The Curious Case of Capt. William Turner’s Bones

There is but one published account documenting for posterity the tease that human bones unearthed by Judge Francis M. Thompson in the Greenfield Meadows could have been those of “Falls Fight” commander Capt. William Turner.

Lucy Cutler Kellogg, on page 1,400 of her three-volume History of Greenfield, 1900-1929 (1931), wrote of her fellow historian and friend Thompson, who himself had published a two-volume History in 1904:

It seems to be an unwritten law that a writer should place on record as little as possible about himself and his work. Hence it is assumed that therein lay the reason for the following not having appeared in Thompson’s Greenfield history.

About 1874 on the Lucius Nims farm near the Meadow road and just south of the road to Nash’s Mills, Judge Thompson uncovered human bones which he thinks were doubtless those of Captain Turner who was killed in 1676 just after the famous Turners Falls fight by Indians while following the trail near what is now Nash’s Mills. The bones were found at an elevated spot near the present road which was the old Indian trail. On account of the low character of the ground Judge Thompson thought that the body would not have been buried at the spot where it fell, but would have been carried to some higher ground such as the spot where the bones were found.

At the time of his discovery Judge Thompson was not so much interested in historical matters as in later years, but kept these bones in a box with some other relics, in an old mill that was burned at the Nash’s Mills neighborhood, so that the bones were consumed at that time. Both George Sheldon and Mrs. Mary P. Wells Smith were inclined to strongly support Judge Thompson in his theory as to the bones being those of Captain Turner.

This story has gained traction over the years, with a recent surge related to the ongoing federal “Battlefield Grant” study of the Falls Fight. Of a vernacular nature, it is not generally known outside of Franklin County.

Now, new information has for the first time come to light. But first, please read Ms. Kellogg’s narrative carefully, study it, and be honest. Does it satisfy your curiosity? Or are you left wondering why it’s so vague and lacking in key details?

Count me among the latter.

Two weeks ago, after rereading Kellogg’s account for the first time in about 20 years – and understanding far more about the history of Nash’s Mills and the Meadows than I did on my first read – I found it sorely lacking. Inadequate, in fact. I wanted more. Much more.

Plus, it drew my suspicions. Why so vague? And why couldn’t Ms. Kellogg and her elder friend Thompson at least name the mill in which the bones had vanished? Hmmm? Something strange there.

The first problem that had confronted me on this fact-checking mission was the realization that I had accepted the wrong site for the supposed Turner burial discovery. When I was a Greenfield historical commissioner during the early years of this millennium, a go-to source for Greenfield historical data told me in casual discussion that the bones were not found along the terrace edge where the Nims home stands today, at the intersection of Colrain and Plain roads. Instead, they were unearthed on an elevated escarpment point overlooking the west bank of the Green River, closer to the site where Turner’s body was recovered by a search party a couple of days after the Falls Fight attack. This elevated shelf is located across Nash’s Mill Road from the so-called Greenfield Swimming Pool and Turner Monument, just south of the bike-path bridge crossing Green River.

Given the source, a Greenfield native and longtime resident, I didn’t question the location until my recent review of Kellogg, who clearly identified a different site along Colrain Road a short distance south of the Nash’s Mill Road outflow.

Perplexed, I phoned a 72-year-old friend, neighbor, and local-history buff who grew up in the Meadows. I wanted his opinion. He knew the tale, concurred with Kellogg: the bones had been found somewhere off the east side of Colrain Road between Butynski Farm and Harper’s Store. With piqued curiosity, I fired up my truck and drove a mile down the road to investigate.

Sure enough, right there in plain view, across from Harper’s Creemee stand and an underhanded stone’s throw from Nash’s Mill Road, stood a site that securely fit Kellogg’s description – a small, peaceful, wooded, gumdrop knoll rising some five feet above the road.

According to my Terrain Navigator Pro measurements, the distance west from where Turner fell to the knoll off Colrain Road is 2,033 feet, and the change in elevation 21 feet. The site favored by my go-to Greenfield historian is 1,046 feet south of where Turner died, with an elevation change of 25 feet.

I wondered: why would a search party sent out to recover war dead have carried Turner’s decomposing corpse more than 2,000 feet for proper interment? Not impossible, but still it will never be proven that the bones were Turner’s. In fact, the probability that they were the Baptist captain’s is slim indeed. And guess what? Judge Thompson knew it.

Location, however, was only one of several questions that arose in my mind from Ms. Kellogg’s description. Thank the starlit heavens that I reviewed her book before publishing inaccurate information that would require a correction.

You see, I was prepared in my last column to include Thompson’s incinerated box of bones as one of many evidentiary items pointing to a curse hovering over the Nash’s Mills neighborhood ever since May 19, 1676 – the day irate Indians slayed Turner crossing the Green River below the Mill Brook falls on his troop’s retreat from their slaughter of an unsuspecting, non-combative, sleeping fishing village of Natives along the north shore of Peskeomskut Falls.

This curse brought no less than nine devastating factory fires and a destructive flood, not to mention the obliteration of a quaint country neighborhood, its placid millpond, and a handsome brick church during Interstate 91 construction. And who knows what carnage has unfolded on that “haunted’ highway corridor since it opened more than a half-century ago?

In the process of dissecting the story about the bones vanishing in a factory fire, I had first suspected the building must have been Thompson’s own chisel factory at Nash’s Mills. Not the case: the F.M. Thompson Chisel Shop burned in 1871, three years before Kellogg says the bones were found.

Maybe she had the date wrong. But, I surmised, if so and the bones had vanished in his factory fire, wouldn’t Thompson have named the site? And wouldn’t he have been capable of pinpointing an accurate date of discovery?

That question begged for a little research and, sure enough, there were four pre-1874 Nash’s Mills factory fires – in 1866, 1868, 1870 and 1871 – but only one after 1874, a blaze that burned Warner Manufacturing to the ground on Nov. 20, 1897.

My suspicions grew. Something didn’t add up. Why the mystery?

Before I threw the destruction of Thompson’s bone collection into the mix of Nash’s Mills catastrophes, I wanted to check Kellogg’s reference one more time. I went to my study and chased it down in the third book I pulled from the bookcase.

The more I studied Kellogg’s retelling of Thompson’s tale, the more questions arose. Something just wasn’t adding up. Why so vague? And why didn’t Thompson include some mention of the bones in his detailed narrative of the Falls Fight and Turner’s death in his own History of Greenfield? That I found most puzzling.

So, it was off to the Internet for an online search of the published Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association (PVMA) Proceedings. Maybe Thompson had addressed the bones in that publication. Nope. Not the case. Why?

And something else that didn’t bear out was Kellogg’s excuse that, at the time of his discovery, Thompson was not as interested in local history as in later life. While it’s true that his membership did not date back to PVMA’s inaugural year of 1870, he did become a member in 1877, was granted life membership in 1882, and was elected vice president in 1886. Could it be possible that he had not been interested in local history three years before he joined the group, upon finding the skeleton around 1874? Seems unlikely. Maybe even preposterous.

Considering how active Thompson had been in PVMA research between 1877 and his 1916 death, I speculated that perhaps there existed some sort of Francis M. Thompson Papers in Historic Deerfield’s Memorial Libraries collections. So, I took the short ride to Deerfield and was quickly able to engage librarian David Bosse in my pursuit.

His curiosity stirred, he soon produced an enticing lead: an obscure two-folder collection of correspondence from Thompson to Deerfield historian George Sheldon. Did I want to explore the letters? Yes, indeed.

Bosse went upstairs to retrieve the box of data, which included one folder of correspondence between 1896 and 1904, another from 1905 to 1915. In the latter, I struck long-hidden gold in Thompson’s own handwriting.

There, three or four letters into the pile, on personalized Franklin County Probate Court stationary dated a week apart, May 1 and May 8, 1905, Thompson addressed the looming placement and dedication of the Turner Monument at Nash’s Mills. By then, the granite boulder selected for the monument had likely been retrieved from Leyden by George Wright and delivered to Greenfield Granite and Marble Works on Miles Street, where it was to be faced and inscribed as it stands today.

Greenfield politician Frank Gerrett – an Upper Meadows resident residing on the farm I today call home – was chairman of the Greenfield Old Home Week Association committee charged with selecting a site and planning the July 26, 1905 dedication ceremony. The committee eventually chose to place the monument on the triangular North Parish Church common overlooking Nash’s Mills Pond, just south of Leyden Road’s Cutlery Bridge that spanned the dam and waterfall. In the event of wet weather, Gerrett was confident his church could accommodate the 400 or 500 spectators expected.

As it turned out, weather was not a problem, and the “Turner Square” dedication drew a thousand spectators. The event is chronicled in Kellogg’s Hearth Stone Tales, published five years after her History of Greenfield. With a chance to add credence to Thompson’s discovery of bones that may have belonged to Turner himself, she mentioned not a word about them in a two-page narrative. Curious indeed! But why? By then, Thompson wasn’t around to dissuade her – he had been dead 20 years. The tale was surely often told back then, as it is today. Still, no mention.

Maybe she was aware that Thompson knew, in the days before radio-carbon dating and DNA analysis, that there was no way prove the bones were Turner’s. His first mention of the bones in his letters to Sheldon appears on May 1, in the context of choosing a site for the Turner monument. He admits:

I don’t dare go much on the bones found, and think we better put the Monument about 40 feet west of the end of the bridge, and on the south side of the road – a rod or so away…

Then, in the May 8 follow-up letter to his friend and PVMA colleague, he goes a step further by casting doubt on his discovery, and confessing:

It doesn’t seem to me that we could hardly honor those bones as the body of Capt. Turner on what information we now have.

In the next paragraph, Thompson drops the bombshell, entrusting Sheldon with a sacred family secret that solves a 150-year-old mystery:

By the way, I find that Mrs. Nims, who always thought the bones ought not to have been disturbed, had one of the men put them in a box and bury them near the place where they were found and say nothing to anybody.

So, there you have it: the real story, straight from the horse’s mouth, debunking a clever ruse of bones consumed in an unnamed Nash’s Mills factory fire. Hey, he could have said his dog ate them.

But let us briefly digress to identify Mrs. Nims. She was Thompson’s mother-in-law, Susan (Cordelia Amadon) Nims, wife of farmer Lucius Nims, who owned the middle of three contiguous Nims farms that ran from today’s Hatch greenhouse on Plain Road to Four Rivers Charter School a little less than a mile south on Colrain Road.

Now owned by the Butynski family, who still farms the acreage, the middle farm was the original Nims farm in the Meadows, with the first dwelling built by Thomas Nims in the mid-18th century. The farm was passed to son Hull Nims and grandson Lucius Nims. According to private family papers compiled by descendants of the Meadows Nims line, the 18th century homestead burned sometime before 1810, when Hull Nims’ built a new Federal home. The prosperous Meadows farmer and Revolutionary War veteran then proceeded to build bookend farmsteads for sons Thomas to the north (1824) and Albert to the south (1839). The Hull Nims home was torn down in the 1960s and replaced by the ranch where Anna Butynski now lives.

Although “Mrs. Nims” lived until 1890, she must have ordered the reburial of the bones before 1880. The farm was sold out of the family after her husband’s 1879 death.

We now know that, thanks to Mrs. Nims, a Brookfield woman of conscience, those mysterious Greenfield Meadows bones didn’t disappear in any industrial fire. That tale was a clever cover, pure subterfuge. On orders from Thompson’s mother-in-law, those bones – which were likely stored on some spooky, out-of-the-way shelf in a Nims barn or shed – were respectfully boxed and reburied near where eldest child Mary’s husband had dug them. Exactly where is anyone’s guess, but traces probably still exist.

Provincial George Sheldon cannot be overappreciated. Due to his commitment to preservation, the well-concealed cat’s finally out of the bag. Had not the determined Deerfield antiquarian saved those Thompson letters, the truth would never have surfaced.

Did Lucy Cutler Kellogg know the real story? Unlikely. Nims, a woman of proud Protestant tradition, wouldn’t hear of it. She believed secrets should be kept and the interred should rest in peace.

North Parish Memories Fading Fast

Memories fade over time, and a half-century is a long of time in the local-history realm.

Thus, I suppose it should come as no surprise that recollections of Greenfield’s old Nash’s Mills neighborhood at the beginning of Leyden Road are quickly sliding into oblivion. The church, the dam, the pond and other buildings did, after all, vanish more than 55 years ago to make room for Interstate 91.

What it boils down to is that even people now in their mid-60s were really too young then to provide the intricate details and insight required to paint a complete picture. Yes, there are many who remember the stately, brick, North Parish Church and its popular Parish Hall demolished in 1963 for the highway, while others fondly recall fishing Nash’s Mills Pond with a bobber and worm or Daredevil lure, or skating there in the cold of winter. Then there are those who mention the concrete-and-stone stairs said to be built during the Depression by Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) crews. The stairs followed the south side of the Mill Brook falls from the top of Nashs Mills Road to the bridge over Green River. But inquire about the bedrock waterfall’s color or the blasting required to remove it, or ask how much of the landform was removed to hollow out the highway corridor today spanned by an overpass, and there seems to be only spotty recollection.

“You must remember that the construction site was out of the way, where you didn’t notice it in passing,” recalled Richard Shortell, 72, who grew up in the upper Greenfield Meadows, attended North Parish Church with his parents and was in high school during the 1963-64 highway project.

When asked if the bedrock was the red sandstone with which we’re all familiar in this part of the Connecticut Valley, not one of many neighborhood witnesses queried responded with an authoritative, knee-jerk, “Yes.” Instead the question was greeted with a silent, bemused pause, followed by an uncertain, “Yes, I think so.” Certainly not a definitive response. Nonetheless, likely on the mark.

An exception was 93-year-old Greenfield native Anna Butynski, and even she hesitated. Caught off-guard, the Greenfield Meadows farmer took a while to stir her memory and provide a credible response. Although she couldn’t recall the color of the cascading bedrock waterfall below the dam, she did remember it as “beautiful” and did recall red outcropping of ledge in the neighborhood above, on both sides of the Leyden Road bridge crossing the narrow ravine just above the dam and falls.

“There was red rock all around there,” she said. “I used to lace my skates sitting on red rock along the shore behind the Parish Hall. I’m pretty sure there was red rock that had to be removed at the house across the bridge, too. That was Wayside Farm with a dairy barn when I was young. I remember them delivering milk with a white horse and wagon.”

Butynski grew up on the downtown half of Conway Street and remembers being able to see North Parish Church all the way from Main Street, the steeple taller than the neighborhood trees. As an adult married to Michael Butynski, she and her husband started Colrain Road’s Butynski Farm, which she still owns with extended family and raises vegetables. The state took four acres by eminent domain from the farm’s northeast corner bordered by the Green River during Interstate 91 construction. Although she does remember an extended construction process that included mention of blasting, she didn’t remember hearing explosions or paying much attention to the construction. Though nearby on her abutting acreage, like Shortell, she said it was largely out of sight, out of mind.

Like most people questioned, Butynski had only vague recollections of the natural, cascading stone falls below the dam. Maybe she never focused on them. Perhaps parents in the neighborhood deemed them off-limits to children due to potential danger. Then again, who, other than a fisherman or maybe a landscape artist or naturalist, would have a reason to study the falls, know them intimately and remember their twists, turns and bubbling pools?

Enter Joe Graveline, who’ll turn 70 in December and grew up in the neighborhood. He fished Mill Brook for trout above and below the pond it fed, and he also fished the pond itself for pickerel and bullheads on lazy summer days. “They used to stock trout in the pond, too,” said Graveline, a young teen at the time of Interstate-91 construction through the site. So, yes, he remembers the removal of the pond and falls and the destruction of a village square, where some buildings were moved, others destroyed.

Graveline met me late one afternoon at the base of the falls he remembers, now replaced by two arched concrete tunnels exiting under the north side of Nash’s Mills Road onto what looks like a walled, 45-degree concrete spillway and horizontal tailrace flowing into the stream bed. The spillway appears to be about 40 feet long, the tailrace a bit shorter. “This was the bottom half of the falls,” Graveline said. “There were actually two steps of falls, with a pool and a settling pond at the base of each. I fished the one in the middle and the one at to bottom.”

Although uncertain of the process, Graveline surmised that the construction crews reduced the bedrock by blasting before capping it with the concrete ramps fed by concrete tunnels channeling the brook under I-91. The destruction of a special, picturesque spot had a devastating impact on Graveline and other neighborhood teenagers, not to mention the many fishermen who had frequented it for years.

Graveline was also the source who said he believed the stairs leading from top to bottom of the falls had been the work of the CCC. It makes sense. A 1936 Greenfield newspaper photo shows a new concrete dam that had been finished that summer, which would have fallen during the days of CCC projects. Plus, there was a CCC camp stationed a mile or two north of Nash’s Mills, near where Plain Road converges with Green River Road today. Also, the last factory at the site had been razed in 1931, leaving a peaceful and scenic waterfall.

Graveline didn’t recall the bedrock falls as red, but he did remember red bedrock above and below, citing an outcropping with initials carved into it along the bank of the Green River below Nash’s Mills Bridge. Corroborating evidence of red sandstone there is found in a May 23, 1903 Greenfield Gazette and Courier blurb announcing that: “The Red Rock bathing club had control of the swimming pool at Red Rock in the Green River near Nash’s Mill again this year.” Also, I myself can say with certainty that all the outcropping of ledge I pass in the river bed less than a mile upstream is the same red sandstone with which I grew familiar on the Pocumtuck Range as a boy.

Buttressing my argument in favor of red sandstone from top to bottom at Nash’s Mills is the is found in the “History of the First Church, Greenfield, Mass (1963).” North Parish Church was built in 1831 on land donated by parishioner Eber Nash, whose nearby brickyard also made the bricks for Northampton architect Isaac Damon’s crowning achievement. North Parish Church was the last church Damon built, leaning heavily upon design elements of Asher Benjamin. According to the book published the same year the church was demolished, “Our second House of Worship was built in 1831 on a plot containing sold rock” … a site that offered “a sure and appropriate foundation.”

It sure does sound like a continuation of the same red bedrock on which Anna Butynski laced her skates many years ago across the street from the brick church, on the shore of the pond behind the Parish Hall. That traprock spine runs all the way from the top of the escarpment where Leyden Road climbs out of flood plain near the Pumping Station and follows Leyden Road, Conway Street and Elm Street to the dog park currently located along Colrain Street.

Take a look sometime in your travels at the red bedrock ledge jutting out on the north side of Colrain Street. Then let your mind wander back to the days before Europeans started exploring a New World … and establishing a new thumbprint.

New Look At Falls Fight Retreat Path

How about a couple of new twists to a centuries-old tale – one bringing in natural history, another introducing a largely forgotten waterfall that vanished in the name of progress and interstate highways?

Today’s discussion is centered around the fabled “Falls Fight” of May 19, 1676, a surprise attack that turned King Philip’s War in favor of colonials coming down the homestretch. On that fateful day, Connecticut Valley militia led from Hatfield by Boston Capt. William Turner descended upon a sleeping, pre-dawn fishing village of Indians camped at Peskeomskut Falls between Gill and Turners Falls, slaughtering mostly non-combatant old men and women. Then, the retreating soldiers had the tables turned on them by vengeful, counterattacking Indians racing in pursuit from adjacent riverside encampments.

The fleeing soldiers’ retreat took them over the hill that is now north of Route 2 and west of Main Road before crossing Fall River at Factory Hollow. From that point on, the battle appears to have degenerated into a helter-skelter dash for survival along two wetland corridors. The retreat path is now under the microscope of Connecticut archaeologist Kevin McBride and his metal-detecting battlefield-reconstruction sleuths combing the ground for associated musket balls.

Once across Fall River to their awaiting horses, the soldiers had a choice: follow scout Experience Hinsdale south toward Deerfield through the dense tangles of White Ash Swamp, or follow Capt. Turner, Lt. Samuel Holyoke, and probably guide Benjamin Wait back down the same path they had arrived on, crossing Green River near its confluence with Mill Brook.

Those who followed Hinsdale were quickly dispatched by Indians. The others carried on, had a fighting chance.

The four-mile trek through heavy wetland cover to the Green River ford followed White Ash Swamp’s northern perimeter to Cherry Rum Brook, which merged with larger Mill Brook a half-mile from Green River. About 200 yards east of Green River, at the top of what would become a small Greenfield industrial village known as Nash’s Mills, stood a bedrock waterfall cascading down exposed red sandstone to the Green River.

According to Terrain Navigator Pro measurements, the elevation drop from the west edge of the Silver Street-Conway Road intersection to the mouth of Mill Brook is approximately 60 feet. The straight-line distance from top to bottom is 590 feet, the meandering brook’s length 780 feet.

Tradition has it that Indians wounded Capt. Turner crossing Green River, and that he died on the west bank, just downstream from today’s Green River Swimming and Recreation Area. A Turner Monument now stands along Nash’s Mill Road, not far away.

Though early 20th century Greenfield historian Lucy Cutler Kellogg claims there was an island at the site of Turner’s death, there seems to be little corroborating evidence. That doesn’t mean there wasn’t an island. Such details can be lost over time. Perhaps deed research would confirm the island. It’s always possible where two streams with strong currents collide to create a swirling, depositional eddy. There is indeed a sizeable island just upstream from Mill Brook’s outflow into Green River on 1961 Interstate Route 91 construction maps. Could that be the island Kellogg notes? Who knows? In the big picture, an island at the site is insignificant compared to the presence of falls, which would have produced the cover sound of a loud spring roar during Turner’s retreat.

McBride and company have confirmed the retreat route identified by many historians, recovering musket balls along both banks of the meandering, at times steep Cherry Rum-Mill Brook corridor. Though the team is still in the process of sorting it all out, the evidence seems to place the colonials following the south bank as the Indians picked away at them from elevated ambush sites along the opposite bank.

Steep ravines and sharp turns presented several advantageous locations for surprise attacks throughout the wetland terrain. The Indians had a significant advantage. They knew the land. The colonials did not.

The vexing question for posterity is: What did the landscape between Peskeomskut and the Green River look like in 1676? That is, before the brook was dammed above the waterfalls to create Nash’s Mills Pond – and before Interstate 91 construction removed the bedrock falls and tunneled Mill Brook under 91 and Nash’s Mills Road, where today it exits two arched concrete tunnels and flows down a walled ramp to the Green River floodplain?

More precisely, what were the fleeing soldiers facing as they raced down that final half-mile from the Cherry Rum-Mill Brook confluence to the Green River?

I could find no reference to the Mill Brook falls in George Sheldon’s History of Deerfield (1895), which is curious when you consider it was cited four years earlier in the Greenfield Gazette’s “Centennial Edition.” The falls are again referenced in Francis M. Thompson’s History of Greenfield (1904), which makes sense: Thompson intimately knew the falls and dam supplying waterpower at Nash’s Mills. He himself owned a chisel manufactory there, which burned in 1871.

Thompson wrote that Mill Brook was “improved for mills” at a site “located at the considerable falls near its entrance into the Green River at Nash’s Mills.” He also says Jonathan Catlin “at a very early date” had a mill there. That means, “before 1755, when he deeded half interest to Daniel Nash for a mill and mill yard.” Eleven years later (1766), Catlin deeded the other half-interest to another miller, Aaron Denio Jr.”

Published descriptions of the falls are vague at best. Thompson basically parrots the “Centennial Edition” account, which states, “The height of the fall, excellent chance for flowage and secure rock foundation for a dam made the water privilege there of much value.” What height, he does not say.  

A circa 1895 photo looking up at Warner Manufacturing Co. from Nash’s Mills Road provides visible evidence. The black and white shot – rescued at auction in a Greenfield photo album dated 1899 – displays the southwest corner of the three-story, clapboard factory building, with a dam flowing onto a natural stone waterfall along the south side. The water flows about 10 feet over the dam, falling upon a long stretch of roiling falls cascading over bedrock toward the Green River. What cannot be seen is Nash’s Mills Pond behind the dam, or the iron-railed Leyden Road bridge crossing the narrow ravine at the head of the falls.

A factor that speaks to the site’s early industrial value is the 1719 Deerfield road laid from the west end of Green River Village (Main Street in Greenfield) to Country Farms (the fertile northern Greenfield flood plain east of the Green River, extending south on both sides of Leyden Road from the pumping station to the base of a serpentine upper terrace traversed by Country Club Road).

Following the path of today’s Conway Street and Leyden Road, that old road crossed Mill Brook a short distance north of the Silver Street outflow, where the landscape was dramatically altered during Interstate 91 construction in 1963-64. The bedrock waterfall was blasted and removed to hollow out the I-91 corridor now spanned by a long overpass connecting Conway Street and Leyden Road.

The year 1719 was very early for roadbuilding through what was to become Greenfield, strongly suggesting that it had been an existing indigenous footpath to the falls and beyond. In Native American culture, significant waterfalls were sites of high spirit, celebrated as portals to the underworld, as well as important fishing places. Petroglyphs and pictographs are often found around falls where migrating fish were seasonally harvested. Spring salmon may have accumulated in the settling pool at the base of Mill Brook falls annually, and the same can be said of Eastern brook trout running upriver for their annual fall spawning.

Tributary paths likely intersected the marshy main path from Peskeomskut to Green River. This terrain that today sits north of Silver Street and south of Barton Road was known in the early-historic period as Trap Plain, a bountiful hunting and trapping ground. As recent as the final quarter of the 19th century, Cherry Rum Brook was still referred to on maps as “Trap Plain Brook.”

By the time of King Philip’s War, 40 years after the founding of Springfield, beavers had been overharvested to extirpation in southern New England by Indian trappers supplying the Pynchon fur-trading dynasty. That doesn’t mean signs of old beaver colonies were not prevalent. The remains of old beaver ponds must have left dense marshland and wet, fertile soil along brooks that had been dammed.

So, Turner and his men were most likely negotiating swampy, jungle-like habitat through the Cherry Rum/Mill Brook corridor. Plus, once they got near the Mill Brook falls, their ability to detect sounds around them would have been greatly diminished if not totally erased.

Isn’t it interesting how, despite being surprised and totally unprepared for a daybreak attack on their sleeping village, the Indians had Turner and his fleeing troops right where they wanted them during the retreat? The colonials were trying to escape through unfamiliar terrain well known by their native pursuers, whose people had hunted there for millennia. Unlike their prey, such as deer, bear and moose, the colonial soldiers were ignorant of trails and terrain, and hesitant to leave the beaten paths, making them easy marks. On horseback, their movement was even easier to detect.

Given such overwhelming odds against survival, isn’t it amazing that the so-called “boy hero,” 16-year-old soldier Jonathan Wells of Hatfield, lived to tell and retell his famous escape tale, one that’s been picked at for centuries by historians.

Although I have been unable to uncover any detailed descriptions or survey plans unveiling precise dimensions or height of the Mill Brooks falls, I haven’t given up. I thought maybe the local newspaper would be helpful, but a cursory probe of online Greenfield Gazette and Courier archives was disappointing at best.

Excepting destruction of the stately, brick North Parish Church and the rescue of a buried Lane Construction worker from Brattleboro, there also appears to have been little reporting on the Interstate 91 project. Curious? Yes. The local newspaper should have been all over that Route 91 project that destroyed landmarks, altered trout streams and changed the town forever. But, no. Not the case.

All I can do is keep digging and sharing what I uncover. I’m not alone. It’s a four-man collaborative effort, with lots of email and phone calls among us. Exciting indeed.

We’re on it. It’s dynamic. Who knows? Maybe this narrative will pull in other recollections and photos. One can only hope.

Benjamin Munn’s Saga

Old friend Billy Wardwell and his cheerful, trademark smile, full gray beard extending to his chest, stopped by on a bright summer morning carrying a large, earth-tone, rectangular item from his car. On his way to 18 holes of vintage golf, he was clad in proper attire, right down to the bowtie and knickers that old, wood-shafted golfers wore.

What he lugged under his arm went back three generations deeper, to the first quarter of the 19th century.

Having picked up this bound volume of Greenfield Gazettes – dating back to the late Federal period, June 1, 1823 through June 1, 1825, plus one from 1817 – at South Deerfield bookbinder John Nove’s shop, he thought I may have an interest. He was right. I did. It’s still here, resting face-up on a leather ottoman in the study. It contains many little tidbits of interesting information that speak to the days of aspiring young Greenfield.

Anyone who’s read old newspapers knows that the local-news product is spotty at best, even poor notwithstanding staples like obituaries, legal notices and the occasional special-interest story. The latter are sparse. Most of the “news” is regurgitated from city newspapers dropped off at local taverns by mail stages and post riders.

Then, of course, there are the merchant’s advertisements, which give you a feel for what’s happening in the business district. In this case, you find familiar names to anyone who’s explored early 19th-century Greenfield – artisans like pewterer Samuel Pierce, cabinetmaker Daniel Clay, foundry man William Wilson, and painter George Washington Mark all trying to make a go of it.

Mixed in with the ads are bulletin-board, lost-and-found notices about livestock, purses and wallets, and even an occasional personal plea that strikes your funny bone. Try this one on for size, a notice that appears several times in 1823, headlined “Look Out!” in bold, black, attention-seeking letters. Posted by jilted husband Elijah Clark of Leyden and dated Aug. 13, it reads:

“Whereas my wife Lydia left my bed and board on the 18th of March last without any provocation, I do hereby forbid all persons harboring or trusting her on penalty of law.”

So, tell me, do you suppose Mr. Clark is a batterer? Just a thought. The first that came to mind.

Other than that, you’re apt to find detailed accounts of public hangings in New York City or Atlanta, piracy on the high seas, devastating city fires, or some scurrilous bank embezzlement scheme in Philadelphia or Newark, NJ.

Then, once in a while, you get a tale like the one brought to the paper by an anonymous local source who thought readers would be interested. Although it would be tough to chase down two hundred years later, I suspect the source could have been Deerfield historian Epaphras Hoyt, identified by Historic Deerfield Inc. as a man of affairs who served as High Sheriff of Franklin County from 1814 to 1831… also active as an author, surveyor, postmaster, justice of the peace, register of deeds, and major general in the Massachusetts militia during his long life of public service.

The source is irrelevant. It’s the story of Benjamin Munn that matters. Found dead on a road from Deerfield to Shelburne on the evening of July 26, 1824, this wayward joiner had a distinguished and mysterious past. He was, as they say in Chicopee, quite the boy, yet no youngster when he met his sudden hilltown demise.

Born Feb. 1, 1738 in Deerfield, Munn had been around, to say the least. I suppose a good Federal Period carpenter would never go hungry, and Munn was all that. Carpentry was in his blood, so to speak, he the third in a line of three Deerfield carpenters named Benjamin Munn.

Munn was also fifth-generation Connecticut Valley, dating back to namesake progenitor Benjamin Munn, a Hartford founder, Pequot War veteran and early Springfield resident who died there in 1675, probably killed by Indians. Son John Munn (b. 1652, Springfield) settled at Westfield and fought at the King Philip’s War Falls Fight (May 19, 1676).

John’s son Benjamin, our Benjamin’s grandfather (b. 1683, Westfield), was the first of the three consecutive Deerfield carpenters named Benjamin. He came to Deerfield with his mother and stepfather John Richards, the Deerfield schoolmaster who arrived before 1698, according to historian George Sheldon. Richards’ stepsons, brothers Benjamin and John Munn, joined their mom as the first of the family to live in Deerfield.

Benjamin I, his wife Thankful Nims, and their infant child survived the famous 1704 Indian attack in the family’s snow-covered, cellar home on the Richards lot. Thankful was the daughter of Deerfield’s Godfrey Nims, and removed to Northfield.

Son Benjamin II (born 1709, Deerfield) married Mary Wait, daughter of “Brave” Benjamin Wait of Hatfield, a famous Indian fighter and scout who was a victim of Deerfield’s 1704 Meadow Fight. Benjamin II and Mary produced our Benjamin, born 1738 in Deerfield. Benjamin’s first cousin John (b. 1741, son of John, Benjamin) was one of the first permanent settlers in the part of Deerfield that became Greenfield, then Gill. The family operated the ferry there, retaining the property around Munn’s Ferry Road into the mid-20th century.

Our Benjamin Munn was a French and Indian War soldier of distinction, having served from about 1755 to 1760 under commanding officers the likes of legendary Israel Putnam and Robert Rogers (of Rogers Rangers fame) in the Lake George-Fort Ticonderoga-Crown Point-Lake Champlain theater.

Surviving the perilous frontier campaigns, Munn married Patty Bartlett of Northampton, where they lived briefly before packing up for Sudbury and opening a tavern. From that post, he answered the 1775 call from Cambridge to fight the British at Bunker Hill before, soon thereafter headed to the Maine frontier due to “pecuniary embarrassments” (financial difficulties, in the current lexicon), and then to Nova Scotia, leaving his wife wondering where he fled. An unsubstantiated online report on one of the genealogical sites claims he was, like convicted brother Phineas, a Tory, but that seems dubious given his Bunker Hill service.

Although little appears to be known of Munn’s Nova Scotia life, he surely carved out an identity as a carpenter and faded from the memory of Deerfield friends and neighbors. Then, a half-century later, in 1822, out of the clear blue sky, presumed long dead by most who had known him as a young man, Munn returned to his native town without warning, like a ghost from the past.

According to the anonymous newspaper informant, Munn’s circuitous trip home had been chronicled in an 1822 Gazette, which I did not chase down. It was a journey worthy of acclaim, if not local folklore. The 84-year-old man had walked some 100 miles to a ship anchored in Halifax port, sailed to Boston and proceeded to hoof it another 100 more miles home to Deerfield.

There, his widowed younger sister Lydia Bradley was living on The Street, while another younger widowed sister, Mary Joiner, was living in Shelburne, either at a home she had shared with late husband Edward Joiner, or possibly with son William Joiner and daughter-in-law Content (Bardwell) Joiner. Content was the daughter of Ebenezer Bardwell, an early settler of Foxtown (the southeastern Shelburne/Bardwells Ferry area). Both Edward and Mary died in Shelburne. The Deerfield Joiners (also spelled Joyner in some records) can be confusing to follow due to the fact that there were two Edwards and two Williams.

Regardless of where Mary lived in Shelburne, it’s safe to assume that it was in Foxtown, and that the route from Deerfield would have crossed the Deerfield River to Wisdom, then up either Old Albany or Hawks roads to the western hills. The newspaper doesn’t identify the road Munn traveled, perhaps suggesting readers would know the route.

Then again, maybe it was just shoddy reporting, always a possibility.

In Deerfield, Munn likely bunked with sister Lydia. By the time of his phantom return, his ex-wife, who had presumed herself a widow and married Timothy Parsons of Northampton, had herself been dead for five years. Anyway, according to the Aug. 3, 1824 Gazette account, Munn left Deerfield on foot to visit his Shelburne sister. The day was Monday. Witnesses had seen him along the way before he was later found dead by the side of the road that evening. He had walked about 10 miles before expiring.

There were reports of rain and hail storms passing through the hills that day. The coroner ruled death by natural causes. The newspaper correspondent praised Munn as a walker with “remarkable power of limbs for traveling… Few young men walked with greater ease or rapidity.” He was 86.

So, there you have it – the tale of Travelin’ Man Benjamin Munn, the former Rogers Ranger, found dead over an embankment along the road to his sister’s Shelburne home on July 24, 1824. Although there seems to be no record of his final resting place, you can bet the farm it’s not far away. Proud Benjamin most likely wanted to return home to die and be buried where he was born. He made it.

Rifles That Sang

Discovery. It’s enticing. A mission. A search. A chase. An addictive game. Connecting can be euphoric. Especially when an answer comes out of nowhere. Totally unexpected. Slaps you upside the head like a branch in the woods.

Which brings us to a peculiar, 8½-inch, black, pointed, ground-stone object (pictured below) I purchased years ago among a collection of 19th-century powder horns, bullet molds, wedges, and powder flasks and pouches handed down as family relics to the late Lucius Nims of Greenfield. He said the miscellaneous items could be traced back to his great grandfather Hull Nims, a Revolutionary War veteran and prosperous Greenfield Meadows farmer.

The stone’s peculiarity arose from the fact that it didn’t seem to fit with the rest of the collection. Like that lonely little petunia in an onion patch, it stuck out. Didn’t belong. Looked like a Stone-Age, Native American artifact. Perhaps a hide-scraper. Maybe a woodworking gouger, knife or chisel. Possibly even some sort of a stabbing, bludgeoning weapon for hand-to-hand combat, although I had never seen anything that compared in reference books. It looked and felt more like some sort of tool.

During my innkeeping days, I had on many occasions shown the interesting object to whomever I thought would possibly be interested and may even be able to identify it. Tucked away in the bottom drawer of an 18th-century, tiger maple, Chippendale blanket chest with a Hampshire hills provenance and likely Northampton origin, I’d fetch it as a post-breakfast table conversation piece. I showed it to many without giving my thoughts and the unanimous opinion was that it was a Native American artifact. Likely, old Hull Nims or one of his kids had turned it up from the rich Meadows croplands with one of those old, two-handled, V-shaped, horse-pulled cultivators on acreage today farmed by the Butynski family.

Enter veteran anthropologist/archaeologist Mike Gramly, who, though I didn’t know it at the time, is a card-carrying Indian-artifact appraiser. I met him in September 2013, when he was leading a week-long archaeological excavation of the “Sugarloaf (or DEDIC) Site” along the Deerfield-Whately border – one of North America’s richest Paleoindian treasure troves. Finding myself in the company of many lithic scholars with decades of experience uncovering and identifying artifacts, I brought my worked-stone curiosity to the site for inspection. If it was of Native American origin, these folks would know.

With the crew tidying up the site down the stretch during Saturday-afternoon cleanup, I retrieved the shiny, pointed, black stone from my truck and passed it around among four or five experts. They examined and handled it, and their consensus was that they were not familiar with the form, but suspected it was not an Indian artifact.

“Show it to Mike,” said one of them. “He’s good at this stuff.”

Overhearing the conversation from nearby, Gramly soon joined us. The man holding the stone object handed it to him for examination. He held it up to the sun, pondered the shape, the edges, the point and the round handle and said, “What you have here is not an Indian artifact. It’s a scythe-sharpening tool, and a pretty rare find at that. Even rarer are the cattle-horn holsters farmers carried them in. Hard to come by these days.”

How about that? It just so happened there was just such a cattle horn in the Nims collection. Though I hadn’t associated it with the stone tool, it came with it, and did indeed fit when tested. With a piece chipped from the rim, I had surmised without giving it much thought that maybe it was an incomplete powder-horn blank that had been broken and kept for future reduction. But, no, it belonged with the stone sharpening tool used to keep grass-cutting scythes sharp for the hayfields.

Back then, hay was not baled; it was cut with scythes, piled in thatched ricks for drying, stored loose in barn hay pits and lofts, and pitchforked into stables and stalls. Nowadays, you only see hayricks in oil paintings, photos and films depicting earlier times. How nice to have this relic from a neighborhood with an agricultural legacy.

But the story doesn’t end there. Nope. It gets better.

Fast forward five or six years from the Gramly ID and, quite by chance, I discovered the old name for scythe-sharpening stones. They were called rifles. Try Googling that and finding it, even when you know what you’re looking for. I don’t believe you’ll find it. The only place I didn’t check was the Oxford Dictionary. It could be there, but I have my doubts. The word was probably colloquial and/or vernacular. Perhaps of New England origin. Definitely obsolete. How did I find it? By reading. Better still, following a scholarly footnote. Let me explain.

Reading “A Walk to Wachusett” in Henry D. Thoreau Essays: A Fully Annotated Edition, edited by Jeffrey S. Cramer, Yale University Press (2013), there it was on Page 49. Thoreau and companion Richard Fuller (Margaret Fuller’s brother) were walking through Acton and Stow at daybreak during their famed four-day walk from Concord to the top of Mount Wachusett in early July of 1842. Breaking into a settled clearing from the cool Acton woods, Thoreau captures the essence by describing fenced meadows, tree lines, and dimly lit houses and outbuildings.

Of the tranquil, bucolic, dawn scene he writes: “It was solitude with light, which is better than darkness. But, anon, the sound of the mower’s rifle was heard in the fields, and this, too, mingled with the herd of days.”

Fortunately, Editor Cramer uses footnotes to clear up a couple of obsolete words that could cause confusion among even sophisticated contemporary readers. No. 1, the “mower’s rifle” is not a long gun used for hunting and protection but rather, “An instrument used after the manner of a whetstone for sharpening scythes”; and 2), the final word “days” does not refer to days of the week but instead is a “Variant of deys: dairymaids or milkmaids.” So there. Has anyone ever told you it’s wise to follow footnotes? Well, here’s a perfect example, a luxury indeed when reading dated prose.

And so, the search continues. You can’t understate the importance of reading and conversing when chasing information and solving vexing unknowns. If there’s a moral to this example of exciting intellectual discovery, it is this: Never ignore cumbersome footnotes, even if you have to chase them all the way to the back of the book. That was not necessary in this case. Cramer’s footnotes were listed in the right margin of each page, a convenience that surpasses even placement at the page bottom.

Had I been lazy that day while reading something I had read before in an earlier publishing, I’d probably think that farmer fired his rifle at a woodchuck, whose hayfield holes were capable of breaking horses’ legs. Not so. Just sharpening his scythe in daybreak still

It’s All About Place

So, what exactly does a retired man with time on his hands do during the sultry dog days? That was a recent question asked of me in passing through the marketplace.

I can’t say I gave a thoughtful answer. The questioner wasn’t expecting one. Just small talk to which I responded with a playful quip. You know. Something like, “As little as possible,” or, “Trying to stay out of mischief.” Ha-ha.

Hours later, as the setting sun cast me into dusky introspection, I revisited the question and internally answered it.

I try to remain productive, though at a slower, steadier pace than when work loomed largest. I still read a lot, write a little, and chat face-to-face, by phone or email. I also discipline myself to pick away at a chore or two a day, trying not to overburden myself with drudgery. Plus, there’s always the little stuff – caring for pets, winding, oiling and regulating antique clocks, feeding the woodstove in winter, keeping the house cool in summer, airing out the barn when the sky is high and dry. I pick berries when ripe and water the Roma tomato daily, suckering and tying as needed.

I even cleaned out the barn this summer. Long overdue. Finally, after 22 years of procrastination fueled by the responsibility of stewarding historic property, I concluded that I did not have, and likely would not find, a use for the barn collection left behind by former generations. With my wife’s assistance, I realized reminiscence had become clutter.

So, we went to work, selling some contents to dealers and reorganizing what was left. It put a little cash in our pocket for miscellaneous expenses like fruit and vegetable runs. There’s more. A couple dump runs will clear the stables, especially in the four not-so open stalls. Then, alas, a tidy, organized barn, its cupola and open chestnut framing a statement to its historic New England character.

I view all the aforementioned as mindless routine, though rewarding, mundane chores that must be done. Yet never can I put such chores in a league with reading and researching and studying the place where I was born and call home.

I’m talking about towns like Deerfield and Greenfield, Whately and Conway. But it goes deeper, expanding into Franklin County and the Pioneer Valley, Massachusetts, New England and the Northeast. Then there are the rivers: the Connecticut, Deerfield and Green, Millers and Westfield, Ashuelet and West, even the Merrimack and Penobscot. They’re all connected in a sense of place that drives me.

Everything revolves around place, inspiring my reading, travels and discourse. When you think of it, what do you really know if you don’t understand your place? It must be a lonely, hollow existence for those who move so often that they never find one that’s theirs.

In recent weeks, there’s been an enticing historical buzz in the air. Lots of little ongoing projects that you don’t hear much about. As a result, I reread two books and, at the telephone suggestion of independent archaeologist Mike Gramly, added one to my library that, having finished it, I know should have been purchased long ago. I thought it was “dated.” Uh-uh. Not for the most part.

My first reread was Harral Ayres’ The Great Trail of New England, a hard-to-find 1940 study of the Indian footpath that led Puritan pioneers to the Connecticut Valley, where, between 1633 and ‘35, they settled Windsor, Hartford, Wethersfield, and Springfield. I remember buying the title from the Brattle Street Bookstore years ago. I had spotted a 1939 ad in the “Bulletin of the Massachusetts Archaeological Society,” and hunted it down online. One copy available. Not cheap. Worth it.

My renewed interest in the indigenous footpaths that greeted New England pioneers to these shores and led them up and down the coast and inland was spurred by recent interaction with an energetic group of Conway Historical Commissioners and local-history sleuths tracing the town’s oldest roads and cellar holes. All Connecticut Valley towns on both sides of the river, in the flatlands and hills, were settled along such foot-wide paths that greeted pioneers. These trails evolved into bridal and cart paths, county and town roads and turnpikes.

Although Ayres’ book doesn’t venture this far north, it describes the major artery from Boston to Hartford and New York, and mentions the tributaries leading to Broookfield, Lancaster, and Springfield. Although unstated, those northern tributaries off that southern New England east-west artery intersected the Connecticut Valley trails, eventually crossing our Mohawk Trail, it another major, indigenous, east-west footpath from the coast to the Hudson Valley and beyond.

Ayres details the landscape surrounding the trail as well as Indian villages and friendly interactions with Natives along the way. An important tool he uses to capture the trail’s essence is John Winthrop, Jr.’s diary recording his circuitous, 10-day, 230-mile round trip from Boston to Connecticut and back. His late-fall route from Boston to Windsor goes – accidentally – on the northern path to Springfield. From there, he travels south to the Windsor ferry and Hartford, then south to Saybrook, where he takes the coastal path home though Providence.

Half of his tiny journal was written in Latin, the other half English. The Latin portion was translated and published for the first time in Ayres’ work. The narrative describes river crossings, bartering for food with Indians, and overnights under trailside wigwam frames the men had to cover. Their dealings with Natives they encountered were friendly – and remember, the Pequot War, New England’s first Indian war, had ended only seven years earlier, so Indians had reason to distrust colonists.

My Connecticut Path read dovetailed nicely into an ongoing, cooperative, local-history probe in which I had been involved with contact-period scholar and friend Peter A. Thomas. With work already underway for Deerfield’s 350th birthday celebration in 2023, Thomas has been working diligently to unravel the deeds and settlement of Deerfield, which began in the mid-1660s as Pocumtuck, a compensatory 8,000-acre grant to Dedham.

Thomas isn’t the first researcher to examine the confusing earliest deeds, and won’t be the last. However, unless some forgotten seventeenth-century translation key comes to light in the secret drawer of a dusty attic dresser, the incomprehensible Indian place names may never be deciphered.

Still, what is certain is that the first colonial survey crew, explorers, fur traders, and settlers like Samuel Hinsdale and Samson Frary traveled to the Connecticut Valley by way of Ayres’ trails. From Springfield, they took the trail through Westfield to Northampton and on to Hadley, Deerfield, and Northfield.

Enter Gramly, a paleontologist with a fascination of the Connecticut Valley that goes back at least 12,350 years – the radiocarbon-date attached to the Paleoindian “Sugarloaf Site” he has twice excavated along the Whately-Deerfield line. Gramly will implore, to anyone willing to listen, the importance of our valley in the North American archaeological record.

So, of course, he’s game when the discussion turns to ancient indigenous trails leading to and along New England’s largest river. Gramly speaks about such topics with unencumbered glee, not to mention venerable insight. Few understand the deep history and peopling of the Americas like Mike Gramly. Even fewer are willing to get their hands dirty, their shirt saturated discovering more.

First and foremost, Gramly is a teacher – one who’ll talk the night away to curiosities. He’s a book author, publisher, and dealer, well-read with a personal library counting into the thousands, most of it archaeological and anthropological. Thus, he’s a great source for suggested readings.

“I don’t know if you own C.C. Willoughby’s Antiquities of the New England Indians (1935),” he told me during a recent telephone conversation. “If not, you ought to. Though written long ago, it’s relevant, and the author winds in and out of your valley.”

Cha-ching, I found one online, the gilt on the spine and cover bright and crisp, the binding, as my late father used to say, ‘Tight as the bark on a four-foot oak.’”

Gramly was right. Willoughby shares much helpful information about Connecticut Valley Indians, their tools and culture, plus many detailed sketches of valley artifacts collected in Deerfield, Gill, Montague, Hadley, South Hadley, Holyoke, Springfield, Windsor, and Hartford. The illustrated relics were then housed at museums in Deerfield, Amherst and Holyoke, along with various local historical societies. I’d venture a guess that many of these treasures are no longer where Willoughby found them. Like so many priceless Museum artifacts, they were probably sold or pilfered out the back door long ago.

Reading Willoughby’s narrative on Maine’s mysterious “Red Paint People,” their cemeteries and culture, piqued my dormant interest in the topic and sent me to a bookcase for Bruce Bourque’s The Swordfish Hunters (2012). I bought the book and had it autographed by the author at Gramly’s last Sugarloaf Site dig in 2013. I immediately read it, and in June 2016 I hosted Bourque and Gramly overnight for a memorable Lake Hitchcock symposium at Eaglebrook School.

My reread of Bourque’s groundbreaking work was far more meaningful than the initial read, when I was new to archaeology and barely knew the difference between a feature and an artifact.

Isn’t it interesting how discovery missions get started? This time the impetus was a study of old Conway roads and older Deerfield deeds, discussions with scholars Thomas and Gramly, reading an old book, rereading another and a newer one, and melding the information into form. Yes, Ayres, Willoughby, and Bourque brought me home, with little nudges from Gramly and Thomas.

Although it’s a fact that “Red Paint” cemeteries are a coastal phenomenon not found here, there were indeed Connecticut Valley burials marked with mortuary-ceremonial red ochre. So, a form of “red paint” in a similar context does indeed show up here… What does it mean?

This search, and all of its diversions, are a work in progress. It’s addictive and underway, new information continually tweaking the narrative. I must keep reading, following leads from people who know more than me and asking questions, many questions, all related to this place, one where my occidental DNA is found in most of the oldest graveyards.

There’s lots to learn from those “historic” burial grounds reaching back 300 or 400 years, yet far more from our indigenous prehistory that digs some 13,000 years deeper.

Sugarloaf Witch-Tale Origin?

It’s noontime. I’ve walked the dogs, lugged in wood from the woodshed, showered, poured my last cup of coffee, and am reading on a comfortable leather recliner in the sunny south parlor. Retirement’s great. Work no longer looming.

The wireless phone rings. Cradled on a small dropleaf table between my chair and its twin, I pick up the receiver to read the caller-ID panel. A local cell phone I don’t recognize. I answer anyway, chancing an unwanted pitch from a telephone solicitor, or worse still, an annoying robocall. Don’t you hate those recorded sales pitches? This was not that. A welcome surprise. Paul Grzybowski, a trusted source I met several years ago at Turners Falls’ Discovery Center.

“Hey, Paul. What’s goin’ on?”

“Well, I have something for you. I know you share my interest in the tale of the Sugarloaf witch myth, and I’ve have found something of that’ll be of interest to you.”

“Wow! Great timing. Surreal, in fact. Our brain waves must have connected. Not an hour ago I sent in a Sugarloaf column to the Montague Reporter. Not about the witch. The caves. But it sure seems like more than a coincidence that you’d call now. Why do these things happen?”

He laughs like he’s been there and says, “Yeah, I hear you. But, honestly, I didn’t even know you wrote a Reporter column, just that we shared an interest in that Sugarloaf witch. So, I wanted to touch base.”

The Sugarloaf myth my friend was referring to dates back to colonial days, originating during the mid-18th century. At that time, Sugarloaf Brook crossing the mountain’s southern skirt served as the border between Hatfield and Deerfield, traveling a quarter-mile east before turning south toward its Connecticut River confluence at what’s now Herlihy Park off River Road. The Sugarloaf base then spills gently out into a fertile plain once known as the Canterbury section of Hatfield and then, after its 1771 incorporation, Whately. So, there you have it: our own little Canterbury tale.

Unsettled during the first 75 years of the contact period due to Indian dangers, the first settler to set his stake at the foot of Sugarloaf was Abraham Parker, a Groton man who arrived in 1749, having likely spent some family time at the Fort at No. 4 in Charlestown, NH. His father, Capt. Isaac Parker of Groton, was then continuing a proud family military tradition by serving at the Connecticut Valley’s northernmost colonial frontier outpost. Abraham broke ground for his home that evolved into a big farm and gristmill over the years and still stands as the large yellow house sitting upon the fork in the road.

A few years after Parker’s arrival, brother-in-law (my sixth great-grandfather) Joseph Sanderson joined him, moving from Groton wife Ruth Parker and eight young children. Thus, the riverside village of Canterbury was born, and there the Sugarloaf witch tale was spun and respun in front of crackling fires and out in the fields, Sugarloaf always towering above. Witch tales were big in Calvinist lore, the devout Protestants always wary of the devil’s influence, especially in the howling wilderness of Indian country.

The tale, which to my knowledge was never recorded for posterity, involves a male witch who leaps from Sugarloaf’s tip to the fertile southern plain below. There he alights on a giant oak in what likely later became Sanderson’s yard, hops down and disappears into the ground below, never again to be seen or heard from. He did leave a couple of calling cards, though: 1, the large, muscular, disfigured oak limb on which he landed and, 2, the obvious ground depression into which he vanished.

The depression came to be dreaded by schoolkids passing it daily in their coming and goings from a one-room East Whately schoolhouse built in 1827 that no longer stands. Young, screeching schoolkids – including many from my own family – scooted past it in feigned fear whenever they passed it.

I first heard the tale from my spinster great-aunt Gladys Sanderson, the unofficial family historian we called “Antie,” who was known to me from the beginning of my South Deerfield upbringing. She had learned it from her “Ant Mattie” (Martha Almira Sanderson Field), who was born in 1876 in East Whately, attended the old school and passed the local folklore down to her niece. I remember Aunt Mattie as a 100-something-year-old widow living on her Field Farm in Bradstreet. There, in the late 1970s, she was still taking care of herself and held Hatfield’s gold cane as the town’s oldest resident. She’s buried in the Bradstreet Cemetery with her husband and stepson, Bob Field, less than five miles south of the old East Whately schoolhouse, which stood along the northern perimeter of her family home.

The witch’s depression was between the school and her home. That home was built by my fourth-great-grandfather John Chapman Sanderson in the mid-19th century on family land just north of the original family homestead. Neither house was standing when the witch supposedly touched down. The original homestead was built about 1760 and burned to the ground on July 3, 1882, when Aunt Mattie was 6. Most likely the tale originated during my ancestors’ first eight or so years at the base of Sugarloaf, when the family lived in a temporary shelter close to the Parker farm for protection from Indian attack.

The new information Grzybowski was eager to share was gleaned from the type of Internet research most of us have tinkered with during rainy days or idle moments. Googling keyword combinations that included “Sugarloaf” and “witch,” he stumbled upon the medieval English Legends of John O’Kent, a fictional wizard also known as Jack o’ Kent or Jacky Kent from the days of Robin Hood and Friar Tuck. This character from the Welsh/English border was associated with a famous stone castle and known for outwitting the devil. Because he first appears in print in 1590, he would have definitely been familiar to Pilgrims and Puritans settling New England in the 1630s. In one of many tales, Jacky Kent is a giant, and he leaps from the top of Sugar Loaf Mountain in Wales. He lands in the Skirrid, where to this day his heel marks remain as a reminder. Sugar Loaf is the southernmost peak of Wales’ Black Mountains range.

So, take it to the bank. Grzybowski is on the right track. The Jack o’ Kent legend must be the source of our Sugarloaf witch tale. It wasn’t a reworked Indian tale of a bear or panther leaping from Sugarloaf, but rather an English tale that crossed the Atlantic with New England’s first European settlers. Our tale was probably crafted by my Parker and Sanderson relatives, the first two families to settle the Canterbury section of Hatfield, now River Road, Whately. Who knows when it stopped being told? It was probably already on its way out by the dawning of the 20th century.

It never hurts to dust off and bring back into the light such tidbits of old valley folklore. Thanks to Paul Grzybowski for the noontime call. I’m glad I answered it. If you want more, take a Google adventure. And if you want to go even deeper, explore the Demon Wittum. That Mount Toby myth just may be from the same bolt of cloth.

Then again, maybe not.

Sugarloaf Spirits Live

It’s springtime, the season of emergence and regeneration, optimism and growth – a time when airborne euphoria titillates the imagination, unleashes a flow of creative juices. Many have felt it. It’s contagious. Peaks in May. Fades into steamy summer doldrums. And here I sit, rain falling, grass greening through the southern window, enthralled, mind climbing an ancient Indian footpath leading up the southern face of a venerable Connecticut Valley landmark. Called Mount Sugarloaf by most, Wequomps by the earliest deed, and The Giant Beaver in Algonquian oral history, there exists at the top an inconspicuous shelf cave tucked under the Beaver’s eyebrow.

Although I often think of that boyhood curiosity, I have not scaled the path or visited that cave in 50-some years. My last visit would probably take me back to the years surrounding the winter 1966 torch job of the white, 19th-century, porched, wood-frame summit-house I remember well. The roof of the infamous cave up there, known to locals as King Philip’s Seat, is the old fenced-off observation deck along the road. I know the path and the cave despite exploring it far less often than another ancient footpath to a similar cave on North Sugarloaf, secluded on a hardwood ridge where no motor vehicles or adults ever visited. I suppose it was then possible to bump into a familiar face on rare occasions. Otherwise, you had the place to yourself – a private sanctuary, place of peace and solitude – a lofty, indigenous, stone altar securely nestled in the Earth Mother’s chapel.

Both ridgetop caves are in fact rock shelters situated high above pro-glacial Lake Hitchcock shoreline of the late Pleistocene. They date back far deeper than the civilized world’s oldest pew, to a world of hunting, gathering and pagan worship. The cave on Sugarloaf faces southeast. North Sugarloaf’s faces west. Both are located high on the southern tips overlooking steep drops. They can be clearly seen from the towns below if you know what you’re looking for.

Though the caves’ appearance hasn’t changed in my lifetime, the activity around them has increased dramatically. That’s especially true on Mount Sugarloaf, a tourist destination where car and foot traffic stream up and down the road and hiking trails to the mountaintop observation tower protruding from the Beaver’s skull. On North Sugarloaf, you are apt at any time to find gaily clad hikers and helmeted bikers following a network of marked trails maintained and patrolled by uniformed state employees headquartered at Sugarloaf. Not threatening, these park rangers are potentially present anytime, anyplace all the way from Sugarloaf’s summit, across the notch, up North Sugarloaf and down to the Hillside Road parking area. Perhaps the solitude and quiet contemplation I recall as a kid could still be experienced in that North Sugarloaf cave if you hit it right. No guarantees

What triggered my thoughts of the Sugarloaf caves of my South Deerfield youth was a relatively new biography I read about the great Sioux holy man Black Elk. Written by Joe Jackson, I would recommend it to anyone attempting to understand Oglala Lakota medicine man. Perhaps a diligent reader should first read “Black Elk Speaks” and “The Sacred Pipe,” both still in print if you want to understand the tribe’s worldview. Much of what that culture believed mirrors the beliefs of western Massachusetts’ native people scattered long ago to faraway places. Some likely eventually found their way to Sioux, Blackfeet and other Great Lakes and Northern Plains villages that took the harried migrants in.

My interest in Black Elk began in the summer of 1963. Having graduated from Judd’s fourth-grade class at South Deerfield Elementary School, I would turn 10 at June’s end. My maternal grandparents – Martin and Adele (Comeau) Keane – were retired world travelers. They took me along on a fascinating three-month summer tour of the Midwest, where we visited family. We stayed first with my grandfather’s sister Delia in Illinois, then traveled to my Uncle Bob and Aunt Renie’s Twin Cities home in Minnesota. From there, we all embarked on a camping trip through South Dakota’s Black Hills and Badlands to Wyoming’s Devil’s Tower, a magical place indeed. Along the road, I witnessed abject Native American poverty, the likes of which I had never imagined. I also got my first taste of black urban poverty, passing through Gary, Ind., where I was confronted by my first black mannequin. But let us not digress.

During a brief sightseeing stop at Mount Rushmore, I met Black Elk’s son, Benjamin Black Elk, who worked as interpreter for “Black Elk Speaks” author John G. Neihardt’s interviews. Leave it to my grandfather to connect with the traditionally dressed Sioux man. From Galway, Ireland, Grandpa had kissed the Blarney Stone. Having read a “Rotarian” magazine feature about Benjamin Black Elk, a Mount Rushmore attraction, he sought out the man in the dining room and sat him down with us for buffalo burgers.

Ben Black Elk was promoting the Cinerama spectacle “How the West Was Won,” which was debuting, and in which he played an Arapaho chief. An Oglala holy man himself, he told us his father had witnessed Custer’s Last Stand and was a famous Sioux healer about whom books had been written. His traditional dress, kind black eyes, deep dignified voice, and graceful manner left an indelible mark on me. Since that boyhood encounter – and because I grew up on the banks of Bloody Brook, knew the “Boy Captive” narrative and often walked the “Indian Trail” to the North Sugarloaf cave – I have held a fascination for our indigenous people. Most fascinating in recent years has been my study of Native shamans, plant medicine, vision quests, spirit quests, the cosmos, worldview, and creation myths – all of it esoteric to the nth degree.

Having read what I’ve read and studied my place, I am confident I know why the ancient footpaths to the Sugarloaf caves are carved so indelibly deep. I know why they will outlast me, why they will likely never disappear. Such ancient paths through dangerous mountain terrain strongly suggest an important destination. Maybe such a trail was related to hunting and gathering, to a strategic observation point, a sacred place of high spirit and cultural worship. Maybe all of the above and then some.

Who was the first to walk the path? When? How often was it scaled? Was it only for men? How many indigenous feet trod it before the European colonial invaders came? Many questions. Answers elusive.

I’m more convinced than ever that the two stone chambers – one situated in the eye of The Giant Beaver, the other overlooking the fatal neck-wound delivered by the mythical transformer hero Hobomock of Algonquian lore – were, first and foremost, seclusion chambers for vision quests and spirit quests. For millennia, shamans used these sacred shelters to sit in spiritual isolation, fasting, singing, chanting and praying themselves into trance for supernatural instruction. Google it. You’ll find that the Sugarloaf shelf caves meet all the classic requirements for such a place of spiritual questing. Water could be transported in. The trails could be 8,000 years old. Maybe more. Incredible.

These forest treasures hidden on a state reservation (ironic, huh?) must be respected and protected. They stand as spiritual monuments to a native race that called our place theirs for unimaginably longer than we have, and had a far deeper understanding. Too bad they are gone. They knew the rich stories of the land, tales that need to be told … and heard … if they have survived, which is at best unlikely.

Big John is Gone

When a story stirs your imagination, digs deep into your inner consciousness, you must ride it for all it’s worth. So, here I sit: thinking, probing deep, trying to remember every minute detail. Pedal to the metal, I’m exhuming distant memories that meandered through my neighborhood

The impetus was a recent midday phone call. The caller-ID displayed the name of an old friend, roommate and teammate. His name is Chip. He rarely calls or visits anymore. But when he does, we’re always ready to roll, like we’ve never been apart.

We played baseball on the same and opposing teams before traveling the country together and sharing rooms as professional fundraisers – six weeks here, six weeks there, wheeling and dealing to raise money, primarily for police associations. Some called the chaotic, noisy, telephone offices in which we toiled boiler rooms. An apt description.

Our boss, a former Connecticut state amateur golf champ, admitted to 400 pounds. He was a big spender, and a bigger Elvis fan. His office motto had a humorous ring to it: “If you wanna live in style, spin the dial,” he’d bellow through his broad, bushy Fu Manchu. The catchy phrase probably means nothing to young folks familiar only with pushbutton dialing.

Our job took us thousands of miles, introduced us to places we probably would not have otherwise visited, and placed us in many motels, some better than others, providing a rollicking collection of entertaining tales. Unfortunately, few are appropriate for print. Oh well, such is life in the mainstream press, where the best stories can never be told. And when they are, it’s called “fiction,” which usually wanders little from the truth.

Whenever Chip and I converse, be it face to face or on the phone, the stories flitter up like mischievous ridgetop spirits in a cold, blustery, moonlit wind. We chuckle, reminisce, savor the conversation, often laughing to tears, as though our friendship never sauntered off in different directions many decades ago. Now retired and settling into our golden years, it’s a fine time to reconnect, to reflect back on the good and bad days of our past.

The last time I spoke to him, before Christmas, he and his wife were on winter vacation down south. He answered his cell phone to clinking silverware and the soft buzz of background conversation in a Charleston, S.C., restaurant. The city had escaped the full fury of another of those devastating 100-year hurricanes that seem to rear their ugly head annually these days. When asked, he said he had seen some of the storm damage from the air on his flight in, but Charleston had been spared.

The reason I had called that winter day was to inform him that an old friend had died – a troubled Vietnam veteran with whom we had played ball and travelled the country, and for whom we had served as ushers at his 1975 wedding. Having heard not a peep from the man in years, I was concerned. I finally Googled him on a nighttime whim and can’t say I was shocked to find his obituary. Big John had died at 62. Not recently, either. On July 13, 2013. The short obit offered no hint as to how the end had arrived. No “died suddenly” or “unexpectedly” or “tragically” or “at home with his loving family by his side.” Just benign official notice that Big John had passed.

“Something tells me it didn’t end well,” I surmised back then.

“Yeah, I hear you.”

This latest call from Chip was a reversal of sorts. He was calling to say he’d done a little digging to no avail, calling both phone numbers stored away in his address book – one a cell, the other a land line. The recorded answers were identical: both numbers were no longer in service. Hmmmmm? A dead end. Not surprising, considering the subject.

As mysterious in death as he had been in life, our buddy had a dark side reaching deep into his troubled past. Born out of wedlock with a twin sister in 1950, he had been up against it as a boy till the day he was dropped in Danang, South Vietnam, as a 17-year-old virgin fresh out of Basic Training at Texas’ Lakland Air Force Base. His mother was a single airline stewardess at the time of his birth. She claimed his father was Chuck Connors, “The Rifleman” of television fame. She would know, and the story made sense. The tall, handsome actor had indeed played briefly for the Boston Celtics around that time, and, yes, the resemblance was there, especially the eyes.

Big John’s Vietnam tour was in fact a cruel twist of fate. Had the big righthander played ball as a Norwood High School senior, he would have either signed a pro contract (as brother teammates Richie and Denny Hebner had) or accepted a scholarship to some big-time college-baseball factory. He had it all: an athletic 6-foot-4, 215-pound frame, good looks, a heavy, lively ball and a potent bat.

Maybe, it just wasn’t meant to be. Pitching Norwood’s 1968 season opener, the star-crossed kid’s season ended abruptly when hit by a pitch that fractured his right wrist during his first at-bat. When his telephone-company-executive stepfather declined to pay his college tuition after graduation, Big John had no choice. With the Vietnam War escalating to a loud crescendo, he was going to be drafted into the Army. Instead, he enlisted in the Air Force and took a circuitous route back to the baseball diamond four years later at UMass’ Earl Lorden Field, arriving in Amherst for the fall 1972 semester.

I met Big John driving to my first UMass baseball meeting that semester. There he was, tall and lean, thumb sticking out across the road from Sunderland’s Cliffside Apartments. He was wearing a baggy T-shirt, cutoff shorts, sneakers, and a floppy, green, wide-brimmed, military-issue, chin-strapped hat. I pulled over, picked him up and asked him where he was headed. When he answered UMass, I asked where and he provided a Boyden Gymnasium room number. If memory serves me, it was either Room 112 or 121, but I could be wrong. It was long ago.

“To the baseball meeting?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“Imagine that.”

I reached out my right arm, shook hands, introduced myself and said, “Well, it’s your lucky day. That’s precisely where I’m going.”

We were friends from that day forward. What a wild ride it was, winding from Miami Beach to Orono, Maine, to Chicago, Rock Springs, Wyo., Denver and who knows where else. At every stop, we lived our own version of Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road.” Though it now seems like fanciful chimera, it was real. Trust me. Many stories. Maybe even too many for our own good.

Big John had a loud, defiant streak fueled by his years in ’Nam, which had instilled in him deep distrust for and aversion to authority. “Give ’em one more stripe than you and a half-thimbleful of brains,” he told me many times, “and you had to salute and say ‘Yes, Sir.”

It wasn’t for him. Let’s just say that, similar to many other Vietnam vets I met over the years, all of them aimless drifters, Big John was done with military protocol by the time he returned to civilian life. And he wasn’t one bit reluctant to admit it. He was all done taking orders. This predisposition did him few favors.

Shortly after meeting Big John, he told me that one of his Air Force buddies (I’m quite sure his name was Peter) lived in Montague. They met during Big John’s final Air Force days at Westover, where he served out his enlistment.

“Isn’t Montague right around here somewhere?” he asked, decades before GPS and the Internet.

“Yeah, it’s just north,” I answered.

“Well, you gotta take me out there someday. I think you’ll like Pete. He’s cool.”

Leave it to Big John to make the reunion happen quickly. Within days, he’d made arrangements to meet his friend at the Montague Inn. I drove, picking up Big John outside his Cliffside apartment on a Saturday afternoon and taking Route 47 north to the Route 63 bar. We pulled into the parking lot and Big John’s friend was waiting. Looking for us, he soon spotted Big John in my car and broke into a warm smile. Big John couldn’t contain him enthusiasm, either.

“Peter,” he bellowed out the window in his deepest, most sinister baritone.

“Mac! How ya doin,’ Man?”

Big John jumped out, walked joyfully toward his pal, locked thumbs and wrapped each other in the strong embrace of long-lost brothers. They were obviously glad to reacquaint far away the regimented Air Force.

Soon we were inside, sipping sour-mash whiskey and shooting 8-ball on a pay pool table. Among the neighborhood players there that day was soft-spoken Wil Stone, a dignified man I had seen before, no slouch with a pool cue in his hands. To be honest, I don’t know if that small joint’s still standing. The last time I passed it, the derelict building appeared to be fading into oblivion. Back in the day, the place drew a feisty assortment of townie characters. On any given day you might run into the likes of Al Holmes, Paul Prentice, Fast Willie Fistis or Stone, all local poolhall legends. If I’m not mistaken, the joint even had an occasional live band on weekends. I may be wrong on that one, though. It was long ago.

As dusk descended, Pete suggested a trip to Turners Falls, where in those days it seemed like every other door on Avenue A opened into a dim barroom. Once there we made the rounds, starting at the Bridge Café and working south to Carney’s and The Fireside before closing down the American House, known in Powertown lingo as “The Zoo.” Back then, the drinking age was 18, intoxication was encouraged by happy hours, ladies’ nights and you name it, and drunk driving was a misdemeanor rarely charged without good reason. That included property damage, serious injury or outrageous behavior. Otherwise cops would pull you over, assess your condition and follow you home. The man in blue would depart with a stern warning that you’d best stay home or face serious consequences. Wise folks, even those of a stupid, drunken persuasion, heeded such warnings.

My, those days now seem so long ago. Though the same points of the compass, it’s a different world. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting the old days were better. Just different. More forgiving. Today, wise folks don’t drive drunk. The penalties are too severe. Not so then.

“We were lucky to grow up when we did,” Chip opined near the end of our recent telephone chat. “They were wild times and we got away with a lot of stuff that would be treated as serious infractions today.”

He was right. I feel fortunate to have enjoyed the freedoms of the Sixties and early Seventies, before the screws of justice tightened significantly. They play of keeps nowadays.

Despite remaining in the area since meeting Big John’s buddy that day so long ago, I never again caught so much as a glimpse of the man in my travels. When working for the Town of Montague in 1979, I asked around him and was told that if I was talking about who they thought I was, he was quiet, a bit of a loner and minded his own business. Many years later I happened to catch his newspaper obituary, if I had the right guy. The facts seemed to line up, if I’m remembering right. It can be difficult to piece things like that together so many decades later. I’m confident I have the basics right.

If so, it was not a happy ending for Pete. Then Big John joined him a decade or even two later. Though the end was premature and not pretty for either man, they’ve gone to a better place – one where the words “Yes, Sir!” and “No, Sir!” are never spoken.

Subservient responses like were made for this world. You can’t take them with you.

Intelligence in Nature?

Similar to running around an oval, quarter-mile track, I was back where I started – had returned to the source that introduced me to a new concept challenging Western bedrock beliefs about forest-management … among other things more esoteric.

It all started with a trip to my roadside mailbox, from which I pulled the latest “Orion” magazine. Once indoors, reading a story teased on the cover as “What Tress Know,” I knew I had come full circle. Yet, still, many more laps to go. An old saying quoted in the essay about oak trees really stuck. It read: “Three hundred years growing, 300 years living, 300 years dying.” Hmmmm? Profound. Where has that kind of thinking gone? Many times since, on my daily walk with the dogs, I have pondered that same question while passing two majestic, maybe 200-year-old, red oaks reaching high and wide to the heavens from an escarpment overlooking a secluded Green River floodplain I call Sunken Meadow. What’s the chance those two giants will stand 700 more years? I would guess slim indeed. Their lumber is valuable.

Now, I don’t claim to be an expert on the new 21st century paradigm aimed toward promoting old forests. Far from it, in fact. But I am aware of it, have spoken to and exchanged electronic mail with experts and activists, even had the good fortune to tour the old-growth Mohawk Trail State Forest with a group of respected forestry doctors. So, yes, I’m learning. That is reading, chatting, listening, absorbing, processing. Keeping an open mind, the wheels at times humming to a shrill scream.

The previously mentioned article from the most recent “Orion” is written by forward-thinking New York City arborist William Bryant Logan. Titled “The Things Trees Know: A Look Inside Their Secret Lives,” it’s another treatise accepting trees as intelligent members of Mother Earth’s family, not a profitable resource to be economically exploited. Huh? Trees as sentient beings? You must be kidding. Trees as intelligent communicators? What are you smoking in that Catlinite bowl?

Well, bear with me. This is new. Exciting. Cutting edge. Driven by doctors of science; one a Nobel Prize winner, no less. So, how can we not take notice, even if we accept the model of forest as crop cut in 80-year, income-generating cycles?

We’re led to believe that the entrenched Western concept of forest management for profit actually promotes health of the ecosystem and the critters within. Not so, says a growing fraternity of botanists and foresters and environmental scientists who warn that forest-management as we know it is good for neither. They say forest management as we know it is bad for forests and, most importantly, the planet – that left to their own wild devices and allowed to grow old, forests can manage themselves just fine, thank you. Yes, they say forests allowed to mature to old age are perfectly capable of taking care of themselves, of fighting off plagues and pests without human intervention. Better still, forests of wise, old trees are healthier, more dynamic and better for the health of the ecosystem and our planet. Why the planet? Because large trees are crucial players in a natural carbon-sequestration process now needed to combat global warming fueled by human burning of fossil fuels.

So how do we convince the timber industry to back off? How can we reshape attitudes of investors and heirs who own forests and pay property taxes on them? It’s a vexing dilemma. Maybe there’s a way to offer incentives for those allowing forest stands to grow old and filter harmful carbon from the atmosphere. Perhaps there’s a way to shift public opinion, which seems now to favor our commercial forestry-management model. Maybe the policy shift should begin on publicly owned land, as proposed right here in the Bay State to a chorus of boos.

The first time I read about wise, old trees communicating and mobilizing against pestilence and plague was several years ago. Robin Wall Kimmerer introduced the concept in “The Council of Pecans,” an “Orion” excerpt from the Potawatomi botanist’s acclaimed 2013 book of essays “Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants.” Check the SUNY Buffalo professor on YouTube if you want to be introduced to a refreshing new way of thinking about man’s relationship to nature.

Myself, despite being versed in Native American and Far Eastern spirituality that gives plants, animals and even inanimate objects like stones, cliffs, waterfalls or spring holes a living spirit and even a soul, I was at first hesitant to write about it in the local newspaper for fear of ridicule. Yet Kimmerer constructed a solid argument that trees and plants can communicate to fight off danger. A difficult concept for Western Christian culture or the Chamber of Commerce to get their heads around, I feared there’d be talk that I didn’t have both oars in the water, was going off the deep end. Deeply engrained in Western culture is the concept of humanity created in the image of God and placed on earth to rule nature and exploit its resources. At least I think I’ve got that little nugget of Christian Doctrine right. If not, close enough for our purposes here.

Which reminds me … when pondering this new paradigm of trees and forests, I often entertain a salient memory from my innkeeping days. Watching a Patriots game on a brilliant, sunny, fall, Sunday afternoon, I heard car doors slam out by the carriage sheds. Soon, through the inset porch’s screen door, I noticed two strangers walking up the flagstone sidewalk. I went outside to greet them and discovered they were European tourists. A Belgian father and son, they were leaf-peeping through New England to celebrate the son’s recent high school graduation. They wanted a room, spoke English and were eager to chat. Always willing to engage in enlightening conversation, I invited them in.

My guests had been through Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont and were dropping south through western Massachusetts. They would leave in the morning for Lake George and the Adirondack wilderness. Both were impressed with what they had thus far seen, and enthusiastic to share their impressions, starting with the colorful mountain landscapes framing our highways.

“We don’t have forest like this at home,” said the college professor dad. “Your forests are vast and beautiful. Ours have been cut.”

I responded that were he to backtrack 130 or so years, he would have found much different scenery. Our forests, too, had been cleared by the mid-19th century. Now, due to the industrial revolution and loss of family farms, much of that open land has been reforested, bringing back wildlife that had long ago vacated unsuitable habitat.”

Given that memorable discussion many years ago with my Belgian guests, isn’t it interesting, maybe even ironic, that perhaps the single-most important book about trees and forests to hit the American market in recent years was written by a European forester – one who’s seen the light, manages a rare German old-growth forest and advocates a return to primeval forests. Peter Wohlleben’s “The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate; Discoveries from a Secret World,” was published in German in 2015. The English translation hit the street in 2016 and became an instant American best-seller, with many reprintings – including an illustrated coffee-table edition with stunning color photography. So, yes, there is hope.

Wohlleben’s work has become a bible for the new forestry school committed to treating trees as living beings and saving wise old trees and old-growth forests for the good of our planet. This new way of Western thinking is now prominently featured in our best environmental-writing. The national exposure couldn’t have come at a better time for the likes of William Moomaw, Robert Leverett or Michael Kelllet, three erudite spokesmen for the new forest paradigm they’re advocating to the objection of many. Google them, read them, watch their YouTube videos and attend their local lectures. Rudely shouted down and aggressively challenged at some public events, dismissed as obstructionists by the status quo, they’re well worth listening to.

So, lend them your ear. We have destroyed our planet long enough. It’s time to rethink the way we do things before it’s too late. Then again, there are those who proclaim we’ve already passed the point of no return. Yes, they say it’s already too late to reverse catastrophic climate change. For a taste of that doctrine, try author/activist Paul Kingsnorth on for size – just another wise, articulate, progressive voice worth reading or watching on YouTube.

If you’re really daring and ready for a walk on the wild side, explore anthropologist author Jeremy Narby. Some would say he’s “out there.” Others would tell you he “gets it.” You be the judge. Google him. Watch his YouTube videos. He’ll take you on a magical mystery tour to the shamanic, esoteric realm of the Amazonian rainforest. There, the so-called witch doctors intimately understand the non-Christian concept of intelligence in nature, one that is in the Western world taking root as we speak.       

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