It doesn’t look like we are going on any lengthy trips this summer so Cindy suggested a quick get away to a place neither of us had ever been before, Cahokia Mounds (sometimes you feel like a nut and sometimes you don’t). We left home on July 5, fleeing the Chicago area while it was in the grip of one of hottest spells in years. But unlike some people in the same position, we headed for a place that was several degrees higher. My car lacks air conditioning so Cindy put her foot down and insisted we take hers. (One way to think of the heat: If you left something alive in the car for very long, do not expect to be very animated when you return.)
Cahokia is in Collinsville, Illinois, just a little east of St. Louis which makes it about a five hour drive. A beautiful visitor center (free admission) offers a superb explication of Cahokia, one of the most important archeological sites in North America. From 600 to 1400 it hosted the larges city in the new world north of Mexico. That title wasn’t surpassed until 1820, when Philadelphia exceeded the 40,000 population that lived at Cahokia at its peak.
It is no wonder that people gathered there as it lies at the confluence of three great rivers, the Mississippi, Missouri, and Illinois, all in proximity to the rich terrestrial environments of the Ozarks and tall grass prairies. But it was the introduction of corn from Mexico that created the surplus wealth necessary for the city to expand: specialization and the a large population enabled the small religious/political elite to commission the building of the great mounds (of which 80 still exist) that mark the Missississpian Culure. Trade flourished, reaching the Gulf of Mexico and the Great Lakes. Exactly why Cahokia declined is unknown, but expanding populations that exceeded the resource base, perhaps exacerbated by climate change, is likely a major factor. And once the trajectory was established, other factors like internal dissension and war probably took their toll.
The visitor center has one small area dealing with wildlife. White-tailed deer were the preferred prey, as they were large and offered valuable pelts, bones, and antlers in addition to meat. One panel depicts a peregrine falcon stooping at a pigeon, which happens to be a rock pigeon (imported from Europe centuries after the abandonment of Cahokia) and not a passenger pigeon, the only pigeon that would have been present. It is interesting that even where great scholarship, resources, and care are brought to bear on the main topic, peripheral subjects are often treated without much circumspection.
Outside the center is a small pond fringed with cattails. As we drove by it to enter the parking lot, I could see four or five cattle egrets. There was a brief period a few decades ago when the species nested in northeast Illinois but as of now it is an uncommon visitor and I rarely see them. I walked over to watch when one of the weirdest things I have ever encountered happened. A truck pulled out of the parking lot with its horn blaring. The honking vehicle stopped next to the pond, not leaving until the egrets flew off. That this was a deliberate effort to flush the birds I was observing is really beyond comprehension but I can think of no other explanation.
We meandered towards our evening destination, Pere Marquette State Park which offers one of the lovely CCC era lodges. But on the way we crossed the Mississippi for a visit to the
Audubon Center at Riverlands. I had talked to director Patty Hagen on the phone before we stopped but unfortunately she could not meet us. Matthew Magoc, Environmental Education Specialist, proved to be an excellent host pointing out least terns coursing the river. The Interior least tern, a federally endangered species, is not faring well and to provide additional habitat, innovative approaches are being utilized: “The US Army Corps of Engineers created a floating barge habitat for the Interior Least Terns in Ellis Bay (located within the Mississippi River) to provide ideal nesting conditions, create a potential siting tool for future permanent habitat locations, and restore sandbar habitat to the stretch of the Mississippi River. For construction, they used two dredge pontoon barges and altered them to hold 5 feet of sand/gravel mix. They anchored the barges and attract birds with call boxes and decoys. This season, the floating habitat has been considered a success with 20 adults, 23 hatchlings, and 5 eggs remaining during the last count.” (Matthew Magoc).
Pere Marquette is one of the two or three most visited parks in the Illinois system (and every park is free). In the morning, close to 90 degrees at 6:30 am and windless, we took a short hike through the lovely forest. Birds were largely quiet, with Acadian and great crested flycatchers being the most conspicuous exceptions. The silence of the birds and the knowledge that the day was only going to get hotter encouraged us to head home, but not before buying some lovely peaches to sustain us on our way.