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.

Rattlesnakes, Falcons And Riverside Fish Racks

OK. A little of this, a little of that this week.

First, a new topic I almost addressed a few weeks ago, then pushed to the side. Plus, I intend to rehash a couple of often-discussed subjects, both classic re-emergers that seem to boomerang now and again. Remember, I have filled this weekly space for nearly 40 years … a long time, no matter who’s counting. Thus, some topics are bound to keep resurfacing here and there from new or slightly different angles.

Let’s start with the timber rattlesnake that showed up in Springfield’s South End this summer to a lot of television-news commotion. It was back on July 16 when a Massachusetts Environmental Police lieutenant responded to a Springfield residence from which city animal-control officers had captured a three-foot-long timber rattler five blocks from City Hall. When there was official speculation that it could have been a released pet, I got a little chuckle and, after pondering for a moment, decided against a critical assessment spiced with a pinch of ridicule. Why not wait to see what developed down the road, after the snake had been thoroughly examined?

Finally, last week on a Friday-afternoon whim, I reached out to MassWildlife public-relations maven Marion Larson to see if there was anything new about the poisonous viper and was pleased to discover that my email query was timely indeed. The issue was right there on Larson’s front burner.

“Left a voice mail at your home regarding your inquiry,” she promptly responded while I was in South Deerfield. “There is an interesting update about this snake. We’ll be posting on our Facebook page, probably Monday. … FYI the Environmental Police had two posts about this on their Facebook page. They are very interested in trying to get some leads.”

Bingo! How’bout that? A story. Maybe old news by today, but Larson wasn’t so sure when it would hit the street. Seeing that I haven’t heard a word about it anywhere yet, well … why not?

Upon examining the snake, a protected endangered species, scientists discovered that it had been microchipped by state wildlife officials in the Berkshires two weeks before the South End incident. So, the serpent was returned to its western Massachusetts home at an undisclosed location. And, no, Dick Cheney is not and never has been there.

Because snakes do not travel as far as the great distance between of the snake’s home and Springfield, officials are certain it was illegally captured and set free for city slither. This is a violation of the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act, which forbids anyone from possessing, transporting, harassing or disturbing endangered wildlife. A first offense brings a $500 fine or imprisonment for up to 90 days or a combination of fine and imprisonment. Repeat offenders are subject to increased fines of $5,000 to $10,000 and imprisonment for up to 6 months.

An investigation is underway. The telephone-tip hotline number is 1-800-632-8075.

*****

Turning to last week’s discussion about Mount Sugarloaf’s historic “duck hawks,” which turned out to be peregrine falcons, interesting feedback came my way from three knowledgeable sources. All three knew the Sugarloaf cliffs facing the Connecticut River still housed peregrine nests.

An employee called to report that morning crews opening the state reservation’s gates often find peregrines perched along the chain-link fence separating sightseers from the dangerous cliffs on the east face. Also, he told of a naturalist from the Teddy Roosevelt Administration visiting Sugarloaf in the early 20th century to get rare motion pictures of the fast, showy, acrobatic falcons. Later, when birds of prey were growing scarce due to the pesticide DDT and wanton slaughter by humans protecting favored falcon prey, a movement to collect peregrine eggs was greeted with catcalls, boos and hisses in Recorder-Gazette letters to the editor. Many Franklin County readers apparently were opposed to re-establishing falcon populations. Instead, they favored exterminating an efficient airborne predator that killed popular songbirds, not to mention barnyard fowl and beautiful wild ducks sought by licensed hunters in the Connecticut River flyway.

South Deerfield resident Rob Ranney-Blake, who identified himself as a birder, wrote to tell of today’s Sugarloaf peregrine nests. He did so in a long, handwritten, heartfelt note written inside a folded card, his pencil sketch of Sugarloaf’s eastern face gracing the cover with current peregrine nests marked.

Old friend Karl Meyer had been the first responder, emailing me before 7 a.m. the day last week’s column appeared. Meyer wanted to point out information related to why peregrines were called “duck hawks” back in the day.

“You probably already have this, but you only have to go back a couple of generations to get these three common names for local falcons:

“duck hawk – peregrine

“pigeon hawk – merlin

“sparrow hawk – kestrel.”

He surmised that they were named according to the largest prey hunted.

“Though not a big part of their day-to-day,” he wrote, “peregrines are capable of taking ducks on the wing.”

I responded that I was much more familiar with the term “chicken hawk,” which I assume we’ve all heard. Meyer’s quick reply was that, locally, the term  most often refered to red-tailed and red-shouldered hawks. Days later, when I queried my avid bird-watching brother-in-law from Maine, he explained that many types of hawks were called chicken hawks within different domains. Such hawks were, he wrote, “‘buteo’ hawks, not in the ‘falcon’ class.’”

*****

Finally, just a little note about a common Native American riverside fish-curing procedure that shows up coast to coast in North America.

This interesting topic is always appropriate here in the Connecticut Valley, home of many pre-Columbian riverside fishing sites. To name some of the more prominent places where native people gathered for fishing activities, we have the Enfield, Conn., falls, Chicopee Falls, South Hadley Falls, Turners Falls, Shelburne Falls, the Vernon, Vt. falls, and Bellows Falls, Vt., where spring migrations of anadromous fish (salmon, shad, herring, sturgeon) were harvested by many clever methods.

In recent weeks, I have pored through a great volume of West Coast poet/linguist/ethnologist/anthropologist Jaime de Angulo writings, many of them published after his 1950 death yet still in print. De Angulo came to America in 1905 to become a cowboy but became fascinated and lived with western Indians. While there, he studied their Stone Age cultures, their languages and oral traditions, recording his research in published and unpublished reports. In his well-known “Indian Tales,” a series of ancient stories written for his children and published posthumously as a delightful little novel that’s still in print, he described a fish-processing station along a remote, mountainous northern California river.

Having fished a river with much success, fictional characters Grizzly and Bear decide to preserve the surplus fish they’ve taken by smoking them along the river. To do so:

“They made a platform of sticks and green twigs, like a grill, with a slow fire underneath, burning all day, and at the same time the sun was shining. On this grill they laid the fish, after they had opened them with obsidian knives, and then they turned them over and over while they were drying.”

I have read of this identical fish-curing process with and without smoke (most often with) covering territory from the Great Lakes to the Pacific Ocean. I assume the procedure differed little if at all from what you would have found throughout the ancient Connecticut River basin.

This curing method would have been practiced when the Connecticut Valley was “discovered” by Europeans during the second and third quarters of the 17th century. We are left with no descriptions of these riverside work stations because European interlopers and their ministers cared little about indigenous culture and custom before the Indians were driven out. It makes sense when you consider that the focus was on “Christianizing” the native people and wrestling away their land, not respecting their culture and beliefs and recording their deep-history tales of the landscape.

From what I’ve read, Indians did not fillet their fish – that is separate the meat from the bones with a sharp, thin knife like contemporary fishermen. Instead, they opened their fish along the belly, removed the guts, lightly split the backbone lengthwise and laid the joined sides flat on drying racks. Visually, it wouldn’t look much different than grilling a skin-on boneless breast of chicken held together by the blistering skin. The fish skin would have held both halves together while smoke, sun and frequent flipping sped the dripping, drying, evaporating process.

Once these fish were dried and ready for storage, they were placed in sealed, bark-lined, earthen pits or “barns” that could be opened and emptied months later to be eaten. In this cured state, the skin is easily removed and discarded, hot or cold.

Sugarloaf Cliff-Dwellers?

Peripherals are sweet little morsels that, during historical research, arise like wandering spirits searching for their lost shadows. A case in point occurred Monday at the former downtown fire station of my South Deerfield childhood.

Now the creative upstairs home of New York transplants Ken Schoen and Jane Trigere — with Schoen Books filling the street-side bays where fire trucks once sat parked under cover — I was visiting Jane to pore through the Betty Hollingsworth Papers under the scholarly couple’s temporary care. Hollingsworth, a spitfire, died in December at the age of 87. Trigere is a member of the Deerfield Historical Commission, a town board on which the late Hollingsworth was a mainstay.

My first memories of Hollingsworth are as the principal’s secretary at Frontier Regional School, from which I graduated in 1971. A South Deerfeld native who was born Elizabeth Harris, she was my late dad’s classmate, a committed local-historian and packrat of historical information. Curious as to what hidden gems the Hollingsworth collection would reveal, friend Peter Thomas and I were going through papers and photos while engaged in a running conversation with Jane and Ken, he in and out, focused primarily on his online book-dealing chores.

Myself, I was searching for photos of the old dance pavilion at the base of Mount Sugarloaf; that and photos of the downtown Red Men’s Hall that was demolished in June 1978 and replaced by today’s Deerfield Spirit Shoppe building. Back in the days of the Frontier Men’s Softball League, we referred to that downtown package store as the “Spook House” because of the ghosts displayed on the uniforms of the modified-pitch team it sponsored. Fun hometown memories.

Anyway, enough stage setting. On to the matter at hand.

Among the Hollingsworth jewels packaged mostly in loose-leaf binders and envelopes was a typed sheet of paper with the centered, bold-faced, underlined title, “Mount Sugarloaf” (interestingly, not South Sugarloaf as some insist on calling it these days). Below the title were two, flush-left, bold, underlined subtitles: “Wildlife” and “History.” I skipped over the short “Wildlife” entry at the top and went right to “History,” which chronicled important events, constructions and even a little folklore pertaining to the Pioneer Valley landmark’s evolution as a tourist attraction. I’ll get to that stuff in “Native Insight,” my Saturday history column. For now, though, let’s focus on the “Wildlife” entry that’s more appropriate here.

Described in the little note is a cliff-dwelling raptor that was, back in the day, a resident of the now fenced-off Sugarloaf cliffs facing the Connecticut River. I read the description and immediately thought I knew the bird of prey, though not by the name given or residing in the Sugarloaf cliffs. Who knows? Maybe this bird still nests there, but not that I know of.

Probably written after 1950, the cited paragraph reads:

“For many years, the more inaccessible ledges of Mount Sugarloaf have served as nesting places for the Duck Hawk. This is a falcon, like those trained for falconry in medieval Europe. Unfortunately, this daring flyer is a natural predator on many attractive and useful birds. The remains of prey found in its nests include: bluejays, kingbirds, nuthatches, chickens, grosbeaks, doves, and warblers. Summit House photographs include one of a three-day-old and another of a two-year-old Duck Hawk.”

Hmmmmmm? Please bear with me, permitting me to don my royal pedantic robe and query as to why the author of the above snippet capitalizes Duck Hawk and lower-cases all the other birds listed? Are Duck Hawks from a higher ornithological order? Just wondering. A little something to think about, maybe. Then again, maybe not. Depends how you’re wired. Myself, I can’t imagine a logical justification. But that’s neither here nor there. Back to the capitalized Duck Hawk.

“That bird must be the peregrine falcon,” I speculated aloud to Thomas, sitting to my right for our little Monday-afternoon project. He nodded in distracted agreement, focused on the material he was skimming through.

These days, you read about peregrine falcons residing in city skyscrapers and feeding on pigeons and sparrows and other feathered city dwellers. Never before have I heard of them referred to as Duck Hawks. Where did that come from? Aha! An ideal Google project.

During a free moment at work later that night, I Googled duck hawk and, sure enough, up pops a pageful of information on, you guessed it: peregrine falcons. Isn’t Google great? Instant gratification at your fingertips. These days you can even ask the question orally. Oh my! No wonder the founder is sitting on gazillions. Information’s a valuable commodity.

Viewing a few entries, I discovered that the origin of duck hawk dates to the first decade of the 19th century, which means it was probably in 18th century vernacular usage here in New England. Always a fascinating bird to observe, today you can watch them videotaped 24/7 in Springfield nests, maybe even on UMass high-rises, if my memory serves me, and also in Boston, New York and many other eastern cities.

I do find interesting the pejorative description of these falcons for preying on birds enjoyed by human beings. OK. So, let me try to get my head around this way of thinking. Because a wild creature eats game hunted by humans or birds humans feed or watch and/or hunt, this predator is a nuisance, a varmint, a blood-thirsty undesirable worthy of bounties and horrid poison? It’s the same kind of selfish logic that went into the annihilation of wolves and coyotes and cougars and grizzly bears and other large predators competing with humans for deer and moose and rabbits and turkeys and you name it, while also creating mortality problems for livestock and poultry farmers.

Well, that’s wrongheaded thinking that paddles against nature’s current. Fact is that prey under the constant watch of predators is healthier, stronger, smarter, warier and more apt to survive difficult times than members of identical species living in protected places where humans have eliminated predators to suit there personal desires.

If you don’t buy that argument, do a little research. You’ll find much written on the subject from the past 50 years. It’s not difficult to find, and it’s not rocket-science, either — just nature-based common sense, which really ought to be placed on the endangered list nowadays.

Magic Moon

Green corn and smoked sturgeon, anyone?

Huh?

OK. Fair enough. If it doesn’t sound like standard fare, it probably shouldn’t. Which isn’t to say it was always meaningless in these parts, thus the name of the new August moon, which began Sunday in the midnight sky. Called the Sturgeon or Green Corn Moon, it carried much significance when our indigenous people lived by what is now referred to in literary circles as “The Old Ways.” That just happens to be the title of a charming little 1977 Gary Snyder book of essays well worth reading and heeding. If you can find this California poet/new ecologists’s tiny little treasure in hardcover for a reasonable price, buy it. Then count your blessings. The heavens must smile upon you to stumble upon such a discovery.

Actually, the Sturgeon Moon fits “The Old Ways” profile much better than green corn, because old ways suggest a hunting/gathering lifestyle, not the more sedentary horticultural village life. Snyder strongly believes that the human mind, body and soul were built for hunting and gathering, not tending crops, which ultimately brought out “civilization” and metropolises and their associated pestilence and organized religions, all of the above dizzily spinning mankind into new directions. In Snyder’s way of thinking, the spearing of caribou in steep, narrow, ravines or sturgeon by torchlight in summer river shallows beats tending a “three sisters” crop of complementary corn, squash and beans any day of the week.

Connecticut River sturgeon and their cousins in other ecosystems have been a personal fascination for several years due mainly to scanty documentation explaining why the large migratory fish was important to ancient local tribes. You hear plenty about Atlantic salmon, game fish for kings, and American shad, a prolific New World spring migrant worthy of harvest from the beginning of the New England colonial period. Yet only sparse mention of Atlantic sturgeon, a fish that can grow from seven to 12 feet long, providing savory meat and roe for human sustenance.

Yeah, yeah, I know most of the local chatter about sturgeon these days concerns the endangered shortnose species, which only confuses discussion of Atlantic sturgeon. And, yes, perhaps native people did value the shortnose species in their annual hunter/gatherer larders. Still, giant Atlantics and several landlocked cousins found in lakes were more desirable to fish harvesters. Because the large sturgeons of the Great Lakes and Lake Champlain were easiest to catch in August, that month’s moon adopted the fish’s name among tribes there.

Focused as I have been in recent years on Native American ethnology, anthropology, archaeology and literature — that is oral history told in song and verse and recorded by ethnologists and linguists before the Native languages in which they were recited became extinct  — I have searched for non-culinary uses for or tales of sturgeon. Truth be told, the references are few, but there are two that most interest me, both suggesting use of some internal substance for glue or gum used for everyday repairs and/or to seal canoe seams and secures their ribs.

One of the references came from James Willard Schultz, who married into the Blackfoot tribe and chronicled upper Great Plains Indian life in several 19th and early 20th century volumes. The other came from Brian Swann’s coast-to-coast anthology of Indian folklore, “Algonquian Spirit: Contemporary Translations of the Algonquian Literatures of North America,” book three of his comprehensive trilogy devoted to Native American literature. In a Cree narrative he presents from the Great Lakes region, there exists a reference to fetching sturgeon for a canoe job requiring gum and glue.

I can’t imagine that the Pioneer Valley’s so-called “River Indians,” all of them Eastern Algonquians who fished anadromous-fish runs at the falls of Enfield, Conn, South Hadley, Turners Falls and Vernon, Vt., didn’t also used this bodily sturgeon fluid or gel for all-purpose gums and glues. And, yes, of course the giant Connecticut River fish were also highly valued valued for their meat and roe. Indians wasted little.

Told of sturgeon as a glue source, an archaeologist friend speculated that the sticky substance may have been extracted or decocted from the fishes’ cartilaginous skeletons, most likely the backbone. Because of their soft-tissue composition, skeletal surgeon remains quickly vanish from the archaeological record. The lone archaeological trace of this prehistoric fish is rugged, exterior scutes, which appear on the fish’s body in five exterior rows of triangular, bony, scale-like armor. So hard and indestructible were these rigid medieval armor plates that those from large sturgeon are said to have been employed as scrapers and knives in some indigenous tool kits.

As for green corn, well, a different context altogether. Most Indian cultures that grew corn saluted the mid-summer ripening season with green-corn ceremony and celebration. These seasonal galas would have included dancing, feasting, fasting, ritual and storytelling. According to Wikipedia, “Historically, (green-corn ceremony) involved a first-fruits rite in which the community would sacrifice the first of the green corn to ensure the rest of the crop would be successful.” This rite was observed here in the valley by indigenous people, all members of corn cultures by the time Europeans set foot in the Connecticut Valley in the early seventeenth century.

Oh well, that’s about all I have this week. … Just a little something to think about as the Sturgeon or Green Corn Moon builds in the midnight sky. Come Aug. 7 at 2:11 a.m., it’ll bloom to its full celestial splendor, casting soft silver light over earth and sky, slate roofs illuminated in the softest of grays.

The Vermont Way

Approaching noon Wednesday, three hen turkeys peacefully feed on grasses, flowers and bugs in the hayfield down the road. Barren hens with grey-brown heads, they seem content without broods to tend. Despite losing their eggs or broods to nasty, snarling Mother Nature, the hens appear no worse for the wear, displaying not a hint of melancholia. Grieving is a human emotion, not for wild creatures who accept nature’s ways.

Busy, with a wee-hours Boston trip looming to beat the weekday traffic to Brigham and Women’s Hospital, the sight of those turkeys in that field I pass several times daily spins me back a few weeks to an extended visit by my sister-in-law from Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom – home of hippies, rednecks and, well, I guess you’d call them libertarians, some maybe even of a peculiar anarchist ilk, the primitive, uneducated, angry type. Bernie may have carried the hardscrabble polls up there but, trust me, The Donald got plenty of votes as well. Of that, I’m confident. Have you ever spent any time in Island Pond? No? Well, check it out. You’ll get a good sampling of Northeast Kingdom culture. Then, of course, there’s always Glover and its Bread and Puppet Circus, populated by an altogether different breed of cat. Though you can never be certain what to expect up there, more times than not, you’re dealing with rugged individuals, whether they’re wearing peace symbols, wampum pendants, Confederate flags or swastikas. Honestly, I’ve seen them all.

Anyway, Jan and Tom keep a garden and a couple of cottages in a little East Haven Sixties community called “Lost Nation,” nestled high atop a mountain just north of the Burke Mountain Ski Resort. In laid-back conversation one afternoon, we touched upon turkeys and I was quite surprised to learn they’re now common in Lost Nation. Shocking!

“Where do they winter?” I inquired, knowing that 15 feet of snow and 40-below-zero weather is the norm up there. “They must find silage piles down along the river flats, huh?”

“No,” she answered. “They stay right up on top. We see their tracks all winter out around the garden and in the woods. They seem to make it through just fine.”

Interesting. Perhaps just one more clear sign that our planet is indeed warming, no matter what Comrade Trump says; because this much I can say with confidence – wild turkeys were not found in East Haven, Vt., in the days of Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys. One hundred and fifty years earlier, when Europeans started settling coastal New England in the 1620s, there were massive flocks of wild turkeys populating southern New England, ranging up as far north as southern Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont. But you would not have found them high in the Green and White Mountains, and not in the Northeast Kingdom, either. Turkeys are a new phenomenon up there in northern climes.

Now, were you to speculate that historically there were turkeys in the lower Champlain Valley, well, maybe. I could see that. Perhaps there were even some in the northern Champlain Valley, say, up around Shelburne or Middlebury, where fertile plains are warmed by lake effect. Not the higher elevations of Green Mountain and White Mountains ski country, and the cold country and deep snows of the Northeast Kingdom, though? Uh-uh. Can’t see it. Not then. Now they’re definitely there, though, and, in Northeast Kingdom vernacular you’re apt to hear in the Concord convenience store, “They ain’t going nowhere, neither, ayuh.”

Folks like sister-in-law Jan are happy to have them. She says she’s learned about flock talk and gobbling and roosting trees, and loves to watch the hens and their broods skirting her when working out in the vegetable garden. She’s also learned an awful lot about ruffed grouse that live around her small orchard and are always moving about and uttering interesting sounds along the margins of her clearing.

Then again, not all Lost Nation critters are harmless. Jan raises chickens and has from time to time had problems with fisher cats and weasels and minks and raccoons and black bears … big black bears you wouldn’t want to irritate. A case in point occurred just this week. Having been away for the weekend, Tom and Jan went to their tranquil mountain retreat on Monday to garden and relax. When they broke through the woods into their clearing, they sensed trouble in the air and, sure enough, a telltale henhouse sign: a missing four-light window. Upon closer inspection, the window had been smashed and broken through by a bear that made quick work of their chickens. Bears will do that when hungry, necessitating a little annoying carpentry and a trip to the feed store or a neighbor’s for a fresh flock of chickens.

“Oh well,” says a back-to-the-earth Sixties man like Tom, who fled the Big Apple for the hinterlands 50 years ago, committed to “Living the Good Life” championed by Scott and Helen Nearing. “Just think of the problems I could have brought upon myself by staying in New York.”

Yeah, Dude, I hear you loud and clear. No comparison to a bear in the henhouse. That’s for sure. At least up there in the People’s Republic of Vermont, where they’re still feeling the Bern after getting burned big time, you can inhale without getting ill. And now they’ve even got turkeys to humor them.

Can’t beat that.

Nature Reigns

The Buck Moon has passed and tiny green apples are already finding their way to the ground. My dogs stop to find and eat them in shin-high grass. Figuring it’s a nutritious digestion aid, I myself search, picking up the largest, removing their stems, feeding some to the dogs on the spot and carrying a handful away to intermittently feed them on the final leg back to the truck.

It’s a glaring reminder that soon the wetlands will be splashed with bright colors of goldenrod and purple loosestrife, and — Horrors! — I’ll hear that haunting beep-beep-beep of the dump truck backing up to the backyard woodshed. Honestly, I can’t say I ever looked forward to that sound signaling imminent chores. But as I age, I must admit my reaction is trending toward dread.

Anyway, since suggesting last week that many hen turkeys lost their first nests to cool, wet spring weather, many confirmatory comments have come this way by email, telephone and convenience-store chatter. Then again, just Tuesday, a hopeful email report with accompanying photos arrived. So, as the observations keep coming, we’ll have to reserve judgment regarding a final assessment, but it does appear that many first nests are no longer with us.

Similar to last week when Conway pal Bill Gokey chimed in with concerns that he had not seen a poult in his Shirkshire neighborhood, where spring sightings are common, if not abundant, things changed quickly this week. If you recall, a few hours after his initial observation, Gokey fired off another email to report a sighting. This week is no different. Having sat down Tuesday morning to compose a first draft of this column recounting turkey sightings by me and my neighbors, spontaneous changes occurred fast. First, old friend Kevin Wesoloski, a devoted hunter and expert turkey-caller, sent photos of a Conway hen with 13 poults. Accompanying the shots was a short note reading, “Hey Bags, Mother Nature was nice to a few!”

When I responded that they appeared small for this time of year and queried whether he thought the birds could be a brood from a second nesting, he replied, “First week of June is normal hatch time, but I’ve seen them as early as mid-May and have seen little puffballs in August, so these are probably just a later hatch from a first-year hen.”

On my way to work an hour or two later, right there in a field I pass several times daily, and where I had the previous two days observed five jakes feeding, sure enough, a hen and two poults. There could have been more poults, but I saw only two, heads low, feeding, likely on bugs. They were the first little ones I’ve encountered in my neighborhood since early June, when my dogs flushed five or six that were much larger than Tuesday’s brood. So, definitely this week’s birds are from a later or second nest. Maybe they had been chased out of adjacent hayfields that had been harvested this week (see below).

Backing up a bit, the prevailing wisdom for weeks now has been that we endured a poor spring nesting season complicated by cold, wet weather. Like me, people coming into the week reported many adult-turkey sightings but few if any poults. Just this week, I had seen those five jakes feeding in a scalped hayfield. At first, I thought, “Gee, I hope that’s then hen and five or six little ones Chub-Chub flushed about a month ago, not a half-mile away.” Then, after pondering it, I concluded, “No, too big. It was way too early for there to be no clear size-distinction between hen and poults.” Sure enough, later that day I saw the same birds again, closer, and could see they were red-heads with little beards protruding like an artist’s brush bristles from their breasts.

Last week, a neighbor and colleague inquired at work as to whether I had seen the hen turkey and her little brood in the identical freshly hayed field. I had seen the hen a couple of times, feeding back along the bordering tree line, but no little ones. Maybe they were out of sight in the woods and I missed them. I asked if they could have been the same group I had flushed from a nearby chest-high hayfield in early June? No. He didn’t think so. In his opinion, the poults he saw last week were too small to fly. A farmer familiar with turkey broods, he said he was surprised the birds he had seen survived that day’s mowing of the field. Hmmmmm? Maybe some did perish. Either that or they were lucky little critters, out of harm’s way at a perilous moment.

This week, the same colleague had additional observations that came to me second-hand from his father, who hayed his western fields extending back to the base of Greenfield Mountain. That whole plain is “POSTED” turkey country, and he ran into broods of young birds for which he had to stop his tractor, jump off and flush them out of harm’s way.

“My Dad joked that he’s teaching the little ones to fly,” chuckled my desk mate, whose latest neighborhood report suggests a late or second nesting. Birds from a typical first nest would have been flying a month ago and by now fully capable of escaping the danger of farm equipment and predators alike.

On a related, curiosity-piquing note, the same haying farmer had another interesting observation, this one pertaining to field mice. When cutting hay over the years, he’s grown accustomed to watching mice flee from his tractor into the uncut part of the hayfield. Then, as he reduces the second half of the field, the mice have no choice but to scamper out across the scalped field, where they become easy prey for opportunistic hawks, coyotes and fox, which have learned to interpret the sights and sounds of haying equipment as a come-and-get-it dinner bell. For some reason this year, the man has noticed far fewer mice. He wonders why.

Hmmmm? Could it be that the cold, rainy spring that did a job on immature turkeys also did a mortality number on mice nests, too? Maybe so. But it’s also a fact that gray, wet, low-pressure days are scent-enhancers for gundogs, and such days also improve scenting conditions for foraging predators like foxes, skunks, raccoons, coyotes and you name, all of which could detect and make quick work of mice nests.

Fun indeed are the twists, turns and mysteries of nature.