Not Devil’s Throne, Please

Ten a.m., Sunday before Thanksgiving, rays of blinding sunlight penetrating naked hardwoods from the source low in a partly cloudy southeastern sky.

I’m parked beside a strong metal gate barring the south end of a long-ago discontinued county road born as in Indian trail. There I had reluctantly agreed to meet three members of a local town historical commission and a couple from a neighboring town – three women, two men – and lead them to a hidden, Native American upland ceremonial complex I discovered more than a decade ago.

With the sun to guide me through dense forest, a compass in my pocket (just in case), and a cold southern breeze to keep us refreshed during our uphill trek of a mile or more, I was confident I could find our objects of interest – a balanced rock and ancient stone structure with a spring hole sandwiched in between. Including the circuitous path I intended to hike back to our vehicles, I’d estimate a round trip of three miles or more.

Buried high and deep in vast forest I used to hunt and explore, I found the site more than 10 years ago, when it immediately became the topic of Native Insight, a weekly local-history column I wrote for the Greenfield Recorder. Accompanying that piece were alluring photos of the balanced rock and, better still, the associated manmade stone structure even Indians had forgotten. I did not photograph the spring hole bubbling up from a ravine because I had known it for years as a watering hole and didn’t view it as remarkable.

The photos created a stir, eliciting email queries from untrained curiosity seekers and credentialed Native American scholars alike. They all wanted to learn more about the site, and were disappointed by my stubborn unwillingness to pinpoint its location, a refusal I still honor. In my mind, some places should remain secret, especially spiritual Native American sites.

Though I had known the balanced rock since stumbling in awe upon it as a teenage deer hunter, the stone structure was new and very exciting. I made my discovery soon after reading Manitou: The Sacred Landscape of New England’s Native Civilization, a classic by Byron Dix and James Mavor. I suspected I’d find something up there and my hunch immediately bore succulent fruit.

Since that day of discovery, my goal has been to preserve and protect a potential treasure trove, which is not a function of newspaper publicity unless presented through a cryptic vein. So, I have kept the location of this sacred hunter-gatherer shrine under wraps, despite yearning to find an expert I could trust to respect confidentiality while aging and analyzing it. My own layman’s belief is that the manmade feature dates back to the late 18th century at a minimum, and perhaps millennia earlier. Thus, my protective vow.

My first objective was to figure out what purpose the stone structure had served, situated on a ridgetop knoll with a panoramic view. Facing south with a slight eastern lean, it looked like a throne, framed by heavy rectangular armrest stones on two sides and backed by a remarkably intact, yet potentially tenuous, four-foot cairn steepling to the heavens.

But what was it? That was my dilemma, and back then Native American study then relatively new to me.

To find answers I searched the Internet for an email address at which I could query expert James Gage, who with his mother Mary have published a lot of material about Native American stone structures in the Northeast. I was confident he would offer insight, if not positively identify what I had found.

Gage knew precisely what he was looking at. His immediate response identified it as a Native American prayer seat in a remarkable state of preservation. He opined that it must be hidden away from beaten paths to remain in such extraordinary condition. Even its cairn was miraculously intact. His observations, coupled with the site’s location high and deep in upland forest, only intensified my internal vow to secrecy. I offered to show him the site but he politely declined, saying it was too far from his Massachusetts home on the North Shore.

Because of its south-southeast orientation, Gage thought the secluded throne may have been constructed for Native holy men performing shamanic summer-solstice-sunrise ritual. Though I accepted this interpretation at the time, and still believe it could have been a solstice seat, further research has led me to believe it may have been multi-functional in the Native American spiritual realm.

Perhaps its deep history dates back to the first Indigenous people to permanently settle our valley. Habitational customs found them changing residence among seasonal camps and villages focused on hunting/fishing/gathering and growing. Before thick forest covered our uplands, open tundra would have supported vast patches of lowbush blueberries for annual harvest and celebration. Perhaps the genesis of this site began with feasts and ceremonies celebrating bountiful berry harvests.

Then, as epochs passed and towering forests attracted upland game, the site may have become important fall hunting ground where the seat was occupied during harvest celebrations. Likewise, it could have been used during random visits by shaman seeking isolation chambers for vision quests, or male adolescents enduring spirit quests in seclusion. Yes, of course, solstice and/or equinox celebrations are possibilities as well.

The sad reality is that we will likely never know exactly what went on in this special place. I don’t believe it was built by Boy Scouts, deer hunters, picnickers or geocaching fanatics of the modern era. That just doesn’t fit.

So why, you wonder, did I recently violate my solemn pledge to secrecy by showing it in recent weeks to a group of people I didn’t know – and thus couldn’t trust – including two perfect strangers? Have I not endangered the site?

Truth be told, I did indeed get cold feet coming down the stretch, and almost pulled out at the last minute upon learning that the aforementioned couple from a neighboring town would join us. When I raised alarm, I was assured that this man and woman could be trusted as dedicated protectors of Native American sites. Time will tell. I rolled the dice. I hope I didn’t blunder.

I had previously shown the site to only three people, all of whom I knew could never find it without me. Times have changed. Most people, including some who accompanied me on our Sunday hike, carry cell phones with GPS capabilities. With that in hand, wanderers have little fear of big woods.

That said, I guess it was time to pass the torch. I’m now 70 and, limping from athletic injuries, not what I once was physically. How many more times will my battered knees carry me to that high, lonesome hardwood ridge of whispering winds? How many more times do I want to hike there?

Hopefully the torch I passed won’t ignite a destructive blast. I’d hate to be responsible for erasing another important window into our fertile valley’s Indigenous people. Even more disturbing is the potentiality that the Pagan site could become associated with Christian evils and dubbed “Devil’s Throne.”

Such a Christian name would bother even a man like me from the tumultuous Sixties, who to this day still cranks up the volume to deafening decibels and sings along with Jerry Garcia’s “a friend of the Devil is a friend of mine” chorus.

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