Published 12:00 am Friday, July 6, 2007
By Chris Verner
Suggest to Sal Trento that he might have been drawn to Salisbury by some mysterious attraction beyond conscious understanding, and you might get a knowing nod and a wry smile.
On the surface, it appears simple enough: Trento recently moved here from southern California to take the job as headmaster at Salisbury Academy. But Trento isn’t one who readily accepts superficial rationales or easy explanations. He likes to dig deeper. Literally.
Parallel with his career in teaching and school administration, he’s a serious student of archaeology and anthropology who has spent much of his life exploring and sometimes excavating mysterious places across America and around the world ó enigmatic stone structures in the woods of Pennsylvania and Massachusetts, strange carvings on ancient rocks in Maine, time-worn walls on the hills above Berkeley, Calif., lava caves in Northern California, a bizarre shaft and complex series of interconnected tunnels on the coast of Nova Scotia. These are a smattering of the sites he has chronicled in “A Field Guide to Mysterious Places of Eastern North America” (Henry Holt, 1997) and two other guides that focus on similar sites in the American West and the Pacific Coast.
This part of his life, he acknowledges, is part quest to find answers to questions that may never be answered ó who were the earliest inhabitants of the continent of America? How did they get here? What sort of lives did they lead? ó and part fascination with archeological anomalies that sometimes lie “right under our noses” yet are often ignored and, in many cases, may soon be lost to development.
“You see these incredible things,” he says, “and you wonder, ‘why there? Why not down the road a piece? What was going on here?’ ”
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If it hadn’t been for the death of a dictator, Salvatore Michael Trento’s life might have followed a much different road.
The year was 1975. Trento had been studying at Oxford University in England, where he did graduate work in anthropology and archeology. As part of his studies, he was doing research on the island of Majorca, studying ancient megalithic structures constructed more than 3,000 years ago on the Balearic Islands off the coast of Spain. For a kid who had spent his formative years roaming the fields and forests of New York’s Hudson Valley, Majorca’s artifacts were pretty intriguing stuff.
“When you have an entire society dedicated to building gigantic structures on a tiny island, it’s kind of odd,” he says.
Trento envisioned a longterm project on the islands, but then Spain’s leader, General Francisco Franco, died. It was a time of political turmoil and instability. “Life became tough” for foreigners in Spain, Trento recalls. Many were asked to leave. He found himself back home in the Hudson Valley, living with his parents.
“I was thinking, ‘All right, what do I do now?’ … I was 23. I had no income, nothing.”
He landed a job teaching anthropology at a community college in rural northeast Pennsylvania. Although it was a world away from Majorca, he made good use of his previous research by bringing it into the classroom. He showed the students slides of the stone structures that had fascinated him. One day, a student raised her hand.
“I’ve seen some of those same things out in the fields,” she said.
Trento ruefully admits he was initially skeptical. He dismissed the idea that strange ruins in the nearby countryside.
“She kept insisting, and being young, naive and stupid, I kept not listening to her.”
Finally, she showed him some photos of underground chambers and stone structures in rural Pennsylvania and other nearby areas.
Trento was intrigued. The intrigue deepened when he visited the sites and realized they indeed bore a startling similarity to the structures he had been studying on Majorca, although on a reduced scale.
“Who would do this?” he asked himself. And how, as someone who had studied ancient cultures, could he not have been aware of it earlier?
“It just did not make any sense. It was like a revelation.”
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From that moment of revelation, Trento was hooked. He began researching and compiling information on “mysterious places.” Enlisting the aid of colleagues and friends with a similar interest, he formed a nonprofit research center devoted to researching esoteric ruins in Pennsyvlania, upstate New York, New Jersey and other areas of the eastern United States.
“I’ve always had this ability to get people to do things,” Trento says ó not a bad trait to have if you’re eventually going to become involved in the development and management of private schools.
Eventually, his work with the research center led to his first book, “The Search for Lost America” (Penguin, 1978). Trento describes it as partly a description of the stone ruins he studied and the various explanations for their existence, and partly a narrative of the quest itself, which took on its own life and played no small role in shaping his educational philosophy.
As part of his work with the research center, Trento agreed to involve young students who were having trouble in school, who appeared unmotivated and unengaged. He trained them in techniques of archival research, looking through old land records and contemporary historical documents, as well as involving them in the slow, painstaking work of onsite research. For some of these students, he said, the explorations of a lost past was a transformative experience that opened up new possibilities for their future. They became interested, engaged, motivated. They got caught up in “the quest there’s something out there. Nobody knows what it is. How amazing …”
After the publication of “The Search for Lost America,” things “sort of snowballed.”
He began lecturing at schools and colleges, talking about the mysterious sites he had catalogued. After moving to Colorado, where he was an administrator at Graland Country Day School, he discovered that the American West was also rich with primitive archeological sites, many of them early Native American. He wrote “Field Guide to Mysterious Places of the West,” which he followed with “Field Guide to Mysterious Places of the Pacific Coast” and “Field Guide to Mysterious Places of the Eastern North America.” He also adapted some of his findings for television, including a segment on the TV program “Sightings,” a series produced by former “Happy Days” star Henry (The Fonz) Winkler that focused on the paranormal.
The quest, Trento says, had become “an obsession,” one that figured in the breakup of his first marriage, a shattering experience that coincided with a near-fatal car wreck in 2003. He described that bleak period ó and his miraculous recovery ó in a 2006 article in “Guideposts” magazine.
“My work as a best-selling author of mysterious places had brought me fame and several television shows,” he writes. “But weeks on the road, away from home in search of unusual places, exacted a heavy toll on my marriage.”
While the physical recovery was swift, excavating the emotional ruins took much longer. He moved west, to California, where he worked at another school and met his wife, Gwendolyn.
“Good friends, therapy and lots of prayer made all the difference in the world, as did a change in place,” the Guidepost article notes. “A move to the beaches of southern California did wonders for the heart and soul.”
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Inevitably, mysterious sites overlap with ancient places of worship and meditation. Trento believes that many of the sites he’s explored were places that held special meaning for the people who created or often visisted them. But while that may at least partly explain their origins, it also leads Trento back to the question that continues to absorb him:
Why are ancient petroglyphs on this particular boulder? Why were Native American rituals held in this particular cave? Why here and not there?
The answer, he believes, lies not in the supernatural realm but in the geomagnetic energy that radiates from the earth’s core in that same way that invisible fields emanate from a child’s toy magnet, only on a vastly larger scale. The possibility that these energy fields may subtly influence animate life ó the migratory instinct of birds, for instance ó has long intrigued scientists. Drawing on biophysical experiments by scientists such as Dr. Robert Becker, author of “The Body Electric,” Trento began to investigate the strength of magnetic fields at the mysterious sites he was writing about, using a magnetometer to measure the field’s strength. Time after time, he says, he found significant geomagnetic fluctations. These aberrations, he believes, may have a physiological effect involving the pineal gland and the control of neurotransmitters that can affect our moods and emotions.
In our tightly wired modern world, living amid electronic impulses from power and communications grids, we may be desensitized to these deviations in the natural force field. In earlier times, with no power lines, no cell phones, no satellite broadcasts, our human precursors may have been much more attuned to subtle changes in their environment. Some of them may have felt the physiological influence of fluctuations in the earth’s force, Trento suspects, and that determined where they stacked their stones, erected their primitive temples, or carved their strange messages on stone walls.
“Is there any wonder why most of us who live in or near cities never experience the subtler energy fields produced by nature when we are awash in an enormous, artificially induced electrical barrier of our own design?” Trento asks in “Field Guide to Mysterious Places of Eastern North America.” “We’ve become calloused to the earth’s call.”
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Salisbury is 2,000 miles removed from sunny, southern California, the place Sal Trento left behind. It would seem an idyllic existence ó great climate, dramatic coastal scenery, a beautiful world inhabitated by beautiful people.
Why Salisbury? Why this place and not some other place?
Just as subtle energies may draw us to one location, perhaps they also can compel us to pull away from others. While southern California evokes visions of sun-soaked beaches and palm-lined boulevards, even an endless summer can eventually develop bad vibrations.
For Trento, it was the congestion, the logistical stress of living in a densely populated place, the grating sense of artificiality. Some of the palm trees are really plastic; some of the beautiful people are, too. What had once seemed a special, if not exactly mysterious, place, gradually lost its allure. He was ready for a change when he learned of the headmaster’s job at Salisbury Academy. His internal magnetometer registered the right waves.
While he continues working on more “mysterious places” projects, there’s no mystery about the educational goals he’s set for Salisbury Academy, where his office is still a work in progress, with fossilized stalactites from a Caribbean sea cave sharing desk space with books and papers. He’s quickly come to appreciate the down-home authenticity of Salisbury, and he envisions an educational adventure ahead for the school, which currently has about 180 students in grades K-8 at the campus off Jake Alexander Boulevard.
“I want to help this school have a sense of total excitement,” he says. “We have a really good curriculum, but it’s going to get better. It’s going to be more of a place where there’s this longing and search for knowledge, as well as mystery. I want to make this school into a nationally recognized organization.”