I filmed a short springtime greeting, with reference to the ideas of Peter Wohlleben and his book The Hidden Life of Trees, which you can watch below, or at YouTube.
Balanced Rock in North Salem, New York was the subject of a post I made in July, one of two experiments with video so far. I filmed the footage during a visit to the site in April. You can watch it here at the blog or on YouTube. Below is a transcription of my field notes which formed the basis for the narration of that video.
Balanced Rock is a stone structure consisting of an enormous boulder supported above ground by five smaller stones.
The boulder is an erratic, weighing between sixty and ninety tons: pink granite from the Hudson Highlands. It was deposited at the site by a receding glacier at the end of the last ice age.
But did the glacier balance it, or did men?
Barry Fell believed that Balanced Rock is a megalith of the distinctive dolmen type found in Europe. This would be evidence that European mariners crossed the Atlantic and made inroads in the New World thousands of years before the first Viking expeditions. The megalithic tradition dates to the Neolithic period with dolmen-building activity heavily concentrated between 4000 and 2500 B.C.
From the plaque erected by North Salem Historical Society: “It has been suggested in recent years that this may be a dolmen—a Celtic ceremonial stone used to memorialize the dead.”
A dolmen is the inner framework of a portal tomb, consisting of a base standing stones arranged vertically, with capstone laid horizontally across the top, forming a chamber. Within this chamber human remains would be placed and the whole thing covered over with cairn stones and earth, forming a mound or tumulus or barrow.
It is possible that burial was a secondary feature of these structures, much as it is at a parish church, and they were built for other mysterious purposes. We see them in the British Isles, in Germany, Scandinavia, and France. Where the earthworks have eroded over time only the standing stones are visible.
In his book, America B.C., Dr Fell wrote “… the largest Celtiberian dolmen yet discovered in North America, located at North Salem, New York. The 90-ton capstone is supported on the apexes of five erect peg-stones. Probably the memorial of a Celtiberian king, the North Salem dolmen most closely parallels a similar monument near Dublin.” This is presumably a reference to the Glendruid Dolmen in Ireland.
Of course Dr Fell received a chilly reception for his theory in academia but it is not at all implausible. Researchers from the Smithsonian Institution and the University of Exeter established similarities between the earliest man-made tools in North America and the tools of the Solutrean culture that inhabited what is now France and the Iberian Peninsula during the Upper Paleolithic suggesting that the Solutreans brought their technology with them across the Atlantic. (See: Across Atlantic Ice by Dennis Stanford and Bruce Bradley.)
The megalith builders would have come much later but we can imagine successive waves of European exploration in the Atlantic preceding the historical record.
Balanced Rock certainly looks like a dolmen.
Below: portrait of a ram at Plimoth Plantation in Massachusetts.
A dolmen is a type of Neolithic tomb architecture found in Western Europe. So what would one be doing in a small town in the Hudson Valley? Balanced Rock in North Salem, New York is a unique example of (what appears to be) a European megalith in North America, long predating recorded transatlantic contact.
I filmed a short video about the structure and the question of its origin which you can watch below, or at YouTube.
An article in Royal Society Open Science by Sara Graça da Silva and Jamshid J. Tehrani approximates the age of common Indo-European folktales. As Smithsonian Magazine summarizes, “Instead of dating from the 1500s, the researchers say that some of these classic stories are 4,000 and 5,000 years old, respectively. This contradicts previous speculation that story collectors like the Brothers Grimm were relaying tales that were only a few hundred years old.”
The Grimms themselves believed something similar. Wilhelm Grimm wrote in the introduction to the Tales that their origins “are coterminous with those of the great race which is commonly called Indo-Germanic, and the relationship draws itself in constantly narrowing circles round the settlements of the Germans.”
The researchers cite four story-types as belonging to the Proto-Indo-European civilization: “The Boy Steals Ogre’s Treasure” (i.e. “Jack and the Beanstalk”), “The Smith and the Devil,” “The Animal Bride,” and “The Grateful Animals.” Significantly more are common to Proto-Western-IE groups, including “Beauty and the Beast.” These latter date from the geographic separation of Western/European and Eastern/Persian PIE speakers five thousand years ago.
John Michell writing in The View Over Atlantis describes the moment Alfred Watkins discovered ley lines:
One hot summer afternoon in the early 1920s Alfred Watkins was riding across the Bredwardine hills about 12 miles west of Hereford. On a high hilltop he stopped, meditating on the view below him. Suddenly, in a flash, he saw something which no one in England had seen for perhaps thousands of years.
Watkins saw straight through the surface of the landscape to a layer deposited in some remote prehistoric age. The barrier of time melted and, spread across the country, he saw a web of lines linking the holy places and sites of antiquity. Mounds, old stones, crosses and old crossroads, churches placed on pre-Christian sites, legendary trees, moats and holy wells stood in exact alignment that ran over beacon hills to cairns and mountain peaks. In one moment of transcendent perception Watkins entered the magic world of prehistoric Britain, a world whose very existence had been forgotten.
Pictured above: Michell photographed by Paul Broadhurst.
The king in the mountain is one of the great archetypal myths: a king who presided over a past golden age is said to have retreated with his warriors into a mountain cave where he waits, sleeping but not dead, one day to return. It is often associated with King Arthur, Charlemagne, Frederick Barbarossa, or Frederick II.
Juleigh Howard-Hobson provides a chronology of its various appearances and iterations in an essay at Counter-Currents:
The idea of a king, or hero, sleeping in a cave or hollow mountain is an old one in Northern Europe and the British Isles. So old, in fact, that the sleeping king motif is “one of the few myths of the British Celts to be put on record by a classical author.”
The classical author was Plutarch. Plutarch’s work “The Silence of Oracles” quotes a certain government agent, Demetrius, who in 82 CE wrote down various tales and miscellanies told to him by the people he encountered while he was in Britain. Adhering to the then-approved custom of endowing every god/hero, regardless of origin or existing name, with Classical nomenclature, the story, as written by Demetrius, would seem to be a Greek one. It is actually an extremely early version of the European Sleeping King myth.
There is, they said, an island where Cronus is imprisoned with Briareus keeping guard over him as he sleeps; for, as they put it, sleep is the bond forged for Cronus. They add that around him are many deities, his henchmen and attendants.
In a later work, in a section referring to Britain and various outlying British Isles, Plutarch himself writes:
The natives have a story that in one of these Cronus has been confined by Zeus, but that he, having a son for a gaoler, is left sovereign lord of those islands and of the sea, which they call the Gulf of Cronus. . . . Cronus himself sleeps within a deep cave, resting on rock which looks like gold, this sleep being devised for him by Zeus in place of chains. Birds fly in at the topmost rock, and bear him ambrosia.
This is the elemental hero sleeping in the cave story, with very early references to both the treasure (the rock that looks like gold) and the ravens that often accompany such heroes as they wait, in their deep hidden places, to come back.
Parallel stories, with kings/gods/heroes asleep in caves/hills/mountains appear all through out Northern Europe. As a matter of fact, this basic story is so common that it is now identified as folktale type 766 in the Antti Aarne and Stith Thompson (AT) folktale classification system–considered the standard reference catalogue of international folk stories. The story of the sleeping hero, or the hidden king, is as firmly embedded in the folksoul of the European people as are the mountains and caves themselves.
Switzerland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Germany, Austria, The Czech Republic (then Bohemia), Sicily, England, Wales, Ireland, Scotland . . . all hold, deep in secret places within their hills, a sleeper or sleepers, who will waken at the time when the folk are in their greatest need of a hero.
Professor D.L. Ashliman has catalogued a number of related myths in his bibliography of folktexts at the University of Pittsburgh. The most famous account comes from the Deutsche Sagen by the Brothers Grimm:
Many legends are in circulation dealing with [Emperor Frederick Barbarossa]. They say that he is not dead, but that he shall live until the Day of Judgment, and also that no legitimate emperor shall rise up after him. Until that time he will remain hidden in Kyffhäuser Mountain. When he appears he will hang his shield on a dead tree, and leaves will sprout from the tree, and then better times will be at hand. From time to time he speaks to those who find their way into the mountain, and from time to time he makes appearances outside the mountain. Generally he just sits there on a bench at a round stone table, asleep with his head in his hands. He constantly nods his head and blinks his eyes. His beard has grown very long, according to some it has grown through the stone table, according to others it has grown around the table. They say that it must grow around the circumference three times before he awakens. At the present time it has grown around the table twice.
In the year 1669 a peasant from the village of Reblingen who was hauling grain to Nordhausen was taken into the mountain by a little dwarf. He was told to empty out his grain and allowed to fill his sacks with gold in its place. He saw the emperor sitting there entirely motionless.
In addition, a dwarf led a shepherd into the mountain who had once played a tune on his flute that had pleased the emperor. The emperor stood up and asked: “Are ravens still flying around the mountain?” When the shepherd answered “yes,” the Kaiser responded: “Then I must sleep for another hundred years.”
A monument to Barbarossa was erected in the Kyffhäuser Mountain range in the 1890s. It depicts him waking. Above him stands an equestrian statue of Emperor Wilhelm I, tying the legend to German unification under the Prussian monarchy.
I read a fascinating article recently about the German forest ranger and ecologist Peter Wohlleben in The New York Times. Wohlleben is the author of a book, The Hidden Life of Trees, and is featured in the documentary film, Intelligent Trees. His observations about arboreal biology are exciting and even startling:
trees in the forest are social beings. They can count, learn and remember; nurse sick neighbors; warn each other of danger by sending electrical signals across a fungal network known as the “Wood Wide Web”; and, for reasons unknown, keep the ancient stumps of long-felled companions alive for centuries by feeding them a sugar solution through their roots.
Obviously this is a type of life and “society” quite different from our own. But trees are living creatures. I imagine it would benefit our understanding of them to consider the ways in which they behave like living creatures, not inanimate objects.
Reading this profile of Wohlleben reminded me of a writer who shared a similar outlook on nature: J.R.R. Tolkien. In The Lord of the Rings Tolkien portrayed trees as possessing various degrees of sentience, and as being shepherded by Ents, a race of tree-like giants. His imagination was informed by a deep sympathy with the forest, and a perception that trees were conscious on some mysterious level.
In 1972 the Daily Telegraph published an article which contained the description of a landscape “transformed into a kind of Tolkien gloom, where no bird sings.” In a letter to the editor, published a few days later, Tolkien replied,
I feel that it is unfair to use my name as an adjective qualifying ‘gloom’, especially in a context dealing with trees. In all my works I take the part of trees as against all their enemies. Lothlórien is beautiful because there the trees were loved; elsewhere forests are represented as awakening to consciousness of themselves. The Old Forest was hostile to two legged creatures because of the memory of many injuries. Fangorn Forest was old and beautiful, but at the time of the story tense with hostility because it was threatened by a machine-loving enemy. Mirkwood had fallen under the domination of a Power that hated all living things but was restored to beauty and became Greenwood the Great before the end of the story.
McGrane, Sally. (January 29, 2016) “German Forest Ranger Finds That Trees Have Social Networks, Too,” The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/30/world/europe/german-forest-ranger-finds-that-trees-have-social-networks-too.html
Tolkien, J.R.R.; Carpenter, Humphrey (ed). (1981) The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. London: George Allan & Unwin.
Sundberg’s illustration maps the relationships between Indo-European and Uralic languages. The creator of the webcomic Stand Still. Stay Silent, put the illustration together to show why some of the characters in her comic were able to understand each other despite speaking different languages. She wanted to show how closely related Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, Icelandic were to each other, and how Finnish came from distinct linguistic roots…
The European arm of the tree splits off into Slavic, Romance, and Germanic branches. Here you can see the relationship between different Slavic languages. You can also spot some of Britain’s oldest languages clustered together…
The size of the leaves on the trees is intended to indicate—roughly—how many people speak each language. It shows the relative size of English as well as its Germanic roots.