The American Bottom floodplain that lies to the east of St. Louis is rightly celebrated as the center of a vast pre-European civilization that had as its central architectural and landscape expression the construction of earthen mounds. Mound complexes from the well-known Cahokia Mounds to the lesser-known Big Mound and Grassy Lake sites remain the defining traces of a long and advanced era of North American settlement. By most archeological accounts this constellation of mounds marks the largest urban center north of Mexico—with the apex of Native American mound building in the region spanning the years between 800 and 1100 CE.
Yet the construction of mounds continues. Mound building has, if anything, even increased. While the civic and cosmic ordering that animated so much of the Mississippian era mound builders has, in this new era of mound building, been sidelined for the logistical and the proximate, our contemporary mounds index a way-of-being no less profoundly than the artifacts of the mind builders of pre-history. Slag heap, salt dome, aggregate piles, landfill, mulch mound—these are the forms of our cosmologies.
As a landscape, these mound clusters and their floodplain context is quite simply a difficult landscape to see. “Forbidding both to the eye and hand” writes the author of an 1881 history of the region. And with this forbidding, also understood as a withholding, closure is deferred. It is an irreducible landscape: irreducible to any of the easy theoretical and aesthetic categories that inhabit our ways of thinking through landscapes–natural/manmade, human/non-human, productive/waste. It is a landscape that, through the visible presence of traces and active processes of (re)inscription, resists easy closure.
Which is to say, in landscape, it all matters. It all has meaning.