There are things in nature that engender an awful quiet in the heart of man; Devil’s Tower is one of them. ~ Navarette Scott Momaday
"When we’ll come back here...” - I don’t know how many times I had this thought during our travels. We humans love repetition, repeating is so comforting. We love to repeat our great experiences or pleasant experiences... well, we even seem to like repeating our bad experiences (one can’t deny that these repetitions happen). And yet, as the Polish Nobel Prize Winner Wislawa Szymborska wrote in her poem Nic dwa razy (Nothing Twice): Nothing can ever happen twice. In consequence, the sorry fact is that we arrive here improvised and leave without the chance to practice (…). And yet, we constantly forget and live our lives as if one day was an exact copy of another: in some endless gap of thinking. Somewhere in-between our present, future, and the past. Under the spell of memories, fears, and wishes. Captivated by time. Except for these rare moments when we are fully present here and now. In these moments we know that this precious time, so vibrant and alive, will never happen twice. We know it without thinking. Our body knows it. We know it in our heart. And as soon as we start to think about it, it’s gone.
During our close encounter with Mato Tipila (the Bear’s Tipi, the Bear’s Lodge) we feel very much immersed in the present moment. Climbing the base area, walking around this most unusual giant formation rising from the plains, we hear nothing but the sound of our steps on the ground and silence of the forest. The presence of the tower is so strong that it almost produces its own deep sound that emanates through the trees. Prayer bundles remind us of a sacredness of this site. Eagles circle above our heads as if checking what Indigenous tribe’s believe brought us here. A memory of a Cheyenne Bear-Woman who made this site her home? Our reverence for the Kiowa’s seven sisters who ran away from the Bear to find a shelter in the sky as the Pleiades? (This beautiful story brings to mind vivid images of a wild unequal struggle that ends somewhere among the stars.) A pity on Arapahoe’s two sisters who had to compete over bison’s bone? Or an admiration for the Lakota warrior who in his dream found himself suddenly on the top of the rock?
We are a very small tribe of two, and yet: like Cheyenne, Crow, Lakota, and Kiowa, we too have our own beliefs associated with this place. Maybe not in the shape of myths, legends, or oral stories, but in a form of silent feelings such as awe, which is our western way of communicating with the Great Spirit, whose presence is almost palpable there.
The ugly name "Devils Tower" appeared as a result of a misunderstanding by interpreters who were mapping the Black Hills region in 1875. On the Devils Tower National Monument website we find also more “polished” answer to the question of the origins of the tower’s name: During a celebration in 1932 on the Crow Agency in Montana, Max Big Man was questioned about the Tower. He explained: The Indians called the Devils Tower "Bear's Tipi" or "Bear Lodge," because so many bears lived there. They believed it was put there by the Great Spirit for a special reason, because it was different from the other rocks, rising high up in the air, instead of being on the ground. For this reason, it was looked upon as a holy place, and the Indians went there to worship and fast.
According to the Cheyenne, it was there, where Sweet Medicine had a vision that predicted the disappearance of buffalo and the impact of white men (as Larry J. Zimmerman notes in his book The Sacred Wisdom of the Native Americans). There is also a story of The Great Bear, who introduced the sacred language and ceremonies of healing to Lakota shamans at Bear Lodge. In this way, the tower became the birthplace of Lakota’s wisdom.
And, as Cibecue Apache say, wisdom sits in places.
Like many, I’ve seen this mountain - with its characteristic columns, as if sculpted by a giant hand - for the first time years ago in Steven Spielberg’s movie, and like many characters from this movie I felt a need to go there... but I lived in Poland at that time, and it was very unlikely that I would ever visit the USA.
Once you’re close to the tower, you can feel the sacredness of this place. At the base of the tower, among the tress, where columns crumble, you can see a lot of prayer flags. We are asked to not to touch them as this would rob them of their power. Each of these columns is a result of the gradual cooling of molten lava… the tower tells a story of the power of nature, and the times when humans did not inhabit this planet… can you imagine 45 million years before humans? Is it real or is it just an idea, our mind’s construct? How can we know that this time even existed? And could anything have existed before us?
For some, time is not linear. They say that we live in cycles (similar to a lunar or a solar cycle). Ancient cultures’ prophecies say that everything endlessly repeats, and that humanity will make a circle, turn around, and start over. Ouroburos – a snake or dragon that eats its own tail – speaks of an eternal cycle of destruction and rebirth, of a repetition on a giant scale. According to these prophecies we seem to live in the age of destruction, and the signs are visible not only to Indigenous People. Yet we always seem to have a chance to emerge from this endless repetition, to hear a tiny voice of awareness and conscience, and to rescue ourselves. To restore harmony within and in the world, and to fix our relationship with the Earth. Forgiveness, compassion, and tranquility are not cheap, but this is a decent price for the gift of being here. Will we make it this time? Will we realize that this is what can be done? Will we have enough wisdom, strength, and time?...
We know that even if we’ll travel here again, the place won’t be the same, and the traveler will be someone else.
Listen to the stones of the wall.
Be silent, they try
to speak your
to the living walls.
Who are you?
~ Thomas Merton
We made a circle around the Devils Tower. It’s time to go back home. Our car is the only one that’s left in the parking lot, and we depart from these sacred grounds (just a short stop in a Prairie Dog Town for a few photos of the cutest animals in Wyoming) as the darkening sky begins to announce an upcoming gale. A strange light appears on a side of the rock, over the hill. We leave behind tower’s wisdom and all of its stories, whispers coming to us from unknown times – a very distant future or an ancient past - as we drive back to Rapid City, through an electric storm.
Knowledge was inherent in all things. The world was a library and its books were stones, leaves, grass, brooks and the birds and animals that shared, alike with us, the storms and blessings of the earth.
~ Luther Standing Bear, Lakota tribe
I never underestimate an opportunity and a joy of visiting new places. Gratitude comes naturally as our reality is so rich. I hope that my images reveal something of this richness, in a meaningful way.