Even after all these years of digging, that truth, it seems, remains half-buried.
BY FRANCES BACKHOUSE | THE NEW TERRITORY ISSUE 03
It’s only the middle of June and already it’s hot as hell out here in the far northwestern corner of Nebraska, where the Niobrara River cuts through the prairie’s tough hide like an old, half-healed knife wound. A wiry pelt of vegetation swaths the undulating slopes, but in the steepest places, the crumbling, pale gray flesh of the earth shows through. The afternoon sun bounces off the bare bluffs, throwing heat and light back at me as I scan their flanks, and sweat trickles down my spine. Perfect weather for checking out what the homesteaders who settled these parts in the 1800s called the Devil’s Corkscrews.
Paleontologists have a fancier term for the Devil’s Corkscrews – Daemonelix – and the Lakota call them Ca’pa el ti, but whatever name you use, these things are weird. Vertical spirals, standing up to nine feet tall, embedded in rocky outcrops and gradually exposed as wind and rain strip away the gritty matrix that holds them in place. When fully revealed by patient hands wielding picks and brushes, they look like a sculptor’s tribute to fusilli pasta.
The first scientist to lay eyes on these formations, Erwin Hinkley Barbour, didn’t have a clue what they were. In 1891, a Nebraska rancher invited Barbour to come examine the strange helical structures he had found while riding the range. Initially, Barbour pronounced them the fossilized remains of enormous freshwater sponges. Three years later, he changed his mind and decided they were casts of an extinct and unidentified plant’s immense taproots.
But long before either ranchers or scientists arrived in the Niobrara River Valley, the people who have lived here longest had developed their own explanation for the oddities.
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