Debate ensues in South Dakota over meaning of Poet’s Table

June 9, 2018

CUSTER, S.D. (AP) — The handle from a purple roller suitcase stuck up from the soggy, boulder-strewn pathway leading up to Poet’s Table on a Wednesday afternoon. Soon, a man in an orange shirt appeared.

“Do you know the way to Poet’s Table?” he called out.

A Journal photographer, reporter and local guide walked up the trail. Hours earlier, Custer State Park posted to Facebook that park officials had taken a new green table — constructed by a local woodworker — up to Poet’s Table to replace the one two women sawed up and trucked down on their backs the weekend prior. The women told a park ranger the site “desecrated” the natural Black Hills alcove. Many on social media excoriated them. Some agreed.

Going forward, however, the debate over what exactly Poet’s Table means and represents to people in the Black Hills continues, the Rapid City Journal reported. Is Poet’s Table a mountainous Shrangi-La? A shrine to the poetic muse? Or an overrun dump heap long detached from original vagabond poet’s John Raeck’s dream for the place?

On May 30, hours after Poet’s Table Pt. 2 arrived, the pilgrimage of this one man — who declined to offer his name because his wife could be reading — seemed to embody all of these things at once.

“What’s in the bag?”

“Oh, a chess set,” said the man. “I’m bringing it up to Poet’s Table. It’s back, right?”

Last year, park officials removed a fort. The rock wall has been tagged by #NoDAPL hashtag to high school romances. Verse, sacred and profane, stuffed the now-removed cabinets. And within hours of the table’s return, some guy left a business card for his visual design company.

Is this the sacred Poet’s Table?

James Giago Davies, a writer and correspondent for Native Sun News Today, said for many Lakota people the public outrage over the removal of clutter from the mountain has been amusing.

“For Lakota, this whole situation resonates in a completely different way,” he said, noting what the U.S. Supreme Court has acknowledged, that the Black Hills was illegally annexed by the U.S. government in the 19th Century. “Many of us see that picnic table as a blight, not as an iconic piece of sentimentality.”

A meme is circling the internet featuring a Kermit the Frog sipping sun-tea, framed by the words, “Black Hills Stolen from the Lakota and nobody bats an eye....A table is taken off the hill and everybody loses their mind.”

Giago Davies also questioned the initial act by Raeck, a transplant to the Black Hills from Wisconsin.

“If the intention of that vagabond poet in 1968 was to honor that spot, then he should’ve just written poetry encouraging them to go up there, instead of crudely erecting a manifestation of a culture that is anathema to nature and beauty.”

Davies suggested the two Rapid City women charged with misdemeanor counts of intentional damage to property, Skyler Anders, 29, and Shelby Johnson, 27, should even be reconsidered not as social nihilists but as having taken a principled stand against encroachment of artificiality into a natural space.

“I wouldn’t have done it,” he said, “It was brazen as hell. But I can see why they did it.”

On May 30, the spur leading off from the Little Devil’s Tower trail flooded with a trickle of water, drainage from recent, late spring rains. Higher up, past the sound of running water, granite thumbs shoot into the air, the remarkable, distinctive igneous intrusions of the Black Hills. It’s like standing inside a giant, granite oven, the blue sky above. A raw space, save for the orange-shirted man with wet socks and sandals. Sweat beaded above his lip, as he carried his purple suitcase.

“She (his ex-girlfriend) told me about Poet’s Table,” said the man, looking for shade beneath an Aspen. “I’ve never been here, but I felt like it was the appropriate place.”

For Custer State Park, the question of what Poet’s Table “is” is easy.

“We heard enough from people on Facebook and through phone calls that Poet’s Table is a pretty special place to all the locals,” said Kobee Stalder, visitor services program manager for the park.

But they’ve taken a light-touch approach to managing the site. While they claimed through a statute on abandoned property that technically the table has more or less been state property for decades — the same as leaving a cooler in the park — he said park staff only make occasional sweeps of the area to pick up trash or other leftover distractions (such as last year’s fort).

“We would ask that visitors take it upon themselves (to clean up),” he said. “You probably could’ve taken the chess set back down with you.”

As the Journal team and the pilgrim with the suitcase turned around a boulder, the green table came into sight. It is a spectacular view. Mt. Coolidge rises in the distance. The alcove harkens as the perfect, au naturel study, for writing or reflection.

Bruce Roseland, president of the South Dakota State Poetry Society, said in a message that he believes there should be public places set aside for writing.

“Seeking out, the climb to and the view from Poet’s Table touch inward to our hearts our connection to this earth and each other.”

In a blog post written after the theft of the table last weekend, he remembered encountering a woman at Poet’s Table years ago with a notebook writing at the desk. She was from Oklahoma and was stationed at nearby Ellsworth Air Force Base. On his way down, he met two more young women who asked him for directions.

“I pointed in the direction and told them how many lefts and rights.”

Roseland said he did not see “a bit of trash, bottles, candy wrappers or anything out of place” and instead called the place one of “pilgrimage for poets and those who love poetry.”

When the two women cleanly swept the perch of furniture and abandoned knick-knacks on Saturday, they also ran down with family heirlooms, such as the last message of Carter Davis, a young man with Rapid City ties who was murdered a week after leaving a message in a wish-box his mother left at Poet’s Table to “add more love to the world.”

On May 30, the table was relatively unadorned. Only a few signatures scribbled in a black marker. A large emblem hanging from a nearby tree. Some notebooks. And then, soon, a broken chess set.

The man in the orange shirt knelt below the table and unzipped the purple suitcase. He lifted out the tan-and-silver, stone chess set — likely valuable — and then ceremoniously lowered it swiftly onto a pointy rock. Smash! Shrapnel scattered. Then he removed another piece and repeated the act. Smash!

The sound of destruction echoed in the quiet place.

“I’m sorry for doing this in front of you,” he said, “But I think I’ll feel better.”

He then picked up the scattered pieces, and deposited them onto the table — along with rooks and pawns. He also stowed a large binder of diary entries and photographs and a Janis Joplin CD below the table. In any other spot in the park he’d be guilty of littering. But here, at Poet’s Table, there are no rules.

“Well, one,” he said. “I guess don’t take the table.”

The man, his baggage emptied, walked back down the steep trail, disappearing around the boulder. The Journal team stayed atop, shooting photographs, before descending, too. At the trail, though, a grandmother, Melinda Zore, hiked down from Little Devils Tower with her granddaughter, Danielle Bewley. It was a present for the girl’s high school graduation. They were from suburban Indianapolis and had never heard of Poet’s Table, but marveled that a man would leave an entire destructed chess set at this green altar in the natural alcove.

“We just kept all our garbage in our backpacks,” said Zore. “Like they say, ‘Leave no trace,’ right?”


Information from: Rapid City Journal, http://www.rapidcityjournal.com

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