippi truly became transformed by the farmers.
To create a park at the junction of the Mississippi and Wisconsin rivers was both a local and statewide initiative, and the park was established in 1917. “Wyalusing” is a Munsee-Delaware word meaning “place where the holy man dwells.” [§] There are close to 15 miles of hiking and nature trails in the park. I chose the Bluff Trail which is easy except for a bit of incline up to the top. The path runs past several effigy mounds. Stopping at Point Lookout, I also meandered along the Sugar Maple Nature Trail for a total of about 3 miles. I was there in early October, and the fall foliage was peaking brilliantly. Below, much of the land along the river is bottomland swamp. Except the railroad and the towns of McGregor/Marquette across the Mississippi, few signs of modern life are visible. McGregor began as a ferry landing, then flourished as a shipping port. For the most part downtown appears fixed out of a former time period, grain silos towering behind Main Street.
Effigy Mounds National Monument lies just a few miles north. In 1880, Northwestern Archeological Survey was formed for the purpose of surveying mounds in the Upper Mississippi Valley. Theodore Lewis spent eleven seasons in Iowa mapping the mounds in the present Effigy Mounds National Monument.[**]
The mounds run north and south all relatively close to the bluffs. The trails are linked beginning with short two mile trails extending to longer seven mile trails. Except for the initial climb, the paths are all easy. We trekked four miles round trip to the Third Scenic View. Prairie du Chien across the way looked so small compared to the massive river. The most impressive bear and bird mounds are located in the south unit of the park and are also four miles round trip.
NPS – Pleasant Ridge Effigy Mounds (Marching Bear Group) by Ellison Orr. Surveyed by T.H. Lewis, 1893 & Ellison Orr, 1910
The most disconcerting part of the visit, is that the images are presented as if from above, and walking around the mounds, the images and impact are far less obvious.
Waterscapes are significant to the idea of “landscape”. Just as many landscapes are only accessible by foot, many others are still only accessible by water. Another choice to explore the cultural landscape is to kayak, or canoe, along these waterways. The Upper Mississippi Wildlife and Fish refuge runs 260 miles from Winona Minnesota southward with several access points including McGregor. I have not yet explored this option, but am open to the idea.
In 2009, composer Eve Beglarian embarked on a four month journey from the headwaters of the Mississippi 2300 miles south. http://evbvd.com/ She composed a work inspired by the river and people she met along the way, including sounds of the riverscape, performing with and for people in the communities she found during the course of her adventure.
Historically, rivers are the sources of life. The Mississippi River is the primary artery of our country. Her influence in feeding and powering this country are incalculable. Perhaps the mound figures are homage to the lifesource the river provides. We try to manage her, but we cannot control her. In the spring of 2011, we witnessed her power as her banks overflowed. I had to divert my journey from Kentucky to skirt the rising waters. Is it any wonder that the country’s original inhabitants revered her?
[*] Michael P. Conzen, The Making of the American Landscape, New York: 2010, 2.
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