Childhood Winters Ain’t What They used To Be

Winters were busy during my South Deerfield childhood, in the days before smartphones, smart TVs, PlayStation, Xbox and 24/7 cable television. Frankly, we did just fine, thank you, without the modern devices that today keep kids sedentary indoors.

The village itself was much different, too, with much more of a small-town atmosphere, Billy Rotkiewicz’s Frontier Pharmacy at the center, across from the downtown common. He filled prescriptions and held court while his waitressing crew was busy serving ham and eggs and home fries, hamburgers, hotdogs and French fries, ice cream cones, frappes and sundaes. All the latest small-town news and scandal, and even a little prankster mischief passed through the place daily.

There were many winter activities to keep a young boy active. We skated Bloody Brook, skied Boro’s Hill, slid down Gorey’s Hill on toboggans and flying saucers, built forts in the massive snow piles along the western perimeter of the high school parking lot, and played basketball on Phil Bill’s driveway or, better still, along the edges of varsity practices in the high school gym. All of it contributed to good health, fitness and rosy red cheeks.

Skating required clearing frozen Bloody Brook with shovels after each snowstorm. We’d lug our skates and shovels down to the Pleasant Street bridge, clear off an elevated shelf on which to lace up our skates and leave our boots. Eventually, we’d clear a milelong skating lane from Yazwinski Farm to the culverts tunneling under Route 5 & 10 behind Urkiel’s house. This chore was performed by skating in unison with the shovels out in front of us like little snowplows, widening the path as the day progressed.

We loved to horse around under the bridges on North Main Street, Pleasant Street and Conway Road. At the bulbous spots, such as the small ponds above the bridges and the natural little aneurysms here and there, we’d clear out miniature, banked, rectangular hockey rinks with makeshift goals at each end. When the air was cold and the ice was right, it kept us busy and out of mischief. Well, sort of. Mischief was never far away from my gang. Somehow we amused ourselves without handheld contraptions, video games and Comcast.

I don’t know why our favorite sliding place was called Gorey’s Hill. Probably because the Milton and Helen Gorey family lived nearby at the end of Eastern Ave. Actually, the hill abutted Sonny Boron’s backyard across the street from Gorey’s. On a good day, you could ride a toboggan all the way into the ditch carrying Sugarloaf Brook under Cross Street near Bucky Kuzdeba’s driveway. We learned to be careful when the snow was fast and runs reached that ditch. Covered by snow down there was a metal pipe marking a property corner, a hazard that ripped many a nylon parka and even drew occasional ribcage blood over the years.

The top of Gorey’s Hill, south of Frost’s home tucked into a quiet wooded terrace overlooking Cross Street, was just a stone’s throw from the base of the three-season Indian trail we often climbed to the North Sugarloaf cave, sometimes more than once a day. I doubt that townie kids use that trail, the cave or Gorey’s Hill today. Recently, facing that western face of North Sugarloaf from my mother’s driveway, I remarked to my wife that it was hard to imagine once scaling that ancient, embedded vertical footpath with ease. I wouldn’t even attempt it today. Too steep. My old, battered legs ain’t what they used to be.

Just getting to Gorey’s Hill was a project. It involved pulling an eight-foot, Adirondack toboggan and a flying saucer or two on a route from Pleasant Street to North Main Street to Braeburn Road to Graves Street to Cross Street and up the hill. After snowstorms, the path from the base of the hill to the elevated launching pad became easier to travel the more you used it, great exercise any way you cut it. Likely too much work for Computer-Age kids.

I don’t recall why we’d choose on some days to instead ski at Boro’s Hill, a quarter-mile due east of the Bloody Brook Monument. That too was a project. It entailed carrying cumbersome skis, poles and boots while breaking a path through deep snow to the base of the mountain. Once there, the work only increased. We’d pack the slope manually on side-by-side ascensions, short-stepping our way to the top, our skis perpendicular to the ski trail. The short downhill runs were our reward. Then we’d trudge back up to the top sideways, widening the trail as we went. When the skiing surface finally widened to our desires, we’d stop packing and climb to the top facing straight uphill with our skis opened in Vs.

Seems I recall giving Yazwinski’s Hill a try or two for a change of scenery, but Boro’s was taller, steeper and wider. Remember, those were the days before the Kelleher Drive and Captain Lathrop Drive developments. Back then, open land interrupted by slim tree lines extended all the way from Hillside Road to Graves Street. Although there’s still a fair amount of open land on that fertile plain today, it has shrunk considerably, not nearly as much as the open land of my childhood between Eastern Avenue and the Little League Field at the base of Mt. Sugarloaf.

Building snow forts also required physical labor. We used shovels and gardening tools to hollow out snow banks into a series of igloo-like chambers connected by short tunnels we’d crawl through. Where was my claustrophobia back then? We’d dig out a door at each end, openings we were extra careful to hide when we left them unoccupied. We’d do so by filling in the openings with large snowballs we’d smooth with our hands before kicking loose snow over the patches and roughing them up to hide any discernable manmade lines. We didn’t want to expos our secret hideouts to vandalism by kids passing through from other neighborhoods. It worked. Never were our snow forts discovered and destroyed. Eventually they’d just disappear with snowmelt as the winter waned. Fun while it lasted. These days, we rarely get enough snow accumulation for such forts, no matter what the climate-change deniers tell you.

Lastly, of course, there was basketball, our winter mainstay, especially for those of us who lived near the high school. Maybe we were pests, but the coaches running varsity practice put up with us shooting baskets at side hoops away from the action. The boys’ coaches were less tolerant than legendary girls’ coach, Vi Goodnow, who gave us far more sideline liberty. That, I never forgot. Thus, I remained loyal to Vi to the bitter end, when I was covering her teams as sports editor of the local newspaper. She deserved respect as the force behind western Massachusetts girls’ athletics as we know it today. Yes, the lady from Buckland wearing the plaid, pleated skirt was a pioneer – a dedicated trailblazer who hated to lose and seldom did in the early days, before men started coaching girls’ teams to level the playing field a bit.

Shooting baskets along the edges was only a small part of our basketball routine during my grammar school years. With the statute of limitations long ago passed, I can now admit we soon learned how to spring open the double doors on the northeast side of the gym. All it took was a quick, powerful outward pull on the two exterior door handles in the middle to spring the doors open. Bingo! Free reign to the gyms. For such clandestine efforts, we rarely dared to occupy the big gym with fold-up bleachers because we could be seen from outside. Instead, we played in what we called the small gym, which became secondary in the late 1950s. Located in the basement of the original, two-story Deerfield High School building, it was far from regulation size but more than sufficient for neighborhood boys seeking an indoor winter court. If we heard someone enter the building, we’d scurry to grab our basketballs and loose clothes and flee up the stairs and out the front doors facing North Main Street. Never once did we get caught. Slippery little devils, we lived nearby, had refuges, knew every escape route and could move fast.

On pleasant winter evenings after school, we had permission to use the garage hoop above Mr. and Mrs. A. Phillips Bill’s North Main Street driveway. I feel privileged to have known Phil Bill, an eccentric math prodigy who by age 18 had graduated from Dartmouth College and was teaching math at Deerfield Academy. Teacher by day, he morphed at night into a gin-fueled human computer for the Gordon E. Ainsworth & Associates surveying company. Wife Kay was a homemaker known to high school students as a substitute teacher.

Usually, six of us would play rotating, two-on-two games to 20 until suppertime, when Mrs. Bill would often approach us from the side door to tell us it was time to wrap it up. Mr. Bill was working and getting a little cranky. We’d finish our last game and head home for supper. By the time I was in junior high school, my parents had bought the house next door to the Bills, where my 91-year-old mother lives today, isolated in this lonely pandemic.

Today’s South Deerfield village is a far different place with a larger cast of characters. There’s no devilish Billy Rotkiewicz stirring things up at Frontier Pharmacy, no “Pistol Pete” Kuchieski patrolling the streets, no skating on Bloody Brook, sliding on Gorey’s Hill or skiing on Boro’s Hill, no basketball high-school-gym break-ins, and no Tanqueray-soaked human computers getting cranky while on suppertime overload.

Current residents have no time to ponder what they’re missing. Not now, anyway. Too busy frantically searching for that PS5 everyone has to have and cannot find anywhere – a fruitless pursuit that’s driving them crazy.

A Fateful Fuller Swamp Hunt

Fuller Swamp isn’t a welcoming type of place that invites you in for coffee by the kitchen fireplace. No, not quite. The call from Fuller is more like a challenge or foreboding taunt. Something like, “Come on in if you dare and give it your best shot.” No promise of success, never an apology to weak-willed, mud-splattered, burdock-covered retreaters, of which there have likely been too many to count.

A spring-fed, late-Pleistocene, relict channel of the Deerfield River located between Mill Village Road and Route 5 & 10 in Deerfield, the deep, dark swamp is tucked along the eastern base of a tall, steep land shelf known in Deerfield parlance as Long Hill. The wooded, cattail jungle is traversed by a power line along its southern perimeter and has, for the few hunters who venture in, grown nothing but more difficult to navigate over the past 50 years. Though historically a haunt for bird, waterfowl, and rabbit hunters, it can also attract the hardiest deer and bear hunters as well. Why not? Wildlife gravitates to such rich, fertile swamps where the eating’s good.

As a young man, the place referred to in townie local lingo as “Fuller’s” was part of my weekly valley pheasant-hunting itinerary west of the Connecticut River. The well-worn path led me from Little Naponset at the south end of Hatfield to the North Meadows of Deerfield, mostly in swamps bearing names such as Mill, Cow Bridge, Bashin, Hopewell, Stonecrusher, Savage’s, and Pogues Hole. Also, of course, intimidating Fuller’s, thus named because of its history as part of the old Fuller Farm, where nationally recognized Deerfield artist George Fuller (1822-1884) was born and raised. Today, an octogenarian Fuller descendant, the widow Mary Arms Marsh, lives there, selling seasonal produce at her roadside Bars Farm Stand, one of my regular summer vegetable stops. Mary and I carry the same Arms DNA, so I view it as family.

As captured on 19th-century canvas, the Fullers harvested cranberries in the bog behind their hipped-roof, Federal home across the street from the even earlier Allen Homestead. They also cut hay in fields that in my day served as marshy Melnik cow pasture, now overgrown wasteland populated by alders and poplars, thorns and vines, cattails and hummocks hiding treacherous pockets of black, sticky mud that can swallow a careless, freewheeling man in a jiffy.

How could I ever forget the day when, hunting with dear late friend and former Frontier baseball coach Tommy Valiton, I stepped on a thin, silty, harmless-looking trickle of a spring stream exiting the swamp’s interior and quickly found myself submerged to my chest? I stopped the slide to oblivion by reaching out my arms and shotgun and eventually hoisting myself back to my feet. No place for the weary or weak of spirit – Tommy was thoroughly amused. His mischievous smile said it all. Yes, he was humored to have borne witness the type of next-step’s-a-Lulu tale that’s told and retold for decades.

Then, of course, there’s another old hunting and softball buddy who’s often accompanied me to Fuller’s over the years. I call him Cooker and it was he who coined the term “Fuller Swamp Music” for the loud, humorous profanities inevitably uttered by shotgun-toting hunters who brave the Fuller brambles. His pronunciation of the word swamp rhymes with ramp or camp, his best attempt at a backwoods, hillbilly dialect.

Yes indeed, the place can draw loud, nasty cussing from even the pious, which fits neither of us. We have both sung Fuller Swamp Music to vent rage brought by wet, mucky misfortune of one little misstep. We know coming in that it’s almost impossible to avoid such catastrophes when focused on a gundog hunting fresh scent and a flush.

Still, we keep coming back for more. It all comes down to finding dense, semi-penetrable coverts where wise, late-season pheasants reside. That description fits Fuller Swamp to a tee, and brings us to my most recent, disastrous Fuller’s adventure that could well be my last. Yeah, I suppose it’s possible, yet not very likely.

The tale unfolded late in the day on November 24, two days before Thanksgiving and four days before the end of pheasant season. I was hunting with a buddy I affectionately call Killer because of his uncanny ability to be in the right place at the right time and hit his mark. Accompanying us was Rex, a 15-month-old dynamo of an English springer spaniel gun dog, owned by Cooker and bred to attack punishing cover.

With stocked pheasants getting tougher to find coming down the stretch, we had first ventured into Fuller’s a week earlier. On that maiden voyage, we nearly turned back at the midpoint when unable to find even the hint of a trail to follow and were thus forced to break our own. Mind you, breaking such a trail is no easy task for two spry young lads, never mind two old diehards with a combined age of 143 years.

Complicating matters was a nagging cramp Killer had been experiencing in his right calf since September. He’d been treating it with overnight muscle relaxers prescribed by his doctor and daytime ibuprofen to limit inflammation, but the medicine brought only moderate relief and he couldn’t shake his nagging issue. Physically compromised in his 76th year, he was nonetheless ready and willing to go daily, oozing painful enthusiasm through tough cover. Problem was that his discomfort and concern only waxed as the season endured. Maybe it was unwise to continue pushing it if he wanted to get through deer season. So, yes, it was high time to start balancing his love of wing-shooting with his love of the looming deer season and tender venison backstraps, sizzled rare in the bacon fat of a black Griswold skillet.

We parked separate vehicles after 3 p.m. in the Long Hill shade under the power line overlooking the southwestern corner of Fuller Swamp, just below the site of a recent fatal automobile accident. Partly cloudy skies were graying and the temperature was dropping into the low 40s, perfect for Fuller’s.

We figured it would take us about an hour to hunt the familiar, rectangular, 20-some-acre covert that has always been productive. We knew Rexxie would be up to the task. The question was: could we stay with him and reward him with retrieves for his flushes? A tall order for even a young man, it helps to know the game and the swamp.

We passed under the power line and descended down a steep 15-foot escarpment to the wetland, crossing a decayed pallet snowmobile bridge into the old pasture. From there we plowed east along the edge of a long, tall alder stand leading to a north-south game trail that would take us where we wanted to go. About halfway to the thin trail used by deer, coyotes and even pheasants, Killer halted to admit he could go no farther. His freakin’ calf was killing him, and he didn’t want to push it.

No problem. I told him to position himself in an opening with shooting lanes and just stand there as Rexxie and I circled west, north, and back south toward him. I knew there was at least one cackling rooster in there, one that had eluded me, Cooker, and Rex the previous day. Given that we were already there, I might as well take a quick loop and call it a day? Who knew? Maybe a wild flush would pass him.

Ole Killer was a little cranky but still game, more than willing to take a strategic stand. The man loves to hunt, to shoot, to watch athletic flush-and-retrieve gun dogs do their thing. Plus, we’ve hunted together for many years and he was confident I could stir up a little action.

I reached to end of the alder row and followed its northern perimeter west before angling toward a productive plateau overlooking a muddy ditch and marsh. Rexxie was all business, bouncing over dense cover out in front of me. I felt a sudden urgency to reach high ground 25 yards away in case he flushed something. Crossing a small patch of low, viny cover to reach my intended destination, my boot got tangled in the vines. I stumbled forward and immediately knew I could not avoid my second fall of the season – not bad for a battered old warhorse. I extended my elbows, forearms, and shotgun in front of me to cushion a low-impact, controlled fall. On my way down, I felt my Achilles tendon pop: not a comforting development.

Uh-oh. I knew what I was dealing with as I lay on my belly, unsure if I’d be able to get back on my feet. If the answer was no, it may have taken a helicopter to get me out of there. I laid my gun to the side, used my arms to prop myself to my knees, unloaded the gun, dropped the shells into my vest pocket, wrapped my hands around the barrels, and used the gunstock to push me up onto my feet. Unsure what would happen if I put weight on my injured leg, I took a cautious step and was surprised that it could support my weight without collapsing. Whew! Maybe I had dodged a bullet.

As I carefully maneuvered out of my tangle, I heard the telltale cackle of a cock pheasant behind me, looked to my left and, sure enough, a rooster passed me 40 yards out. Facing turmoil, I had momentarily forgotten all about Rex, who obviously was still on a mission.

It’s unlikely I would have shot even if my gun had been loaded. Distracted by the injury, I was not prepared. That’s the bad news. The good news was that the bird flew toward Killer, who I could not see. I yelled loudly that a flush was coming his way but received no response from him or his gun before the rooster landed between us, maybe 100 yards south of me.

I walked 10 yards, picked up a game trail and slowly followed it toward the pheasant. Once in the neighborhood, I whistled to Rexxie, who soon appeared, blowing past me with a noseful of excitement. It’s fun to watch.

“Killer?” I hollered.

“Yeah,” he growled from about 50 yards away, t’other side of the tall alder screen between us.

“Heads-up. The bird’s between us, and Rexxie just went in there.”

Seconds later, I heard the “cuck-cuck-cuck-cuck” of another rooster flush, followed by the deafening roar of Killer’s trusty old Remington.

“Didja get him?”

“Yup.”

“Attaboy, Killer!”

Rexxie quickly retrieved the dead bird. I rejoined Killer and told him of my injury. He dropped the rooster into his gamebag and we embarked on our perilous journey back to my truck. Using our unloaded shotguns as expensive walking sticks, we carefully limped a quarter-mile out of that thorny, slimy hellhole fully aware that our season was over.

Finally, two weeks later, after limping around the house between icy then hot soakings, and avoiding medical establishments during the COVID scare, I found my way to the orthopedic surgeon for bad news. I had ruptured my Achilles tendon, which I can’t say surprised me. That’s what the telltale pop screams when it happens. The question was: How had I been able to walk away? Luck, I guess. Maybe even friendly swamp spirits.

So now, here I sit, confined to a walking boot and sentenced to a potentially long, tedious winter recovery. Have I experienced my final Fuller Swamp hunt? Maybe so, but don’t bet on it. I’ll likely return because I love it. So do Killer and Cooker, buddies who’ll come along for the ride, chasing wet, thorny cackles to Fuller Swamp Music that ain’t gospel.

 

Some Pheasants Win

The deck is stacked against our ring-necked pheasants these days, when hunting for them has, unfortunately, become strictly a put and take game.

The beautiful, pen-raised gamebirds arrive at selected coverts open to hunting – mostly state-owned Wildlife-Management Areas – crated four to a box in racks on the back of stocking trucks driven by MassWildlife personnel. These men and women follow weekly routes to release birds bought from private vendors into habitats that can support them. Few of them survive the six-week season. Those that do have little chance of seeing spring, even if they find their way to neighborhood birdfeeders bordering swamps, meadows and cropland.

The biggest problem pheasants face, other than shrinking habitats brought by development, is predators, which – with leghold trapping outlawed since 1996 and birds of prey under federal protection decades longer – have multiplied greatly since I was a South Deerfield boy. Back then, in the late 50s and early 60s, we had no coyotes or eagles and far fewer hawks, falcons, foxes, fishers and bobcats. I vividly recall spring pheasant broods feeding like barnyard fowl under our cherry tree fronting three tidy rows of peonies.

We looked forward to the annual visits of such adults and their broods before the field and wetland in the backyard became Frontier Regional School athletic fields and the agricultural fields to the south and west became South Deerfield Elementary School grounds, bordered on the south by cattail marsh and Bloody Brook. Of course, that was also before hens became fair game in the 1980s, before Route 5 & 10 was rerouted away from the center of town, and before Interstate 91 was built, cutting off a continuous mix of open farmland, fields, marsh, and woods extending uninterrupted to the base of the western hills. It was all great pheasant habitat that produced an annual crop of “native” birds.

The reason for the quotation marks around the word “native” is that, in fact, pheasants are not native to New England, or North America for that matter. The Asian gamebirds were instead “introduced” here in the late 19th century for hunters. Even the broods I remember were produced by holdover birds that had survived the hunting season and mated with protected surplus hens stocked annually by state-owned game farms to encourage “wild” brood production.

When pheasants came to Massachusetts during the Gilded Age, it was fashionable for men of status to hunt, own gundogs, hire trainers and game-keepers, and start and/or join trendy hunt and sporting clubs, where top-shelf bourbon and heroic sporting tales flowed freely over toasty fieldstone fireplaces.

Even that has changed dramatically today. Yes, there are still hunters and sportsmen’s clubs, but today hunting, and especially put-and-take hunting, is largely viewed as barbaric and immoral, not at all cool, especially in effete academic communities like our Happy Valley, once the state’s finest pheasant country. Development and 21st-century public perception has changed all that, not to mention the focus of outdoor writing.

Yeah, sure, hunting and fishing tales from the Field & Stream and Outdoor Life genre still sell in Alabama, Texas, and the Dakotas, but not here, and not in urban and suburban markets. The best outdoor writing these days is about nature and conservation and maybe even the hunter/gatherer cosmos of primitive man. Orion magazine is the gold standard, supplanting literary Gray’s Sporting Journal. What it peddles is relevant and sells, not blow-by-blow accounts of gunners and archers downing a big buck or bear, or wing-shooters executing impossible shots on cackling pheasants flushed and retrieved from wet, thorny cover by gundogs of aristocratic pedigree. Once public-square fodder, those tales are no longer suit the mainstream.

Something I learned many years ago, primarily from email interaction, itself relatively “new,” is that the reading public prefers tales about the one that got away through guile, instinct, or pure coincidence. Readers are not interested, more likely disgusted, by accounts of hunting kills, such as a big buck shot through the heart and lungs and quickly bled out by a lethal, state-of-the-art broadhead.

 

The story I am about to share fits this preferred mold. It’s about a cock pheasant that had over a few short weeks learned to survive hunters against stiff odds in the mixed wetland into which he was stocked. Far more likely to occur late in the season, this long-tailed rooster had learned to elude gundogs and hunters. It can happen.

Most of the pheasant-hunting pressure in the Valley has been intentionally redirected over the past 20 or 30 years from private land to the aforementioned Wildlife-Management Areas, places like Bennett Meadow and Pauchaug Brook in Northfield, Poland Brook in Conway, Montague Plains, and Leyden. Most of these coverts are stocked at least twice a week, with some getting a daily dose that draw overflow crowds – not my cup of tea.

The thorny, viny covert I most often hunt, a mix of alder swamp and overgrown dairy pasture and hayfield, is deeply stained with my family DNA. I have hunted it for nearly 50 years and know it top to bottom. Since the state bought it some 20 years ago – setting off a flurry of subsequent purchases bringing the total to nearly 500 acres today – the surrounding hayfields have grown in, doubling or maybe even tripling the prime pheasant habitat. So, yes, stocked birds have a chance and can offer challenging hunts in difficult cover that presents many screens and obstacles obstructing sight lines.

When young, I could pick my way through the deep, dense alder swamp along the southern perimeter. Today, that swamp is impenetrable due to ever-increasing beaver activity that brings pockets of deep water and thick, thorny undergrowth. For birds and beasts, however, this alder jungle that once lured many a migratory woodcock flock is a place of refuge, where they can escape from humans but not furry predators. That even goes for farm-raised pheasants that soon discover escape routes to and feeding zones within the safe haven. Once they’re acclimated to the habitat, the stocked birds flush into the swamp to escape hunters and fly in and out of it to feed on seeds, berries, and grasses. The longer they survive, learning to flee the sounds of human voices and whistles and dog bells, the better at escaping they become.

So, there we were, two of us, hunting over Sunrise Rex, a 15-month-old dynamo of a springer spaniel owned by a field-trialer friend who allows me to hunt the dog when he’s working. After my gundog, Chubby, died suddenly and tragically on the final day of the 2019 pheasant season, I figured I was in for a couple of lean years. Not so. As it turns out, I now had young Rex at my disposal and, miraculously, my fall routine didn’t seem to skip a beat. Incredible… unexpected

Young Rex was there, tagging along as a three-month-old pup on Chubby’s final few hunts last year, displaying great desire and athleticism. Now he has grown tall and lean to rapidly and admirably fill the void left by Chub-Chub, which is saying something. Replacing that veteran gundog, who, by the way, carried not an ounce of fat despite his name, was no mean feat. Chubby was essentially a flawless flush-and-retrieve gun dog with indomitable spirit, a superior nose, and extraordinary agility and stamina. He went through tough covers aggressively and effortlessly, never seeming to tire. Rexxie, a big, athletic dynamo, is cut from similar Sunrise Kennels cloth, and shows the same attributes, right down to impossible blind retrieves that can be quite shocking.

On this particular late-afternoon hunt, we had pounded about half the covert without a flush and it was beginning to feel like one of those rare outings without so much as a wild flush. Yeah, yeah, Rexxie lit up a few times and went into his telltale hops through high cover that often portends a loud flush. But he had flushed nothing in productive cover he knew well.

Then, from afar, I heard the familiar call of a cock pheasant emanating from the direction of the impenetrable alder swamp. Unable to pinpoint more than the general direction from which it came, I decided to give it a whirl and cut across high cover to get closer. There, I thought, Rexxie may get enticed into an enthusiastic search mission that’s always fun to watch.

But no, despite hunting aggressively and penetrating some 40 yards back into the swamp’s edge, the pheasant went silent and Rexxie flushed nothing. The bird must have heard us approaching and wisely shut up.

Oh well, time to circle back to the truck and call it a day. Who knew? Maybe we’d bump into a bird on the way out.

After walking maybe 50 yards in the direction of my buddy, I heard a flushing cackle from deep in the swamp that caught my attention. I turned to look and soon caught a cock pheasant angling away from us across the field toward my truck. Hmmmm? How about that?

I marked the landing near a young oak wearing its rust-colored leaves and told my buddy to circle into position before I worked Rex toward him. He did so, taking maybe five minutes to get into a familiar spot with many shooting lanes where he’d stood many times before. It helps to know a covert.

When I got to within 50 or 60 yards of my buddy, Rexxie hunting between us, the dog caught fresh scent, came to a screeching halt, changed direction, and went into what I call his high-RPM mode: red hot. He thought the wind-washed rooster was near, and it’s never wise to doubt him. He circled the same spot two or three times, hopping several times and widening the arc as he searched. Finally, he lit up on a path created by hunters and raced down it toward the back corner of the small alder patch we were hunting.

Uh-oh, I thought, a runner.

I quickly backtracked 35 yards to the northeast corner of the alders and took a stand in a familiar spot from which I could see out over dense cattails bordering the big, impenetrable alder swamp. I would have liked to position myself closer to the cattails about 40 yards south but didn’t think I had time. So, I got into position where many shooting lanes were available and rolled the dice. Rexxie’s animation told me that a flushing cackle was near. I liked my chances where I stood.

I soon heard the flush, shouldered my shotgun, and never had a freakin’ chance. The rooster flushed straightaway over the cattails and into the alder refuge. Maybe dumb luck, the bird took its only escape route. Neither of us had a shot.

The rooster had won the game. Acclimated to the covert and the sounds of pursuing hunters, he’d recognized danger, fled afoot, flushed and escaped to see another day.

“How many times do you think that bird’s been flushed?” I asked my buddy after reuniting and hunting back to the truck.

“Plenty,” he answered, “and we may yet flush him again.”

Very true.

To be honest, I don’t often give stocked pheasants much credit for intelligence. This was an exception. That rooster had outmaneuvered a great young gundog and two experienced wing-shooters who knew the escape routes and shooting lanes.

Within sight of my truck, I heard a distant squawk, turned, and noticed a red-tailed or sharp-shinned hawk perched high in an old, deeply furrowed poplar tree overlooking the impenetrable alder swamp to which our pheasant had escaped. That can be a problem. Both hawks prey on pheasants when the find them out in the open. So, even when they learn to human hunters, pheasants are never safe from furry and feathery predators.

Thus, the chances that the pheasant which escaped us will see spring is slim indeed. Like I said before: the cards are stacked against them in what has become strictly a put-and-take game.

 

Whately Squire Goes To Happy Hunting Ground

There’s a glaring void in Whately’s North Street/Whately Glen neighborhood. His name is Lyndon “Sonny” Scott, a humble Whately dairy farmer and proud descendant of the town’s founding families. He died at 88 a couple of months ago, removing yet another valuable historical source who knew the land surrounding his expansive farm like no other. He’s now part of that land.

I already miss Scott’s quiet presence out in his yard, across the street at one of his barns or walking the roads on his smiling daily rounds; and I miss his soft voice, his local wisdom, and his warm blue Yankee eyes that reminded a lot me of my father’s. There is good reason for that resemblance. Both men were products of the same Whately gene pool, which has mixed and matched and blended since Rev. Thomas Hooker’s Newtown congregation of English Puritans founded Connecticut Colony in the 1630s and a faction split off in 1659 to migrate north and settle Hadley and Hatfield.

I remember Scott’s mother, bank-secretary May, sitting at the Frontier Pharmacy restaurant counter daily when I was a kid touring the streets of South Deerfield in the Sixties. I also attended the same high school as his three children, and often stopped to chat as an adult when passing through his neighborhood, especially during pheasant hunting. The Scott farm’s acreage once extended roughly from the Deerfield line passing through the Great Swamp all the way to Roaring Brook Road in Conway, with vast forest property on both sides of the South Deerfield reservoirs.

No one knew the ridges, swamps, rocks, and rills in Whately’s northwest corner better than Lyndon Scott. An expert deer hunter and woodsman who moved through the forest like a cat, he had toured his woodlands and marshes since boyhood. He knew all the stonewalls, property lines, and corners of his land, not to mention the discontinued roads, cellar holes, and stone-clad wells hidden under forest canopy.

Following a sudden health event brought on by advancing age, one that doctors apparently never totally understood, he had lost his eyesight overnight a few years ago. Nonetheless, his blindness never diminished his spirit or stopped him from touring the roads and trails, still with a hop in his step. He said that although doctors classified him as blind, he could detect some light, shapes, and movement, just enough to stubbornly continue putting one foot in front of the other on home turf he had trekked since childhood.

When our paths crossed, we most often chatted out along Whately Road by the old Hillside Dairy and White Birch Campgrounds or along the dirt Glen Road to Conway. With his vacant eyes seemingly look right past me, he would first politely and sheepishly ask to whom he was speaking. That was sad. He was not. The humble man remained upbeat, seemed to accept his blindness with aplomb and without regrets or complaints. After all, he had much to be thankful for, and lots to contribute as a sage elder who dated back to the final days of horse-drawn farming. His humble manner, dignity, and humility bespoke his rural Yankee pedigree.

I vividly recall our last conversation about a year ago near the end of pheasant season. Finished hunting the wetlands bordering his meadow across the road, I spotted him in front of his garage and pulled in to chat. When our rambling conversation turned to the deer I had jumped that day – and many other times over the years – in the field hidden by a tree line forming the northern perimeter of his old pasture, now a hayfield, he warmly smiled.

Yes, he said, deer often bed in that field after feeding on acorns along the north-south oak ridge behind it. At night, they’d rise to feed in the hayfield under the cover of darkness, munching the same nutritious clover and rye on which his dairy herd once feasted. Over the years, he said, many hunters had bagged nice bucks on that hardwood ridge extending back into and overlooking the foreboding Great Swamp.

Scott was curious if I had ever explored that ridge. If so, had I ever found the remains of the old building there? My answer was no. I had never followed the ridge back into the woods.

“Well,” he said, “someday when we have more time, I’ll show it to you. Maybe you’d have some ideas about it. I know it wasn’t a house. My guess is maybe some sort of a small lumber operation.”

Obviously, now that field trip will never happen. Sad but true. Nonetheless, he planted a seed for potential future inquiry, one that has already germinated. Which brings us to the present time, and a curiosity pulling back to the site. Who knows? I may soon poke around up there if I decide to hunt that back field bordering Mill River and the swamp.

What recently re-ignited my interest in the site was a project I helped friend Peter Thomas complete. I assisted him in photographing the old, handwritten Hatfield town, church, and proprietors’ records dating back to 1660. From the photos, Thomas created sharpened digital files that can be enlarged and more easily read on a computer screen. My job was to limit distortion by holding the pages flat, the tip of my index finger memorializing my presence in many frames.

Of course, I couldn’t resist skimming the pages for interesting tidbits and names of ancestors. Thus, before our second visit to Hatfield Town Hall, I decided it best to bring along a notebook in which I could record points of interest for future reference. I pulled a used, six- by nine-inch steno pad from a tidy pile stacked at eye level on an upper shelf in the narrow supplies closet alongside my study’s fireplace. Although I noticed that it contained five or 10 pages of notes, I was in a rush and did not investigate the topic.

Then, trying to minimize the hours in Hatfield, I never once opened the pad to enter notes. That, I decided, would have to wait until I had them available on my hard drive.

Later that night, curious about the notebook within reach of where I was seated, I opened it to see if the notes should be discarded. A quick look told me no, definitely not.

The pad contained notes I had taken 10 years ago during a spin through my fifth great-grandfather, Deacon Thomas Sanderson’s, 18th-century tannery and shoemaking account book (1769-1797) housed at Old Deerfield’s Memorial Libraries.

What a stroke of good fortune. To be perfectly honest, I had forgotten those notes existed. You know how that goes. Yet they couldn’t have appeared in a timelier fashion. A treasure trove of local history focused on the old Hatfield/Whately neighborhood called Canterbury, the peripheral information among many debits and credits enhanced some of the Hatfield records most interesting to me personally.

A simple coincidence? Not in my mind. Such discoveries occur for a reason. This one motivated me back to Old Deerfield, where I re-examined my ancestor’s account book. In the 2010 notes, I had fortunately recorded an alphabetical list of the family tannery/shoe-shop patrons, as well as notes of interest here and there regarding specific transactions. Among those patrons were many names with which I was more familiar today than I was 10 years ago, having studied early church and town records for South Deerfield, Sunderland and Whately.

Something I found most interesting, and prominently noted from my first notes about the Sanderson account book, was the prevalence of barter economy between the merchant and community. With little specie available during the Revolutionary War era, debts were paid with labor – such as hoeing corn, cutting firewood, roofing and construction of buildings – and commodities, such as “cyder,” maple syrup, furniture, lumber, chestnut shingles, and animal pelts.

I was not surprised to find on my recent review of the account book quite a few debts settled with loads of hemlock boards and tree bark, but I was surprised that Deacon Sanderson went so far as to note that they were coming specifically from the Great Swamp, just two miles as the crow flies from his Canterbury farm.

The inner bark of hemlocks and white oaks, including chestnut oaks, contain tannins used in the curing and preservation of leather for shoes, clothing, belts, wallets, and bridal-leather associated with saddles and equestrian straps and reins. In Old English the word tannin meant leather maker. So, obviously bark would have been an important commodity to a tannery, and thus would have been taken in trade by 18th– and 19th-century tanners, saddlers and cordwainers like those at the Sanderson tannery and shoe shop. The Great Swamp is still populated by hemlocks and white oaks, both of which do well in wet habitats and would have been prevalent in colonial times as well.

Imagine that. Could the ruins brought to my attention by the late Lyndon Scott have been associated with a Great Swamp lumber mill that once supplied the Sanderson tannery with bark and lumber in payment for leather goods?

As late North Hadley farmer and friend Fred Kucharski – dubbed “Freddie Bender” – used to say, “You betcha believe it.”

I sure do wish Scott was still in the neighborhood. I’d love to run this fresh discovery by him.

A Deer Story That Can Now Be Told

This is a tale that took place decades ago. I’ve told it many times in conversation but never written it. Now, with camouflaged bowhunters occupying local tree stands, why not, for posterity, put it in black and white?

I’d estimate that it unfolded in the mid to late 1980s, when I was a young man in my 30s. I owned my late grandfather’s home in South Deerfield and hunted with townie friends like Timmy Dash, Big Stosh, Fast Eddie, Hopper White, and the Young Count. We’d start the fall in the October swamps, overgrown fields and orchards, wing-shooting pheasant, grouse, woodcock and an occasional duck behind my black Lab, Sara. Then we’d close it out on December hardwood ridges during the shotgun and blackpowder deer seasons.

Which of my hunting buddies accompanied me on that Sunday-morning deer-scouting mission in the deep woods of the Williamsburg quadrangle I honestly don’t recall. My best guess would be Big Stosh, an old baseball teammate and friend since grammar school. It doesn’t matter. This story about the unlikeliest of discoveries can stand on its own.

To tell the truth, I can’t even remember the name of the Hatfield bowhunter I’m writing about. All I can say is that he killed a monster whitetail buck, one of a size most commonly associated with the Northwoods. The trophy buck tipped the scale at a smidge under 240 pounds, with an incredible antler mass and spread. I know the hunter had a Polish surname, one beginning with M and ending in ski. I think his first name was Rich. But don’t hold me to it. It was long ago. He may by now be dead. But I’d wager that the impressive wall mount is still on display somewhere in the valley.

Back then, as sports editor of the Greenfield Recorder, I was in the early years of cranking out a weekly Thursday outdoors column titled “On the Trail.” Come archery deer season each November, I’d dig out my detailed, annotated list of western Massachusetts deer-checking-station phone numbers and call every last one of them weekly looking for good copy about remarkable hunts. I’d publish a weekly 200-pound club report. That is, hunters who had taken bucks weighing a minimum of 200 pounds. Occasionally, I’d lower my standards and dip into the 190s when checking-station personnel raved about the animal.

Though I’d often learn by word of mouth about local hunters’ success, even then I’d get confirmation from the men and women who weighed and recorded deer kills at state fish hatcheries and private gun shops. I was on a first-name basis with many station attendants stretching from Worcester to Pittsfield. When they provided successful hunters’ names and town of residence, I could, in the days before cell phones, easily find their home phone numbers in the telephone book – a convenience unknown to modern scribes. In fact, I’d take a wild guess that there are many 30-somethings today who have never once opened a telephone book looking for a number.

If my memory serves me well, this particular monster buck was recorded at the long-ago shuttered Pioneer Valley Sporting Center on Damon Road in Northampton. But again, that’s superfluous information by now, not by any stretch critical after all these years.

What I do vividly recall is that the man who owned the sports shop and entered the kill into the books, himself a veteran deer hunter, was in total awe. He remarked that bucks like that are rare indeed in this neck of the woods.

After I had obtained all the facts I could gather from the man named Bill something-or-other, I phoned the Hatfield hunter to get his story. Still on cloud nine, he was more than willing to share how his hunt played out, recounting every minute detail: from the scrape line the buck had pawed into the forest floor, to the placement of his stand and buck lure, to the animal’s cautious approach, to the entry-point of the mortal arrow. He was proud, more than willing to recreate the total experience of taking a buck for the ages.

However, if there’s one question no hunter likes to answer, it’s stand location. Bowhunters are particularly secretive, extremely protective of their favorite tree stands. They view such information as strictly confidential, reserved only for family and dearest friends, if that. Anyone interviewing a successful hunter must respect this confidentiality code. If you can get an accurate town of kill, you’re doing well. But pinpointing the site? Good luck.

Still, the question must be asked, and it was. After a brief, tell-tale pause, his furtive answer was Chestnut Mountain, a well-known deer-hunting ridge straddling the North Hatfield-West Whately line between Route 5 & 10 and Northampton’s Mountain Street Reservoir. Many a big buck has been taken from those woods overlooking the so-called “Plantation” and West Brook. And believe you me, many a cagey hunter has over the years used Chestnut Mountain as clever cover for an actual kill site. It seems every town has a place like that, one that provides a convenient cover for the question hunters don’t want asked.

I reported what the man told me, knowing there was a good chance it was not true. What choice did I have? I would have preferred a humorous and evasive answer. You know, something like “under the old apple tree” or “in the white oaks” or “through the heart and lungs,” or even a simple “no comment.” Instead, I got the polite runaround, and printed it.

Well, little did I know that more reliable data would soon appear in the form of an incredible stroke of good fortune. We’re talking about dumb luck, the improbability of which was greater than getting struck by lightning. Still, unlikely as it may seem, it happened. Like they say all the time in Chicopee: You can’t make it up.

Within two or three weeks of my big-buck column hitting the street, my friend and I decided to scout our favorite sections of the expansive woods known on topo maps as the Williamsburg quadrangle. Even then it wasn’t as heavily hunted as it once had been, because modern hunters were starting to drift away from big woods in favor of small suburban woodlots with high deer densities. Known to state wildlife biologists as “The Four Corners,” because Whately, Williamsburg, Ashfield, and Conway meet there, I preferred to hunt the ridges traversed by Henhawk Trail, an old Indian footpath and discontinued road leading from the Whately-Williamsburg line to Cricket Hill in Conway.

I had known those woods since I was a teen wandering the old roads with a high-school sweetheart on warm spring days. Back then I even happened upon a small Sixties artist commune hidden there, the members of which summered in twine-bound lean-tos off Henhawk Road. These same folks also had a small, winter cabin named “The Eagle’s Nest” atop Dry Hill. Last time I checked, the Nest was still sturdy and standing amid outcroppings of ledge on the hardwood ridge.

At the base of the double-rutted road leading to the cabin was a private bridge crossing a small spring brook. Cresting the wooden frame defining the crossing was a carved sign sporting a coiled rattlesnake preceding a warning that read “Avril Wood: Don’t Tread on Me.” Apparently, the commune’s name was Avril Wood and the members didn’t enjoy trespassers. Nonetheless, I met the loin-clothed campers a few times and spoke with them. They were harmless hippies – friendly, in fact, once they understood they were not threatened.

Anyway, on a high terrace over the top of the ridgetop Eagle’s Nest there was an old overgrown apple orchard that produced plentiful fruit one year and virtually none the next. When apples were plentiful, deer frequently fed there. Thus, it was important to assess the apple crop before hunting season began.

Our pre-shotgun-deer-season scouting plan was to four-wheel my Jeep Cherokee up Henhawk to a spot between High Ridge and Dry Hill. Parking there, we’d scout High Ridge to a backdoor descent to the old Boy Scout camp, then hike up to the old orchard on Dry Hill’s gentle north slope. Interpreting deer sign along that circuitous journey, we’d be able to assess their feeding and bedding habits.

Having finished the High Ridge leg of the mission, we crossed Henhawk, passed my Jeep, and were following a stonewall up Dry Hill when I stumbled on what felt like a vine or maybe a strand of old metal fence buried in fresh leaf litter. When I tried unsuccessfully to pull right through the snag, I backed off, freed my boot, and spotted a shiny cord of some sort.

Hmmmmm?

With my curiosity piqued, I reached down to inspect the cord, which looked relatively new. When I pulled up on it, I could see it was attached to a small, rectangular plastic box attached about three inches up the base of a small tree to my right. I then followed it about three feet to the left, where it was anchored to another tree base, creating a tripwire.

I fiddled with the plastic box and was able to slide it off a frame secured to the tree. What I had discovered quite by chance was a hunter’s trail-timer, placed along a well-used deer run to track movement into the nearby orchard. A passing deer would hit the tripwire like I had and stop the timer inside to record the time of passing. It was an early version of the trail cameras deer hunters use today for the same purpose, although now, even better, motion sensors trigger photos of passing critters.

Upon closer inspection, I found the owner’s name written on the inner panel. Difficult as it may seem to believe, that trail-timer belonged to none other than the Hatfield hunter I had featured in the big-buck column. I was dumbstruck. How was that possible?

From peak to peak, Dry Hill and Chestnut Mountain are separated by less than three miles – in the neighborhood, so to speak, but more than far enough apart for a hunter trying to conceal a favorite haunt.

To this day, I still can’t believe I found that device by total accident in such a timely fashion. Talk about a needle in a haystack, a random discovery like that, in deep woods no less, should never happen. The probability of hitting a Powerball jackpot is better, likely much better

So now the story has finally been told in black and white. The statute of limitations long ago passed. That was no Chestnut Hill buck. It was a Dry Hill-High Ridge racker, and an extraordinary one at that.

Deerfield’s North Meadows Sentry Passes

A proud, dignified Old Deerfield elder, tall and broad, taciturn to a fault, died peacefully with little notice in recent months, ironically during the planting and nesting season of birth and growth.

Though few knew his name, it was Ulmus Americana, more commonly American Elm – a dying breed that once lined our streets and neighborhoods as deciduous shade trees. That was before a post-World War II Asian invader known as Dutch Elm Disease – a fungal pathogen transmitted by the elm bark beetle – arrived to push our elms to the brink of extinction. Today, the few stragglers that remain stand as lonely reminders of our past.

Before we proceed in this sensitive Happy Valley, let me say I could have used either gender to describe this wise old sentry, standing straight as a preacher man in the fertile North Meadows. Elm trees have no gender. They’re monoecious or hermaphrodite, meaning their spring flowers contain both male and female parts, which produce small, flattened seeds surrounded by papery wings that soften their fall to earth. Who knew?

Word of the tree’s rapid demise came to me by phone from friend Dennis Dassatti, who gardens in the rich, fertile North Meadows. He and those intimately familiar with the stately tree were perplexed by its sudden death – green leaves one day, then brown, then soon on the ground below, leaving a tall, broad, naked skeleton standing more than 100 feet tall with a 19-foot circumference at the base and at least 10 muscular leaders reaching to the sun. Here today, gone tomorrow.

Dassatti had known the tree for at least a half-century. Standing along the bank of a small pond that some would call a mudhole this time of year, he used to sit camouflaged with his back against the large tree waiting for ducks to fly in over his decoys within range of his Belgian Browning Auto-5 fowling gun. The tree was the hunter’s friend and associate, offering cover.

In more recent years, Dassatti has tended a long, narrow garden strip maybe 200 yards southeast of the tree. So, there his old friend stood as he worked, blotting out some of the hills called Sunsick on the western horizon. He was sincerely moved by its passing, like losing an old teammate.

There is no shame or foolishness in feeling such affection for a tree. In fact, many indigenous cultures do or once did identify plants, animals and some remarkable inanimate objects as beings with a soul and a spirit. It’s a worldview Western Civilization has trouble getting its heads around, yet one that’s gained much traction in alternative chambers of Western thought. Then, of course, there is Native American, hunter-gatherer spirituality, which follows the same wholistic pattern, granting equality to virtually everything in their universe. Plants, animals, mountains, springs and even some stones have spirits that must be included in cosmological council.

Heath forester Bill Lattrell, a man of aristocratic Native American roots, understands such belief systems. Of Eastern Algonquian and Cherokee roots, he’s a proud descendant of Grey Lock, the famous, displaced Woronoco (Westfield) warrior who, during the first third of the 18th century, wreaked havoc on what is now called the Pioneer Valley from his Lake Champlain Abenaki village. The man deeply resented the foreign interlopers who drove him and his people from their place.

I contacted Lattrell when lingering questions about the tree, its cause of death and age kept surfacing during telephone conversations. I needed expert consultation and, though I had never met the man, felt like I knew him from email correspondence concerning past columns I have written. I finally reached out by Facebook Messenger, and he agreed to visit the site and age the big elm on one of his trips through Greenfield. We finally connected last week, when we in front of the Deerfield Inn. Dassatti joined us on our way to the site, all of us arriving in separate vehicles in compliance with social-distancing recommendations.

I was in the lead as Dassatti joined us in-route down Broughams Pond Road and into the North Meadows. When we arrived at the T a quarter-mile away, I took a left onto Little Meadow Road and allowed Dassatti to take the lead the rest of the way. The tree and grassy lane leading to it were on private property, and he was friends with the landowners. We traveled a short distance, took a quick right before a barn and followed the lane along a barb-wired pasture holding cattle, parking 50 yards north of the tree.

When we exited our pickups and before introductions, Lattrell, looking directly at the tree, gave us a knee-jerk estimate, given what he could see from where we stood.

“Looks like about 175 years old,” he said.

We climbed under the fence and walked to the edge of the pond basin in which it stood. Able to see the entire tree from that vantagepoint 15 feet away, its massive base sitting eight feet downslope, he knew his initial age estimate was low.

“Wow,” he said, in awe of its girth. “What a magnificent tree. It’s older than I thought.”

Standing and chatting a short distance from the dead elm as Dassatti circled us taking photos, our private discussion entered into trees, nature and worldview. It was then that he shared valuable advice his Abenaki grandfather had once imparted while observing him as a 5-year-old whipping a tree with a long stick for no particular reason. Though his grandfather knew it was harmless kid’s play, he was uncomfortable with it. He calmly intervened, telling his grandson that was no way to treat a tree, that trees were living beings who should be treated with affection, the same as you’d treat an uncle, a cousin or grandparent. Trees bled, breathed, drank water and provided important resources. We should be thankful for trees, he was told, and at all times treat them with kindness and respect.

Lattrell remembers thinking, “Huh? What is he talking about?” But he never forgot the sage advice and, over time, evolved into a like-minded forester.

We were still chatting when Dassatti returned from his photo-shoot. We walked down to the base of the tree, where I pinned the end of a 200-foot tape measure 4½ feet up the massive trunk (called “breast-height) as Lattrell walked it down and around the tree. Measured at 17.2 feet around, the forester dug out his calculator, converted the circumference to 206.4 inches and plugged it into a complex formula involving Pi and the tree’s growth factor to arrive at an estimated age of 276 years, give or take.

In summation, Lattrell doesn’t believe the giant elm fell victim to a pathogen or poison. The life-expectancy of an American elm is about 300 years, and he thinks it had simply run its course in fertile isolation and died of old age.

We can now only ponder the historic events this grand old tree witnessed. The computed age of 276 years brings us back to 1744, 19 years before the end of the final French & Indian War. So, the elm definitely heard gunfire from the South Meadows’ Bars Fight below on Aug. 25, 1746. Who knows? It’s not out of the question that the tree had even sprouted in time to witness the infamous Feb. 29, 1704 Indian attack of Deerfield. Yes, unlikely, but not impossible.

Now the wise old sentry is dead, his reign ended without progeny to bear future witness. All that’s left is a conspicuous skeleton standing as a temporary gravestone. Maybe it’ll soon be a stump whose rings will reveal its exact age, whose cordwood will provide warmth for many winters.

Yes indeed, old Ulmus Americana had a good life in a great place, no richer soil anywhere on the planet.

Kids’ Stuff

Never too late to share a good story, this one occurred on a hot, humid July morning, before noon. Long ago, yes, but still relevant.

It had been a typical morning. I had walked a couple of miles at daybreak, eaten a light breakfast, read, caught up on TV news, gone through emails, responding to a few, maybe even chatted on the phone, though that I do not recall. On some mornings, yes, a phone call is part of my routine. I place some, answer others. If the discussion is dynamic, let it roam. If not, move on.

I’ve squeezed in a lot of reading and local-history probes since spring, all the while maintaining a yard, harvesting my rhubarb, berries and meaty Romas, tidying the barn, observing wildlife – particularly neighborhood deer at the crack of dawn, when they’re still out – and chatting with neighbors on my daily rounds. All this under a dark, ominous COVID-19 cloud, which complicates social interaction. Maybe this uninvited demon will disappear by summer. I hope so. What a freakin’ fiasco, misinformation swirling like a meandering cyclone.

Personal-distancing measures and fear of infection were palpable and rampant the day I met my new neighbor named Gilead, a 7-year-old boy whose parents bought a home down the street. I out by the barn picking raspberries when I initiated our first interaction with some playful remark to his friend, Erin, a young girl whose parents live next door. The two kids were busy playing near the brook, some 15 yards away, when greeted them. I don’t recall what I said. Something lighthearted. Erin is used to it. I often engage her in light conversation when we pass. I enjoy kids’ curiosity and enthusiasm.

Whatever I said drew the kids’ attention. Sure enough, they had soon joined me, eating berries as fast as they picked them from the opposite edge of a narrow patch split by a slim stonewall. The backyard brook was trickling its soothing summer song as I introduced myself and learned his name. He said I could call him Gil. He lived in a home I pass in my daily rambles. His previous address was Montague Center.

I told him I liked his name, that my late son Gary wrote a song named Gilead. It’s about a road near the Stowe Mountain Resort in Vermont, where his college friend lives.

“So, maybe I’ll use your full name,” I said. “Fair enough?”

“OK.”

My chore that day was filling a wooden, quart fruit box with berries I force myself to pick daily when in season. I freeze them in flat, layered Ziplock bags, which provide sweet, succulent, off-season breakfasts when mixed in cold cereal, steaming oatmeal and, every now and then, tasty muffins baked in cast-iron pans. The cool-weather treats justify my sweaty summer chore.

As we picked facing each other some six or eight feet apart, I saw Gilead eat a red berry I knew wasn’t quite ripe, thus likely just a tad bitter. Displaying one between my thumb and forefinger, I encouraged him to select only the soft, purple berries, promising he’d be mighty happy with the results. He listened, immediately picked one, remarked how easily it pulled from the stem, put it in his mouth and savored the delicate sweetness. His expression said it all. A satisfied smile. He had learned something worth knowing.

Over time, the kid undoubtedly would have figured out my little lesson on his own. Still, why not expediate the discovery process? Adult intervention doesn’t detract from learning, just speeds the process with a nudge forward. Nothing wrong with that.

After picking the most accessible berries, young Gilead was presented with the same problem that has confronted berry-picking hunter-gatherers since their ancient beginnings. The kid wanted to penetrate the patch of prickly canes to pick the ripe interior berries, but was discouraged not only by thorns but also pesky nettles, which in childhood I knew as seven-minute itch.

“I wish there were paths to the ripe berries I can’t reach,” he said. “I don’t want to touch the nettles.”

“Can’t say I blame you,” I answered. “I don’t like nettles either. I remove them on my side, wearing gloves to uproot them.

“I’ll bet you didn’t know that Indians made rope and string from nettles. The cordage of various widths was used for fishing nets and fishing line as well as baskets, sacks and strong, braided rope?”

Eye to eye, I could sense something wasn’t hunky-dory. Then, peering up innocently through the drooping, tangled canes, the boy dropped the hammer, saying, “You’re supposed to call them indigenous people.”

I should have known better, given his previous place of residence – that UMass bedroom community known to sarcastic Trump supporters as The Peoples’ Republic of Montague Center. In that riverside hamlet, Native American debate is ripe as my purple raspberries. So, of course, the boy didn’t hesitate to object to my insensitive word choice. Indian is no longer acceptable in some circles, where Native American or my friend’s term are preferred.

Ooooops! Sorry, Kid. Old habits die hard.

So, now we are even. I gave him a lesson in berry-picking; he schooled me in 21st-century political-correctness. Hmmmmm? They call that reciprocity, don’t they?

Sixty years younger, Gilead had reminded me that you’re never too old to learn, too young to teach.

Good thing the boy was unaware of my interest in words and language. Had he known, he may have asked whether indigenous is upper or lower case? Whew! The answer to that inquiry could gone a half a day. There seems to be no short answer these days.

Great Beaver Tale Evolves

The ancient, indigenous Great Beaver Tale about the origin of Deerfield’s Pocumtuck Range has changed dramatically since 1890, when East Charlemont antiquarian Phinehas Field’s 105-word, 1871 description was published in Volume 1 of History and Proceedings of the Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association (1870-79).

Soon after that bare-bones account by a white Christian man of deep Puritan persuasion appeared in print as the ninth of 12 Stories, Anecdotes and Legends Collected and Written Down by Deacon Phinehas Field, two rapid-fire embellishments of his Algonquian earthshaping creation tale were published. The first hit the street in 1895, crafted by venerable Deerfield historian George Sheldon. Then a slightly different version was presented in 1915 by Montague historian Edward Pressey. Sheldon, who apparently was not familiar with the landscape tale before Field brought it to light, increased the word-count to 120 and introduced a few new elements. Pressey upped it to 156 words, adding his own unique spin.

And there you have it in its entirety: a white man’s tale; that of Sugarloaf’s Great Beaver, which stood till the dawning of our 21st century.

In recent years, new life has been pumped into this deep-history oral tale by scholarly, professional, Abenaki storytellers, Marge Bruchac and Lisa Brooks, among other Native contributors who continue to come forward with their own little tweaks and twerks to an alluring tale. They’ve added vivid color and detail to a foundational sketch.

It’s appropriate that Native storytellers have revived this ancient earthshaping tale and molded it into a modern narrative that fits contemporary norms. Even thousands of years ago, Pocumtuck storytellers would have had the liberty to employ poetic license by shaping a deep-history tale to the times – say, for instance, folding it into narrative about natural disaster, such as a flood or drought, perhaps a devastating human epidemic, maybe blight or insect infestation of important plant foods. In the Native American cosmos, natural phenomena, good and bad, happened for a reason. Natural occurrences were seldom if ever viewed as simple coincidence, and could always be related to familiar, ancient tales known for millennia and told around cozy winter fires capable of stirring creative juices of storyteller and listener alike.

A tale like that of the Sugarloaf beaver could last an hour or two, extend through the night, or even go on for more than a day, depending on audience receptivity. The longer versions would have been great theater, the full Monty, so to speak, introducing song and dance, the heartbeat of drums and chants, flashy costume and hushed drama – suspense that could strike fear or rapture into an entranced gathering.

Fidgety children likely heard the short version of such stories around the spring fires of Peskeompskut (now Turners Falls) fishing camps, or in association with a Green Corn Moon festival. The full performance could have been reserved for promontories on the eastern or western horizon from which the Pocumtuck Range’s beaver profile could be clearly deciphered; maybe even from atop Mount Sugarloaf itself – the beaver’s head, its eyes, its brain. What better place to perform ritualistic theater?

Tales that introduced dark, dangerous, underworld spirits – maybe snakes, giant snapping turtles, horned serpents, underwater panthers or even revered black bears – were reserved for winter, when such dangerous creatures were hibernating or unresponsive under dense ice, where they couldn’t hear and thus wouldn’t retaliate. If, however, such powerful forces were alert to the telling and insulted or disrespected, they could and very likely would strike back at disrespectful gatherings.

Eastern Woodland villagers had great respect for everything in their three-layered cosmos consisting of Grandmother Earth floating between the Sky and Under worlds. Theirs was a holistic universe, where plants and animals, springs and swamps, rivers and streams, mountains and valleys, caves and remarkable stones were all community members at council fire. Most everything had a spirit – even inanimate objects like the Pocumtuck Range, which local indigenous people believed had once been a troublesome giant beaver bludgeoned to death by the giant culture-hero Hobomock for flaunting rude, uncooperative behavior, in its case, hoarding and greed. Selfishness was not tolerated by Native Americans, who valued community sharing and charity.

In Algonquian culture, Hobomock was a creator, a transformer, and a mischievous, humorous trickster known by many spellings and names, including but not limited to Koluskap, Gluscape, Glooscap, and Maushop along the Northeastern coast, as well as Odziozo, Nenabozho, Nanabozho, and Nanabush to inland Natives extending through the Great Lakes. Many indigenous tales recounted classic battles between this culture hero and Pleistocene megafauna like the giant beaver, comparable in size to today’s black bear.

Algonquian legend credited Hobomock with reducing the giant beaver and squirrel to today’s more-manageable, less dangerous and destructive size. In the case of the Sugarloaf beaver, the culture hero punished an unruly, antisocial beast and left for eternity a petrified landmark in the form of its carcass.

Today, this abrupt, twisted landform we know as Sugarloaf – for millennia a visual reference for travelers and an observation point for residents – continues to challenge storytellers to conform the Beaver Tale to the times. Bruchac and Brooks have done just that, using the tale as the centerpiece around which to build their very own Western Abenaki narrative about our middle Connecticut Valley. It has become the peg they hang their hat on, an enticing tale that draws listeners.

In the process, place names of geographical features recorded in the extinct Pocumtuck language on our first deeds are being converted to Abenaki words, while distinctions between the ancient New England neighbors are blurred. The truth is that the Pocumtuck and Western Abenaki people occupied different territories, practiced somewhat different lifeways based on climate, and spoke barely mutually intelligible dialects of the base Eastern Algonquian language.

Because of a shorter North Country growing season, Native communities situated there clung more to their “Old Ways” of hunting and gathering than their southern, agriculturist cousins, who adopted Three Sisters farming of corn, beans and squash as their foundational food source. Yes, sure, these people often intermarried, congregated, traded, and united as allies in times of conflict. But, no, they were not one people before Europeans arrived in our valley – though the Sokoki had, by the turn of the 17th century, established their southernmost physical presence in new villages on the northern periphery of Pocumtuck territory. Those villages existed in an area now occupied by Northfield, Hinsdale, New Hampshire., and Vernon, Vermont.

By the late 17th century, the diaspora of southern New England Natives brought them west to the Berkshires and upper Hudson Valley, north to the upper reaches of Lake Champlain, and as far west as the Upper Great Plains, where they assimilated into the dominant societies. Not only did many displaced, homeless Pocumtuck, Nonotuck, Agawam, and Woronoco villagers ultimately wind up living in Western Abenaki villages along the northern shores of Lake Champlain. By 1750, and probably a generation earlier, they had, according to late, great anthropologist Gordon Day, adopted the language of their Sokoki hosts, many of whom had previously lived around Northfield. Simply put, the Sokokis comprised the largest slice of their Champlain villages’ ethnic pie, so their version of the language ruled.

Bruchac and Brooks have many tendrils reaching into those upper-Champlain Native communities, and thus understand the melting-pot dynamics dating back hundreds of years. Though Bruchac, 66, is almost a generation older than Brooks, they both began their college careers in the 1990s. Actually, the younger Brooks, 49, completed each step of her degree path a little earlier than Bruchac, earning her BA from Goddard College in 1993, her MA from Boston College in 1998, and her PhD at Cornell in 2004. Bruchac completed her undergraduate BA at Smith College in 1999, before earning her MA (2003) and PhD (2007) at UMass-Amherst. Brooks is now a professor of English and American Studies at Amherst College, and Bruchac, assistant professor of Anthropology, is Coordinator of Native American and Indigenous Studies at the University of Pennsylvania.

So, both women are highly capable, articulate scholars and storytellers working at prestigious colleges. Their insights into Northeastern indigenous cultures and their understanding of the Native cosmos are top-shelf, yet not entirely unimpeachable in my eyes. Why? Because, although their interpretation of oral history, such as Sugarloaf’s Great Beaver Tale, is framed in scholarly wisdom, interpretation is not and never will be fact, no matter how cleverly nuanced.

Unfortunately, there is no 19th-century, wax-cylinder, Native-tongue recording of the Great Beaver Tale collecting Smithsonian Institution dust. Thus, the deep-history tale told thousands of years before what late historian Francis Jennings calls the European invasion will never be known. End of story. Period. Instead, we must rely on clever and creative storytellers to give us their best recreations, shaping the narrative to fit their own perspectives.

Bruchac launched the Beaver-Tale resurgence with her own evolving oral presentations in Old Deerfield and elsewhere during the last decade of the 20th century, not unlike Sheldon crafting his pre-History of Deerfield narrative in the Greenfield Gazette and Courier. Hailing from a Greenfield, New York storytelling family that includes older brother Joseph Bruchac and his sons, James and Jesse, Marge Bruchac was the perfect Beaver Tale-rebirth vehicle. She had it in her blood, so to speak. Brother Joseph is a card-carrying creative writer and performer, with many books about Native and colonial folklore to his credit.

Another creative contribution was made by North-Country Western Abenaki poet Cheryl Savageau, who dedicated her poem about the beaver, At Sugarloaf, 1996, to Marge Bruchac, suggesting to me the likelihood that Bruchac had introduced her to the tale. The two writers are close in age, travel in the same circles, and are from the same bolt of cloth.

Bruchac’s first publication of the Sugarloaf tale was in the essay “Earthshapers and Placemakers: Algonkian Indian Stories and the Landscape,” which appeared in the 2005 compilation Indigenous Archaeologies: Decolonizing Theory and Practice. Describing the evolution and function of indigenous landscape tales, she stuck to the documented Pocumtuck-language place names for Mount Sugarloaf (Wequomps on a 1672 deed; now more commonly Wequamps, which she translates as “the place where a hill drops off”), the Pocumtuck Range (Pemawatchuwatunck), and the Connecticut and Deerfield rivers, as they appeared in the earliest deeds.

Eleven years later, in her 2016 PVMA online essay “The Geology and Cultural History of the Beaver Hill Story,” she still used the documented Pocumtuck names for landscape features and locations.

Then along came the articulate, younger Brooks, who threw her creative hat into the ring to assist in the reshaping of a pre-Columbian oral tale. Brooks chose to hike a separate path in her excellent, acclaimed The Common Pot: The Recovery of Native Space in the Northeast, which hit the market in 2008. This historical work of literary non-fiction views our slice of the Connecticut Valley, homeland of the Pocumtuck, through a Wabenaki lens, adopting the same Wabenaki place name Savageau had introduced for Sugarloaf in her poem. That name, Ktsi Amiskw, means “The Great Beaver,” territory encompassing not only the Pocumtuck Range but also the fertile shelf it sits on. Never has the Pocumtuck name for this Great Beaver ever surfaced, so it will be forever unknown. Ktsi Amiskw apparently extends south from the foot of Mount Sugarloaf to the Holyoke Range, which is split by the Connecticut River (Kwiniteku) narrows exiting Northampton Meadows.

Now, as we enter the fourth decade of the new Great Beaver Tale paradigm, additional disciples have appeared from the Nipmuc and Narragansett nations, and local newspapers are singing praise of the refreshing new narrative employing Western Abenaki place names. The reporters say it’s long overdue, about time, for local schoolchildren to learn of their valley’s ancient, indigenous past. How better than by introduction to the indigenous tales of the land? Think of it: How better to arrive at an accurate sense of place than through a Native lens? Simply put, there is no better way.

Even so, it remains true that the new paradigm should never be accepted as the one told 2,000 years BC. At this point, we can only try to accurately re-create an extinct oral tale and the lessons its landscape carcass display.

Sadly, Pocumtuck DNA is scattered far, wide and thin, their language is extinct, and the creation tale of their homeland has faded to a ghost of what it was. We can now only rely on scholarly interpretation and literary intervention, which is fun and captivating indeed, but not the real deal. Sad but true, there is no other way to spin that stark reality.

Sugarloaf Beaver Tale All Began In 1871 With Phinehas Field And The PVMA

A venerable, solemn Phinehas Field is displayed in the formal, sketched portrait accompanying his online Find A Grave profile.

A man who volunteered for Civil War service after his 60th birthday, Field had, by the time of this formal portrait, served many years as deacon of the Charlemont Congregational Church and lived a distinguished, pious life. Phinehas Field had much to be proud of.

Born 1799 and raised in Northfield, he died at 85 in Charlemont in 1884. Undoubtedly an outspoken Lincolnian Republican, Field’s tall, mushroom-capped gravestone stands in East Charlemont’s Leavitt Cemetery, situated along the Mohawk Trail on the western skirt of Charlemont Academy. It’s a fitting final resting place for the man who, in 1831, married Chloe Maxwell Leavitt, granddaughter of Charlemont’s conservative minister Rev. Jonathan Leavitt, whose palatial, Georgian-colonial home – The Manse – still stands along a discontinued dirt road 1.5 miles north of Field’s grave. (Rumor has it that Charlemont’s Revolutionary patriots were so determined to be rid of their pacifist minister that they made sure his property was set off with Heath in 1785. And there it stands today, along the border, in Heath.)

Not only was Chloe Maxwell Leavitt Field’s grandfather a minister. Her uncle was prestigious Greenfield lawyer, judge and state senator Jonathan Leavitt, whose sprawling Federal home still stands in downtown Greenfield. There it has for decades served as the Greenfield Public Library. Two of Jonathan Jr.’s brothers were also prominent Greenfield residents.

Though it could be said that Phinehas Field married well, that is not to suggest that he married up. No, he surely would have begged to differ with any such claim. Field came from his own proud New England heritage. Of royal Connecticut Valley cloth, the Fields have since the beginning been scattered up and down the fertile river basin.

Progenitor Zachariah Field is found among the 161 names cut in stone on the Hartford Founders Monument. An early arrival to Boston in 1629, he settled in Dorchester before joining Rev. Thomas Hooker’s famous 1636 overland migration to Hartford, where he became an original proprietor (1639) after fighting in the Pequot War (1637). By 1659, the restless Field had removed to nascent Northampton. Then, in 1662, he moved a few miles north to infant Hatfield, where he died four years later.

According to genealogist Timothy Lester Jacobs of the Society of the Descendants of the Founders of Hartford, “Zachery” Field was engaged as a Northampton and Hatfield resident “in mercantile business, and had a large trade with the Indians.” A pioneer in the true sense of the word, he didn’t live long enough to see Hatfield split off from Hadley and gain township in 1670.

The pioneer flame burned just as brightly among Zachery Field’s descendants, many of them Indian fighters and ground-breakers for early towns like Deerfield, Northfield and Sunderland. Zachariah’s son, Sgt. Samuel Field, survived the Falls Fight of May 19, 1676 only to be slain and scalped by Indians while working on his Hatfield farm 21 years later, on June 24, 1697.

Samuel represented the first of many Fields or Field spouses to be either killed or captured by Indians, including many during the famous February 29, 1704 French and Indian sacking of Deerfield. It didn’t stop there. Members of the Field family were still involved in the fight right up through February 1763, when the long string of French and Indian Wars finally ended with the Treaty of Paris signing.

Phinehas Field was no stranger to colonial family valor. In fact, he wore it on his sleeve. When introduced to the Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association by founder and president George Sheldon at the group’s second annual meeting in 1871, Field stood to introduce himself by highlighting his ancestors’ military acumen. He could go on and on.

His father, also Phinehas, was a Revolutionary soldier; grandfather Moses had fought in the French and Indian War; great-grandfather Ebenezer had been mistaken for an Indian, shot and killed by a Northfield sentry; and his previously mentioned second great-grandfather Samuel was a King Philip’s War vet.

He failed to mention progenitor Zachariah Field’s Pequot War service and, curiously, his own direct and peripheral family connections to Deerfield’s infamous 1704 attack. You’d think his family’s Deerfield misfortunes would have been front and center around PVMA gatherings.

So, why, you ask, should we be interested in Phinehas Field? What was his claim to fame?

Well, it just so happens that Mr. Field is the man who brought to light the Native American Great Beaver Tale explaining the origin of Deerfield’s Pocumtuck Range. President Sheldon had in the early days of his organization implored his “antiquarian” colleagues to record important local history by writing it down for posterity before it vanished in thin air, never again to see the light of day. That was how the ancient, indigenous Beaver Tale was brought into white Connecticut Valley culture. Field introduced it in 1871, and 19 years later it was published in the PVMA’s first volume of its History and Proceedings.

Here it is in full, as published by PVMA in 1890:

 

“The Great Beaver,

Whose pond flowed over the whole basin north of Mt. Tom, made havoc among the fish and when these failed he would come ashore and devour Indians. A pow-wow was held and Hobomock raised, who came to their relief. With a great stake in hand, he waded the river until he found the beaver, and so hotly chased him that he sought to escape by digging into the ground. Hobomock saw his plan and his whereabouts, and with his great stake jammed the beaver’s head off. The earth over the beaver’s head we call Sugarloaf, the body lies just north of it.”

 

So, there you have it, short and sweet as beaver-tail delicacy, and sorely lacking much important detail – such as the composition of the landform beaver’s body. Field identifies the head and nothing else, leaving the rest of the beaver’s anatomy to the imagination, and, yes, there have been inconsistencies about the beaver’s makeup ever since.

Though I have not seen it, Field’s tale likely found its way into the Greenfield Gazette and Courier before it made its way into History and Proceedings. Why? Because PVMA founder George Sheldon was a prolific contributor to the Greenfield paper and also the smaller Turners Falls Reporter. In those local papers he tested out the narrative of what would become his acclaimed History of Deerfield in the years leading up to its 1895 publication.

It should come as no surprise that Sheldon had embellished Field’s vague beaver tale by the time it was published in his History of Deerfield. Field’s skeletal tale needed a little meat on its bones.

So, the Deerfield antiquarian wrote that “Hobomok was offended” by the beaver’s “depredations” and was “determined to kill it,” not with a great stake but rather an “enormous oak” employed as a club. Dispatched by a blow to the neck, the giant beaver sank to the bottom of [Lake Hitchcock] and “turned to stone.”

Sheldon was also more precise in describing the beaver carcass left on the landscape for all to see. He wrote that the view from West Mountain displayed: “Wequamps the head, north of which the bent neck shows where fell the fatal stroke; North Sugarloaf the shoulders, rising to Pocumtuck Rock the back, whence it tapers off to the tail at Cheapside.”

Not to be outdone, along came Montague historian Edward P. Pressey, who, 15 years later, with a different spelling for the transformer character, took his own stab at Field’s and Sheldon’s beaver tale in his History of Montague, published in 1910.

According to Pressey, the Great Beaver preyed upon fish and, when food became scarce, took to eating men of the river villages. “Hobmock, a benevolent spirit giant,” was called upon to “relieve the stressed people, and that he did by chasing the troublesome beast “into the immense lake… and flinging great handfuls of dirt and rock” at it. Finally, the beast, overburdened with what had been throw upon it, sank in the middle of the lake, where “Hobmock dispatched the monster by a blow with his club on the back” of its neck, and “there he lies to this day. The upturned head covered with dirt is the sandstone cliff of Wequamps (Mt. Sugar Loaf) and the body is the northward range.”

Notice how, unlike Sheldon, Pressey is vague in defining the mountainous beaver carcass – a wise move on his part. After Field’s original story left the carcass totally open to the imagination, Sheldon exercised poetic license to provide an anatomically incorrect description. A beaver profile has but three components: a head, a body, and a flat tail. Sheldon’s model is composed of four segments – a head, shoulders, body and tail, not right no matter how you twist it.

Pressey did, however, exercise poetic license of his own by introducing the concept of Hobomock bombarding the beaver with “handfuls of dirt and rock.” That novel concept was most likely borowed from a Nova Scotia beaver myth published in Charles Godfrey Leland’s Algonquin Legends of New England (1884). Godfrey;s tale relied mostly on the then unpublished manuscript of Baptist missionary Silas Tertius Rand (1810-1889), who lived with and studied the Micmacs for 40 years and whose Legends of the Micmac was posthumously published in 1893.

A major problem with all three early historians’ tales is that beavers are herbivores, and thus do not eat meat. None. Zippo. Not men or mammals, fish or frogs, snakes or salamanders, ducks or geese. Nothing of the like. Beavers eat inner bark and twigs, leaves and roots. Plant food, not meat – a fact Native Americans would obviously have known. Still, there are other Native American myths that involve the killing of vicious or unruly beavers, so the man-eating twist was probably a colonial misinterpretation.

Something important to remember is that Field was not an anthropologist or ethnologist. He was a devout Christian, and very like a man who subscribed to the late 19th century, racist sentiment opining that “the only good Indian was a dead Indian.” So, he wasn’t recording the indigenous tale he heard in childhood out of cultural respect. Quite the contrary, he likely thought the whole concept was ridiculous, an silly tale from primitive, Stone Age people.

Oh my, how times change. Now Native American Literature – the study of oral history captured on wax cylinders – is under a finely-tuned scholarly microscope.

Field, Sheldon, and Pressey were from another time and mindset, and their published work stood as the accepted Sugarloaf Beaver Myth until the turn of the 21st century. These days, a pair of scholars with Abenaki roots have come forward to put their own spin on what they call The Great Beaver. Finally, the tale viewed through an indigenous lens is being explored and developed.

In my next column, we’ll take a look at how the Sugarloaf Beaver Myth has evolved since Marge Bruchac and Lisa Brooks have taken control of it. Now, they own it… and go to great lengths to protect it.

Stay tuned.

 

Mishebeshu In Montague?

An underwater panther in Montague? Well, bear with me. An adventure, indeed.

Credit Acton kayaker Al Peirce with the interesting May 20 discovery, made while killing time awaiting takeout following his maiden Deerfield River paddle.

Launching from Montague, across from the Deerfield’s dangerous Connecticut River confluence located between the General Pierce and bicycle-path bridges, Peirce had maneuvered more than a mile upriver when obstructed by shallow water requiring walking. He briefly pondered towing his craft upstream through the riffles, but it was getting late. Instead, he called it a day. Why not return for another voyage under favorable flows?

Reappearing at the mouth of the Deerfield, hugging the East Deerfield shore, after riding the downstream flow – Bingville to the left, East Deerfield right – Peirce looked across and noticed a couple of men standing on the Montague side near where he had put in. With evening approaching, they were exercising their dog by tossing a ball into the river for retrieval.

Reluctant to engage in conversation during the height of state’s COVID-19 distancing measures, Peirce decided to paddle a short distance down the Connecticut on a temporary reconnaissance mission. That’s when he came upon his exciting discovery, not far upstream from an island and across from an agricultural shelf known in Deerfield annals as Sheldon’s Field. The plot forms the town’s northeast point overlooking the mouth of its namesake river. Just downstream, clinging to the Connecticut’s East Deerfield shoreline, lies exposed, red-sandstone bedrock known historically as Sheldon’s Rocks.

Timing was everything concerning the sighting.

“Had the western sun not been at a perfect angle to illuminate it through a gap in the foliage, I would have never noticed it,” recalled Peirce, who, curious about what looked like a manmade squiggle on an obscured standing stone, turned his kayak around and paddled upstream to investigate.

Vessel beached, Peirce walked to the stone, parted the wide green leaves covering most of its face, and was amazed by what he saw. It was more than a little squiggle. Much more. Staring him in the face was a well-executed petroglyph of a strange creature he thought could be a resting deer with a snake or eel beneath it. Wanting to share images, he took several digital photos with his Canon Point-and-Shoot camera before paddling back to his launching site, which, to his relief, was vacant, the path to his vehicle clear. Yup, time to return to his riverside campsite off Meadow Road in Montague. There he would spend the night alone in a tent, his wheels of curiosity humming.

Questions swirled. How old was this carving? Who made it? What did it mean? Could it possibly be unknown to locals? Could it have been recently unveiled by flood erosion? All were questions capable of keeping a thinking man awake nights, tossing and turning in possibilities. Yes, he had work to do – the kind he loves.

 

Joining the Chase

Now, fast-forward six days, to the morning of Tuesday, May 26, noontime approaching. I was sitting at my desk crafting the opening paragraphs of a column, when a sudden distraction flashed in the lower right-hand corner of my laptop screen. Outlook was alerting me to Peirce’s email. He’d found an online column of mine expressing confidence about the existence of ancient petroglyphs and pictographs still to be discovered in our slice of the Connecticut Valley. He wondered if I was familiar with his Montague find.

“It looks like a Native American petroglyph,” he wrote. “Though partially hidden by vegetation, it’s hard to believe someone wouldn’t have previously seen it at some point. I’ve attached photos.”

I studied the series of shots and was intrigued by the carving, which I immediately recognized as the mythical underwater panther – Mishebeshu is one of many spellings – of Native American cosmological lore. The horns and long tail were dead giveaways.

Wow! Talk about a show-stopper. The column I was writing became temporarily irrelevant. My focus broken, there was a bigger fish to fry.

My initial reaction was that the image looked too good, maybe a bit too crisp and clean to be hundreds of years old. But what did I know? No petroglyph expert, it was time to reach out. I forwarded the photos to two trusted friends and experts, Peter A. Thomas and R. Michael Gramly, a pair of sage, PhD archaeologist/anthropologists with decades of field experience and knowledge. What were their thoughts?

The first to respond was Gramly. His email arrived that evening from Tennessee, where he was overseeing the follow-up archaeological excavation of a 13,000-year-old mastodon site.

“Yes,” he wrote. “It appears to be a Piasa or underwater panther – equivalent to the Chinese dragon. Such animals lurk near deep holes and water vortexes.”

I immediately Googled “underwater panther,” and struck gold. There is much online information on this mythical beast, most commonly associated with Ojibwa and other Great Lakes tribes.

Thomas, catching up on yard work at his northern Vermont home, didn’t respond immediately. But he did chime in a day or two later on the phone. After a brief exchange of pleasantries, he moved straight to the point.

“Where did you come up with that petroglyph?”

“A kayaker found it on the Connecticut River.”

“Interesting. Usually, when I’m shown something like this, my reaction is, ‘Ehhhhh?’ Not so with this. I’d like to see it.”

Having studied the photos carefully, Thomas cited a couple of potential problems with the execution. First, the glyph’s straight edges and depth suggested metal tools to him. Second, such carvings are not typically found on standing stones, but rather on river, lake, and bayside ledge. Yet he still believed it could be an important discovery dating back to the Colonial Contact Period, maybe even a smidge earlier. Metal trade goods had surely found their way to our slice of the Connecticut Valley decades before the Agawam Plantation (Springfield) was founded in 1636; and even if it had been carved for spiritual posterity by some post-King Philip’s War indigenous straggler, perhaps a shaman, it would still be a remarkable discovery.

 

A Dark Portal

Gramly’s most authenticating observation was the underwater panther’s association with water vortexes, better known in laymen’s terms as whirlpools. A short distance upstream from the carving, there is just such a deadly feature. In fact, not only is it a dangerous whirlpool, it may well be the most dangerous whirlpool in the 400-mile-long Connecticut Valley. Although I know of no way to confirm that, I do know this hazardous site has claimed many lives in my lifetime. The swirling vortex is created by the collision at an odd angle of two powerful natural forces – the Deerfield and Connecticut rivers – capable during high-water events of swallowing a canoe and spitting it out.

Such dangerous whirlpools were viewed as portals to the underworld in worldwide hunter-gatherer cultures, including those of North America’s Eastern Woodlands. So, no doubt this one would have been known to our earliest indigenous paddlers, who recognized it as a perilous place of high spirit inhabited by dark underworld and water spirits. The underwater panther was the lord of the underworld, known to reside in oceans, lakes, whirlpools, deep pools, treacherous rapids and caves. In a foul mood, this lurking creature was known to emerge from the depths to pull swimmers and boaters to drowning death. Thus, the carving had context, always important in such matters.

Something that gave the panther even more context at this site was the fact that it also stood near a documented Connecticut River ford, or footpath crossing, at adjacent Sheldon’s Rocks. The Native attackers of the infamous Sept. 19, 1677 Ashpelon Raid on Hatfield and Deerfield used this very crossing on their retreat home, up the Connecticut Valley to Canada with colonial captives. So, not only did this warning sign stand a short distance below a treacherous whirlpool; it also stood near the crossroads of two major travel arteries, one by land, the other by water. Yes, an appropriate site to post a warning. But how old was it? That was the salient question – one that only a field trip could reconcile.

 

Warning Flags

First, a little more on the underwater panther itself. The Peirce images in the hands of Gramly, Thomas and myself spurred independent research by all of us, with communication flying back and forth. Plus, without revealing the precise location, Thomas and Gramly both sent the images to rock-art scholars for additional feedback, among them University of Pennsylvania anthropologist Megan Kassabaum and former Maine State Archaeologist Bruce Bourque. Thomas had discovered an informative video by Kassabaum about the underwater panther and queried her, while Gramly thought it wise to run it past Bourque, a longtime friend and colleague who’s seen many Maine petroglyphs. Everyone agreed the carving was worthy of professional, on-site evaluation.

I watched Kassabaum’s video with interest, and it led me to my study to see what I could find in my bookshelves. Poring through sources I owned, they were helpful in identifying additional sources to probe. My search started with Michael Angel’s Preserving the Sacred: Historical Perspectives of the Ojibwa Midewiwin, then moved to Brian Swann’s trilogy on Native American Literature.

Then I purchased two compilations of scholarly essays online – Ancient Objects and Sacred Reals: Interpretations of Mississippian Iconography and Icons of Power: Feline Symbolism in the Americas. A third source, Theresa S. Smith’s The Island of the Anishnaabeg: Thunderers and Water Monsters in the Traditional Ojibwe Life-World goes into great detail, plus provides the best explanation of the underwater panther’s link to the Midewiwin.

Out of the focused reading arose growing suspicions in my mind about the source of the Montague petroglyph. Though the horned, long-tailed image fit the mold, it became clear to me that it was essentially of Central Algonquian iconographic form, especially that of Great Lakes tribes, not our own Eastern Algonquians.

In New England, the lord of the underworld was the related Great Horned Serpent. Despite their different appearance – one with legs, the other without – they were the same beast playing the same cosmological role: in perpetual warfare with thunderbirds, lords of the Sky World in the indigenous Eastern Woodlands realm.

Although the regional preferences didn’t necessarily rule out the possibility that the Montague carving had been executed by an indigenous carver of Connecticut Valley heritage, it did raise warning flags.

According to indigenous creation lore, many Central Algonquian people were ancient migrants from the Great Salt Water of Dawnland. Thus, the people most associated with underwater-panther imagery had their deepest roots on the East Coast and may indeed have left such an image hidden somewhere in New England before migrating west. Still, I could find no New England examples of an underwater panther, just serpents.

 

Closer Inspection

In the process of trying to set up a field trip with Thomas, Peirce and myself at the very least, I fired off a cautionary email to Thomas on the morning of June 7 indicating that I wanted to eliminate one last potential source who could know something about the carving. This person is a Native American woman who ran a hilltown summer camp to which I had sent my grammar-school sons. Despite long ago hearing through the grapevine that she now lives in the same neighborhood as the petroglyph, I never dug deeper. I was, however, quite sure she was not originally from New England.

So, I had to rule her out before spending another second trying to arrange a field trip.

Well – Bingo! – as it turned out, the local underwater panther graces this very woman’s private, secluded Connecticut River “beach.” The descendant of 19th-century Miami chief Little Turtle (Michikinikwa in her native tongue), she grew up in Chicago and used to visit the Alton, Illinois piasa image adorning cliffs overlooking the upper Mississippi River.

Her brother, Long Arm, carved the image in 1990. He was living with her at the time after retiring from the US Marine Corps. He brought the stone to her property from Northfield, carved the panther on its face, and buried it upright on her small, sandy beach.

She was a gracious hostess to me and Thomas during a two-hour, June 12 visit to her home. We enjoyed a warm chat with the property owner in her cozy library before walking to the beach to see the panther. Close inspection of the stone revealed drill holes indicative of modern quarrying. Plus, Long Arm carved a discrete, tell-tale Marine anchor on the back to mark it as a modern creation.

So goes the tale of Montague’s mysterious underwater panther.

Looking back, my ears still ring with Gramly’s exasperated telephone scolding that occurred early during our many discussions. When, for the umpteenth time, I repeated an “if it’s real” disclaimer to preface a question about the petroglyph, Gramly would have none of it.

“Why do you keep doubting it’s real?” he barked. “Trust me. No white man carved that panther.”

Once again, my scholarly friend was right on the mark. Indeed, the panther did have a Native American creator, despite being executed much later than we had hoped.

Yes, the image was crafted by an upper-Midwest Miami warrior of aristocratic Great Lakes heritage – a man who placed it on his sister’s private beach in an appropriate location. Whether he was aware of the whirlpool and ancient ford is irrelevant. It is what it is – just another uncanny example of Native intuition.

 

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