Just outside of St. Louis, due east of the Mississippi, if you’re willing to escape the concrete towers and smoking sewers for Illinois farmland, there’s a set of 13th century tribal mounds known as “Cahokia” on a plot of 2000 acres here. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, at one point Cahokia was the largest center of trade north of Mexico. Which is crazy to think about. I mean, if you took away the signs indicating what the place is, to the untrained eye it’s not readily apparent this land of field and forest was once a settlement that housed thousands.
I’m not sure what it is that draws me to such a place, but when my friend Troy mentioned the mounds, I knew I had to go. Growing up, I fell in love with Pinson Mounds, which are just outside of my hometown in Tennessee and were constructed during the Middle Woodland era (1-500 CE), meaning Pinson’s largest mound – Saul’s Mound at 80 feet or so – was built about 1000 years before Cahokia’s 100 foot mound – Monk’s.
Walking to the top of Monk’s Mound today, that thousand-year difference wasn’t really noticeable. Both are covered in green grass, trees, and a few oddly placed chunks of dirt. And like Pinson, a thousand years before, both were situated close to rivers that eventually ran into the Mississippi; both were cultures dependent upon the sun and the rain and the river to the point that nature drove not only daily life but was enmeshed in the religion, as well. You just can’t waltz about in a place like that and not be moved by it. Sacred ground is what it is, a place somehow haunted still – not by spooky natives at night, but by memories. It’s the same feeling you get when you walk into an old cathedral once witness to weddings, funerals, and baptisms. If you’re willing to listen hard enough, you can hear the past no matter where you go.
And that was what overwhelmed me most today, 100 feet up, looking out at the empty field below and imagining fire pits and children running amok. I could see warriors in the west walking in battle-weary. Straw and mud houses stretched on endlessly. Of course, on some level, those are stereotypes I’ve picked up in a book or watching Dances with Wolves or some other image about native cultures I’ve picked up here or there. At the same time, to know this place was once home to someone, to a hundred thousand someones, so different yet so similar, is just incredibly moving. To stand there on top of a past civilization beckons us to hear what they still might be saying, questions that have tugged at me since I worked on a “tel,” or “mound” in Israel during a summer excavation there. Did they love and know heartbreak? Did they carry with them a strong sense of purpose? Did they think of the past and of the future and ponder it all – what was better or needed work? Did they look to the stars and ask questions we still have no answers to outside of what the heart tells us?
And to think of their home and what made it home is to think of our own.
I’ve lived in a lot of homes: at the top of a hill at the start of suburban cove, in a run-down fraternity house only barely up to fire-code, hotel rooms upon hotel rooms, concrete slabs in the desert, in the heart of a three-hundred year old olive orchard, or in a downtown high-rise in the midst of the Gateway to the West. One day, every one of them will lay in ruin or be buried by earth. One day, perhaps, someone like me will sit on top of where I once was and listen to the wind chase the wheat or weed while it swishes about like it’s ocean instead of grass. Everywhere about us is a home. Yours, mine, someone else’s, past or present. Too often for me, home is the place where, when far from it, you know it and love it best, and when nearby, you find it’s somewhere else. And when I first realized that, I thought it was some edgy, millennial, cynical attitude about how hard it is to be happy where you are. And that can be true sometimes, but maybe we need the distance of time and space from home to be able to see that home is, well, all around us.