Familiar Surroundings

Apparently, word doesn’t travel quite as fast as it once did in small towns. Then again, South Deerfield ain’t as little as it used to be.

We’re not talking here about 1997, when I left my hometown for Greenfield, setting my roots 714 feet from a better place called Shelburne. By then, what is known in the vernacular as Sowdeerfeel was already much bigger and different than when I was a boy and everyone knew everybody. Back then, word traveled lightning fast from mouth to mouth, be it at the drug store or gas station, bar or restaurant, barber shop, market or coffee shop. Let’s just say nothing was sacred, no one was immune. Talk was cheap and rampant, some playful, some vicious indeed. Thus, my customary response to recycled tales of youthful misbehaviors and indiscretions is quite consistent … and weak.

“I’m a victim small-town gossip,” I explain, more often than not to hearty laughter.

Anyway, enough of that. Back to the topic at hand, that of word traveling slower in my old hometown these days. A example slapped me upside the head Wednesday morning, between 9 and 10, as I stood chatting with two affable farm brothers in cool air, the bright sun peeking over the near eastern horizon. The boys were examining my pickup as I returned from a 20-foot walk to the lip of a hill overlooking the old Turnip Yard west of North Hillside Road. Below was familiar meadow, swamp, woods and cropland where I once shot many pheasant, woodcock and partridge. One quick glance instantly reconnected me to this site. I could visualize cackling pheasants, shotgun blasts and gundog retrieves like they were happening before my eyes, right there.

“My god,” I said, gesturing downhill toward maybe 75 acres of wet woods surrounded on all sides by fertile open meadow and tree lines, “I used to hunt down there daily this time of year back in the day. Had a lotta fun. Lotta stories. The best ones can never be written about.”

As I looked off to the distant western hills, I thought back to a dead hunting buddy who now has an annual football MVP award named after him, and to other old friends who hunted with me as well. Lots and lots of memories. Good ones. Sometimes we’d access the private land from the north end, out beyond the railroad tracks slicing through Albin Ripka’s farm. Other times we’d enter from the south end by Jackson Road, just before the dry bridge, passing an old, decaying tavern and tobacco barn before hitting cornfields, parking and hunting in the opposite direction. It’s boring to hunt the same route every day. You gotta change it up day to day, put a little different spin on the same covert.

You could literally spend the whole day hunting the Turnip Yard, meandering here and there, up and down, following frisky dogs through one covert to another, never certain whether you’d flush pheasant, grouse or woodcock, maybe even ducks and geese or turkeys. Also,  it was not unusual to kick up a nice whitetail buck from his daytime  lair in a thorny old apple orchard. Once in a while when things were slow, we’d even venture into the woods looking for wise pheasants taking forest shelter, maybe even a grouse if we were lucky.

“The stocking trucks used to release birds on all four sides of this huge parcel,” I said, pointing westward,  to the boys. “They’d make several stops one day a week, spreading dozens of pheasants all around the woods’ perimeter.”

“Yeah,” responded one of the brothers, “they used to drive right through this barnyard and down the hill. Our dog would sometimes catch pheasants. Then one time a stocking truck got stuck in the brook down there and we had to pull him out with a tractor. We asked him not to come back after that.”

So there you have it: one of many reasons why that large private covert no longer receives a weekly allotment of state-stocked ringnecks. Yes, times changed overnight that day, long, long ago. What’s hard for me to swallow is that I was hearing such a story for the first time so many years after the fact. Likely, there are many similar tales circling the entire expansive lot owned by many different families. Fact is that landowners change over time, and when they do, new ones can be more territorial and less welcoming than their predecessors. Maybe they like privacy, don’t want to hear gunshots or encounter hunters around their property. As a result, they nail up “No Trespassing” signs and/or tell stocking crews and hunters alike to beat it.

You’d need a calculator to add up all the good, productive pheasant, grouse and woodcock coverts that have gone that route here in the Pioneer Valley over the past 30 years. Add to that all the open land that’s been developed just in my lifetime and the habitat has dramatically diminished. With those coverts went our reproductive pheasant population once protected by cocks-only hunting seasons that spared hens for spring mating with surviving cocks. Another factor weighing against a reproductive pheasant population these days is burgeoning predator populations of bobcats, coyotes, foxes, fishers and birds of prey.

The little stocking-truck mishap reported by the brothers Wednesday must have occurred at least 20 years ago, because I know my hunting days on that parcel ended before I moved to Greenfield. That doesn’t mean I haven’t hunted there at any time over the past two decades. I have, but only after being tipped off by a farmer friend raising silage corn there that he was flushing pheasants during the harvest. That was many years ago, but I knew the terrain, was confident there would be no hunting pressure and had luck working the thick ragweed and goldenrod fields bordering the corn stubble with friends. Back then I was hunting behind Ringo, a springer spaniel in his heyday during the first decade of the new millennium. Even Lily, now 13, must have been there in her younger days. I can’t recall. The pheasants we found there that year and in a few subsequent years must have found their way across Route 5&10 from Fuller’s Swamp and the Long Hill plain overlooking it from the south, behind the butterfly conservatory.

So, take note young lads. Stocked pheasants that survive their first couple of flushes get acclimated, are good fliers and will wander off to explore adjacent coverts for food and security. That’s why, for me over the years, I have always preferred the last three weeks of the season over the first three. Late season is the time to escape the crowds and flush birds where the hunters ain’t.
With the majority of birds stocked nowadays on state Wildlife Management Areas, your options are more limited than they were before, say, about 1990, when most pheasant were released on private farm property lining both sides of the Connecticut River. But if you do your homework, understand pheasant behavior and are adventurous, you can still find secluded coverts that attract and hold birds where there’s no hunting pressure.

That said, here it is Day 5 of the season and I have yet to get out in the field. That’s OK. There’s no rush. I bought my license, my side-by-side is ready, and my Tin Cloth bibs and game vest are hanging out in the carriage shed, my tall rubber boots standing on the floor below. Actually, I’m ahead of the game from a year ago, when I bought my license on Oct. 23. So, there’s still plenty of time to do what I love doing — that is breathing fresh, invigorating air into my lungs and breaking a sweat through punishing cover while watching my gundogs trail, flush and retrieve game birds.

You can’t beat the excitement or the exercise, and wing-shooting can indeed be challenging, especially after surviving birds learn shielded escape routes to swamp refuge that’s inaccessible to hunters. Often that’s where the contest is made more equitable by beavers.

Although humans seem to have an aversion to beavers these days, wildlife loves the furry, dam-building, wetland-flooding beasts.

Isn’t that what you’d call an impasse?

Walnut Wisdom

The big black walnut across the street, naked and gray, muscular limbs flexed to the heavens, whispers through a warm west wind that pheasant season is near. I appreciate the reminder, marveling at my tall, dignified neighbor’s grace, strength and perfect form, worthy of a gilt-framed canvas.

Looking across at that stately tree can stir thoughts of a similar native nut tree I myself never had the privilege of knowing. That would be the proud American chestnut, which folks are still trying to revive in hybrid form to once again grace our forests. How better they would be for again having them.

A chestnut crook cane I carry when walking the dogs or hiking is a daily reminder of that once-ubiquitous and quite useful tree that framed New England buildings for centuries before departing. Found tucked away in the back corner of a deep, narrow closet at home, it’s light to carry, strong and water resistant. Plus, it’s mellow amber tone and heavy oak-like grain, accentuated by Boston polish Butcher’s Wax, has a beauty of its own.

By the way, don’t let anyone convince you American chestnuts died of  natural causes. That’s just another great American myth. We killed that proud North American tree and will likely extirpate many like it if we don’t change our destructive ways. But enough of that soliloquy. Back to what I once knew as upland bird season, now simply pheasant season. It opens Saturday.

The reason I can no longer refer to this annual six-or-so-week fall season as upland-bird hunting is that our woodcock and grouse populations seem to have vanished, or at least dramatically diminished. Last year, hunting the same coverts I’ve toured for parts of five decades, following an excellent gun dog, I flushed maybe three or four woodcock and, for the first time ever, not a single, solitary partridge. That’s right! Not one freakin’ gray ghost. That would have been impossible 30 years ago, when woodcock flight birds would flutter and dance out of alder swamps in rapid succession and partridge would burst sporadically from the same coverts, disappearing behind obstacle cover faster than they appeared.

So scarce have partridge (the most difficult of all wing-shooting targets I’ve  encountered) become that I no longer even hunt my favorite grouse  coverts. Yeah, yeah, I’m sure I’d still get flushes if I went, but not nearly the number I could once count on. Thus, I choose not to kill partridge these days. I don’t even tempt the fates, just can  no longer justify hunting them for the sake of proving I can still shoot. I have nothing to prove there. I hunt for fresh air, camaraderie, exercise and the joy of interpreting my dogs actions and positioning myself within range of cackling flushes.

Ah, yes, within range. It’s a concept that reminds me of a boyhood friend I often  hunted with back in the 1980s. Oh, how I remember being tangled up in  thorns blocking a tight alder lane — singing my spiciest swamp music with blood streaming down my cheek or neck — when a big, loud cock bird would come cackling out of tall, fluffy cattails. I’d mount my double-barrel, find room to swing on the flying bird and ultimately choose not to pull even the back trigger when I finally caught up to my target at 50 yards going away.

“Why didn’t you shoot?” my buddy, Fast Eddie, would holler. “Couldn’t you see that bird?”

“Yeah, I saw him,” I’d answer, “but by the time I caught up with him, he was out of range.”

There’s no denying that Fast Eddie and I had different approaches to determining what was in and out of range in the pucker brush. That said, his scolding response to my answer was difficult to debate.

“There’s only one way to figure out if it’s out of range,” he’d bellow, “Let the lead fly. If the bird keeps flying, then it was out of range.”

“Yeah, I guess so,” I’d concede. “Either that or I just missed.”

Anyway, back to the season at hand, the state says it’ll again stock 40,000 pheasants statewide, plus about 5,000 additional birds raised by sporting clubs will supplement the allotment in selected private coverts. What’s best about club birds is that they’re banded for identification and are still released on private property, which not so long ago was the rule, not the exception. Oh, how times have changed in that respect. Nowadays most birds are released on state Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs), which are typically more congested with hunters than private coverts were years ago. Although I may indeed be going to seed and getting a little cranky in my senior years, give me private coverts any day of the week, even if it does take more work to find birds. Who wants to go out and fill their bag limit in a half-hour or choose paths that get cut off by other hunters and dogs? Not this hombre. I need space, the thicker and thornier the cover the better. Dense cover separates the men from the boys, whether you’re walking on two or four legs.

Back in the god old days before the vast majority of pheasants were stocked on WMAs, the enjoyment and success rate of hunts increased as the season endured. The reason was that pheasants that survived their first few flushes would fly off to refuge, ultimately spreading out in marshes lining both sides of the Connecticut River floodplain. That scenario provided hunters the opportunity for long, rambling, circuitous and productive hunts minus interference from other hunters. And even if you did run into hunters when pulling into a desired spot, it was not a problem. All you had to do was drive off to the next covert, which you’d likely have to yourself. That dynamic has changed now that the vast majority of birds are released on WMAs, where rivalry among hunters can create bad blood leading to potential conflict.

Sometimes I wonder if ever the day will arrive when I’ll answer, “No thanks,” to that naked black walnut tree across the street luring  me to the alder swamps and cattail bogs. Though I can’t see it happening, it may well could.  And,  if it ever does, well, then I’ll probably just  write about it.

Petersham Cougar Confirmation

Although it seems like old news by now, really, it’s not that old. Plus, there’s an exciting new “breaking” element, which, frankly, is not all that surprising.

First, a little background. On the morning of June 28, 2016, Petersham horse owner Anne Marie Zukowski went out to feed her 16-year-old German Hanoverian named Summit and was immediately suspicious that something wasn’t right when the horse was in the wrong stall. Upon closer inspection, she found deep, ugly claw-mark gouges on the horse’s shoulder, then blood and hair around stable and barnyard. She pondered possible culprits and thought, “Gee, could it have been a mountain lion?”

Hmmmm? Scary indeed.

Concerned about her horse’s well-being, Zukowski brought him for medical treatment to the Tufts University animal hospital and alerted law-enforcement officials to her problem. Among the agencies to visit the site and review the evidence were police, game wardens and MassWildlife, which concluded that her horse had injured itself by rushing through a gate and catching a shoulder on its open latch. Furious at what she interpreted as an insulting,  condescending, clueless hypothesis, and with the resources to pay for independent analysis, she gathered blood and hair samples left on the scene and sealed them in a plastic bag. Then she searched for a reputable lab to identify the animal that had left the biological calling cards around her stables.

The samples wound up at the University of Florida at Gainsville’s Maples Center for Forensic Medicine, which tested them and determined in November that they had been left by a cougar or mountain lion or puma or whatever you choose to call it. The long and the short of this finding was that her horse had not been attacked by a bear, a big bobcat or a sharp, open gate latch. No sir. It was a mountain lion, rare indeed in these parts, with females and thus reproductive populations said to be extinct east of the Mississippi River. Some question that assessment.

When MassWildlife officials criticized Zukowski’s method of specimen collection and said they knew nothing of the lab she had used and thus had issues with the finding, she grew more incensed and felt disrespected. At that point, a watchdog group called “Cougars of the Valley,” which investigates New England cougar sightings and the sites of reported incidents like Zukowski’s, jumped in, paying to send what was left of the biological materials in Florida to Melanie Culver, one of the nation’s most respected cougar researchers. When MassWildlife officials claimed they were unfamiliar with Ms. Culver as well, Cougars of the Valley spokesman Ray Weber begged to differ. MassWildlife had sent 1990s Quabbin scat samples to Culver’s Arizona lab, which ruled they had been left by a cougar.

Stationed at the University of Arizona, Culver is an assistant Wildlife and Fisheries Science professor in the School of Natural Resources and the Environment, and assistant leader of the Arizona Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit. Her Culver Lab there analyzed Zukowski’s biological data and confirmed the University of Florida’s findings. Yes, that’s right, the Petersham horse had been attacked by a cougar. Not only that, but a cougar of North American origin. So, howdya like them apples, Ant Martha?

Culver took it a step farther that the Florida lab by identifying the cougar’s gender. It was a male, which may have come as a disappointment to Weber, who was heard wondering aloud on the phone one day what would happen if the beast turned out to be a female, far east of where there are said to be none.

“Can you imagine the reaction of wildlife officials if the Arizona lab finds that the cougar was female?” he enthusiastically asked in June, after the Arizona lab had blood and hair samples in hand. “Wouldn’t that be something, considering officials’ total refusal to admit the possibility that cougars are coming back, and that some of the reported New England sightings are real?”

Well, although the Petersham cat was a male, how long do you suppose it’ll take for a female to make an appearance in Great Lakes country or expansive ranges like the Adirondacks, Catskills, Poconos, Green and White Mountains? Or how about the Berkshires and Appalachians, or even Conway or Colrain? Some say it’s impossible, that too many cougars are killed under liberal hunting quotas in Western states like the Dakotas and Montana, which produce wandering dispersers from overpopulated habitats. Then you have overzealous law-enforcement officers in Minnesota or Illinois or Iowa, who shoot first and ask questions later, killing cougars in the name of public safety before they get close to the Eastern Seaboard. But don’t forget that wayward males have already found their way here, including the first confirmed case killed on a Milford, Conn., highway on June 11, 2011, just weeks after the United States Fish and Wildlife Service declared Eastern cougars extinct instead of endangered. Now this in Petersham. What’s next? Fact is, Northeastern cougar rewildling is looking more and more possible, perhaps even probable, as the years pass and the forests continue to grow —  no matter how long the odds, what the chorus of detractors says or how loud they scream it.

In the meantime, there’s still loose ends in Arizona. Culver, a Ph.D geneticist, is trying to match the Petersham cougar’s DNA to samples in a national database. She’ll likely soon know what gene pool this big cat came from. Is it a North Dakota cat? South Dakota? Montana? Idaho? How interesting!

Remember when that Milford, Conn., cat was killed by a motorist and the initial response from state and federal wildlife officials was that it was probably a released pet that had been set free after growing too big and dangerous to care for. Examination and biological analysis proved that skeptical knee-jerk opinion to be dead wrong. Not only did that 3-year-old, 140-pound male disperser hail from the Black Hills of South Dakota, it had traveled 2,000 miles in just less than two years, depositing a documented DNA trail through Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan and New York before meeting his maker in the evening shadows of New York City. The Petersham cat likely followed a similar path and is possibly still lurking somewhere in the Norhteastern neighborhood.

After months of anxious anticipation, Weber finally alerted me to Culver’s finding last Thursday afternoon by email. I had eagerly awaited the Arizona lab’s confirmation all summer and had checked with Weber several times in an effort to stay in front of the story. When I placed a follow-up phone call to Weber Thursday, I was concerned to learn he had forwarded Culver’s findings to MassWildlife, which has from the start tried to discredit the story with its familiar deny-and-distract song and dance routine. Knowing from experience that the state agency doesn’t like to acknowledge the presence of cougars, I gambled, figuring they’d rather sweep it under the rug than make a media splash.

Well, now the cat’s out of the bag, so to speak. There’s no denying that a cougar attacked a horse in the Quabbin community of Petersham. At this point, I’m not sure what intrigues me more — the cat’s gene pool or the state’s impending response.

Stay tuned. It could get humorous.

Maple Feedback

It didn’t take long for an informed reader to respond with a diagnosis for a curiosity brought to light in passing here last week.

I wondered aloud why maple leaves were drying on their stems and dropping prematurely before ever reaching their yellow, orange and red fall splendor. Most perplexing to me, no dendrologist by any stretch, was that I would have expected bright fall colors following a wet spring and summer that would suggest healthy trees and plants. But again, that’s just an unfounded, knee-jerk, pedestrian opinion based on observation totally devoid of scientific training.

Well, not so fast with the prevailing wisdom, which I understand is often buoyed by misconception. So, now the facts, supplied by a reader with knowledge about the subject who preferred not to be named.
“In yesterday’s column, you mention the perplexing amount of browning of maple leaves, given the expectation it would be a good foliage year because we’ve had plentiful rainfall,” she wrote last week. “Unfortunately, lots of rain also means lots of fungal leaf diseases. It’s been a particularly banner year for one called maple anthracnose.”

She went on to cite a passage from last week’s UMass Extension Service “Landscape Message,” which reported that: Scattered sugar maples are browning and will not be producing their normal brilliant fall color. In some cases, this is due to maple anthracnose, which has been widespread and destructive this season. Several different fungi are responsible for maple anthracnose, which is initiated by abundant early season rainfall.

Accompanying this helpful information, my source sent a UMass/Amherst Web link explaining the pest named anthracnose of maple, with the subtitles “Hosts,” “Symptom and Disease Cycle” and “Management.”

The disease attacks sugar, red, Norway, silver and Japanese maples, which covers most if not all of our maples here in this slice of paradise. And this makes sense to me, given what I’ve observed in resent travels along the Green River and its Hinsdale Brook tributary that flows through my backyard. Floating downstream are maple leaves of varying size and color.

Now, a little subplot that came my way quite by chance and telephone Wednesday morning. The questioner, a neighborhood reader responding to last week’s column, had a question about maple trees’ helicopter seeds, which seem to be clinging to their stems long after the trees lose their leaves. A farmer with university training about plants and trees, not to mention more than six decades of Greenfield Meadows observation, the man opines that the seeds are usually long gone by the time the leaves fall.

Hmmmmm? Back to our unnamed female source, introduced above, for the potential answer. Well, she did her best, but without input from her resident plant pathologist, who is out of work until next week.
Although she  won’t be able to check with him about what might be going on until Monday, she responded to my Wednesday email and did share what she’d  gleaned from other sources, plus threw in a little personal extrapolation:

“We had a heavy seed-set this year for a combination of reasons, so the seeds are even more obvious than usual. Factors are: the timing of spring frosts didn’t kill many flower buds, so more flowers than usual turned to seed; maples tend to produce a massive quantity of seed in two- to five-year cycles; and an over-abundance of seeds can indicate the tree experienced stress the previous year, likely from last year’s drought. Producing a bumper crop of seeds is the tree’s way of carrying on the species, should the stress continue and the tree die off.

“Different varieties vary widely when the seeds ripen and fall, though sugar maples tend to hang on to theirs, sometimes not dropping them until after leaf fall. Seems to me we haven’t had any high wind events in the last few weeks (thunderstorms, hurricanes, etc.) that would hasten knocking them off the trees.

“So, that’s my thought — a mast year for seeds, making them more obvious, and not enough windy weather yet to knock them down. I’ll check with our plant pathologist next week to see if he has any other thoughts.”

The extension service recommends removing diseased leaves from the ground under maple trees in an effort to prevent the fungus from taking root and returning next year. That goes especially in areas with many young trees in the understory. Mature maples apparently do a better job of fighting off disease than their immature offspring.

Myself, I’d be more inclined to let nature take its course. The maples that survive, young and old, will probably be better off for it. The ones that don’t make it will make room for fresh growth. Since when did trees ever need humans to survive? That’s a self-serving timber-industry myth. Recent research says forests are more than capable of managing themselves. Don’t doubt it.

Stay tuned.

*****

For the record, mention of this maple-tree conundrum in last week’s column came in the form of introductory digression in a story about me flushing a bald eagle hunting a maturing brood of common mergansers where I walk along the Green River daily.

The day the column hit the street, say 11 a.m., I was releasing my dogs from their porta-kennels for our daily walk when I caught sight of a fisherman trudging along a tree line toward his parked Chevy Blazer, which I had just passed a short distance up the road. On a whim, I decided to change my normal path and intercept him to see what he caught. Well, as it turned out, he was the type of angler (there are many) who is willing to give up little information; basically a “That’s for me to know and you to find out” kinda guy.

His body language screaming that he wasn’t eager to chat, I ignored the signals and approached him. I didn’t introduce myself (he looked vaguely familiar), just cut off his path to inquire how he’d done.
“Nothing,” he said, spinning gear in hand, which may or may not have been true. I have all summer seen random trout rise along this stretch of the river and told him so. Like the fish, I guess, he just wasn’t biting. Not in the information-giving mood. I knew better than to press him. For what? I knew the trout were there.

I changed gears and launched into a quick query about prematurely dying and falling maple leaves. Had he noticed? If so, any insights?

He surprised me in two ways. First, that he was willing to engage in the discussion, and second, to off a hypothesis.

“Whether you know it or not,” he informed me, “we’re experiencing a late-summer drought. The leaves are falling because the trees are dry.”

Hmmmmm? Was I missing something? Had I not detected a drought despite observing and actually walking along and/or through a couple of neighborhood waterways daily? It didn’t seem like a drought to me.

Back home near a phone, I placed a call to my buddy Killer. He keeps a large vegetable garden in Old Deerfield’s North Meadows and would know if we were in the midst of a drought I hadn’t detected. “No,” he said. “There’s no drought.”

That evening at work, I queried a colleague who toils daily on a commercial family produce farm in my neighborhood. Asked if there’s a late-season drought underway, he flashed an incredulous grin and uttered a knee-jerk negative response, saying almost sarcastically, “Not that I know of.”

Honestly, I didn’t think so, and the rivers and brooks didn’t tell me so, but I never dismiss an angler’s assessment based in river conditions. Maybe he knew something to which I had been oblivious.

Of course, that isn’t to say anglers are always right. When it comes to rainfall and growing seasons, don’t farmers know better?

River Ritual

With crisp, radiant yellows and purples adding a colorful splash to the marshes, and presses prepared to crank out sweet fall cider, I must say it has thus far been an odd  September. Peculiar indeed. First, unseasonably cool temps, now perplexing foliage developments.

Have you noticed sugar maples shedding drab-colored leaves prematurely, before they even show a hint of their normal autumn splendor? Seems awfully early to me. But why? There was more than enough spring and summer rain to keep our trees healthy, and we’re still awaiting our first frost. Nonetheless, with October still more than a week away, a man could justify firing up his leaf blower. Very weird.

We’ll have to monitor this situation in the weeks to come, see what happens with the oaks, the beeches, the front-yard Japanese maples cresting  to their scarlet crescendo. Something just seems amiss. What, I can’t yet put my finger on.

Meanwhile, the squirrel season is here, and soon upland and lowland hunters will be silently sitting in deer stands, busting up turkey flocks to entice back with regrouping calls, chasing rabbits with baying beagles, and wing-shooting pheasant, partridge, woodcock and waterfowl alike. Which leads me to an interesting weekend sighting in the Green River. Wearing my Keen Newport sandals to walk the river through knee-and waist-high water with the dogs, we were rollicking upstream toward a large red rock along the east bank that exudes spiritual aura.

Lily and Chubby were visibly happy about my decision to walk up the river. Their enthusiasm showed in their gait as soon as I walked to the west bank and entered the water along a placid section of shallow, silt-bedded flat-water. They love river romps and displayed their enthusiasm by racing upriver along the banks and briefly into the woods, joyously swimming through the deep spots, always searching for scents to investigate and chase. I too enjoy such activity, particularly watching the dogs and interpreting their responses to habitat stimuli, myself always on the lookout  for slimy rocks and creepy critters.

We pass the first bend and, crossing an ankle-high riffle on an angle, something ahead catches my eye. I stop, look upward and — Wow! — a large bald eagle has flushed from a riverside hardwood limb 50 yards upstream. Its fanned white tail and white head are dead identification giveaways. Had it just stayed on its quiet perch, we would likely have walked right past the big bird of prey and proud patriotic symbol without detecting it. He or she. who knows? All I can say is that it was large. Graceful, too. Its wide wingspan looked even larger as it flew away, tunneling through the narrow, canopied river corridor.

The dogs didn’t miss it. Not a chance. They both stopped, Chub-Chub beneath the tree from which the majestic bird flew, old mother Lily, worn but still spry and happy, just across the narrow riffle from me. As the eagle leaned elegantly into a gentle bend curling leftward toward the spirit rock where people swim and chill, sudden commotion flushed from the river. As the eagle passed them, six common mergansers took off, flushing downstream right at me, flying low and fast.

Chub-Chub saw them. In fact, I’d bet he knew they were there before they flew. He has an incredible nose and has been playing with that hen and drake and their brood for a couple of months now. He searches for them daily, finding them two or three times a week up and down the river.

Many times, when the wind’s just right, I’ve seen Chub-Chub catch scent of those mergansers from 100 yards away, maybe more, and get all jacked up looking for them. Once he’s got them marked, he excitedly charges into the river, often bouncing on all fours, head high, on an all-out freakin’ mission. I soon hear a whoosh of wings and tell-tale quack-quack-quacking, with alert Chubby in dogged, splashy pursuit, all fired-up and showy. Early-on during what has become a continuing saga, the hen and drake would flush loudly and fly low and slow to tease the dogs away from their skittering goslings, who could fly just good enough to stay ahead of the dogs. Then, as the little ones got their wings, they’d all flush together and flee, perhaps 10 or 12, all gone in an instant, usually upstream. When Chubby knew he had no chance of catching them, he’d freeze in a classic gundog pose, standing either onshore or in the shallows, watching, his white, quarter-docked tail wagging with excitement. Other times he’d swim furiously, breathing hard, determined to catch up before reluctantly conceding defeat.

In recent weeks, I had noticed that the brood seemed to be diminishing. What started off as 10 little ones was dwindling down to eight and six and now, on this latest sighting, four or five. Not sure if  there was one or two adults. I figured either snapping turtles or coyotes or bobcats or, yes, maybe birds of prey were randomly picking them off. But how could I be sure? Then, there it was, a bald eagle, a very likely culprit once the little ones had grown into a worthwhile meal. That eagle was definitely perched right there along the riverbank waiting for that unsuspecting brood to drift into the killing field. The dogs and I had interrupted the bird’s lunchtime hunt, likely saving an unfortunate, luck-of-the-draw merganser.

The young are now indistinguishable from the adults when flying. Maybe when swimming, too. I can’t say I worry much about predation. Enough brood members always survive to sustain a viable population, while predators eat enough to survive and feed their young. It’s not about death and killing. It’s about life and living.

Call it Mother Nature’s way — with humans often the great disrupters, who just have a way of throwing the whole process totally out of whack.

Just One Of Them Days

Deadline looms.

It’s 1 p.m. Old Eli Terry just sounded a single-chime, his pendulum heartbeat loud and clear from a custom dining-room shelf midway up the south wall. It was almost as though the old fella wanted to warn me it’s getting late. Before long, it’ll be evening, time to build the Thursday sports pages.

I’m at the kitchen table on my laptop, back to the west wall, pleasant breeze filtering in through the south window to my right, books piled, disorderly printed reports strewn across the tabletop: Sheldon’s History of Deerfield, Thompson’s History of Greenfield, a transcription of Stephen Williams’ 18th-century notebook, my own random, handwritten and printed notes, some on a clipboard, others loose and scattered willy-nilly. Time to bear down and focus.

It has been one welcome delay after another this morning, which began a little late after “sleeping in” till 8:45, sleek, gray tiger Kiki purring by my side. Downstairs, I started with a cup of Kenyan coffee my wife had made before departing for work, and sat down in the southeast parlor to continue rereading Richard I. Melvoin’s 1989 book “New England Outpost: War and Society in Colonial Deerfield.” Maybe I’ll  gain new understanding of  an old topic that’s back in my grill, if it ever left.

I’m plowing through the stage-setting chapter to the fabled Feb. 29, 1704 attack on Deerfield when the phone rings. The caller-ID identifies paleontologist friend Mike Gramly. How can I resist? Maybe he’d even have an appropriate topic for today’s column? Well, not quite, even though maybe I could have gotten away with his subject, that is an ancient mastodon taken some 13,000 years ago by North American Clovis hunters in present-day Ohio. Interesting? Yes. But not for today.

Our meandering hour-plus conversation finds a circuitous route to the DEDIC paleo site on the Mount Sugarloaf apron, then the late Dena F. Dincauze and her UMass anthropology/archaeology/cultural-resource management team. Outside, I hear a friendly, familiar voice asking if he should enter by the inset porch accessing the dining room and parlor I’m sitting in. It’s retired Billy Wardwell coming to look at areas of the slate roof I want him to tidy up. Dressed in a tam o’shanter and knickers, he’s on his way to the Country Club or Greenfield for a round of vintage, wooden-shaft golf, at which in recent years he’s become quite efficient.

“Don’t hurry,” he says, standing in the dining room, referring to my telephone conversation, “I love looking around old houses.”

“Oh, great,” I respond, motioning to the staircase. “Don’t hesitate to take a spin around upstairs.”

Up he went. Soon, down came Kiki from off my bed. Sketched out, she headed straight to the open, screened porch door and meowed. Kiki doesn’t like strangers. Long story.

I let her out, wrap up my phone conversation, call dapper Wardie downstairs, exchange smiling pleasantries and go outside for a quick spin around the barn to the woodshed out back. We say hello to Lily and Chubby in their backyard kennel, tails wagging, and I show him the trouble spots, below which stand fallen slates propped up against the walls near where they slid off the roof. We double back to his truck parked in the driveway and I tell him I’d love to talk, “but I’ve really gotta feed and walk those dogs and get myself going. I’m behind. Have a lot yet to do.”

I wasn’t lying.

Dogs fed and porta-kenneled in the capped bed of my pickup, hatch open, we head for our daily walking place, where you never know what you may run into. Deer, moose, bears, turkeys, common mergansers, kingfishers, vicious woodchucks … you name it, we’ve seen it. Even wandering, chatty eccentrics walking the Green River every now and again. The one I most remember was a man in the water upstream from the riverside apple tree I pass daily. I was with grandson Arie, then 7 or 8, and the man was hard at work, doing something with rocks he was carrying to a little island hugging a riffle.
I grabbed Arie by the hand, said, “Let’s go meet that character,” and walked through the river toward the gray, bearded man, maybe 70, shoulder-length hair. We talked about Indians and government and Greenfield taxes before I wound it up and retreated back to my truck. I could sense Arie was a little unnerved by the man, who was quite a chatterbox. When we got far enough away from him and Arie dared to speak, he surprised me with his comment.

“Grampy,” he said. “That man sounded like a bull-shitter.”

“He was nice enough,” I remarked. “Wouldn’t hurt a soul.”

“Yeah, but he sure had a lot of bull shit.”

That he did. Though keeping his distance in the shallow, refreshing river, the kid had him pegged. I was impressed. What most surprised me was his proper usage of a word I had no idea was part of his childhood vocabulary. Although I wouldn’t be ashamed to admit it if he did, the kid didn’t learn that description from me. Boy Scout’s honor, though I’m no Boy Scout.

But, back to my Wednesday morning complicated by one entertaining distraction after another, and my belated trip with the dogs to the fields we walk daily. … There at the greenhouse where I always park was a familiar black pickup with New York plates. The owner was nearby, tidying up around the spot from which he had that morning removed his camper. Retired and living in the Adirondacks about 45 minutes north and west of Lake George — God’s country — he’s coming home to farm, hunting for a place to settle near but not in Greenfield. Smart man. Greenfield’s dead … and expensive to homeowners. Still, Franklin County is a beautiful place to live, and the Greenfield Meadows is a great place to farm. Ask his dad. He made a good go of it on the side for many fruitful years. Isn’t that the state of the economy for most here in Franklin County?

Anyway, the man says he may start with a small one-acre plot of hops and see what develops. He  wants to start with something small and inconspicuous. Hops sounds like a good idea if he can hook up with a local brewing company or two.

“You make beer?” I ask.

“No, but I drink plenty.”

“Fair enough.”

During our wandering conversation, interesting, too, I notice movement out of the corner of my dominant left eye. I turn. It’s the man’s octogenarian dad, still spry but walking with cane. He smiles and listens to the end of our conversation about what the Meadows would have looked like when boy hero Jonathan Wells retreated through it and away from angry Indians following the May 19, 1676 Falls Fight at Turners Falls. My friend told me that, as a boy, he had found many Indian artifacts in tilled Meadows fields, especially on a river terrace north of where we were standing, at a place he called Twarog’s. One prize discovery was a maize grinder uncovered right out in back of his homestead, not 200 yards from where we stood. It’s just one of many little clues uncovered by many folks over the years that the rich Greenfield Meadows — referred to in Deerfield’s earliest records as the Green River meadows or commons — were not forested when first “discovered” by English pioneers. No sir. It was almost certainly cleared Indian acreage burned annually or bi-annually to maintain a fertile Three-Sisters cropland of corn, beans and squash sprouting from the same circular mounds fertilized with guts and garbage from spring fishing.

As we conversed, the man’s father made a polite, subtle head motion toward home. We wrapped it up, exchanged friendly partings and split off in opposite directions — he likely to lunch, me to walk the dogs. Which reminds me: it’s that time of year when I always cut back a little on dog food to allow for all the healthy apples they devour daily down by where I met Arie’s peculiar river-rat storyteller. I let them crunch down six or eight daily and move on, oftentimes picking up a pocketful to hand-feed them along the way back to the truck.

We get to the truck, I load up the dogs and drive home. There, I take a quick shower, eat a bowl of cereal with yellow peaches cut into small pieces as I go through my email and, not two paragraphs into this spontaneous narrative from the soul, the phone rings. It’s my buddy Killer. We’ve been playing phone tag overnight and into the morning. I answer, tell him I must keep it short and jump back into the task at hand.

No sooner do I hang up than the phone again rings. It’s my wife. I answer, keep it short, exchange parting pleasantries. I’ll cook the spaghetti and warm her spicy homemade sauce later. Hey, maybe I’ll even chop up and stir in another hot pepper for a little supper surprise she doesn’t always welcome with a smile.

Then another call comes in from an old buddy who chases antiques. There’s a nice, clean Connecticut Valley chest on chest on the block that he thinks I should buy. “It’s right as rain, and would look great in your place,” he says. I’ve looked at it before. Even had the drawers out and inspected the backboards and underside of its straight bracket base. Though very nice, with nice detail, I haven’t bought that kind of period furniture in years. These days, it’s cheap. I guess I bought my stuff at a bad time. Oh well. You only go around once.

Phew! So now, here I sit, clock ticking down toward supper and work. Where does the time go? Maybe I can clean up this meandering mutter-fest between nighttime Recorder production chores.

I guess I’ll just chalk it up as one of them days, and let it pass. What can a man do? Stuff happens.

Bear Moon’s Rising

It’s Saturday afternoon, sky blue, sun shining, breeze cool, moon waxing toward it’s full harvest splendor in the midnight sky. Making my rounds, I pull into Clarkdale for peaches. The place is hopping, parking lot full, but I find a space and back in. Myself, I always like my chances better than backing out.

Inside, tall, lanky, Ben Clark, always smiling, is talking to customers and rearranging table-top boxes of fruit for sale behind the till. We meet eyes and exchange friendly greetings. I had approached the West Deerfield orchard from the south on Upper Road, passing a couple of his small Cortland apple orchards near the outflow of Hawks Road and, preferring Cortlands above all others, I tell him it’s time to start harvesting them. The trees look overburdened with ripe, red fruit.

“Yeah,” he replies. “The bears are aware of it, too. Which reminds me, just yesterday a customer traveling here came across Stillwater Bridge and was all excited to have seen a bear swimming across the Deerfield River. It was headed south, quite a sight, she said

I’m sure. Black bears are beautiful creatures to behold when they’re not tearing up garbage bags in your garage, snapping off front-yard apple limbs or destroying expensive backyard bird feeders. Plus, every once in a while, under the right circumstances, a sow will charge hikers who get between her and her cubs. Although I can’t recall any such encounters that have actually drawn human blood in this state, it can happen, and has resulted in rare fatalities over the years. Not here … yet.

The last Bay State bear-population was computed in 2011, when it was determined that there were more than 4,000 statewide. How many more is anyone’s guess. Some say many more. No one seems to think less. Truth is, no one really knows. My suspicion is that the state is low-balling us.

Although it may not still hold true, there was a day not so long ago during the bear resurgence in this state when the western Franklin/Hampshire County hilltowns held more bears than anywhere else. Judging from many recent close encounters reported in the news from densely populated neighborhoods in Northampton and Easthampton, even West Springfield and Westfield, there’s no doubt the western Pioneer Valley hills still hold a hefty number of the black, furry beasts. There’s no shortage east of the Connecticut River, either.

Hunting is the only population-regulating tool available to state wildlife officials aiming to limit bear/human conflict to a bare minimum, and the first segment of the split September/November season opened Tuesday. The problem with hunting as the primary safeguard against bear overpopulation is that the hunter-pool is minimal, not even close to deer, turkey, bird and waterfowl hunting. Thus hunters never meet the harvest goals required to reduce and stabilize the population. Well aware of this dynamic, state officials in recent years made bears fair game to deer hunters carrying a special bear permit. Although this new measure helps, it appears that deer hunters will never make enough of an impact to make a big difference.

Now get this: there’s trouble brewing on our northern border, where Vermont’s bear density of one per three square miles is among the nation’s highest. Throw in two other bordering states — New Hampshire and Upstate New York — where bears are also doing quite well, thank you, and it becomes crystal clear that Massachusetts bear-management officials have a steep hill to climb. When you consider the inevitability that young, wayward males (boars) born in the Green, White and Adirondack Mountains will be pushed out of their natal woods by dominant competitors, is it not obvious that some will eventually spillover into Massachusetts?

We’re talking about towns like Monroe, Rowe, Heath, Hawley, Charlemont, Buckland, Shelburne, Greenfield, Colrain, Leyden, Bernardston, Gill, Conway, Whately and Deerfield, not to mention towns on the other side of the Connecticut River, such as Northfield, Montague and Sunderland. In none of those towns — or Warwick, Erving, Orange, Shutesbury and Leverett — are bears a rare sight. Which doesn’t mean you may by chance catch one crossing the road or destroying your bird feeder or fleeing from spring skunk-cabbage feeding grounds. No, even better, in any of those places, you’re just as apt to catch one strolling across the town common or some schoolyard ball field.

Myself, I have not seen a bear this summer in my Greenfield Meadows neighborhood, but not because they’re not lurking. No, I just haven’t happened to see one yet. Last week I found evidence of bear activity when I passed a fresh pile of black scat beneath oak trees with acorns on the ground along my daily walk. Also, a neighboring farm having problems with deer eating squash, pumpkins and melons is also being visited by bears. Concerned about crop damage, the farmer’s son-in-law set up a trail camera overlooking the crops and discovered three bucks traveling together — an 8-pointer, 4-pointer and spikehorn — as well as a large black bear. So, bears are not far away on the home front. The cornfields are ripe and attractive, wild fruits, nuts and berries plentiful.

Which brings us back to that full September moon I began with. The Native American name for it is the Full Corn Moon, signifying ripe corn that’s ready to harvest. A later name for this same moon — one moat likely coined by foreign interlopers who now call North America home — is the Full Harvest Moon. But there’s a catch. Harvest Moons can appear in September or October, depending on timing related to the equinox. The moon closest to the Sept. 21 equinox is the Harvest Moon, sometimes September, other times October.

Well, this year’s September full moon will brighten the midnight sky tonight, 15 days before the equinox. Next month’s full moon occurs on Oct. 5, 14 days after the equinox. So, if you’re a strict follower of rules (I’m not), October’s moon with be a day closer to the equinox than tonight’s and  thus is the Harvest Moon. Who cares? Tonight is my Harvest Moon. To me, it just feels like harvest time, and apparently the deer and bears agree.

Who makes such rules, anyway? I just may go rogue and call it the Bear Moon.

A New Approach To Forest Management

One of many Thoreau maxims that still rings as true today as the day it was uttered is: “It’s not what you look at the matters, it’s what you see.” Enter forest management as we’ve all come to know it.

What has become clear to me over the past 10 years, beginning with the Greenfield biomass battle but dating back much further relating to fish- and, especially, wildlife-restoration initiatives, is that rarely is the forest managed for the health of the forest itself. No. We have grown to accept the concept of forests managed first and foremost for the timber and construction industry, then to bolster habitat for deer and grouse and turkeys and bears and moose and elk and you name it – that is any fish and, particularly, wildlife populations important to sportsmen ringing the till for hunting and fishing licenses. Get the point? Our forests are being managed as economic commodities, not for optimal health of the ecosystem and, in the long run, our planet.

For nearly 40 years, in conversations with foresters focused on building wildlife populations like, for instance, deer, I have been told that we need young forest and fresh growth. Thus the 60- to 80-year harvesting cycles with small, coordinated patches of clear cuts to stimulate growth of whitetail and, say, ruffed grouse populations. That’s all well and good if your goal is to produce more deer and partridge for hunters, and timber profit to defray the expense for managing public and private woodlands. But now, with climate change and carbon reduction on the front burner, there’s a new school of thought focused on building old-growth forests for the benefit of the earth, its air and waters.

So, there you have it. Not what you’re looking at. What you see. Get it? Synonymous with “in the eye of the beholder.” Do we want to manage our forests for economic profit and/or selected fish and wildlife populations important to license sales, or for the health of forests and, in the long run, planet Earth? I guess the relevant question becomes: Is there some way to reconcile this conundrum? Are old-growth forests compatible with good hunting opportunities? That is, can we build forests which simultaneously filter, absorb and store atmospheric carbon to slow earth’s accelerated warming, retain water resources and hold back potential flooding while maintaining adequate wildlife populations for hunting? The answer appears to be yes, if you can screen out a loud chorus of vociferous objection from the timber industry and sportsmen’s groups drawn into the battle by targeted lobbyists’ rhetoric. You know the cry: “The tree-hugging establishment is  taking  our land, reducing our deer, elk and bear populations and, ultimately, our guns will be taken, hunting abolished. It’s all hyperbole planted by crafty, well-paid spinmeisters hired to drum up loud, knee-jerk, sportsmen’s support for the captains of the timber and fossil-fuel industries rolling in greedy, green cabbage.

We’ve all read about how destruction of South and Central American rain forest removes the earth’s lungs, accelerating global warming and contributing to air and water pollution; however, a glaring misconception about this perilous issue is that such forest destruction is far away and not our doing. Wrong on both counts. In fact, most of the Western Hemisphere destruction has been bankrolled by U.S. investors; and, get this, according to Dogwood Alliance watchdog Scott Quaranda, “Forest disturbance from logging in the United States is quadruple that of South American rain forests and is degrading the nation’s potential forest-carbon sink by at least 35 percent.” Furthermore, the latest Environmental Protection Agency data on greenhouse-gas emissions calculates that U.S. forests are removing a mere 11 to 13 percent of our atmospheric carbon emission, which represents “half the global average of 25 percent and a fraction of what is needed to avoid climate catastrophe.”

Quaranda’s International Day of Forests (March 21) comments relied heavily upon a damning Dogwood Alliance report co-authored by Executive Director Ms. Danna Smith and Dr. William Moomaw. Smith has been on the front lines of U.S. industrial logging for more than 20 years. Moomaw is professor emeritus of International Environmental Policy at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, founding director of Tufts Center for International Environmental and Research Policy, the Tufts Climate Initiative, and co-founder of the school’s Global Development and Environmental Institute. So, both forest experts are focused on forest and planet health. Count them among a growing 21st-century fraternity of scientists advocating mature, old-growth forest as a remedy to global warming.

Perhaps the prime example of a largely intact Northeastern forest is the approximately 3.2-million-acre Maine North Woods, which is gaining increased protection. That includes the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument approved by the Obama administration in 2016. That 87,500-acre parcel, donated by Burt’s Bees co-founder Roxanne Quimby, is already committed to the old-growth template as activists work to pull in more of the Maine North Woods. Michael Kellett, executive director of RESTORE: The North Woods, remembers the heated political battle fueled by aggressive opposition from paper companies, lumbermen and sportsmen alike. Yet he likes to point out the positive feedback that’s coming back his way these days, “even from some of our loudest opponents who now understand we’re not trying to take away their hunting privileges. They’re giving us really positive feedback about forests managed for the benefit of the forest and our planet.”

The North Maine Woods is a work in progress that’s making gains in the public-perception arena, and in the long run may bode well for a local old-growth forest like that of the Mohawk Trail. Yes, we have a nature’s classroom on old-growth forest right here in our lap, where people can take a walk and experience a forest that’s more mature than most. People who frequent those Charlemont woods made famous by lecturer and guide Bob Leverett say you can feel the difference, the magic.

Meanwhile, not far south and west, the Peru State Forest is under attack. A proposed state Department of Conservation and Recreation plan aimed at Garnet Hill, would log this parcel containing timber that has not been cut in 80 to 100 years. The plan is to clear-cut 58 acres of red pine plantation, three acres of Norway spruce plantation, and cut up to 88 percent of a 205-acre northern hardwood stand, where “undesirable” beech trees are targeted for poisoning. Friends of the Peru State Forest say, “over our dead bodies.” So, it’ll be interesting to see what happens there.

The Friends and other activists say the forest is valuable as it sits and will become much more important as a carbon filter and water-retention resource as it continues to mature. Proponents of the DCR plan say aggressive logging will improve the ecosystem by thinning and clearing forest to stimulate wildlife-friendly regeneration, and in the process remove dangerous forest insect (red pine scale, emerald ash borer) and disease (beech bark disease) threats. Opponents say forests are very good at managing themselves and need no human intervention; that disease-resistant individuals (often wise old trees) emerge from within the infected forest to fight off disease, while insect-infested trees give of a scent to attract woodpeckers and other insect predators.

This collision of old and new forestry-management theories and views is right here in our own neighborhood, and worth keeping an eye on. Interested observers who want to bone up on this cutting-edge argument can find more than enough scholarly reports to keep them busy for weeks and months, if that’s where they want to go.

Search them out and stay tuned. I’ve been digging into the topic, among others.

Crying Wolf

It’s midafternoon along North Hillside Road in South Deerfield. I’ve parked in a sunny barnyard cluttered with vehicles, tractors and equipment, am walking toward the small auto-body shop behind the barn. Body man Scott Kolakoski comes highly recommended by friends and family. My Tacoma’s front bumper needs to be replaced after getting crunched while parked at Home Depot.

I get to the southern half of twin overhead doors, both closed, and in my approach overhear Kolakoski’s telephone conversation inside, through a large, fresh break providing a jagged opening in the last of four horizontal, rectangular, head-high windows.

“Yeah,” I hear him say in a calm, emotionless voice, “they say I’ve got a wolf out back, but it’s not doing us any harm. In fact, since it’s been lurking in the neighborhood, our raccoon and woodchuck problems have disappeared. I have no problems with that.”

What a refreshing perspective from a man who raises beef cattle, probably has chickens and likely feeds several barnyard cats, all potential prey for wolves … if that’s what this often-seen neighborhood critter is. Obvious from his phone conversation was the opinion that there’s room for a little of everything in nature surrounding his home overlooking the forever wildlife-rich Turnip Yard of Deerfield lore.

Located in the northeastern corner of the Deerfield proprietors’ 1688 Long Hill Division, I’m not sure anyone can today precisely draw the boundaries of this place referred to in the early annals of Deerfield as the Turnip Yard. Having known of this interesting, historic South Deerfield plot for many years, and actually hunting much of it over the years, I was quite interested in and privy to recent research into the parcel by historian friend Pete Thomas. Retired, Thomas has spent months investigating the proprietors’ records that opened the gates for settlement of Bloody Brook (South Deerfield), Sawmill Plain, Mill River and the small neighborhood at the foot of Mount Sugarloaf, all of them blossoming from the Long Hill Division. The same can be said of Turnip Yard, which I have for years referenced in jest when speaking to old friend and colleague George Miller, whose family owns Magic Wings on the old yard’s western periphery.

“How’s everything out in the Turnip Yard?” is my consistent newsroom inquiry. He always responds with some light-hearted, smiling remark. Call it playful banter.

Now, were I to take a wild stab at establishing the boundaries of the forgotten Turnip Yard — where wolves would have absolutely, positively been a common sight historically — I’d begin at the North Hillside Road railroad crossing, follow the tracks south through the old Ripka Farm,  and cross Jackson Road to Hillside Road. There, I’d follow Hillside east a short distance to the sharp left curve climbing the hill between the old Stange and Wolfram homes. At that point, I’d head north, following the marshy, meandering base of the hill back to the old Hillside Nursing Home.

The Turnip Yard acreage is basically rich, loamy cropland, with random wetlands and woods interspersed. Over the years in the woods and fields and marsh, hunters have taken many a deer, bear, turkey, pheasant, grouse and woodcock there. What you’re dealing with is a veritable wildlife sanctuary, where wild canids have roamed for much of a 350-year historic period touching five centuries. Which is not to say that the suspected wolf being observed by North Hillside residents is indeed a wolf. Maybe so. Maybe not. Perhaps just a large specimen of a coyote displaying dominant wolf genes, which all Eastern coyotes carry.

Frankly, this most-recent Kolakoski Farm report was not the first I had heard of this animal. Old friend Rod Warnick lives in a North Hillside home overlooking the Kolakoski spread, where he too has seen this animal, described as large and gray by he and the body-shop owner, both of whom have had several sightings. Warnick, who grew up as a Pennsylvania farm boy, suspected it was a wolf and was so convinced it was not a coyote that he even sent me photos back on July 20, the day before my truck got crunched in the Home Depot parking lot. In fact, he also mentioned the animal with photos attached in a fall email as well. So, it’s been on both men’s neighborhood radar for some time. Presumably many other neighborhood residents are also familiar with this large, distinctive wild canid.

The close-to-home sightings don’t seem to concern Warnick any more than they worry Kolakoski. No, Warnick’s  simply observing the beast and several smaller coyotes with a naturalist’s interest. He’s not alone among local wildlife enthusiasts. Many folks are interested in the local rewilding of wolves. And, yes, a real, live, scientifically identified Eastern timber wolf was indeed shot and killed in Shelburne not all that many years ago. A sheep owner had lost sheep, seen a large canid he believed to be a wolf, reported it, was told he was mistaken. When he eventually shot it dead on his farm, state wildlife officials took the carcass, sent it off to a lab for testing and confirmed it to be a pure wolf. So, yes, it is possible that another is lurking, this one in the morning, flatland shadow of Pocumtuck Ridge?
You be the judge.

The Turnip Yard would have been a prime place to attract wolves back in its earliest days. In the mid 18th and early 19th century, the parcel served a dual purpose, providing fertile cropland for turnips as well as common land for residents’ sheep. Apparently, the sheep kept the fields manageable by grazing and also ate the turnip greens, which did the root-cellar crop no harm. Also, some surplus turnips were

probably used for supplementary winter sheep fodder.

So there you have it: a little history lesson buttressed by fresh, new research and an impressive wild canid that’s getting bolder by the day.

I hope no one takes him out.

*****

Oh yeah, a little addendum. One my way out of Kolakoski Farm, across the road in a pasture with sparse, random apple trees, no, not a wolf or coyote, but something else worth reporting. Feeding like barnyard fowl among pastured beefers were six or eight beautiful, mature, long-bearded wild-turkeys. I didn’t count them. There were more than five and less than 10. Not a one of them had a beard shorter than eight inches. No lie. A beautiful sight to behold. I have an idea my sister’s seen them in her Stage Road home’s yard not far above the sighting.

*****

Chris Marsden was the cat’s meow, so to speak, at last weekend’s eighth annual Last-Cast Catfish Derby, founded and run “anywhere on the Connecticut River and its tributaries” by Greenfield Hallowell brothers Gary and Rick.

The derby began Friday evening and closed Sunday morning at 7 a.m. A total of 27 participants competed for three cash prizes totaling $215. Marsden’s 10-pound, 4-ounce winner captured the $125 first prize for the Turners Falls man, followed by my old friend Ed Brozo, from Bernardston, who took home 60 bucks for his 8-pound, 10-ounce channel cat. Third place went to Jason Kingsbury, from Erving, who scooped up a $30 reward for his cat weighing 8-8.

The $25 door prize donated by the Turners Falls Rod and Gun Club derby headquarters went to Montague’s Wayne Lacy.

The derby raised $275 for the United Way’s Big Brothers Big Sisters of Franklin County.

The Hallowells wanted to thank Rich Mascavage, owner of Pipione’s Sport Shop in Turners Falls, for selling tickets and donating $100 in support of the derby, which the organizers promise will continue next year.

Danger On The Home Front

Blossoms of hydrangea and purple loosestrife, summer-green Japanese maples hinting red, and acorns subtly plopping to the ground — all familiar hunt and harvest harbingers. Likewise, yet slightly different in my travels was a road-crossing bear, a hooting neighborhood owl, questionable mushrooms, a snarling garden snake, and an aggressive woodchuck on his or her hind legs, playing out what could have been a fatal last stand from a most vulnerable position.

Yes, it’s been a weird week or two in the neighborhood. Stuff’s happening as fall approaches. What’s next?

The mast crop, hard and soft, appears to be bountiful this year. I heard my first acorn drop in front of me two weeks ago on my daily rounds along the hardwood lip of an ancient river cut, or escarpment, overlooking riverside flood plain. It’s the type of terrain that trappers used to work for fox and coyotes, raccoons, mink, otter and you name it. Not anymore. Legislation removed trappers more than 20 years ago, leaving one less predator for furbearers to fear. Plus, it was an open invitation to beavers wishing to repopulate old haunts, places where landowners hadn’t seen them in decades, if not centuries. Call it progress, I guess.

Black bears, rare in my early life, are no longer so. The shiny midday example my friend and I saw on our way to a potential edible mushroom he had spotted on a familiar old sugar maple alongside a dirt road he often travels, ran in front of my truck and into an overgrown state Wildlife Management Area I often hunt during pheasant season. Not long ago, my friend had witnessed another crossing at the same spot. Usually there’s good reason for repeat sightings. This was no exception. Though we didn’t get out to investigate, I later told him I’d bet my house and its contents that the two or three apple trees I routinely pass during pheasant season are full of fruit. They’re within 50 yards of the road. I’ll know the answer soon enough, am confident my hypothesis is sound. There seems to be fruit everywhere this year.

The serpent? Agh … nothing to fret about. Just a garter snake sunning itself along the edge of a hayfield. The dogs passed it and, lo, I then proceeded to step right over it before, after the fact,  noticing something underfoot. Turning to double-check, I discovered a partially coiled, foot-long snake. I playfully poked it lightly with my handy chestnut crook cane, attempting to send it slithering off into the brush. Uh-uh, no such luck. In no mood for shenanigans, it aggressively struck at the rubber-capped base of my cane, which can come in handy when unsuspected threats appear. I moved on. The snake stayed put. I know not why it held its ground. Maybe something in the air.

What about mushrooms, you ask? Not an oyster, it was the same white mushroom that had once fooled a friend of mine who inspected and advised against eating it. Recognizing it immediately, years ago his wife had eaten some and suffered disruptive consequences. She was in the room to verify his tale, and agree against eating it. My buddy was stubborn, though, not deterred. He took the mushrooms home, prepared a panful and ate a generous sampling that night. Aware that mushroom hunters had harvested it in previous years, he was confident it was edible and suffered no ill effects.

I guess, mushrooms will affect different metabolisms different ways. The rest of the five-pound bag is now sliced up and in my buddy’s freezer. Me? No. I trusted my pal Killer and will stick to the few mushrooms he taught me: hen of the woods, chicken of the woods and oysters. I’ve also eaten what they call “stumpies” and would pick them if someone taught me the identification keys. I’d never advise anyone to experiment with mushrooms by trial and error. Not a smart move.

The woodchuck? Oh yeah. A wacky woodchuck it was. Chub-Chub disappeared one day on our daily walk and didn’t return after a couple of loud whistles from my lanyard. Finally, my spirited springer spaniel responded to an audible warning from his electric collar and came racing back. First, I heard him rustling through the woods. Then he appeared with a woodchuck dangling from between his jaws, his grip on the back of the chuck’s neck firm but not injurious.

“Drop it,” I commanded when he got to within 10 feet of me. And drop it the dog did, out in the open, mowed hayfield, 50 feet from a brushy edge. The uninjured woodchuck knew running was not an option. Instead, the mature beast stood and audibly clattered his or her teeth while standing on two back legs in an intimidation dance.

“Leave it,” I ordered, as the chuck took a run at Chubby. The dog couldn’t resist, diving into the critter head-first, rolling it over and biting at its underbelly before I could again separate them. The chuck got to its feet and took a run at me and the dog before Lily joined into the “fun.” Praise the heavens I carry that chestnut cane, which I employed to keep the chuck and dogs at bay. Try it sometime. Though no easy feat, I was finally able to create enough space for the chuck to disappear over the brushy bank. Then I was able to convince two oppositional dogs eager for the chase to follow me in the other way.

Next day, I reluctantly took the same route and Chubby clearly recalled the incident, racing straight to the site where we had left that woodchuck. Quickly arriving at the distant site of escape, he sniffed around and raced south along the tree line, nose high, looking for fresh scent of the animal. I called him off the chase, got him back to me and continued on our path through the heart of the roadside hayfield before entering a hidden, one-acre Christmas tree field.

Just before exiting the tree farm on a path through a narrow patch of woods, there stood the woodchuck, lying low while eating clover. No more than 10 feet away from me while Chubby searched the woods, the chuck was likely still feeling ill effects from Chub-Chub’s mauling the previous day. The wild animal stood on all fours before turning and trotting toward me in an aggressive manner. I poked the critter with my trusty cane and rolled it over. Luckily, when it regained its footing, it ran away before the dogs knew it was there.

I have not returned to the scene for two weeks now. Why tempt fate? I have over the years witnessed similar woodchuck/dog confrontations that ended badly for the chucks. So, I can’t say I was overly alarmed. But remember, my dogs are immunized from bad stuff animal bites can bring. I’m not. Better safe than very sorry.

With that potential danger averted, more appeared closer to home. Around 3 a.m. Tuesday morning,  I was awakened by what I first thought must have been the sound of rain. Honestly, the only sound I heard at first was a faint trickling of water running down the roofline gutters maybe 10 feet from my head. Could that have really broken my sleep at that time of night, I pondered? Probably not.

It wasn’t long before the wee-hour silence was broken by another sound — that of an owl I’m not used to hearing. No, it wasn’t that familiar “who cooks the stew, who cooks for you-all” call of the barred owl. This was the more threatening hoot of another owl I haven’t heard for years but won’t soon forget. I do believe what I heard was the haunting hoot of a great horned owl, known in vernacular as “the tiger of the northwoods.”

Years ago, I learned that such an owl had nested above my upper Greenfield Meadows home situated along Hinsdale Brook at the base of Smead Hill. The rare local nest, I was told late that summer, had been built in a tall tree halfway up the hill. The big owls had occasionally been spotted by neighbors and passersby up near this massive nest.

Well, two or three months later, while out back after midnight with the dogs, sure enough, an unfamiliar owl hoot that screamed, “Take notice!” from somewhere close along the brook banks. This midnight bird of prey was obviously near, and the call was spooky. This continued nightly for close to a week, during which time my dear calico manx cat, Kiki, went missing never to return. She loved hunting out back along a brookside stonewall, where many a chipmunk met its maker. Sadly, it appears that Kiki got a taste of her own predatory medicine. Late son Rynie was sick, searching weeks for that cat before resigning to the fact she was dead.

My current Kiki, a long-tailed gray tiger and habitual nighttime prowler, survived that Monday/Tuesday overnight. She’s super cautious and knows her territory well. Even so, she’s likely no match for a hungry great horned owl. Hopefully, that tiger of the northwoods was just passing through for a one-night stand and is by now long gone. Haven’t heard a peep since.

Phew! What a weird couple of weeks it’s been. Then, just when I thought I was living in a dangerous neighborhood, I turn on the TV and watch all hell breaking lose. Mother Nature’s kind and compassionate compared to torch-carrying, gun-toting fascists marching the streets to Presdential approval. Haven’t we seen this somewhere before?

Personally, I’d rather face down great horned owls, angry snakes and vicious woodchucks any day of the freakin’ week.