Rock of Rages

Always dangerous to compose a column one day, then sit down for rewrite chores the next, exactly where I today find myself. So buckle your chinstraps, me a Cancer, waxing Full Sap Moon casting a contemplative midnight hue out back by the brook.

Isn’t it nice how this last winter moon cleared the air, lit the snow-blanketed terrain with a warm, seductive glow, and brought in frigid overnight temperatures — all the while the image of a massive, pale-red, sandstone ledge poking through the Green River captivating my imagination. Why, you ask? Well, two reasons: one, that familiar reddish rock reminds me of boyhood Sugarloaf adventures and, two, the race and pool following that submerged ledge’s south side offers a classic trout lair, a great outdoor classroom to teach a kid to read water and catch fish; quiet and secluded, my kinda place.

I discovered the site weeks ago while exploring new territory along a little-traveled section of the Green, a stretch of river I had meant to investigate since moving to the neighborhood 15 years ago. Since day one I have suspected it was ripe for fishing, yet never ventured there to confirm my suspicion. Well, now I have. I must in the future bring my grandsons there to savor the thrill of hooking stream trout, an art Babe Manson taught me many years ago on West Brook. So, I guess today we’ll talk a little about that and — surprise! — whatever else rises to the surface while sitting here tackling a weekly duty that has become quite dear to me 32 years later. Great fun, I’m never certain where I’m headed. But let’s start with that huge, red, Green River molar that likely plunges deep into Greenfield Meadows’ jawbone.

I can imagine uninhibited skinny-dippers sunning themselves on that massive red rock, not unlike one I know in the nearby Deerfield River. I’d guess this new stream monument measures better than 30 feet long and half that width, flat but undulated with soft, shallow contours to comfortably accept a body soaking in the hot summer sun. It sits along the east bank, where the river takes a sharp right turn, forming a backwater above before a short rapid sluices around a jutting point and drops gradually into a clear, deep pool that climbs around the corner into another shaded flat-water run across the river. I can picture halving a frisky nightcrawler, showing the boys how to thread it onto a No. 10 hook, bait-holders curling upward off the rear shaft, in such a way that the worm can expand and contract naturally as it rides the current, activity always enticing to hungry trout. I’ll then teach them how to cast upstream into the current above the rock and finesse the bait through the fast, tight channel at its head before dead-drifting it down into the shadowed, undercut feeding lair.

What has really been bugging me, though, is the salient question of how many trout are left in that river after the devastating late-August flood that big-time disrupted it and others. A few days after the flood, I found a dead, 11-inch rainbow in a dried-up bottomland puddle just downstream a bit and suspect there were many more like it that died similar slow deaths. I know the blue herons were having a ball in a sunken wetland border along the edge, likely devouring stranded fish, easy picking. At the time, I queried fisheries biologists who speculated that the mortality had been significant, if not from turbulence and river overflow, then from the fine, dense, suffocating clay particles that remained suspended in our rivers for more than a month. Trout can easily handle that fine debris during temporary summer events activated by heavy showers and flash floods, a common, short-lived phenomenon that stimulates superb angling because of all the feed washed into the stream. But six solid weeks and more of clay-fouled water can do a job on fishes’ respiratory systems, clogging their delicate gills with deadly accumulating grit that overloads their filtration system like an air filter exposed to powdery, dusty roads.

Reader Fred Bourassa sent an email last week saying he was glad to read mention of the stocking trucks revving their engines for their annual spring distribution. He said he couldn’t wait to fasten his hip boots around his belt. But, like me, he’s concerned with what he may discover upon visiting the likes of Clesson Brook, the North or Green rivers or, heaven forbid, that poorly reconstructed Chickley River before trout populations are replenished. Because the state hasn’t assessed post-flood trout mortality, early-bird anglers will be our best field researchers. So, please, if you find something worth reporting, fellas, give me a holler. I’d love to hear some homespun evaluations from those capable of comparing this to previous pre-stocking springs. My guess is that there will be fewer “holdovers” than usual, fish easily identifiable by their oversized heads and slim bodies that haven’t had time to fill out after winter dormancy.

Moving on, I’m still studying pre-Revolutionary Boston and must admit I’m proud to have deep roots here in Massachusetts, the cradle of American liberty and radicalism. Monday passed and I heard nary a word to note the 242nd anniversary of the Boston Massacre, accepted by most historians as the true first battle of the American Revolution. British soldiers shot and killed five “demonstrators” in the streets that day, March 5, 1770, when threatened by an unruly mob objecting to British military occupation of Boston. This largely forgotten skirmish preceded the Boston Tea Party by more than three years and set the stage for that day of Concord/Lexington infamy, April 19, 1775, another patriotic anniversary on the near horizon. Trust me, you can count on some mention of that one.

Britain back then was then the world’s imperial superpower, its military peerless yet unable to hold back a torrent of colonial rebellion. The result was victory by the radical leaders. The rest is history. But, wait, just for the heck of it, why not digress a bit by fast-forwarding to May 4, 1970, nearly 200 years to the day later, when National Guardsmen responded to Kent State University anti-war protests by killing four students and wounding nine? Out of one bloody demonstration came independence from a foreign oppressor, out of the more recent one, a sharp right turn by the law-and-order gang that led us in our current situation, “Occupy Wall Streeters” bludgeoned by city cops and thrown into filthy jails to the cheers of the mainstream; yes indeed, the same clueless lot whose pockets are picked daily at the pump and supermarket till by bankers’ greed. My, of my, how times change. Not always for the better, either. I truly believe that we arrived where we sit today because of three “timely” Sixties assassinations — supposed random acts by kooky loners, one an Arab, no less — that boomeranged the nation’s political direction back toward McCarthyism. I better not get going, though. Way too inflammatory.

Honestly, I should know better, having suffered the consequences of criticizing the Kent State killings as a peach-fuzzed, hormone-driven high-school junior. Let me summarize briefly without mentioning names. I can’t resist. My English teacher, long gone, was a horn-rimmed flat-topper who had carved a local reputation as a Recorder-Gazette scribe before making a career change and bringing his big ego and haughty air to the teaching profession at age 40, I’d guess. This squinty-eyed, tallish man praised my first essay to the heavens, giving me an A and — horrors! — reading it aloud to the class as I turned 19 shades of crimson, slumped low in the back row. Later, he handed out another assignment, potentially far more dangerous. He wanted us to opine on Kent State. Did we think the National Guard was justified for actions taken? Well, it probably comes as no surprise that I believed the soldiers should be punished, even prosecuted for murder. The teacher, now a local hero with some silly track and field sportsmanship award named in his honor, wasn’t interested in such immature claptrap. An erect, red-white-and-blue law-and-order man, he obviously thought the soldiers had performed a patriotic duty by finally teaching long-haired, malingering commies an overdue civics lesson. Love it or leave it! That was his chauvinistic mantra. And he probably even owned a cap or T-shirt to display his love of country. Anyway, he put a big red D on that essay and never a better subsequent grade. His criticism had nothing to do with my composition. Chalk it up as one more reason why I have no fond memories of that high school which abutted family property on two sides, and also why I have absolutely no respect for most of the teachers and coaches I encountered there. But, hey, that’s ancient history, right? Yeah, definitely. I’m way past that, an irrelevant speck in my rear-view mirror.

Just one more item before I skedaddle, a little alert to folks who recommend books to me. Although I do appreciate the gesture, scan the lists and keep them handy, I seldom follow through. The reason is simple. There is a method to my reading madness, always exploring, one subject leading to another, most recently the early New England mind. I have taken a few short diversions the past couple of weeks after bumping into an E.B. White book of essays in a place I wasn’t expecting to find it. I bought it, probably paid a little too much and have enjoyed reading it, studying the language, the construction. It’s what I do. If you get the drift, I sometimes read for information, stuff like history and biography, typically cumbersome, academic writing, the authors historians, not artists. Other times, I immerse myself in literature, reading for pleasure, studying style and literary device. White is worth reading for the latter. Though not in a league with my favorite novelist, enigmatic Norwegian Knut Hamsun — introduced to me by a UMass poet and Vietnam War correspondent whose UMass department head told him to strike “Pan” from his reading list — White is a tactician whose native language is English, a plus. I would recommend his 1959 revision of Will Strunk’s “Elements of Style,” known today as Strunk & White’s, to anyone who enjoys writing and language. It’s a good “little book” to keep handy, even though it may clash with AP Style and does remind me of school and the many unfair, uninspired high-school teachers who bored me to fury. But again, just water over an ancient stone dam, nothing more. Yeah, yeah, I know it’s always easiest to kowtow to authority, pull on those cushy knee pads for a big, loud, wet smooch. But in the end, given innate intellectual curiosity, do you really need high school and many teachers with little to offer?

Oooops! There I go again. Enough!

I’m outta here, a proud autodidact fortunate enough to have found four or five great teachers for guidance. They were easy to identify, though rare, even in college.

Then again, I went to college to play baseball and party, not study.

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