Twists and Turns

Canes and crutches, a forgotten hilltown bookshop and, yes, not surprisingly, more cougar rumors, one old, one new, the latter quite fascinating. In fact, I’d hesitate to report it if I didn’t trust the source. Fun. Another full plate, with lots of space and little local news to fill it. So, why not run with it?

Let’s start with canes and crutches, both of which I’m dealing with this week after a post-cortisone flare-up on my long-problematic left knee, the one I tore up years ago and have ignored warnings about ever since. The joint is again stiff and swollen, the pain more tolerable than the previous event, which necessitated a trip to the doctor. But still, here I sit, lame, aluminum crutches leaning against an extended desk leaf to my left. I dug them out before first light this morning to keep weight off the knee. The strategy seems to be working. Between aggressive icings and walking on crutches, hopefully I can reduce the swelling and get the joint back under control without medical intervention. In the meantime, no gym workouts or long walks on slippery, uneven turf; again immobilized with Motrin temporarily forbidden.

I have become quite accustomed of late to bringing an old hickory cane along for my daily treks, using it for balance through hard, icy bottomland terrain. I also happen to own a peculiar, crooked, sassafras walking stick, wrapped top to bottom by a thin bittersweet vine for artistic flair. I have used this quirky stick often for woods walks over the years. My mother-in-law bought it long ago from a Wilbraham old-timer known for his creative walking sticks. Dangling from its handle on a carriage-shed rack, it’s a great companion for foot-free forest rambles, a steadying influence, so to speak. As for the worn hickory cane, well, I found that in my dining room closet, likely last used by former Greenfield selectman and state Rep. Frank Gerrett, an owner of my home who died in 1934. It’s great for everyday walks out of sight but, to be honest, I may just search auctions for a better one with more character and a story to tell. I have seen many formal Federal canes sold over the years — you know, the kind statesmen once beat each other with, fancy canes with precious-metal heads, sometimes even a hidden trigger and rifle barrel that you’d need a special permit for these days. I may just buy one someday for special occasions and uptown travels, if needed and the price is right. No, not a priority, but I’ll keep my eyes open, a form of hunting I enjoy.

I guess I’ve become quite a bore with age. Despite that familiar, alluring smell of spring that led me to incalculable mischief during my younger days, I’m content nowadays to just read and probe and ponder, anxiously awaiting the arrival of an online book purchase or my latest “Rolling Stone” or “Orion” magazine in the mail. These days, I’ve grown fond of weekday visits to a secret, well-stocked bookshop I’m getting quite familiar with. Full of intriguing titles, the shop brings with it a cerebral, octogenarian couple programmed for interesting conversation. I enjoy the visits. Why not? You can never be certain where discussion between a bibliophile and an autodidact will lead. If lucky, you may even chop through dense, thorny perimeters into tiny, paradisaical spaces spiced by brilliant hues and pleasing wildflower scents. I suppose conflict could arise from our opposing political persuasions, me a 60’s radical, he a conservative. But that ideological booby-trap has never been an issue during our meandering discussions.

I’ve been through that tasteful, little, unheated bookshop several times in recent months, selecting warm, sunny days on midmorning whims, when my time and energy are right. Once there, my routine is to assemble a hefty pile of books to buy while pulling others partially out of the bookcase for future examination. Yeah, it can get expensive, but the man has offered me a fair deal and I love perusing used bookshops, especially ones like his, stuffed with titles pertaining to colonial and Revolutionary American history, an interest we share. “No one seems to want books about that period of American history anymore,” he scoffs. But count me an exception, thus a beneficiary. In the process, I am building a formidable library, accumulating helpful references right at my fingertips in the comforts of home, a grand luxury for any man like me who’s eagerly awaiting and nearing retirement. Actually, I never intend to retire, just stop working a regular job. Hopefully my son and grandsons will someday appreciate my books and eclectic collections. If not, someone will. Regardless, my offspring will benefit.

You never know what you’re going to discover on dusty old bookshelves like the ones I’ve been scouring, the books alphabetized by author and collected over more than a half-century by a learned man and former educator from a classical New England education and pedigree. One title I blew the dust off and purchased recently is “The Founding of Massachusetts,” published by the Massachusetts Historical Society in 1930 for our state tercentenary celebration. A green cloth-bound hardcover, it’s shiny as new, a great resource for any fan of New England history, particularly descendants of Pilgrims and Puritans alike. The book contains rare and important documents like the “Massachusetts Bay Charter,” “The Agreement at Cambridge,” Rev. Francis Higginson’s “True Relacion,” and “New-England’s Plantation,” the first year of John Winthrop’s Journal, and “The Planter’s Plea.” Not only that, also included are early portraits of New England founders John Endecott and Winthrop, who built the Bay Colony, starting with towns like Salem and Boston and Charlestown and Cambridge and Watertown, along the way recording significant observations. I wish I could find similar descriptions by the first Anglos to lay eyes upon Pocumtuck. While such documents may exist, I have not found them. Who knows? Maybe there’s one buried right there in that hilltown treasure trove’s stacks. If so, it’s likely in a private bookcase in the home, not for sale.

Most interesting to me are Higginson’s observations about the landscape, the wild animals, the birds and fish, the weather and waters. Among the animals he mentions are “lyons,” which he had not himself encountered or even seen skins of. But he was told lions existed here, even then mysterious creatures worthy of respect. Perhaps the reason why he had seen no skins was that the Natives worshipped cougars and maybe didn’t hunt them for their pelts. His observations occurred in the year 1629, when the English population along our ancient New England coast numbered only in the hundreds, no more, some of them my American progenitors, a source of great personal pride. I do worship my deepest New England roots, especially those sprouting from the Connecticut Valley taproot sowed by Rev. Thomas Hooker’s Hartford planters. Their descendants dominate the families that built the shaded forest stonewalls I follow, the cellar holes I study and the discontinued roads that bring me there; well, at least those that weren’t indigenous trails that pulled my people here, now our most sacred pathways. Maybe I’m crazy but I find it comforting to patrol woods stained with my DNA, even walking with a limp and a cane or bent, bittersweet-wrapped walking stick. Like the fatalistic nurse once told me, “Like it or not, we’re all headed in the same direction,” a fact we can either embrace or challenge. And although I must admit I have tried both, I do accept aging, in fact enjoy it intellectually.

As for that other cougar rumor, the new one, are you ready for this? It involves the unsolved Molly Bish murder mystery that most local readers must be at least vaguely familiar with. To refresh your memory, she was the 16-year-old Warren teen who, working as a lifeguard at her hometown swimming hole, disappeared in June 2000. Investigators are still searching for the killer after recovering her skeletal remains scattered about in woods near the pond. Well, get a load of this one, which came to me from a neighbor who works at UMass. The man has an interest in cougar sightings, so most of our recent conversations have traipsed into the subject.

Our latest chat, his wide-eyed twin boys in tow, left me thunderstruck. After covering several cougar-related topics, out of the clear blue sky matching his eyes, the guy looks at me and asks if I’ve heard of Molly Bish.

“Yeah, of course.”

“Well, what if I told you they think she was killed by a cougar.”

“Are you kidding me?”

“No. For real.”

Apparently, the man has spoken to an eastern Massachusetts forensics expert, a woman whose cadaver-decomposition research has led her to studying the carcasses of buried hogs. During a casual conversation three or four years ago, she told him that she had studied Bish’s skull — found high atop a lonesome ledge — and on it were claw or tooth marks (he wasn’t sure which) she believed were made by a cougar.

Wow! Chew on that for a while. Bizarre, huh?

I guess we’ll just have to chalk it up as another surreal chapter in the ongoing New England cougar-comeback saga; also, to me, more proof that you never know what you’re apt to find when walking your dogs through quiet, riverside meadows.

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