From the Monks Mound — Part Two

Day Twenty-Four of Thirty Days of Writing

Photo by Shawn McDaniel

Stay on the path — do not climb on the sides of the mound — these stairs are not meant to represent or mimic the Cahokia’s steps up the Monk’s Mound, though they are in the same location; they are meant for ease of access.

There is a path, gravel ground into white chalk, which circles the mound and leads to a long set of concrete stairs. People in spandex shorts and cotton sweat bands are breathing heavily as they jog and climb step by arduous step, leaning heavily upon the railing separating the stairs going up from the stairs going down. The heat is scorching. I begin to sweat even before I begin the ascent.

The top of the mound offers a panoramic view of the countryside. I am above everything. The states of Missouri and Illinois expand in all directions. The city of Saint Louis lays to the Northwest, the Mississippi runs away, the rest is trees and earth. I write:

From the Monk’s Mound, the City of St. Louis rises blue on the horizon. To the east of the city, and forefront to my point of view, is a golden hill of the modern era that far surpasses the pinnacle of the Cahokia people. Whereas the natives of the Mississippi Flood Plains hauled each handful of earth to elevate themselves above the land, this golden mound now standing before me was raised carelessly with the castoff debris of society. A mound of forgotten dreams massive enough to block out the sun. A landfill. What remains of the prehistoric Cahokia, a manufactured memory? I can’t feel anything in this pile of dirt, just the heat of the sun, the buzzing of grasshoppers, the hum of the highway…

My childhood home sleeps in the shadow of a dump. The landfill near my house stifled each sunset and released a stench which lay like a thick cloud over the town. We humans are able to produce such feats of ingenuity, such intricate devices and gadgets, to bring us ease and entertainment, to edge us ever closer to perfection, and in a moment we dispatch our toys for the next and the next. How can we mass-produce such waste, to be so spoiled that we can just make a pile of all the items we no longer need, if indeed we ever needed them, minute after minute, just assuming it will sink back to rejoin the environment?

Apathy of the individual and the indifference of business, an invention that produces waste exponentially. What is business if not to appease the hungers and desires of the individual? Humans have their own symbiotic relationships within human-centered ecosystems in which everything is expendable. If only businesses, collections of humans, could be more mindful, maybe it could impact the individual. A restaurant may throw away hundreds of pounds of food, glass, paper, plastic, every single day. My proof? Haul countless garbage bags alongside dishwashers into the dumpster nightly; try and keep count of the number of empty bottles of beer and wine, crushed cans, bent plastic, deconstructed or lazily smashed cardboard boxes, all stuffed into black plastic bags, and piled into a dumpster. Activate the crusher which lowers a weight like a ten ton anvil to make room for more and more. Recycling costs too much money and takes up too much space. Recycling also creates waste. CO2 to transport the materials. CO2 to melt the plastic, to forge into new plastic. Construction of recycling plants. Etc. etc. Energy. I am an accomplice. We all are. We abuse the environment, our home, we rape the land without hesitation.

[[This is not what I wanted to talk about, at least not entirely. I have questions:

I want to discover why Monk’s Mound feels desolate to me. I want to comprehend the compulsion of archeologists to bridge the past and the present through facts and knowledge. This practice is not limited to scientists. I yearn to connect to the beings who came before me, to communicate with the past. I want to understand why some people have no such longing, how some people can disregard history, mute empathy, and carry on through life enamored in narcissism, distracting themselves with technology. I want to pursue these questions with compassion and not with hostility or sarcasm as I normally do…]]

Other spaces with visible traces of ancient peoples, or persistent semblances of overwhelming spirit, come to mind. One such place is Mesa Verde, located in far South-West Colorado, near the four corners.

On an adventure, my partner and I explored the abandoned homes of the Pueblo Indians. Adobe cities resting in the recesses of the mountains; below the mesa, above the valley. These homes had smooth, featureless walls. Wooden beams ran across and through the dwellings. Little cities. I forgot the names given to certain structures, each with a purpose: overlook, defense, food storage, bedroom, meeting area, hallway, etc. One circular area was for burning fires and telling stories, or so it is believed. There is evidence: the ceiling of the rock, the cliff overhang, was stained black with soot. If you look closely you will see the silhouette of a hand imprinted upon the rock, centuries old. The space itself was well preserved and rich with energy. Spirits, if that’s what you believe, full of life.

What distinguishes Mesa Verde from the Cahokia Mounds in my mind? One is preserved, holy, respected, while the other seemed desecrated. Nothing remained of the Cahokia except for the mounds. I felt as if their spirit had left that place.

Furthermore, what distinguishes these ancient places from the cities and towns and homes we live in today? What makes the abandoned structures of the Pueblos sacred and protected, while the red brick buildings of Saint Louis are demolished daily? Wood-framed, plastic-siding houses of the suburbs are erected in a week following a cheap formula. Steel and cement towers of the city leer down into the Mississippi, their long reflections stretching bank to bank. These structures are less sacred in my mind. They are based in consumption. Is this a generalization? If people abandoned these buildings and five hundred years were to pass, would my feelings change? Would an air of holiness permeate the empty rooms? Would a ghostly presence wander their halls? Some remnant of the past seeking absolution; some lingering being persisting until the end of time.

I suppose each structure has a history of its own. Each space houses the impression of human beings, or whatever life dwelt there. A house inhabited by people gathers energy. In Colorado, the home we rented was a hundred years old. The families before us had many children, and indeed, the house itself seemed infused with youth to such an extent we were convinced a ghost resided there. The spirit of a young boy who liked to close doors, who was fond of the unfinished attic, who pulled at our arms and legs. It wasn’t a notion we had, it was physical, it was real.

What if every object were infused with this same essence, a bit of energy transferred from human beings. A chair, a lamp, a door handle, everything with a history, everything with a story and a life. Is that ridiculous, stupid, needless sentimentality? If the objects we interacted with in our everyday lives were worth more than mere utility, worth more than a minute and then cast off for the next best object, perhaps we would have more respect for things.

This mentality bleeds into every aspect of life. To mistreat objects, “possessions” because they are tools, mindless pieces of material. What of trees, plants, animals, stones, might they also be considered tools, “possessions”, material to be used and dispensed of? How far away are we from treating each other as such?