By William Robichaud
Our Driftless terroir has many gifts that are absent, or nearly so, from other parts of Wisconsin. To name a few: a landscape that inspired the building of both Taliesin and American Players Theatre, brook trout, wintering golden eagles, goat prairies and timber rattlers. Among the most profound of these endemic gifts is Native American rock art — the oldest artistic expressions in the state.
Most of the rock art that survives in the Driftless Area was carved or painted on faces of sandstone and (less often) limestone, often under overhangs on rock outcrops or in caves. Of course, the Driftless Area is replete with such geological features, which explains the area’s exceptional importance for rock art. Nearly 200 sites are thus far known in Wisconsin.
The images on rock reflect somewhat the motifs found in our region’s more familiar, and more easily seen, effigy mounds: depictions of native animals, thunderbirds, occasional human forms and abstract geometric compositions (abstract at least to our modern eyes).
Precise dating of the art is a challenge. Because the majority of it was carved and not painted, little of it has left carbon vestiges to assist in dating. But pottery sherds and other artifacts unearthed at some of the rock art sites indicate who likely made the art, and when. Like effigy mounds, nearly all the rock art was completed before Europeans first arrived in what is now Wisconsin — and some long before. Spectacularly, some images found in the Driftless apparently depict a species of bison, Bison occidentalis, that was extinct by about 5,000 years ago.
Alas, some of this magnificent art that survived for thousands of years has been destroyed in just the last century, and even in the last 20 years. Defacement of rock art, by carved graffiti and spray paint, is a major issue (and in at least one case, removal of art was attempted with a stone saw). There are multiple lenses through which this can be viewed. Like a kaleidoscope, each perspective probably contributes something to the full explanation: simple ignorance of the significance of rock art, or a continued attempt, consciously or unconsciously, to “erase” Native American culture and “overwrite” it with the European immigrant narrative as the predominant human story of the continent. It could also be grief and concomitant resentment, from a recognition in the art of the beauty and expression of an intact culture — something that can be a painful reminder for those of us who have lost that, and now mistake mukbang for culture. An unconscious lashing out, to erase a reminder of what we ourselves have lost.
Whatever the reason, Native American rock art of the Driftless Area has proven to be extremely vulnerable. Although defacing rock art is now a felony in Wisconsin, in a world of limited resources for protection, the best stewards against further destruction at present are sympathetic landowners and secrecy. Fortunately, there is a wonderful protected rock art site open to the public, at Roche-a-Cri State Park in Adams County. If you would like to experience firsthand this sublime phenomenon, this is the place to visit.
If you should discover rock art on your property, best to leave it and the ground around it undisturbed, and quietly alert the Wisconsin Historical Society — but few beyond that. Best to keep the beauty, and the mystery, to yourself.
Stories of the Driftless Area’s rock art are told in a marvelous book published in 2016 by the Wisconsin Historical Society Press, “Hidden Thunder: Rock Art of the Upper Midwest,” by artist Geri Schrab and archaeologist Robert “Ernie” Boszhardt. The volume is a beautiful, seamless blend of art, science and memoir, and both indigenous and immigrant voices. It is another avenue for experiencing rock art — if not quite personally, nevertheless richly and safely.
In my day job, I work on something that is likewise beautiful and ancient and rarely seen — a large hoofed mammal, the Saola, that was discovered by science only in 1992, in Vietnam; the animal has still never been seen in the wild by a biologist (see www.saolafoundation.org). I’ve seen just one living Saola, a captive that lived for a few weeks in a small zoo in Laos in the mid-1990s. I’ve since spent a lot of time in the forests of the Saola’s range without ever glimpsing this extraordinary animal. Still, it’s a juice to be in those forests just knowing Saola is there, somewhere.
My experience of rock art is similar. I’ve also seen it only once, a little-known site near my home in Iowa County, on ancestral land of the Ho-Chunk. It was shown to me by a friend, a local, near-old timer named Randy, who trusted me enough to take me there.
Although that experience inspired me to write about rock art for this column, I don’t have to visit all the sites and see the art myself to add value to my life. Living here, in the same land that inspired the artists thousands of years ago, I can feel the presence of the art when I walk the hills of the Driftless. My eyes are not the only entryway for the rock art to reach my heart and soul. And for that I am grateful to those ancient artists, and to these living hills.
“Sacred rocks hold the very matter of our ancestors within, yet they are not the stagnant, firm and immoveable beings they are sometimes made out to be. Rocks expand and contract, intertwine, crack, carry ancient imprints on their walls, and endure change. Rock art is immensely important to continuation stories of the people who created them. They hold an ancient knowledge within their walls that has the power to help all peoples understand themselves more fully on their sacred journeys.”
— Carrie McGhee Gleba, Poarch Band of Creek Indians; excerpted from “Hidden Thunder: Rock Art of the Upper Midwest”
William Robichaud is a writer and an award-winning conservation biologist, who lives in a century-old farmhouse near Barneveld. He hasn’t been grocery shopping in more than a year, and chronicles the experience at www.birdinthebush.net.