The Spirit of the Stones

In our state built on granite, rocks have an attraction and a message that transcend time and place. “In New Hampshire we have a very deep connection to stone,” says Hancock historian Howard Mansfield. “From our love of the Old Man of the Mountain and the desire to rebuild him to the naming of rocks like Elephant Rock and Monkey Rock. We love old stone walls and have strong beliefs about the use of granite in our buildings.”

Of course, it’s not unique to the Granite State. From the Hanging Gardens of Babylon and Stonehenge to the Parthenon and the Black Stone of Mecca, for all of human history rocks and stones have been associated with sacred spaces. Weighty, durable and ubiquitous, they make excellent building material and excellent metaphors. “Rock” was the name that Jesus gave his disciple Simon, using the Greek word Peter, telling him that he would be the foundation of his church.

“To the ancients, stones were the bones of the earth,” says Mansfield. “Rocks, trees and water were holy. Today they’re commodities and that’s part of our disquiet.”The difference between the commodity and the sacred is a bridgable one for Peter Howe. For the past few years he’s been transforming ordinary places — beaches, snow-covered fields, back yards and parking lots – into spaces for contemplation and meditation. He stacks sticks and stumps, mows swaths through grass and paints on asphalt, but usually he works with fieldstone.

Howe lives in Keene but travels widely, designing and building labyrinths, sometimes a Gothic pattern, occasionally a Baltic one, but usually he installs the 7-circuit classical Cretan configuration. The pattern is not a mere spiral; it folds in and around itself. If you walked directly out from the center of the classical pattern you would cross the fifth circuit, the 6th and then the 7th; traversing the fourth then the first, the second and finally the third before you are outside the labyrinth. The path is linear but the line is not the line of the earthly horizon but one that mimics the movement of the stars and visible planets across the night sky. As it is above, so it is below.”

Labyrinths are not just pretty patterns. They’re wonderful tools that help people focus, concentrate or relax, similar to a sweat lodge or any other sacred site,” says “the Labyrinth Lady” Marty Cain, who divides her time between Black Mountain, N.C., and Newport, N.H. She installed her first labyrinth at Harvard University in 1989 at the invitation of Radcliffe College and has created hundreds since throughout the United States and Canada as well as in Brazil and South Africa. Using the dowsing techniques she learned from her grandfather, Cain always consults the Earth before laying out a labyrinth. She explains that under the surface, water moves in intricate configurations of its own. “Water that is deep in the earth rises up like a blind spring. The energy that forces the water upward attracts cosmic or sun energy and it becomes part of the earth’s electromagnetic grid. Magical stuff that doesn’t make any rational sense happens in labyrinths. For some it’s just a lovely inner release of tension but who knows what else is going on because it’s very subtle. It acts on the nervous system and affects people on the cellular level,” she says.

Unlike temples and churches, labyrinths are not designed to impart a particular doctrine. They serve as a vessel for a spiritual journey that the traveler alone defines. “People who walk labyrinths, we want more of them,” says Howe. “They create sacred spaces and give good energy to the Earth and good energy to the people walking them.” People have interpreted the pattern as the seven levels of consciousness, the seven sacred planets of the ancients or the seven chakras. The more intricate Gothic pattern that was developed in medieval cathedrals in Europe symbolized the journey to the Holy Land for those who were unable to undertake the arduous pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

Mike Hathaway invites people to walk the labyrinth that lies at the entrance to the White Mountain Center for Creative Development in Madison: “Here one may bring a question, a worry, a problem or just take a reflective walk through the seven connected circles that look from above like the two spheres of the human brain.”

Hathaway’s interest in the many layers of consciousness began after a near-death experience in 1989. The high school music educator began doing metaphysical research, eventually getting a doctorate in clinical hypnotherapy. For years he has hosted the Metaphysical Coffeehouse, essentially an open mic for spiritual seekers. Discussions range from historical documentation to extraterrestrials. His interest in the many layers of New Hampshire history was piqued one day walking the trails on the Center property when he came upon what appears to be a partially carved head and an arrangement of large stones that appeared to align with Mt. Chocorua on the solstice. Hathaway looked to geologists, historians and archaeologists, trying to figure out what he’d found. A Harvard archaeologist tersely told him that the stone is too weathered to determine anything, even whether the marks were made by human hands.”

In mainstream archaeology things have to be proved beyond a shadow of a doubt. There isn’t much room for intuition and speculation,” says Hathaway, who seems to love the questions as much as the answers. “There may have been an ancient culture living in the area. They’ve found tool pits that go back 10,000 years in Ossipee and Littleton. We’re not that far from Mt. Washington, which was the end of the Native American pilgrimage route called the Pequawket Trail. We’re discovering that Vikings traveled as far south as Rhode Island. Did they make a journey inland? They’ve found things on Mt. Shaw in Ossipee that suggest contact with the Vikings. If this was a sacred site for Early Americans, then maybe they were brought here by Native American guides. There are all kind of possible explanations. I’m not trying to prove anything,” Hathaway offers. “It’s just a very interesting thing to think about.”

What was here before European settlement may never be known. The national fencing census in 1871 counted some 240,000 miles of stonewalls in New England. Had some of the stones been used before? Structures built by Native Americans were often considered places of devil worship and dismantled. Author Robert Thorson called abandoned stonewalls the signatures of rural New England but this description overlooks the co-signers: thousands of stone cairns and hundreds of stone chambers like the ones at Mystery Hill in Salem that can be found throughout New Hampshire.

The New England Antiquities Research Association (NEARA) has been preserving and studying stone sites since 1964. The group keeps an extensive catalogue of sites, struggling to balance the need to educate the public about their value and keeping them hidden in order to protect them, identifying their locations with town names and not specific addresses. Occasionally, they organize field trips with permission of landowners. “Some of these chambers are on private land and property owners get upset when you get people coming onto their property. There are very few antiquity laws in New Hampshire except for burial sites so property owners can do pretty much what they want, even bulldoze it,” explains Dan Leary, research chair for the NH NEARA chapter. “There are no re-dos in archaeology. Once a site has been bulldozed, it’s gone forever.”

N.H. State Archaeologist Dick Boisvert agrees: “You want people to understand the importance of these sites but you run the risk of giving information to people with bad intent. I had the unfortunate experience of pointing out an important site while on a field trip in the Merrimack Valley. We later found more than 100 looter pits, the largest was 40 feet by 60 feet and these guys weren’t even very good at it. It’s also a problem when people with good intent go in and try to repair them. They change the sites in any number of ways. It makes it difficult if not impossible then to interpret these sites.”

Archaeology in other parts of the U.S. suggest that some of the old cairns were used for Native American rituals, but Leary cautions that you can’t apply the same meanings across the continent. Some are simply the result of farmers clearing their fields. The stone chambers are different. They weren’t reused by settlers as foundations or root cellars. What their purpose was remains a mystery. Leary is reluctant to even date them within the millennium. “Based on the way some of them have worn in the 30 years that I’ve been studying these things, freezing year in and year out then they couldn’t have lasted thousands of years unattended. But could they have been attended? That’s totally wide open,” Leary declares.

Boisvert explains that not only is there no writing to rely on but New England has few petroglyphs, the pictograms that help prehistoric archaeologists understand preliterate cultures. “The weather is so harsh that even the rocks give up,” he says. But studying the rocks themselves can help us understand the people who used them. “It’s amazing how far people in a pretty harsh post-glacial environment will go to get just the exact stone for their particular tools. We can use stone to trace people’s movement across the landscape.”

What Native Americans did before the arrival of Europeans is subject to heated debate but new applications of technology shape the discussion. DNA analysis of early skeletons has shifted the understanding of human migration. “At one point, saying that the burial mounds in the Midwest were made by Native Americans was controversial but now that’s widely accepted,” says Boisvert. The love and reverence for stone might be most evident in how people approach the mountains. Just as successor religions co-opt the practices and temples of the people they conquered, American writers and artists approached mountains like Washington, Chocorua and Monadnock with a sense of reverence and awe. Today Mt. Washington is nicknamed “The Rockpile” but to the Native Americans it was Agiocochook, an Abenaki name meaning “Home of the Great Spirit.”

Its name may have changed, but not its magnetism. It became one of the first tourist destinations in the United States. Artists from the Hudson River School and Boston flocked to paint the new American Eden. Standing alone in southwestern New Hampshire, “Grand” Monadnock inspired throngs of people to make the relatively short climb to the summit to share a sense of the sublime that transcendentalists such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau wrote about.

Thoreau considered mountains worthy of worship and loved Monadnock more than any other — perhaps under the influence of Emerson, who called Monadnock “the New Olympus.” The legends associated with Mt. Chocorua have inspired paintings, novels and even an opera. The psychologist and philosopher William James lived in Chocorua’s shadow. Could his retelling of that tragic legend during Sigmund Freud’s and Carl Jung’s visit to the U.S. have contributed to Jung’s explorations of archetypes and the collective unconscious?

Just as stones are the bones of the earth, these stories, preserved in the soil, reveal the spirit of our state for those who ask the eternal questions: Where did we come from, why are we here and what happens next?

Altar of the Nation

The Sloane family found a stone shaped like an open bible while on vacation on Lake George in 1935 and decided to one day build a chapel on their property in Rindge. When son Sandy left to fight in World War II, he made his parents Sibyl and Douglas promise to wait until he got back to start. Sandy never returned, so his parents built the chapel as a memorial to him and to all those who have served the nation.The Altar of the Nation was built using stones from all 50 states and existing U.S. territories. There are also stones from the Parthenon, the Colosseum and the battlefields of Lexington, Concord and Yorktown. There are stones from Vietnam, Korea and Iraq and a slab from a quarry that straddles the Mason-Dixon line. A stone presented by the mayor of Koblenz, Germany, the town where Lt. Sloane’s plane was shot down in 1944, symbolizes peace, friendship and reconciliation.

Altar of the Nation at the Cathedral of the Pines
10 Hale Hill Rd., Rindge
(603) 899-3300

Mystery Stone at the New Hampshire Historical Society Museum

One theory is that it’s a lodestone compass used by Spanish seafarers. Another is that it was something to commemorate a treaty between two tribes. A very convincing case was made that it’s a prehistoric soul stone made by the mound builders of the Ohio Valley. A 1994 analysis of the boreholes by State Archaeologist Richard Boisvert indicated that power tools were used suggesting that it’s more a testament to N.H. arts and crafts than our prehistoric past. Curator Wes Balla won’t swear to it but tends to think that it’s a beautiful hoax using ethnographic symbols from 19th-century publications. Whatever it is, it remains the most popular object (running neck and neck with the Concord Coach) in the museum’s collection.

Mystery Stone at the New Hampshire Historical Society Museum
6 Eagle Square, Concord
(603) 228-6688