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.       

Yesteryear Rifle

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 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, someone from the Nims family turned it up from their rich Meadows acreage – today Butynski Farm – with one of those old, two-handled, V-shaped, walk-behind cultivators pulled by horses. 

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.

Tree Falls, Trail Ends, Moon Glows

Yes, it’s true. Good, bad and indifferent, all things must pass.

June 18, around 5:30 p.m., summer solstice approaching under dark, still, foreboding skies. A nasty storm is brewing, approaching from the west. Television alerts are warning of heavy winds, hard rain and even potential tornadoes. Such storms seem to visit this time of year.

Still gray air starts showing signs of disturbance. Blustery winds whip the bordering pines across the street as though they’re reacting to updrafts. Looks like  a furious, windy rainstorm is on its way to the upper Meadows. We stand in the kitchen  watching it quickly develop into heavy, windswept rain, followed by large, dense hail that clouds the backyard alcove between barn and woodshed.

My wife is in awe. “Look,” she says in amazement with a thin slice of concern, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like this.”

Then, suddenly, our attention is drawn out front. A weird “whoooosh” signals catastrophe, then an abrupt, quake-like, front-yard shiver.

“What was that?” my wife gasps, looking me square in the eye.

I walk toward the south window and look out through a center gap between the upper, burgundy-checkered curtains. Immediately, I recognized way too much light pouring through a large old sugar maple standing along the horseshoe driveway.

“Uh-oh,” I say, heading for the front parlor through the dining room. “Looks like we lost part of our maple. Hope it didn’t hit the house.”

I glance out the inset-porch-door’s split, narrow windows and see a large, heavy leader lying diagonally toward the front southwest corner of my home’s main block. Because I hadn’t heard any windows shatter, I’m confident the house had been spared, but not by much. Sure enough, just missed.

Phew! Dodged a bullet.

Upon further inspection outside, walking around the mess, it’s apparent that the weight of that massive leader had shaken and partially collapsed the raised flagstone terrace that once served as a sturdy porch floor. Quarried in Charlemont before 1840, the dark, slate-colored stones were delivered by oxen teams to Ebenezer and son Hollister Baker Thayer’s new stagecoach inn. They wanted to spruce up old Hinsdale Tavern for business along the post road to Bennington, Vt. What’s interesting is that oral history has it that the old porch had to be removed well before my day when an old elm tree fell on it, separating it from the house in a storm. Apparently, someone in the heavens has objected to that 19th-century porch from the very beginning. It never belonged on a Federal-style Georgian colonial.

The timing of this latest Old Tavern Farm treefall couldn’t have been more surreal. Finally damaged beyond repair and conservation, it had to be removed. I hired Mike Dagilus and crew (MD Tree, Leyden) to drop it and leave the wood for winter fuel. They did an awesome job right through the tidy cleanup. The massive trunk, sectioned into four or five pieces, now lies where it fell on the east side of the driveway. The hefty leaders, also cut into thick, five-foot lengths are neatly stacked across the driveway’s eastern leg, near a small lilac bush at the head of the island lawn. It’ll be a good retirement project, probably three cords of wood.

Yes, you heard me right. This is my final Recorder column. I emailed my notice to the company two weeks ago today. After 39 years and four months and, according to my calculations, at least 38 years as an outdoor columnist, I’m walking away into a friendly morning sun. My clock-punching, page-making days are over. The Trail has ended. That sugar maple and I went down within about a week of each other. Fitting. A message beyond my comprehension at this point. I’ll figure it out, though, regain my footing and will soon open my last chapter.

Today is my first day of retirement. Two days shy of my 65th birthday, I suppose I could claim to have retired at 64? Why? That would be stretching it. So, I’m good with 65. I’ve had enough. It’s been a good ride. I’ve been able to remain true to myself and my beliefs throughout. Now I’ve hit a fork in the road, have embarked upon a new journey. Give me a few weeks to enjoy the transition. But, retire? Well, it depends how you define it. I will never stop working, because I love to probe and write and speak to sources, and plan to continue doing so till the end, my cosmos willing.

Speaking of which, those very heavens will tonight smile in the silvery hue of a Full Strawberry Moon on my first night of a new adventure. Can it possibly be a coincidence that a full moon is here to greet me on this night of transition from work to retirement? I think not. Moons have always mightily influenced this moon child, who has often, after the fact, spotted full moons wearing a wry grin on my way home in the wee hours from places best unnamed. A pious life I have not lived. Gave that up as a peach-fuzzed boy in South Deerfield.

Indeed, full moons and I share many secrets, have enjoyed many triumphs, escapes and conquests. Yes, a few defeats as well. A full moon had to be there for me tonight as I turn the page, and it will be, in its full glory, even if clouded.

Like my late dad used to say in parting, “See you around the campus.” If we meet in passing, please don’t even hesitate to introduce yourself and shoot the breeze. I’m always willing, approachable, and eager for information or chatter. It’s what I do. That and react in writing.

I know it won’t be long before I’m sitting by the dawn woodstove blowing out a first draft warmed by that split, seasoned maple cordwood that fell in my front yard and jostled me toward new beginnings. Yes, it’s true that winds of change deposited both of us in new places. Maybe it had to go that way.

Now, I’m off to new horizons as a happy, healthy, curious man, gray at the chin and temples. So, be well. I have enjoyed serving you, my readers, and will indeed remain among you in this place I study and call home, sweet home.

Off I go.

Swimming Rooster, Running Fish

Can roosters swim? Well, my brother-in-law would have answered that question with a firm no had he not witnessed it with his own eyes.

Let me set the scene at his secluded, landed, Montville, Maine, gentleman’s farm that’s chronicled in his recent book, “Retiring To, Not From,” which, in its third printing, has kept him busy on speaking engagements throughout New England. His is an efficient, self-sufficient Thoreauvian lifestyle. He grows his own food, cuts his own fuel and, always the naturalist and former hunter, has built himself a veritable wildlife refuge. There he gardens, harvests and maintains low-bush blueberries, manages orchards and trout ponds, cans foods for winter storage, and hays the mowings situated on some 125 mixed acres of woods and fields. He has also raised chickens for as long as I’ve known him, even at his previous, historic, shuttered Swansea Cape on Gardner’s Neck. I will never forget his beautiful, mature pheasants, ringnecks and goldens, at that Swansea home. They ran free, grew large and colorful, and would come cautiously prancing, heads high and alert, out of the bordering brambles when he shook his familiar Maxwell House coffee can full of feed pellets. That rattling sound was their dinner bell, and they had no fear of him and him alone.

Buzz can identify and has names for the deer and turkeys that he regularly observes while working outside or peering through his farmhouse windows. He also knows dominant whitetail bucks that occasionally pass through, then come with increased frequency during the fall rut.

It was from an interior observation post and breakfast nook overlooking his backyard orchard that he recently heard alarming commotion emanating from the chicken coop housing Golden Campines and Speckled Sussex in the barn. He sprang to his feet to investigate and rushed to the henhouse. Inside the door, he discovered a red fox running away toward one of his trout ponds, carrying between its locked jaws a nice Golden Campine rooster.

Buzzy took after the fox, pursuing it across the driveway to a brook-trout pond he had dug, when the predator panicked and dropped the rooster near the shore. Golden Campines are good fliers from Belgium’s Campine Region, so the panicked bird took flight away from the predator and wisely landed in safety out in the middle of the pond.

Perplexed by what had unfolded before its very eyes, the fox circled the pond trying to ponder its strategy for recapturing its feathery feast. Buzzy was having none of it. He loves his chickens and moved toward the small beast to scared it off, sending it fleeing for the bordering woods. When finally confident the fox was gone for good, Buzz hurried back toward the barn to retrieve a long-handled net. He figured he was going to have to save the marooned rooster before it sank to the cold, murky depths. Well, it wasn’t necessary.  He sold the bird’s capabilities short. To his utter amazement, the colorful cock paddled like a duck to shore, exited the water and followed Buzzy back to the coop.

“It was amazing,” he marveled. “Had I not seen it with my own eyes, I wouldn’t believe roosters were such good swimmers. I had never before seen a chicken swim. Now I know they’re capable, when necessary.”

End of story.

Who knows? There may be local folks who raise chicken and have seen their fowl swim. In fact, probably so. But that’s the first time I’ve ever heard such a tale, and it could, you know, also be the last.

*****

After carefully following the migration numbers, which long ago peaked, and with the Connecticut River’s temperature above 70, it’s safe to say that productive shad fishing has passed and spawning ritual has begun.

It was a weird year. Water temperatures remained low well into May, then rapidly rose to levels signaling the end of migration and the start of spawning-lair construction.

I overestimated in my predictions a couple of weeks ago by speculating the run would wind up somewhere between 300,000 and 400,000. Not so. We’re looking at less than 300,000, and probably a figure representing less than half the 2017 total of 543,289. Through Monday, with the next report due Friday, 267,553 shad had been counted in the river. Don’t expect many more upstream migrators. The run is, for all intents and purposes, over.

Meanwhile, two measly Atlantic salmon have shown their scaly selves thus far, a tenth of last year’s total (20). Could there be a louder signal that the restoration experiment is dead? Plug pulled several years ago, stragglers kept coming until this year. It won’t be long before we’re looking at zero, not a far cry from the two that have shown up thus far this year.

Sad but true, the Connecticut is no longer the viable salmon river it was during the Little Ice Age (roughly 1300 to 1850), which greeted colonial settlers of our valley. The river is warmer than it was then, and sure to get even warmer in the coming decades. As it turns out, hope that salmon could be coaxed to return was fantasy. It’s over, fellas. And the possibility that Atlantic salmon will soon be extinct in all of New England is closer and closer to reality. Our warming planet has put salmon in peril.

Oh yeah. Please, forgive me. I forgot. Our president and his frothing rabble believes more research is necessary, that global warming is a hippie hoax floated by the Chinese. How silly they will look when unforgiving history passes judgment.

Blacksnakes Revisted

My discussion of local snakes few people encounter in their travels stirred up a firestorm of informative comments from fellow travelers.

Hey, why not? Many folks, me included, are squeamish about snakes, especially big, colorful ones. Come to think of it, I myself have known ophidiophobes who went into crying, screeching hysterics at the very sight of a snake, or even snake illustrations in a book. But like everything else in nature, snakes play an important role in their habitats and must be respected and understood, not persecuted and killed. In fact, it’s against the law to kill many snakes these days, rattlesnakes included.

As  a quick refresher for those who missed it, my first foray into local snakes arose out of a personal sighting while making my daily rounds. For the first time in my life, I encountered a docile milk snake on a noontime walk with the dogs. Coiled in several S’s on a double-rutted farm road, it was perfectly still, its head extended  toward the opposite side of the road. Marked with bands of red, brown and black, I would guess a length of two feet or more, its narrow body probably a little more than an inch thick.

I knew milk snakes  were in my neighborhood and, according to Connecticut Valley Wildlife District manager, because they hunt rodents like mice and chipmunks, he often answers calls from concerned property owners who find them in their barn or cellar. I contacted Taylor concerning  a column about milk snakes a few years back, initiated by a neighbor’s discovery not a mile from my recent sighting. This woman had the misfortune of finding a couple of these colorful snakes hibernating in her office’s desk drawer one spring morning.

Last week, having met with a local developer and major forest landowner who identified one of her properties as a refuge for the protected black rat snake (Eastern rat snake), I looked it up, having never previously heard of the serpent. Blacksnakes? Yes, I had heard of them, and had even seen a couple in my travels over the years, both them large. After reading rat snake descriptions, I was quite certain that’s what I had encountered on my two  memorable sightings, both frightening — one fishing for trout, the other on a land-surveying detail.

The day after that column hit the street, a couple of email responses arrived in my inbox from familiar correspondents. Both agreed that indeed, in their humble opinion, I had run into black rat snakes. Accompanying their messages were links to the same Wikipedia profile I had read online.

Now for the new hook. Next came a couple of references to another large blacksnake among us that could have been the one I saw while fishing. I witnessed that snake launch itself airborne and into the water off an overhanging hemlock root system, landing with a loud, beaver-tail-like slap. The speed and agility this snake displayed sounded more like a local viper known as a black racer to my friend Killer and my brother-in-law, both of whom share a love for snakes and have seen this common black snake. It’s possible, because the other snake I poked with my rod in an effort to confirm that it was indeed a thick black hose running through marsh from a spring, was in no great hurry, displaying sluggish movement not at all like the one that flew off those roots. Then again, maybe that one had just eaten and was lazy.

Both the black rat snake and black racer are here, and they’re both large, running between three and five feet in length. The rat tops out at eight feet, the racer slightly more than six. My buddy Killer marveled at the speed of the big black racers, which he remembers finding annually as a boy picking fragrant spring mayflowers for his grandmother on the power line descending south off Catamount Hill near the old Route 2 Mohawk Drive-In Movie Theater.

“There was no catching those snakes,” Killer said. “They were big and could really move. They’d see you coming and be gone, too fast to catch.”

My brother-in-law concurred, recounting an unforgettable sighting of one particular black racer he encountered. Although this incident may have occurred on his Maine gentleman’s  farm, I can’t be sure.

All that matters is the story.

Walking through the woods, the man  heard leaves rustling high in a hardwood. When he looked up expecting to see a gray squirrel, lo, what he spotted was a large snake descending down from branch to branch. It finally dropped to the ground off a bottom limb a short distance away and, aware of human presence, raced away from him. He  took chase in an attempt to catch the snake but couldn’t gain ground before it disappeared into a hole some 100 yards away. Like the Killer, he praised the snake’s speed and agility, agreeing that there is no catching such a snake if it want to get away.

The black rat snake is also a proficient tree-climber. The woman who introduced me to this snake showed me video proof of this on her large office computer screen. YouTube video shows this endangered snake climbing a vertical tree trunk like it’s flat ground. Apparently, due to what my brother-in-law witnessed, racers are equally adept tree-climbers.

Right on the heels of my informative conversations with friend and family came an email from Mahar Regional School teacher and nature lover named Tom Randall. Identifying himself as a birder, fisherman and loyal reader who  knew a bit about rat snakes, he wrote:

“Rat snakes are a big and varied group — our local “corn snake” is officially a red or yellow rat snake, for instance. Many snakes have multiple or regional names, as I’m sure you know. The black rat snake is known to most as simply a blacksnake, but in the mid-Atlantic region it is often called a “pilot blacksnake,” no idea why. I have seen and caught them up to about the seven-foot length in Maryland and West Virginia. They have a lovely black and white checkered belly and are actually very docile. If you handle one gently for even a minute it will not try to bite. They are, as you note, powerful constrictors so never put one around your neck! Our other regionally encountered blacksnakes are thinner and faster (for instance the coachwhip and black racer group), so the large, solid blacksnake you describe seeing was almost certainly the black rat snake. Several species know how to mimic rattlers, a pretty cool adaptation!”

This week, another reader named Tom, this one with the last name of Eaton, chimed in. Introducing himself as a longtime reader, he was surprised that I harbor a fear of snakes. While  I wouldn’t say I’m terrified,  I do respect snakes and am not apt to handle them. I prefer to skirt snakes and the talus slopes where venomous vipers are known to lurk. Why tempt fate? That attitude has worked for me, including the times as a boy I passed what I now believe were copperheads along the Indian Trail to the North Sugarloaf cave overlooking South Deerfield. Likewise, it applies to the time I happened upon four or five scary rattlesnakes basking in the summer sun on a ledge overlooking the west-bound lanes of the Mass Pike just above the known rattler haunt of Woronoco. Again working as a rodman in a survey crew, I avoided them in an effort to find a safe path to the highway for detail shots of the roads and median strip. I’m not afraid to admit that from that day forward, I was always cautious and never again freewheeled through that site. Would you?

Anyway, Mr. Eaton had this to say about the two aforementioned blacksnakes we’ve discussed: “The sightings you describe are possibly the black rat snake. But in this region, we also have a more common black snake, the black racer. Their ranges overlap. You might want to contact Tom Tyning at Berkshire Community College. He has done extensive work for the state on herps. Anyway, thanks for not harming said snakes. You went your separate ways and all was well.”

Yep. Going separate ways has always worked just fine for me.

Sights, Sounds And Scary Serpents

The question came from an intermediary — his son, my colleague — doubling back to my desk on his way out the door from work this week.

“Hey, by the way, my dad wants to know if you’ve seen that big buck lately,” he queried.

“Yes. Three or so weeks ago, coming home on a Wednesday night, I caught him in front of Clover Nook Farm feeding 20 feet off the road. Amazed at his girth, I spun around at Holland Farm to get a better look. From the body mass, I thought maybe it was an escaped Jersey cow. Nope. It was him alright. A big, beautiful, tall deer. Had to be my buck.”

He smiled.

“Oh, I’ll let my dad know. He wanted me to ask you. He hasn’t seen him yet but has seen a humongous track out back,” holding his hands apart and forming a wide heart-shaped opening between his thumbs and forefingers.

“Yeah, you tell him he made it through the winter. Can’t wait to see his rack this year.”

Speaking of which, I must admit to having another interesting deer sighting farther out in the same mowing a couple of months ago, this one just before dark on a Saturday evening. Again, I spotted the deer late in passing, slowed down near Holland Farm mulling whether to turn around for a better look and decided against it. That was a different deer. Big but much farther away, about 100 yards. What piqued my curiosity that evening was not the deer’s size but it’s color. It was the peculiar gray that drew my attention and almost knee-jerked me into banging a U-ie. I have an idea I’ll see that deer again if it remains in the flat, bountiful croplands.

Which reminds me, still no visible ill-effects from my dogs, both of whom were diagnosed by blood analysis to be carrying two tick-borne illnesses. Not only do they show absolutely no signs of illness, but I challenge a vet, any vet, to find a 14-year-old dog who runs any harder and stronger than my Lily. Though no match for 6-year-old son Chubby, she vigorously and joyously bounds like a trooper through chest-high hayfields begging for their first cut. Well, maybe that’s stretching it a bit. But remember, I knew Lily-Butt as a young dog, and witnessed her move through dense cover in her prime. Anyone unfamiliar with the strength, agility and endurance of a well-bred gundog busting through thorny tangles would estimate her to be middle-aged. Who knows? She may drop in her tracks tomorrow. But, trust me: she ain’t acting one bit sick, and the same can be said of rambunctious Chub-Chub.

Speaking of whom, noontime Tuesday, wet and wild, he flushed that hen turkey I wrote about last week for the first time in a week. Interestingly, again no sign of poults or a nest. Maybe she’s a barren hen. Then again, maybe she lost her brood to pneumonia or predators. I can’t imagine Chubby and/or Lily wouldn’t have found the little ones by now if they were near their mother.

What’s curious, though, is that again the hen flushed with a vociferous series of four or five putts and a demonstrative, feigned, off-kilter, broken-wing retreat loop away from an eager Chubby-Chub-Chub. Finally taking a straight-line path with Chubby gaining fast, the hen flushed in low, tantalizing flight with the dog close behind until disappearing faraway in the tall hayfield 200 yards south.

I gave him a whistle and soon saw his familiar white torso flashing back along the tree line separating the upper terrace from the floodplain. He got back to the point of the flush, furiously quartered in all directions, Lily joining in, but no sign of a brood. I was finally able to call off the dogs, so to speak, without tasting disaster. No, I can’t imagine the little ones were hiding nearby. Maybe, just maybe, the sweet fragrance of sopping-wet red and white clover flowers saved them. We’ll see. I may yet get an interesting show from nature’s classroom in the coming days.

Oh yeah, one more thing before I go. In discussion with a woman I recently met — a developer and granddaughter of an old friend who owns a pile of forested land — she told me of a local snake I had never heard of. This endangered black rate snake is, according to an online description, “one of the longest snakes in North America, occasionally reaching lengths of 8 feet.”

This snake is a constrictor, like pythons and boas, and, according to my friend, “they can eat rabbits,” among other small animals, and climb tree trunks like flat ground. The same online report quoted above states that, “When threatened, rat snakes will “rattle” their tail, fooling other animals into believing they are venomous.” My source showed me YouTube video on a large, high-def screen of such a snake eating a gray squirrel, the unfortunate prey’s head and neck buried in the viper’s mouth, its body and tail sticking out.

“How can that snake digest it?” she pondered.

No clue.

Anyway, I’m not sure if I’ve ever encountered this snake in my travels. Maybe it’s what is commonly known as a blacksnake, or maybe what I’ve seen and identified as a black snake is instead this formidable snake. I can remember only two instances of meeting such a snake up close and personal. Once working, another time fishing. Can’t recall which came first.

I’ll start with the work incident. Running a surveying detail with a 16-foot rod in hand, I was working behind Bub’s Barbecue along the Sunderland/Amherst line. Waking through dense, brushy marsh, I noticed something ahead of me that I thought was black, three-inch, rubber or plastic hose. Not certain, I poked it with my rod and my worst fear was realized when it moved slightly, totally spooking me for the rest of the day. Big, black and alive, I concluded it was one of those blacksnakes I had heard of that can get large.

My other sighting occurred while fishing barelegged in sneakers along a local pond that held beautiful brook trout. In an effort to get atop a hemlock tree’s root system hanging out over the western shore, I waded through shallow water to an adjacent, large, flat, dry stone I intended to use as a launching pad. Attempting to land softly and avoid creating a detectable disturbance, I built momentum and leaped like only an adolescent boy can. Landing squarely on both feet, I gained my balance and sensed something moving to my right. Looking down I caught a large snake shooting away from me and off the outer edge of the overhang. Had I not seen it with my own eyes, I would not believe a snake could go airborne into the water like it did. It landed with a loud, splashy slap, akin to a beaver tail’s, and swam away toward the opposite shore, not a comforting sight.

Again, I was totally spooked and jumpy on the return trip to my car through pond-side brush. Anyone who’s experienced it knows the unsettling feeling. Talk about heebie-jeebies, I had them big time. Every little twig that snapped across my bare legs nearly launched me into orbit. It was no joy walk.

I’ll never know if either of those serpents were black rat snakes, but both were indeed big and black and terrifying, and neither will ever be forgotten.

Survival Games

Noontime Tuesday. Getting hot. Deep, pale-blue, hazy sky behind sparse cumulus clouds floating soft, high and wispy over the western upland horizon.

I park next to the greenhouse, walk to the back of the truck, drop the tailgate to free the eager dogs, Chubby and Lily, the latter’s tail anxiously thumping her porta-kennel’s east wall. She’s 14, old for an English springer spaniel. I sure hope to have her enthusiasm in old age.

I open the wire-cage door and they both spring to the ground full of energy and enthusiasm. Oh, how they love to roam through fragrant, waist-high hayfields, noses always working, bounding off their hind legs to get above the cover for airborne scents. Chubby’s out ahead, Lily trailing behind, both quartering, looking for scent to investigate and pursue.

Down toward the end of the first leg of our daily romp along a tree-line border, I notice Chubby on full alert. He races around the corner and stops abruptly, nose into the warm western breeze, before bouncing on all fours into the wind and flushing a vociferous hen turkey.

“Putt, putt, putt,” screams the turkey as it partially flushes, lands and runs in feigned-broken-wing retreat down a short, temporary, double-rutted service road leading to a brush pile deposited over the edge of a 15- or 20-foot escarpment overlooking the Green River. She bangs a U-ie and races back into the large hay field. Chub-Chub, who loves and excels at the flush-and-retrieve game, is right on her trail. I know the drill. The hen is with young and wants to distract my dog from her brood, be they nestlings or fledglings, and she does a exemplary job of it, teasing Chub-Chub by running just ahead of him before going into low, slow flight. Concerned that Chubby may catch her by the tail, it doesn’t happen.

As I watch the scene play out, it’s clear that hen knows precisely what she’s doing, does it well, and the defensive tactic works to perfection. By initiating the chase, she had drawn a potential canine predator all of 200 yards south and far away from her vulnerable young, who probably give off less scent than an adult.

Chubby? Oh, how he lives for such rambunctious chases. He had himself a blast. Out of sight, I give him a happy whistle and soon see  him in the distance, racing back toward me at full joyful throttle. He passes me, races down the dirt road to Sunken Meadow, takes a left down a deer run to the river, enters the water and takes a refreshing, slurping swim before returning and racing off to find more action in the lower, waist-high fields.

It’s funny. Just last week the vet demanded that before I could buy monthly heartworm medicine, I must test both of my dogs for the  disease. Plus, as a bonus, the blood sample would also test for Lyme and another tick-borne disease that starts with A. Well, go figure, the blood work  revealed that the dogs were heartworm-clean but carrying both tick-borne diseases. Hmmmmm? Maybe so, but they’re sure not showing even a faint trace of sickness in their daily activities. If and when they start displaying the lethargy, lameness or diminished appetite I’ve read about, then I’ll medicate them. If not, I’ll suspect their immune system is successfully battling it. But, please, don’t tell Aunt Millie about my approach to pet care. As she carries her overfed lap-dog up the stairs it can’t scale, she’ll scream bloody murder that I’m an abusive dog owner. Oh my! The world has gone mad.

By the way, how do you suppose coyotes and foxes and rabbits and woodchucks and you name it survive and appear healthy without Lyme-disease medicine? Just curious. Pondering the diagnosis internally, I mentioned the tick-borne disease issue to four friends and fellow dog owners. All of their dogs had been similarly diagnosed and medicated despite never displaying discernible symptoms. What gives? Is this medicine for pets or cash flow? You have to wonder. It’s getting to a point where only the rich can own pets or farm animals.

But why digress? Back to my neighborhood turkey brood.

Next day, Wednesday before noon, I was hesitant to retrace my tracks out of fear that the hen had been protecting nestlings that would still be in the same place. But no, I figured, given her routine, probably not nestlings. More likely fledglings that will soon gain flight as an escape option. On a wet Monday I had noticed Chubby light up in the same spot and sprint 100 yards along the edge of the steep escarpment before coming to an abrupt halt at an aluminum gate barring the road down to the flood plain. There, he spun around and sprinted back toward me, soon passing as he back-tracked the scent line. From the way he was acting, I suspected turkeys but wasn’t certain. Then the Tuesday incident confirmed my suspicion. The little ones in that hen’s brood are likely still grounded, thus their mother’s protective antics. As she went into her act, her little ones had probably crouched down and froze motionless, hoping danger would pass. It did and they were nowhere to be found Wednesday. Had they been nestlings, Chub-Chub would have reflushed that hen Wednesday, an outcome I was hoping not to encounter, fearing that he’d find a nestful of helpless little birds.

Anyway, I would guess I have not seen the last of that brood. Soon the hayfield will be scalped and the little ones will have their wings. Then they’ll be up to the task of escaping danger by flushing into a hardwood tree, perching high and safe, curiously cocking their heads at the gawkers below. That I have also witnessed many times with many different gundogs.

I can honestly say that never once have I experiencing the unfortunate outcome of a dog catching a poult. I hope it never happens. It wouldn’t be an easy task to step in and calm the feather-flying storm before bad things happen.

*****

Moving to another topic from the same terrain, I am right now wearing two tick bites, the fresher one above my left hip, the other slowly disappearing at the outer base of my right calf muscle. Though I have had other tick bites over the years that I have always discovered well before the 72-hour incubation period for Lyme disease, I never ignore them. Instead, I scrub them with rubbing alcohol after showers and randomly at other times of the day while monitoring the site for an expanding rash.

An internist friend and an orthopedic surgeon both told me at different times that a tick must be imbedded for 72 hours for a human to contract Lyme disease. More recently, an old Vietnam triage nurse who went on to become a nurse-practitioner and neurological surgical assistant at Boston’s prestigious Massachusetts General Hospital, told me her doctor informed her that she was safe if she removed the tick within 24 hours.

So, which is it? Seventy-two of 24? Always cognizant, I can’t imagine an embedded tick lasting anywhere on my body for more than a day. I typically feel an itch or irritation, inspect it with my hand and know what to look or feel for. Knock on wood, it has always worked for me and I have never gotten ill. If I happen to run out of luck and display early symptoms of Lyme disease, well, then and only then will I go to the doctor for antibiotics. I’m from the school of thought that’s reluctant to overuse antibiotics, which can eventually sting you hard when you really need them but they’re rendered ineffective by overuse.

And remember: I watched two sons die in hospitals of antibiotic-resistant hospital infection, a demise I would not wish upon even my most mortal enemy. Well … hating to speak in absolutes, I suppose there could be a rare exception.

*****

Oh yeah. One more thing before I scoot. I see where the first Connecticut River Atlantic salmon was spotted in recent days passing the Holyoke dam. Last year the total return was 20. It seems unlikely that we’ll approach that number this year. As for American shad, the Wednesday report showed nearly 231,000 through Holyoke thus far, with fish coming through at a rate of about 10,000 per day. Thus, it appears to be more than a longshot that we’ll reach last year’s figure of more than 537,000. If I as a longtime observer were I to venture a guess, I’d say we’ll end up with more than 300,000 and less than 400,000. Salmon? Today 1, soon none — a poet and I didn’t know it.