Winter Solstice Pilgrimage
sacred journey to an ancient temple
by David Yarrow
December 30, 1996
WE AWOKE AT 6 AM SATURDAY, DEC. 21, 1996 to a clear, cloudless sky. Syracuse, NY is second only to Seattle for clouds, and December is the most overcast month of all. So this rare December dawn with open sky was an auspicious omen for the day. The Solstice—turning point in Sun's annual north-to-south journey—was at 9:04 am EDT, and sunrise on this shortest day of the year was between now and then.
Outside was a chill 20 degree. A year ago, such cold would have immobilized my weakened, damaged body with violent shivering spasms, and I would have had to be dragged in my wheelchair through the cold, snow and ice. A two inch crust of snow and frozen rain made my hobble on one crutch and stiff, weak legs to the car even more precarious. Shelley led me by my paralyzed right hand, ready to grab me if I slipped. I had no gloves, so my hands quickly turned ice cold.
Shelley drove toward the still dark western horizon, past Morningside Cemetery hill with its three water towers and 18 ley lines. Seven years ago, I found this "glacial drumlin" marks the Equinox sunrises from Hiawatha Sunrise Mound, our destination this morning [see "Onondaga Temple"]. Behind us the east brightened with dawn's first light as we rolled down into Onondaga Valley, then across its wide glacial floor through the sleeping Salt City.
Climbing the steep slope of the valley's west side, at the ridgecrest we turned into Onondaga Park and circled Hiawatha Lake on the Park drive. A nearly full circuit brought us to Summit Av. where the land falls steeply into the valley, affording a view of the city and the east ridge we departed just minutes before.
Before us was our destination: a modest earthen mound, only 40 feet high with gentle broad slopes, hidden by trees. Anyone not seeking such would never recognize this low knob is no natural hill, but man-made, heaped up more perhaps three millennia ago. The driveway to its summit has been blocked by steel posts for many years, so few folk visit this promontory anymore. This relic of an ancient lost past lay forgotten until I spied it in fall of 1988.
One indigenous friend from Onondaga Nation was there waiting. My heart warmed that a descendent of the ancestors who likely built this ages-old temple would observe this turning point of the sun. After a few instructions from me, Shelley joined him with my camera to await the first solar rays to crack the east horizon. I stayed in the car, feeling the cold slowly seep through my layers of clothing.
After long minutes of steadily brightening light, our friend from Onondaga Nation came to get Shelley's abalone shell and sweet sage. He would offer prayers for continued protection, survival—and revival—of his tiny community and nation—the valley's original inhabitants—among Earth's smallest sovereignties—capital of America's oldest democracy—where Peacemaker taught them to"bury the hatchet."
Three crows flew over the mound, then a lone crow, then two more, and yet more kept coming in small groups. I began to count. After 30 I stopped, wondering why these black birds were out and about so early on this frigid first day of winter. Were they, too, gathering for ceremony at this sacred mound on this shortest day of the year?
Near eight o'clock Shelley came down from the mound with an aura of triumphant joy. The sun fired the southeast skyline near my prediction. Shelley shifted her car to four wheel drive, jumped the curb, drove around pots blocking the road to the summit, announcing brightly, "Official business!"
She parked in the southeast. The vista was obstructed by a stand of pine, but I glimpsed the horizon between the tall, thin trunks, and could spot the sun within a few degrees. It was farther south than I expected, beyond Brighton Towers, close to Smoky Hollow, highest of the glacial meltwater channels etched in the Onondaga Limestone.
As I stared into the orange brightness and felt the faint warmth of the newly risen solstice sun, I prayed for strength to continue my struggle to recover from death and paralysis, and steadiness for the mission I agreed to undertake for the Creator. I asked for continued divine aid to walk and talk the path ahead.
I had Shelley pull ahead another 50 feet. Pointing at the break in the trees, I explained that a ley line runs due east across the valley to cross the summit of Morningside, with its three water towers—the Equinox sunrise point on the level horizon. Below this 100 foot high "drumlin" is the Onondaga Mortuary and Oakwood Cemetery, whose woods preserve a quiet greenspace on the valley's east slopes.
LATER, IN THE AFTERNOON, Shelley packed me in her car again and we drove to the community cookhouse at Onondaga Nation where a crafts fair fundraiser was underway. We met one of the clanmothers there for lunch of corn soup and cornbread. Then we took her to see four of the "Indian" mounds I had found within ten miles of her Nation's village.
The first—six miles to the west, in Pumpkin Hollow, a one mile wide, round valley—is 70 feet high: a rounded triangle with steep sides. On the flat valley floor, this lone knob sits where energies vortex down from heaven and up from earth in orderly 3-9-27 geometries. Most of the beautiful evergreens on its summit had been cut down since my last visit 33 days before my electrocution, leaving it bare and naked to dim solstice sun. The clanmother had heard of this mound, but never driven this rural back alley road to see it.
We continued west up a narrow, post-glacial river valley which ends at Disappearing Lake, a genuine and rare local mystery: a lake which will fill up and drain empty of water—often overnight. No one has found what regulates the rising and falling of its waters, or where the water drains to. That day Disappearing Lake was at its high mark—over a mile long and 40 feet in its deepest end.
Turning north, we followed Nine Mile Creek to the Alps, the deepest ravine. Just beyond the tunnel through the railroad bed, where the valley bends to northeast, is Martisco mound: a 60 foot high finger blocking half the valley. Its flat summit covers several acres, with steep, linear slopes on all sides. I have only walked its crown once, in 1990.
Winding through the narrow Nine Mile Creek Valley, we turned onto NY 5, a 6-lane expressway to Onondaga Lake by the NYS Fairgrounds. A high, arching exit ramp took us onto I-690 along Lake, at whose north end we negotiated a snarl of highways and boulevards until I guided Shelley onto Long Branch Road. Fifty yards on our right was the NYS Thruway; 200 yards further south was the Lake.
At the bridge across the Lake outlet we turned left into Long Branch Park. There, beyond the parking lot fence was the third mound: a steep sided cone covered by tall stately trees, standing alone 60 feet high on low, level swampy land. I explained the oderly geometry of earth energies and waterflows over and under this small earthen knob.
The clanmother remembered as a child she often rode a trolley from Syracuse along the lakeshore to an amusement park that was here, never knowing this was an ancient earthwork temple. I reminded her the park was put out of business by a rare, freakish tornado. "Sounds to me like that vortex materialized itself to cleanse the sacred ground of an unwanted, irreverent amusement park!" I suggested.
Declaring, "Official business!" Shelley drove past the gate into the empty park and followed the service road. I described how the high mound has a hidden tail that curls and descends north then east to form an ampitheater which is used for public concerts. Under this bowl's center, another vortex rises from the earth.
As the sun set, we returning to I-690 to motor south into the heart of Syracuse. From Columbus Circle at the south end of downtown, we drove southwest across the valley on Onondaga Av. to Belleview, then up Summit Av., which ends at Onondaga Park. On our right was the home of Syracuse's mayor for 20 years. Directly before us was Hiawatha Sunrise Mound in Onondaga Park where we began our pilgrimage at sunrise.
Once again on "official business," Shelley jumped the curb to deliver us to the summit as darkness gathered rapidly. Parking, Shelley got out to wander the twilight while I told the clanmother more of the mystery of this ancient astonomical observatory and ceremonial center.
Climbing back inside, Shelley's faces shone with wonder. "There are thousands of crows roosting in the trees!!!" she exclaimed "I've never seen anything like this!!! There's hundreds of crows in every tree!!!"
I laughed, not in surprise, but amusement. "Oh yes! Crows do that. I've seen thousands of crows at Fort Hill Cemetery west of downtown Auburn at the head of Owasco Lake. That cemetery preserves seven so-called "Indian" mounds. The crows weren't in the trees. They were walking around on the ground. As birds go, crows are rather humanoid. They don't flock, they hold political conventions—you know, 'cawcuses.'"
Shelley put her minivan in gear and began the steep descent into Onondaga Valley. She and the clanmother kept peering through the darkness at the crow-filled treetops, talking excitedly. As we reached the valley floor, I offered, "Crows are guardians of sacred knowledge. How appropriate of them to gether at a sacred site on a sacred day."
WE RETURNED TO JERRY'S HOUSE AFTER DARK. I had walked further, sat up longer and talked more in one day than I do in five—and more than I had in over four years since my catastrophic injuries. My back was in sharp spasm, my legs were numb, my right arm pinched in pain. I still had no proof any of these mounds were ancient man-made temples, but the omens of the day fueled my desire to continue my quest. My mind glowed with joy and my heart was warm with enchantment knowing Creator had blessed our winter solstice pilgrimage.
Two neighbors came over with a Christmas gift for me. Two tiny jewelry boxes were wrapped in white tissue and bound in gold thread. Atop them was pine cone spray painted gold with a refrigerator magnet glued to its stem. Laughing, I said, "How appropriate! The PINEal is our master endodrine gland and magnetic sensor!" And sticking from the pine cone was a single crow feather.