David Yarrow, who looks for symbols in his life, has himself become the local symbol of all of Pyramid's opposition: idealistic, persistent and ultimately as troublesome as a gnat.
Yarrow grew up on Syracuse's East Side, down the block from Meadowbrook Creek, site of one of the greatest concentrations of PCBs in the state. He left town in the early Seventies to "drop his identity," and when he returned in 1973 to start the Community Garden Project, he adopted the name of one of the plants he tended: yarrow, a healing herb with anti-inflammatory and coagulatory properties. He liked the look of the plant, he says, with flowers and leaves forming a divining rod followed by an arrow, "to guide people."
"The divining rod is an instrument of revealing knowledge about hidden things, knowledge our normal senses can't convey to us," reads the epigraph to Yarrow's pamphlet "Dowsing—History and Techniques—Beginner's Guide." Yarrow is, by training, a dowser—someone who searches for water or minerals with a divining rod. The earliest, still best-known divining rod are forked sticks, usually from a willow, hazel or cherry tree. A more contemporary model is the brass, steel or copper "L"-shaped instrument called a "swing rod."
Yarrow handed out copies of his pamphlet to reporters at a press conference he called in front of Pyramid Companies' Clinton Square headquarters the week the state Department of Environmental Conservation agreed to take a water sample which he claimed would show the site for Pyramid's Carousel Center shopping mall lay on a bed of dangerous toxins. In a three-piece suit, accompanied by a two-person entourage, Yarrow had come a long way from his first press conference 10 weeks earlier, where he kept a half-dozen reporters waiting while he ate a bowl of brown rice to get himself together.
Fervent, gaunt and countercultural, Yarrow was an enigma for reporters. He had done his homework. He started with Pyramid's own environmental impact study. He had maps and gruesome photos. It all looked and sounded crazy, but David was on to something, and he wouldn't let go.
Yarrow had taken so many of his own water samples that he ended up with a bucket full of glop, which he was convinced festered with PCBs. Whatever notoriety his singular crusade might have brought, it was also a test of his tolerance for stress. "I don't really want to be touching this," he said softly, staring at a glass tube of putrid gray sludge he had sealed with red plastic tape, "I want to have children."
Yarrow didn't talk about divining rods or dowsing, knowing the image he presented already clouded the issue he raised in the minds of those assessing the seriousness of his charges. From the beginning, he praised Robert Congel's vision for transforming Oil City, and the partners at Pyramid were open in their assessment of Yarrow's complete sincerity. But he was wrong, they said simply, and he said the same of them.
The day he handed out his dowsing pamphlet, Yarrow felt he had finally beaten Pyramid, David to their Goliath, the concerned citizen bringing the mammoth developer to a halt after a high-speed chase. That day the Pyramid partners allowed how they'd been in touch with the DEC all along, that they'd always been aware of the potential danger of underground toxins, but they remained confident their plan to pave them over and seal them away from the mall and its customers would answer all questions.
Later that day, the local DEC reported it wasn't as confident of the paving plan as Pyramid, and that it would have a lot more to say on the matter before it was over. Even though the water sample its staffers took at Yarrow's direction contained nothing within a hundred parts of causing human harm, Yarrow's crusade had reached the bureaucracy, and its wheels were turning more visibly.
Yarrow's pamphlet concludes with the caveat: "Much more than locating objects, dowsing is a method to train your mind to new, untapped resources of awareness. Dowsing's true virtue is to increase our communication with our intuitive mind. You are only limited by your imagination to ask clear, careful questions."
Yarrow located the spot where he told the DEC to take a water sample by dowsing. For 10 weeks he kept asking the same careful questions, waiting for Pyramid and the DEC to make the answers clear. And although the water sample didn't prove his point, he still believes there are things hidden under the proposed mall site that normal senses can't convey.
—Walt Sheppard, Senior Editor
Syracuse New Times