The Loess Hills are the Missouri River turned inside out.
The hills are the bed of the river hurriedly picked up and gently set down by winds long ago.
The hills took form unseen under clouds of swirling silt.
One day the air stilled and the sun shone sharply upon a new land.
Native Americans saw the hills first.
The towering dunes stood hundreds of feet above the flat expanse of the river valley – barren, yellow, and dry.
The hills were masterpieces of the world’s most unassuming sculptors.
Like all newborns, the loess was naked and vulnerable.
But the birds and the breezes came to the rescue, carrying seeds that eventually blanketed the loess in little bluestem, buffalo grass, and yucca.
The Yankton placed their dead on scaffolds atop the hills.
After the flesh had fallen from the bones, they buried the bones in the soil.
When white settlers arrived at the juncture of the Missouri and Big Sioux rivers, they tore into the hills, unaware of the land’s origins and certain that what they were doing was right.
What did the Yankton make of the settlers, who were oblivious to the purposes of the ancient sculptors?
The Native Americans knew that only the dead went into the loess, the living rode atop it until one day they too sank into it.
Although modernity has battered the hills, remnants remain of the old landscape.
I try to hold onto those places.
In late summer, as the sun sets in a clear sky, the hills look so inviting.
That’s when I think I understand why the Yankton buried their dead where they did.
The thick grass covering the hills, and the soft contours of the loess, makes me want to lie down.