TIME AND TERRAIN
Walking in the woods sometimes brings me more than welcome calm and quiet contemplation. At High Cliff State Park, above Wisconsin’s Lake Winnebago, I find myself wandering across time.
At first I encounter the expected: a beach, bathhouse, and marina, picnic areas and playground, a nature center. Past a museum housed in a mid-nineteenth century grocery store, the main road leads up to an observation tower, a pavilion, a defunct quarry, a campground, and wooded hiking trails. Recreation facilities of the 20th century enduring into the 21st.
A side road heads to the sprawling Old Lime Kiln Ruins, high, topless stone structures where quarry rocks and clay were transformed into limestone and bricks, to be shipped across and beyond Lake Winnebago. Other foundations are terraced higher up the slope. The scale of the ruins is impressive. Starlings and swallows nest on the heights of the kilns from where they swoop out over the forest and across the shoreline, dart above the lake. The company lasted a hundred years, from 1856 to 1956. Now its remnants coexist with contemporary recreation sites.
I appreciate the way a sense of the past can nudge us out of constant attention to the immediate moment and spur our awareness that something other was here before us. At High Cliff, in the woods just beyond the cliff top, is something even older—something more other than our industrial past.
For centuries, Lake Winnebago and its marshes and forests were bountiful with wild rice, fish, and wildlife. The Native Americans who gathered them gazed across lake and lowlands from the cliffs and built burial mounds atop them. Some mounds still survive, accessible by a self-guided loop trail in the cliff top woods.
In the mound building era—Wisconsin once had between 15,000 and 20,000 mounds—effigies shaped like birds or like men represented the upper world; those shaped as animals—bear or buffalo, wolf or fox, deer or elk—represented the earth portion of the lower world; water spirits, long-tailed forms often identified as panthers or turtles or lizards, represented the water portion. The High Cliff site contains conical mounds, a linear mound, two mounds identified as “Twin Buffaloes” and four designated as “panther-shaped,” probably water spirits, given the nearness to Lake Winnebago. High Cliff seems an ideal place to celebrate sky, earth, and water.
The Indian Mound Trail loops past the low mounds, whose shapes are hard to discern. In spring and summer ground cover is abundant and in autumn the forest floor is densely layered with tan, brown, and bronze leaves of white oak, shagbark hickory, and basswood. It’s easy to lose track of the mounds in the woods. They are only a small sample of the many destroyed by settlers, farmers, and quarrymen throughout the state. The mounds likely date back to between CE 800 and CE 1200. To stroll among them is a chance to imagine what the view from the top of the escarpment at High Cliff was like a thousand years ago.
The mounds are on the top of the cliffs, the kilns near the bottom. To climb between them is to wander even further back in time. The cliffs and the abundant talus that forms the slope down to the lakeshore are part of the Niagara Escarpment, a geological formation that arcs from eastern Wisconsin to western New York. When the last ice sheets receded 10,000-12,000 years ago, they exposed the escarpment, its stone formed some 400 million years earlier, in the Silurian Period. The escarpment endured the glaciers’ advance better than the geological formations west of it. Glacial meltwater created an immense lake that downsized over time into Lake Winnebago. Encountering the Niagara Escarpment at High Cliff can’t help but alter my sense of the time I’m moving through.
The climb from the lakeshore is persistent and meandering, but I soon see the rocky face of the escarpment, rising behind and above the trees. Sometimes the cliff face is shattered. Horizontal layers of stone are pitched at an angle where under layers have eroded away and left upper layers hanging. Shallow crevasses and alcove-like caves have weathered into the cliff face.
The trail veers around a massive, nearly square pillar, some thirty uneven layers thick, leaning slightly away from the scarp. Erosion has separated it from the main body of the escarpment and provided a passage to the top of the cliffs. There the weathering is pronounced. Blocks of stone diverge from one another, gaps sometimes shallow, sometimes deep. Jagged promontories let me gauge the height of the cliff face and the way the topmost layers are undercut down to the talus. Unique plant life—fragile fern, bulbet fern, cliff stickseed, long-beaked sedge—emerges from slight cracks. I step carefully near the edge, wary of hidden joints and uneven surfaces. Trees of every size have rooted themselves in the slimmest of fractures, often seeming to grow out of bare rock.
Studying that freestanding pillar and the towering rock walls opposite it, I try to gauge the amount of time it took to lay down all those layers of sediment, turn them into dolostone, cover them with more layers of sediment, wear that sediment away, scrape them with glaciers, and erode them by means of rain, snow, ice, and wind until they stand as I see them now, still changing, imperceptibly but inevitably.
On my descent I walk the higher range of the talus slope to cross the escarpment’s varied debris, its eons of collapsed or sliding slabs that have hidden the bottom of the escarpment and nourished the thick woods growing and toppling and decaying on top of them. The rough footing makes me walk more slowly. It delays my return to the lime kiln ruins and the populated part of the park and the roads that will take me back into the century where I live. That’s all right. I’m in no hurry to leave whatever time I might possibly be in.
Robert Root’s nonfiction of place includes the travel narratives Recovering Ruth: A Biographer’s Tale, Following Isabella: Travels in Colorado Then and Now, and Walking Home Ground: In the Footsteps of Muir, Leopold, and Derleth. He is also the author of the memoir Happenstance, the essay collection Postscripts: Retrospections on Time and Place, and the craft book The Nonfictionist’s Guide: On Reading and Writing Nonfiction as well as the editor of Landscapes With Figures: The Nonfiction of Place. He is a writing coach who lives in Waukesha, Wisconsin and teaches online for the Loft Literary Center in Minnesota.