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Ethan Jones
Mounds Park

The first time I went to Mounds Park in Saint Paul was with a friend who wanted to show me an unusual echo that occurs near the site of Native American burial mounds. It was supposed to be one of those unexplained spooky things that you should experience and not really question too much because an easy explanation would only dampen the mystery. I’ve continued to go along with the spirit of my first visit, and never researched an answer for the echo. But as I’ve been lured back to the site a few times, I’ve been compelled to understand the site’s history—especially since it seems to foster an increased awareness of what remains elusive.

Mounds Park lies along the east bank of the Mississippi River atop Dayton’s Bluff. From the northwestern point you can easily look due west and see downtown Saint Paul about two miles away. Following the river as it flows towards the park and then turns south, you can see the downtown airport across the river. Looking almost southeast, you can make out BNSF train tracks that hug the east bank of the river under the bluff. For a park in an urban setting, it provides an expansive vantage point, almost a full 180 degrees.

Jonathan Carver, the first European explorer to arrive at the site of present-day Mounds Park, initially encountered the area in 1766 as he was traveling upstream along the Mississippi River. While his approach did not allow for an immediate expansive view, it did put him in position to explore the cave that would eventually bear his name. The cave had long held spiritual importance to Native Americans in the area. Inside, Carver observed a lake and centuries-old drawings on the cave walls that depicted snakes, bears and other animals. But Carver did not travel to the end of the cave, instead he described the interior lake as continuing for “an unsearchable distance”.

Above the cave and on top of the bluff, there is a plaque commemorating the primary reason Carver was in the region: to discover the purported Northwest Passage. Even though the Northwest Passage turned out to be largely fictitious, it was a primary impetus for much exploration across North America. The centuries-long search for the passage was fueled by the promise of fame and fortune as it incentivised explorers to impose their desires on the landscape they encountered. In this way, the landscape became an alluring subjective mirror, inviting an explorer to see what they wished to find. This phenomenon was a strong enough force to convince explorers to travel upstream against the flow of a river, and continue onward despite great distance and countless obstacles.

The second time I went to Mounds Park, I went alone to photograph the scene and imagine what Jonathan Carver saw. As I stood atop the bluff, looking out at the expansive view filled with urban development and infrastructure, I realized that the river felt more like a minor barrier than a thoroughfare. Not only has our culture and technology changed the significance of the river from a passageway to a line of demarcation, but the addition of the railroad below had permanently reduced the entrance to Carver’s Cave.

From the bluff I thought about the significance of looking towards the horizon and wondering what invisible reward might be hiding beyond the horizon and out of view. A photograph of an open space is invariably defined by its surroundings—the hill to the northwest, the plains to the southwest, the shape of the horizon, etcetera. But none of these markers stay in the same place relative to any particular vantage point. As you walk through the space, and begin to understand it from within, the parameters shift and a physical awareness shades any singular definition. What was once an open field with the possibility of success is now a place of lived experience with all the flaws of human presence.

The third time I went to Mounds Park, it was in the middle of an evening snowstorm. I was curious about how far I could see in such poor conditions. The majority of what I saw consisted of the blank dark blue-gray snowy sky, but some lights shone through as a signal of a world behind a screen—suggesting that clearly seeing a great distance is not always necessary.

The more I visit Mounds Park, the more aware I am of the limitations of vision. As a place that has long aided various kinds of orientation, Mounds Park emphasizes what is beyond the scope of our perceptions, instead of only providing an acute understanding of the surrounding landscape. While it is grounding to literally know where you stand, I always find myself drifting towards thoughts of what is still elusive despite seeing clear visual information.

The tallest light shining through that evening snow storm was an old retired airport beacon that was still lit as some sort of monument to history. It rose up behind a topped pine tree with nothing else around it—like a lighthouse perched atop a cliff by an ocean. While the beacon was built to guide disoriented pilots toward the airport, a lighthouse is designed to keep sailors away. It struck me that this beacon was in a place that sailors hoped to pass in their ships on their way towards the elusive Northwest Passage. This beacon, in an alternative world, could have been a lighthouse instead. The only difference between a light that beckons and one that repels is context and a preexisting understanding of where you are and what you are seeking.



Ethan Aaro Jones (b. 1985, Washington, D.C.) is a photographer and artist currently living and working in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He holds an MFA in photography from Columbia College Chicago and a BFA in photography from Rochester Institute of Technology. Ethan’s work has been exhibited internationally, and he staged his first solo exhibition at the University of Notre Dame in 2014. He received an Artist Initiative Grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board in 2017.