These days, and for the past two centuries or so, the center of “civilization” in the area around the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers is on the Missouri shore. To the credulous visitor to St. Louis, the East Side can seem like a wasteland of chemical plants and strip clubs. Uncle Tupelo, an alt-country band that formed on the East Side, wrote song called “Sauget Wind”: “They’re poisoning the air/ for personal wealth./ It’s a long way to heaven,/ it’s a short way to hell./ I don’t know what I’m breathing for,/ ’cause the air around here ain’t so good anymore.” And it is true that the East Side has been an unloved stepchild for as long as Europeans have lived across the river. But that is not all the history of the East Side. Once, it was great. Once, it was Cahokia.
“When I reached the foot of the principal mound, I was struck with a degree of astonishment, not unlike that which is experienced in contemplating the Egyptian pyramids.” This was the statement of an American traveler in the early 1800s. As Charles Mann explains in his book 1491, Cahokia was impressive enough that Americans couldn’t believe it had been made by Native Americans. It was a complex of mounds, rough stepped pyramids, which had once been the largest city north of Mexico in the Americas. Now, Cahokia Mounds is not nearly so grand, but it is still compelling. Stephanie and I once spent an early evening walking around the grounds, and climbing to the top of Monks’ Mound. I struggle to find words to describe the feelings you get climbing on a near-forgotten monument in the midst of Collinsville, Illinois. The world is a much more mysterious place than we often realize. The monument marking the high point of a superseded civilization seems to be as good a place as any to think about this.