I'm scrabbling, sweating, straining up a steep incline, my running shoes sliding back downhill on the chalky white ground. My hat's in the car where it doesn't belong on this unusually hot March afternoon, and I can feel my forehead starting to sear. Getting myself into this position took three hours in crawling traffic and then a boat ride to Mound Key, in Estero Bay. I have to ask myself: "You agreed to this?''

© Suzanne WilliamsonThe temple mound in Crystal River Archaeological State Park shows its height and a scar from shell removal, which occurred before the preservation of its 14-acre, six-mound complex — said to have been occupied for 1,600 years.
I did. Soon after we moved to Tampa Bay my wife Suzanne began traveling around Florida to photograph American Indian heritage sites. The old bungalow felt empty without her and, besides, she was heading into some remote areas alone. So I tagged along.

These Indian mounds, as they're known, are man-made structures of earth, shells and sand, built by prehistoric and historic civilizations. Beginning as long as 7,000 years ago and continuing into the 1700s, American Indians living in nature transformed it - working without metal tools, pack animals, or the wheel. Florida is rich in these mounds, Suzanne explained, especially along the west coast and around Tampa Bay.

Ancient public works projects, mounds served as temples for religious ceremony, as well as gathering places and burial sites. Mound Key was something else again: home. The Calusa people, who dominated South Florida when the Spanish came a mere 500 years ago, constructed this 80-acre island by piling up shells from the water toward the sky.

I trailed the action, looking for shade, while Suzanne stalked the shell mounds that bulged up 30 and 40 feet high. Crouching intently, sighting through the viewfinders of her vintage cameras, she shot the odd, overgrown landscape from every angle.

If the place hadn't been sweltering, I'd say it left me cold. In my journalism and nonfiction, I tell stories about people, mostly living ones. I'm no archeologist. So my contributions were the whiny kind. "Isn't it getting to be nap time?'' I asked.

But the mounds had started working on me. As Suzanne and I visited mound sites from Tallahassee to Lake Okeechobee, I realized these crazy places, as I'd called them, are living history, links to the past - and to the people who lived and died creating it. Before Florida Indians fired pottery or grew corn, they made mounds, and their stories are embedded there.

At times I even thought I felt something of the mounds' original sway, their soft power. "Some sites are dead as a hammer to me,'' confirms Dan Penton, the traditional chief of the Muscogee Nation of Florida and a retired state archaeologist. "But others, they're alive, all right.''

After more than two years of exploration, dingy motels and decent diners, I'm sorting out what I learned - and had to unlearn - on Florida's mound trails.

December, 2009: Crystal River Archaeological State Park, Citrus County

"I get it,'' I say, nodding, facing south toward the curving blue-gray river on a sunny late-morning. Meaning: I see why some of Florida's first peoples chose to live in this serene and defensible spot a few miles north of Homosassa on Route 19. A cool inland breeze strikes my face as I look out over the green swath with its rising hillocks - platform and burial mounds - and sense how this undulating 14-acre complex served them for 1,500 years.

That's when the archaeologist tells me, essentially: You're looking at it all wrong. Nobody lived here in what are known as the Deptford and Weeden Island periods; it was a ceremonial and gathering site, says Richard Estabrook, who directs the Florida Public Archaeology Network Center on-site.

"Beyond that, these were aquatic people,'' he continues. "They didn't farm, they fished, and the river and the gulf met almost all their needs. They came here in canoes, so their perspective was very different, approaching on a highway of water rather than a highway of asphalt.

"The first thing they saw would have been the biggest temple mound, right by the water, the white oyster shells gleaming in the sun, and on top of that a large wooden structure, brightly painted, with a palmetto fan on top - quite an impressive sight.''

"I see,'' I say, not seeing. I walk to the water and turn inland, trying to regroup, thinking: "Is this what they mean by 'paradigm shift?' "

April, 2009: Green Mound and Turtle Mound, Volusia County

Once, mounds were hubs, centers of village life. Every day these busy physical plants produced highly valued commodities: communal ties and shared identity. Archaeologist and author Jerald T. Milanich explains that a burial mound "is not just a pile of shells, but a monument to your clan and relatives, a physical connection to them.'' At these constant symbols of lineage, clan members honored and consulted their ancestors.

Today, though, some mound sites must count among the quietest places in Florida, including Green Mound, outside Ponce Inlet on the Atlantic coast. Missing here, at mid day, are people; there's no human music or motion. The mound's not well marked or tended; we have to push through burrs and thick brush tromping to the top of this shell pile or midden, probably built around 800. In this isolation I only occasionally hear wind, birds and insects, or a distant machine. This place is so still, it's spooky.

After a late lunch, a half-hour drive south takes us to Turtle Mound, a huge shell-plex in the Canaveral National Seashore. Its architects and builders, the Timucua, extended it 600 feet along the Indian River (though it's unlikely they called it that). This public park is lively with a cheerful, contemporary clan: yakking, picture-snapping, stroller-pushing families in shorts making their way to the top of the mound - retrofitted with an easy-incline wooden boardwalk - to find their own common ground.

November, 2010: Letchworth-Love Mounds, Jefferson County

The sign is staggering. To create the great ceremonial mound here, it says, the people of the Weeden Island culture carried earth from a nearby borrow pit, one basketful at a time. We don't know who did the work - was it the men, the women and children, Indian or Spanish captives? The flat-topped pyramid they created near the southern end of Lake Miccosukee was 50 feet high and 250 feet in diameter, and this required an estimated 14 million trips.

Is it possible? "The volume of the large mound is calculated at 3,708,180 cubic feet,'' Mary Glowacki of the state Department of Archaeological Research tells me over the phone. A few calculations confirm the number of trips, but that's based on the sign's suggested 20-pound basketful. People with this kind of ambition would carry 40 or 50 pounds at a time, I suspect, which means a "mere'' six or seven million trips.

These people set their intention, as the Buddhists say, and made it manifest.

September, 2011: Anderson-Narváez mound, Pinellas County

"By the 22nd of September, we had eaten all but one of the horses.''

I'm sitting on the sandy shore of Boca Ciega Bay, reading the Florida chronicle of Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca. He was treasurer of a Spanish expedition believed to have come ashore here in 1528. Suzanne's taking pictures at the adjacent Anderson-Narváez mound, on private property, named for the leader of those soldiers and friars, and the land's current owner.

The Spanish brought suffering, but they knew it as well. The locals - in this case, the Tocobaga of Tampa Bay - were adaptive and adapted to their environs. This engaging, 16th century writing makes it clear that the foreigners were anything but.

To Cabeza de Vaca, Florida was the "land to which we had been brought by our sins, an awful country, so strange and so bad . . . " He tells of scorching sun and ship-killing storms, trees split top to bottom by lightning, and natives fearsome with their bows. All was affliction.

Of 600 men, four survived. Cabeza de Vaca humbly offered his account or relación to his king, Charles V, explaining that "this is the only thing that a man who returned naked could bring back.''

January, 2010: Mount Royal, Putnam County

"What's an 'airpark'?'' Suzanne asks, looking down at her printouts. "It says here this mound's in the middle of one.''

"No idea,'' I say, steering the Toyota down a state highway. "Must be a Florida thing.''

We're on our way back from St. Augustine, near Welaka, when we improvise another stop on our mound mission. Soon it's clear that an airpark is a development with hangars as well as houses, for folks who own airplanes. Amid this tract of modern affluence there's an extremely terrestrial burial mound, built by the Timucua around 1250-1500. Naturalist William Bartram, who visited here in the late 1700s, called it "a magnificent mount'' and described a "noble Indian highway (leading) three-quarters of a mile to an oblong artificial lake.''

Today the mound is much reduced and covered in trees and leaves. Yet this atypical airpark resident clearly thrives; it's fenced in, well marked, and on the National Register of Historic Places. Surprising - why wasn't it paved into a nice runway or some such?

In the late 1970s, Paul Wilcox, a dentist, bought 300 acres here and created the airpark. He and his wife, Willanelle, adopted and preserved the mound, eventually donating it to the state. Mrs. Wilcox, now in her 90s, "has Cherokee blood; she's related to the people who were forcibly removed from Georgia on the Trail of Tears,'' says her daughter, Caroline Willis. "She felt very strongly that she didn't want any more Native American heritage to be lost.''

Of course, countless mounds have disappeared, due to neglect or simply time itself. Then, too, Florida contractors found out early on that shell heaps make excellent road fill, whether or not they contain human remains.

February, 2011: Fort Center, Hendry County

Like their creators, these sacred spaces seem powerfully foreign and distant. That's part of the fascination. Today we're walking for miles into the prairie-like Fisheating Creek Wildlife Management Area, searching for the earthworks and unusual circular ditches built here by Belle Glade people more than 2,000 years ago. I get to carry the ladder.

The biggest of these deep, wide ditches forms a circle 300 yards in diameter, and no one is sure of its purpose. This is exotic stuff, but from their depths the mounds also reveal how much we share with our forerunners, and the vanished.

Indians were clannish and tribal, as are we, sometimes to our detriment. Humans still crave community and search for meaning. And we still make monuments.

What and where are our mounds, then? One archaeologist suggests "football stadiums, where we gather for highly ritualized ceremonies, including feasts.''

Late that night we head home from Fort Center on Route 27. (The mound site is named for a vanished Seminole War garrison). I ask Suzanne if she has a special place or structure. She'll have to think about it, she says from the passenger seat. Days later my wife tells me:

"My mound is a beautiful hill in my hometown's Catholic cemetery - the place where we buried my parents. I visit their graves to speak to them with love and to ask for their help, as Florida's earlier people visited their ancestors.''

April, 2010: Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge, Levy County

"Here's what I don't understand,'' I announce as we drive to the Island Hotel in Cedar Key. We've just been to the shell mound outside of town, a towering cascade of clamshells and half-oysters that seems to pour down before us, 25 feet or more. It's probably 4,500 years old.

"I'm all for kinship and community bonding,'' I tell Suzanne, "but building a huge mound like that didn't feed a single Indian family. In a hurricane, some h uge lump wouldn't offer any shelter. Does it really make sense for early societies to have put so much into a nonessential task?''

Later we learn their other urgent purpose. Then as now, belief defines and shapes reality, and to Florida's ancient people, their very survival depended on the mounds.

From what we know of American Indian cosmology, they knew three realms: the Upper World, seen in the air and sky; the earthly Middle World, where people live; and the Under World - all that's beneath the earth, including the rivers and seas.

"The Middle World is a balance of the supreme order of the Upper World and the supreme chaos of the lower one,'' explains Dan Penton, the Muscogee Chief. Maintaining that balance is humanity's vital task.

In times of crisis - when a river dried up or a leader died - native peoples built mounds in physical re-enactments of their creation myths. Many involved a bird, turtle or insect diving to the bottom of the Under World and bringing up the first earth. Mound-making stopped time, then started it over, symbolically erecting the world anew, resetting and restoring the original order of the universe.

"The shells in mounds may represent the watery underworld they came from,'' says Ken Sassaman, professor of archaeology at the University of Florida. The soil could symbolize this earthly level of being, and the many images of birds in buried carvings and jewelry the third, Upper World.

Done right, these believers found, their strenuous group prayers got answers.

John Capouya is a professor of journalism and nonfiction writing at the University of Tampa.