Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Senecas, spiritualism and Weird Florida

Every now and then, I'll encounter several things in my reading that are connected in some odd way, despite having been published at different times and in differing contexts. On Saturday, we flew to Tampa to be with my mother as she celebrated her 90th birthday. Early that morning, gathering reading material for the flight, I saw on the front page of the Sunday New York Times travel section (which is delivered on our doorstep with our Saturday paper) a teaser for an article on page 13 by Beth Quinn Barnard, headed "Seneca Folklore And Forest Trails - A ravine near Canandaigua, N.Y., is called the world's birthplace."

I stuck the travel section in my carry-on bag because I spent a good deal of time in the early part of my career in Seneca country, western New York State, and I'm interested in the creation myths of various cultures. According to the article, the Senecas, or Onondowaga ("People of the Great Hill") as they call themselves, believe their progenitors to have emerged from the earth at a place now called Clark's Gully, a ravine at the base of South Hill ("Nundawao" to the Senecas), an eleven hundred foot eminence at the southern end of Lake Canandaigua.

Thinking about Seneca legends made me recall conversations I'd had many years ago during my travels in Western New York. One of these had concerned a Spiritualist community called Lily Dale, near the village of Cassadaga in Chautauqua County, southwest of Buffalo. (There's a song called "Lilydale" on The Wishing Chair, the magnificent first album by 10,000 Maniacs, who came from nearby Jamestown, New York; you can hear it here.) During this conversation, I was told about a young man from Jamestown who had Seneca ancestry, and who visited one of the mediums at Lily Dale. When he entered the room where the medium sat, she seemed to look over one of his shoulders, and said, "Hello! I haven't seen you in a while. How are you?" Realizing this wasn't addressed to him, the young man remained silent for a minute while the medium seemed to listen to an inaudible reply. Finally, she looked him in the eye, and he said, "Who were you talking with?" "It's Cornplanter," she answered. "He says you're one of his favorite grandsons, and he keeps a close watch on you."

The Seneca creation myth also made me recall that, when my parents and I were moving from Eglin Air Force Base, in the western panhandle of Florida, to Tampa, we passed billboards on the highway west of Tallahassee urging us to turn off and see "The Original Garden of Eden". I later did some research on this, and found that an eccentric resident of that area, Elvy Calloway, had declared that a ravine on the Apalachicola River had to be the Biblical Eden. He reached this conclusion for various reasons, including the fact that the River splits into four branches nearby, and that various plants mentioned in Genesis can all be found growing there.

On Monday, I took my daughter to her favorite place in Tampa, the Florida Aquarium. (At age 12, she aspires to be a marine biologist. Oddly enough, I had exactly that ambition when I was her age. I'm hoping she'll stick with it.) As we surveyed the gift shop after our tour, I spotted a book with the title Weird Florida, by Charlie Carson (Sterling Press, New York, 2005). I opened it to see if it had an account of the "Garden of Eden". It did, and, to my surprise, a few pages away had a piece about a spiritualist community in Volusia County (near Daytona Beach) called Cassadaga. I assumed Cassadaga, Florida was founded by people who moved south from Lily Dale, since it bears the name of the New York village nearest to there. However, according to Weird Florida, the founder was a spiritualist from Iowa who, in 1875, contacted a Native American spirit. This spirit first directed him to visit another spiritualist in Wisconsin, then told them both that they were to found a spiritualist community in Florida. They traveled to Florida, where the spirit gave them precise directions as to where to establish the settlement.

So, nothing to do with Western New York, except that the spirit guide's name was "Seneca".

Update: I looked up the website for the Cassadaga, Florida spiritualist community, and found that George Colby, the founder, although he may have come there from Iowa, was "from New York". So, perhaps he grew up in or near the original Cassadaga.

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