Poverty Point, Rings of Emergence
American Eden: Moundbuilders of the South
In 1730 BCE, the Olmecs in Mesoamerica were carving modest temples and the Egyptians were starting their pyramids. Yet by that time, ancient Louisiana’s tribes of nomadic hunter-gatherers had already constructed earthworks of an epic scale in a place now preserved as Poverty Point National Monument. Six concentric C-shaped earthen embankments, the largest almost a mile across, radiate out from a bayou bluff. The set of partial rings is surrounded by a grid of mounds, the tallest of which is six-stories tall and shaped like a falcon.
Poverty Point’s ceremonial and trading complex drew visitors from a continent away bearing exotic gifts like conch shells from the Gulf Coast and copper from the Great Lakes. Thousands gathered here until around 1350 BCE to trade and participate in mystic rituals and shamanic ceremonies using a plethora of magical items like fetishes, charms, icons and amulets. What attracts me to Poverty Point is how feminine many of those sacred objects are. The predominant charm was a small clay icon fertility figure with no arms or legs. Also popular was an owl with a feminine swollen belly. Red ochre was used liberally.
Walking Through Time
It’s a struggle to imagine Poverty Point’s ancient people on this 21st century spring day. The fallow fields of mowed Johnson grass have the low rolling texture of wave swells, and off to one side is a hillock covered with a tangle of trees — all that remains of the rings and falcon mound after everything but the largest earthwork was plowed into cotton fields. As we walk through time at Poverty Point, the ground begins to give up its secrets.
My husband Scooter and I look like conventional walk-and-gawk tourists as we amble along the park’s circuitous two-and-a-half mile hiking trail. Yet we are on pilgrimage, listening with our bodies for echoes from the past. In our minds we merge all that we know from books and museums into the landscape beneath our feet. Memories of this former mecca roll in with the soft breeze of late spring as the winds begin to fade into the sultry summer stillness of the south.
Our walk through time ends at the falcon mound. More than 70 feet high, or six stories tall, its original height may have once been up to 100 feet. The wingspan is over two football fields long, and the stretch from head to tail is even longer. The hiking trail outlined in the park brochure takes us on a nearly vertical scramble up the falcon’s outstretched wing. We climb and get to what we think is the top, only to see another section of ascending path awaiting us. Finally at the apex and gasping for breath, the view is impressive and yet depressing. Storm clouds rushing this way mean we must leave immediately. As the highest spot for miles, the mound is a target for lightning and the nearest shelter is a half-mile away.
We scurry for cover, eschewing the official hiking trail up the wing for what looks like the most direct route to shelter — a thin dirt path down the falcon’s back. From the mound’s base, it’s a straight shot across the rings to museum. Running across the vast, undulating field, we stop to check out an inconspicuous sign we’d overlooked before. It identifies our unmarked, improvised route as the Processional Path.
“Huh,” says Scooter. “I wonder why that’s not on the trail map?”
“Well, I know what we’re going to do once the rain stops,” I reply. “We have to do this path.”
We resume running, thunder clipping at our heels.
Walking from Water to Air and Into the Future
The air is bright and fresh, satiated with negative ions after the passing storm. In the west, the Sun begins to drop behind the falcon mound, casting a tremendous long shadow against the rings. Poised in the plaza center, we breathe in the atmosphere and settle into our feet. Tourists have departed, the visitor center is now closed, and employees are headed for home. Poverty Point is silent. And so are we, contemplating what experience the Processional Path might hold. We stand for a moment looking at the field while waiting for the last cars to leave.
Our modern eyes see a landscape consisting of bayous, woods, meadows and so forth, because 70 percent of our perception comes through vision. Looking ahead without focusing on any specific thing, the images of what I see blur. With new eyes, I try to sense the currents of energy that imbue the landscape like acupuncture meridians in the body. I step forward and become enmeshed in the curtains of effect, absorbed into a web that pulsates with the throb of electromagnetism and the warp of gravity, both extending outward into space from the Earth’s molten core. The air, no longer empty, seethes with movement — magnetic waves, spiritual forces and wind — all woven into a shimmering weave. In this place, overlapping worlds of air, earth and water interact in an elegant symbiosis, of which humans are inseparable.
One foot in front of the other in silent procession, Scooter and I move along the Processional Path, crossing the flat plaza and then undulating over the eroded rings. Poverty Point unfolds organically, not overshadowing the bayou but merging with it, the source of life and livelihood. The concentric-C embankments spread out from the bluff like ripples from a pebble cast into the water — or from the Earth Diver when he plunged into the primordial sea and emerged with his epic bit of dirt. We walk in procession through these ripples, moving with grace from the water of the bayou, through ring after ring of densely packed earth, to the airy apex of the falcon mound, perhaps re-enacting as we do a grand myth of the world’s creation.
The animated landscape pulses with life, holding memory of the past, laughing or mourning as required, just like the human body. At the outer ring, a momentum of energy sweeps beneath our feet. Suddenly, we are walking effortlessly at a fast clip as if carried by an ethereal escalator. It’s such a startling sensation, we look at each other and laugh, breaking our long silence. Thousands of pilgrims once walked this same path and we feel their energy and emotions as they processed in prayer — steadily, gracefully, purposefully — into their future. Sure of themselves as humans in development — their ever-growing skills shown in the wares they trade and the monuments they erect — a procession like this must have made them feel, as it now makes me, part of a greater destiny.
Drawn by the ambiguous light of dusk, evening birds call to each other in the scrub forest of oak, elm and vines that covers the mound. We stride up the falcon’s back and highway sounds fade as wooded flanks envelope us. We move up the tail easily, not breathing hard at all, even though the climb is equal to six flights of stairs. A series of ascending platforms built into the mound segues us naturally into a ritual state of mind. At each level, another layer of identity sheds and our focus grows more intense.
This falcon mound did not serve as a temple’s base — it was the temple. No evidence for a summit structure has ever been found. Earth, consecrated earth, forms this sacred thing. One layer after another, dark dirt from deep within where no roots or burrows reach, lighter dirt invigorated with the activity of animals and plants, dirt blended with bayou water to make a primordial mud. Layers of red ochre and a bed of burnt ash and bone beneath the tail add to this mound’s holy feel. The 230,000 cubic yards of dirt, compressed over centuries to jewel-like intensity, exerts its own gravity.
We reach the apex, surprisingly modest for such a big construction, just a 20-foot square spot cleared of underbrush and outlined with railroad ties. Even at its prime, the apex couldn’t have been a communal area where many might gather in ceremony. More of a private space, somewhere to have a conversation with the sky, a communion with the Earth. Jutting nearly 80 feet straight up in the air from the flat floodplain, a mountaintop in the Deep South is a striking variance, a perfect place for shifting consciousness. Scooter disappears into the woods to find a hidden spot for meditation, leaving me alone.
I exist in an extended line of longing, not the first to stand here and think there was a time before we became worker drones, when we were civilized and beyond just surviving, but not yet slaves to the 9 to 5. A time when we hadn’t completely chewed up the countryside and there was respect for the feminine, both mundane and divine. I walk this place called Poverty Point and see that dream in the earthworks, feel it in the energy that flows through the soil. It’s not a utopia or Eden that I think once was here. The world has been and will always be one big food chain. And people have always been people. For that matter, we’ve always been mammals, prone to pecking orders and politics of the tribe. But if Gibson’s right, there was a time when diverse groups found a way to live in peace and achieve great things, bound by a mystical worldview and love of the Divine Mother, embodying their commitment in monuments of earth.
As with so many journeys, the end comes too soon. Already below the horizon, the Sun imparts the faintest of glows. Dark will soon descend upon us and it’s time to leave. In the still beauty of a languorous southern nightfall, I conclude my meditation with three peals of a prayer bell, drawing Scooter from his spot. We walk back to the car down the falcon’s back, our ethereal escalator once again ushering us most of the way.
Driving east toward the Mississippi River, the Full Moon rising over the Vicksburg bluffs, Poverty Point stays with me like a waking dream. I am sad to leave, and yet amused. For the two years before this, I was immersed in Mesoamerica from its ancient history to contemporary Mexico, searching for the sacred amid tropical jungles and temples of stone. Yet all the while, a major center of divine feminine was just four hours from my Dallas home. Clicking my ruby-red heels three times would have been faster, but not nearly as interesting. 1818 words
Poverty Point was named a National Historic Landmark by the Department of the Interior in 1962. The state of Louisiana purchased 400 acres in 1972 and opened Poverty Point State Historic Site in 1975. It later became Poverty Point National Monument.
Poverty Point features a visitor’s center with a museum and audio-visual presentation, a two-story observation tower and picnic areas, plus an archeological laboratory and student dormitory not open to the public. A tour of the grounds via an electric tram on a paved path is highly recommended as an orientation. The two-and-a-half mile self-guided hiking trail is best with the explanatory brochure, available for a small fee.
Almost 15,000 visitors come annually to the grounds, which are open 9 am to 5 pm daily except New Year’s Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas. It is located in West Carroll Parish, east of Monroe. From I-20, take the Delhi exit and travel north of LA 17, east on LA 134 and north on LA 577.
Recommended book: “The Ancient Mounds of Poverty Point” by John L. Gibson, University Press of Florida.
Virtual brochure on the site: www.crt.state.la.us/crt/ocd/arch/poverpoi/mapopo.htm
Poverty Point State Historic Site/Poverty Point National Monument
P.O.Box 276, Epps, Louisiana 71237
888-926-5492 or 318-926-5492
Official state web site: www.crt.state.la.us/crt/parks/ Click: Historic Sites. Click: Poverty Point
Official national web site: www.nps.gov/popo/