As any lover of archaeology and anthropology would opine, there is a distinctly tingly and chilly feeling that cultivates from deep within when one touches or treks hallowed ground. To pat, smell, and share the infinite earth of our predecessors humbles the ego, and it re-emphasizes the ephemeral nature of the individual’s existence (hopefully, zapping one with a positively charged bolt of energy).
Welcome to Natural Bridge State Park, one of the oldest dated sites of human occupancy in central North America (inhabitant artifacts lead archaeologists to estimate earliest human occupation here between 9000 and 8000 B.C.)
Natural Bridge State Park is located in the driftless area of southwestern Wisconsin, a region not glaciated in the last Ice Age. It is home to a sandstone tower, 35 feet high above ground level, slowly carved by the imbalanced dissolving of the mineral deposits that hold sand grains together. The Natural Bridge arch measures 25 feet in width and 15 feet in height on its interior dimensions. Thousands of years of water, frost, wind and gravity erosion, have created the largest natural arch known in the state.
At the base of the sandstone span is a natural rockshelter, 60 feet wide and 30 feet deep. First believed to have been seasonal as a temporary shelter, and then later permanent, it was excavated in 1957 by archaeologists, who discovered charred wood and speculated this to be from fire pits used by a group of people called Paleo-Indians. Perhaps they lived in these parts as long ago as 12,000 years.
According to the Sauk County Department of Natural Resource’s park pamphlet, the archaeologists’ dig was most fruitful:
“Animal remains identified include 15 mollusk species and 50 vertebrate species. Of special interest are the remains of passenger pigeon, turkey, elk, wolf, bobcat, fisher, marten, and mountain lion. “
Archaeologists theorize that, in this very area, so long and far ago, these hunter/gatherers may have even stalked such animals as mastodons or wooly mammoths. Tiny prairie vestiges of Indian grass, little blue-stem, grama grasses, and cactus can found on the darkened ridge tops, as well as many distinct plant species, such as walking fern, and slender lip fern. The clifftop is also home to two anomalous collections: cliff goldenrod and purple cliffbrake.
The Indian Moccasin Natural Trail weaves us through and around the medicinal and spiritual value of the Natural Bridge area. An interpretative sign along the trail informs us that: “Today, Wisconsin is home to six different Indian tribes. Over the years, various tribes passed through Natural Bridge including Fox, Sauk, and prehistoric tribes.”
We further learn how native people used plants to treat illness, their expertise laying the foundation for numerous modern medicines. For example, Native Americans made a poultice from witch-hazel’s inner bark and leaves and applied it to burns and skin irritations. They also rubbed witch-hazel on their legs and backs to keep them limber, alleviating sore joints and back pain.
Today, witch-hazel is widely used in commercial products to treat hemorrhoids and skin irritations. Here, too, native people consumed gooseberries year round, brewing tea from its roots to care for uterine problems and heal sore eyes. Women worked feverishly to turn the inner bark of basswood – smooth, grayish strips from saplings – into cloth, string, cord, and fish traps.
They dried and pulverized the inner bark of prickly ash into a powder, which made for effective toothache relief. Moreover, they used lichens – fungi and algae combinations growing on rocks and trees – to “add flavor and thicken soups and stews, and cure constipation.” They collected these throughout the year, saving them until needed. When there was nothing else left to eat, “lichens were used as a last resort to starvation.”
Sunny and pleasant, the forested uplands envelop the state park with oak and other hardwoods. Less than a half-mile south of Natural Bridge and Rockshelter are remnants of a more recent past, a pioneer’s cabin and a log smokehouse. No information regarding the dates, names, or histories of these two structures is available. A rickety, old, upside down signpost in the basement probably reveals the details, but it seemed unwise to venture inside, lest rusty nails and shards of glass would be murderous on fully exposed, sandaled feet. The distinct stench of jerky heavily permeates the open smokehouse, while the shuttered cabin stoically rusts in peace, a solemn, dignified artifact – byproduct, really – of a different era, a different set of human variables.
Indeed, Natural Bridge State Park sojourns through time, reflectively waltzing the dirt of certifiable antiquity. According to us, a special place to best come to grips with the fact that time, as American folklorist, author, and biographer Carl Sandburg once wrote, “is the coin of your life. It is the only coin you have, and only you can determine how it will be spent. Be careful, lest you let other people spend it for you.”