Native Insight: The unknown, ever so enticing

  • This weathered arrangement of stones backed by a cairn and located on a remote local ridgetop, was identified by stone-structure expert James E. Gage as a Native American prayer seat. Gage, who viewed many photos of the site, and his mother Mary Gage have written many books about stone structures in the Northeast. recorder staff/gary sanderson

Recorder Staff
Published: 7/7/2017 9:30:13 AM

Have you ever happened upon or been led to a secluded, mystical feature buried deep in the landscape and glowing with spiritual aura — something palpable, even consuming, yet impossible to describe or comprehend on first encounter? This object or landform or geological wonder has a presence that seizes your focus without the courtesy of an introduction. It stays with you, pulling you back many times to re-experience whatever it is that you feel when you visit. You probe the depths of consciousness at the site, toss it around internally and research similar natural occurrences: a rock, a waterfall, the view from a dangerous cliff. Such examination may ultimately lead to discovery and understanding. But the operative word there is “may,” which, of course, suggests maybe not.

I have grown to recognize such phenomena that are impossible to describe as power of place; it spurs your curiosity and inspires you to constantly work toward understanding the place you call home, where, unless fortunate enough to be introduced by indigenous storytellers with deep knowledge and ancient oratory dating back to the days when glaciers melted, is elusive, perhaps even out of reach.

The Connecticut Valley is just such a place. Here, all that remains are dribs and drabs, hints and traces of our deepest past. The most prominent reminders are Indian place names familiar to us all, names such as the states of Connecticut and Massachusetts, places like Norwottuck, Pocumtuck and Wequamps, Pauchaug, Agawam, Chicopee and Woronoco. That’s all that’s left: weird words in the lexicon, artifacts of the indigenous Connecticut Valley tongue that have lost their meaning among English-speakers using them in daily speech. Have you ever wondered what these words meant to the people who spoke them? I have. It’s thought-provoking.

Which brings us back to a familiar topic of my ramblings of recent years: that is, the Sugarloaf caves, the Mount Toby rock shelters, Rock Dam, and that ancient sacred landscape I personally believe was centered upon a balanced rock concealed deep in our western hills. Until the recent advent of hand-held GPS and the recreational orienteers who rely on them, only experienced woodsmen wandered in that country without fear of getting lost. Only they knew the hidden deep-history magic of those high, dense, remote hardwood spines.

I vividly recall the day I met Duncan Caldwell, a Martha’s Vineyard paleontologist who winters in Paris and visited an archaeological dig at the foot of Mount Sugarloaf in September 2013. Speaking to this cave-art scholar as archaeologist Mike Gramly’s loyal “amateur” crew troweled down through the sandy stratigraphy of an outwash plain, we got onto the subject of Sugarloaf as a landmark and the Sugarloaf caves. Fascinated, he wanted to see the only accessible one, on North Sugarloaf. I agreed to guide him there the next day. Finally, after years of fascination with this shelf-cave of childhood solitude and solace, a trained set of eyes to view it in my presence. Wow! I couldn’t wait for the high, breezy conversation to begin.

We took the easy northern approach along the ridge road, not the preferred Indian trail of my childhood. Honestly, with a balky left knee, I wasn’t sure I could still scale that ancient trail through steep, rust-colored rock. Plus, we had limited time.

On the scene, Caldwell said the cave was a natural formation of volcanic basalt outcropping, not an ancient ridgetop human construction. Molten rock had just bubbled up through the surface and — Bingo! — formed a perfect observation post. You can only imagine the indigenous creation tale told for millennia sitting in circles around warm winter fires, spinning rich, lyrical oral history that’s been forever erased, perhaps quite intentionally. Sad, indeed, Christian erasure of pagan lore.

Caldwell pointed out the circular indentations along the base of the cave’s back wall and said they were the product of many fires, little ovens or open-air furnaces to make cold-weather visits more tolerable. Then, he changed the subject abruptly to the dangerous cliffs we had stopped at north of the cave for a view of the western horizon.

“Is there a trail leading to the base?” he asked, when we arrived at the cave’s mouth.

“Yes, right there,” I said, pointing, my dogs’ tails wagging with enthusiasm, as though they understood the conversation. “Go for it. I’ll stay right here.”

And off he went, dogs racing out in front to scare off any potential serpents stretched out in sunny openings. The man was intrigued by the entire site, wanted to investigate the cliff base, searching for rock art recording undecipherable tales in ancient imagery. Petroglyphs and hieroglyphs were early man’s first written language. He knew that what he had seen on that mountaintop’s southwestern tip was connected in many ways to what happened below at the Paleo hunting encampment being studied, it later dated at 12,350 years before present, a long time ago. He, too, yearned to read the story that seems to have vanished, a tale of hunter-gatherers tracking caribou.

“What’s interesting,” I interjected, pointing across to the highest peak on the western horizon of Conway, Ashfield and Williamsburg, “is that over there stands a balanced rock and ridgetop cairn that had related spiritual significance to this ridge. In hunter-gatherer times, fires and celebration on the distant peaks would have been clearly visible to each other.”

He did not respond, just met eyes with a warm, gotcha glint.

Recorder Sports Editor Gary Sanderson is a senior-active member of the outdoor-writers associations of America and New England. Send your questions, stories about our area to him at:

Greenfield Recorder

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Greenfield, MA 01302-1367
Phone: (413) 772-0261
Fax: (413) 772-2906


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