Wipeout

A neighbor and I were on our way to Halifax, Vt., Saturday morning when, coming around the corner to a small East Colrain produce farm, we were confronted by an unexpected catastrophe.

Farmer and friends were standing on the driveway below his hillside home, marooned from West Leyden Road by a muddy torrent as wide as Green River, maybe wider, tearing through his brookside pumpkin patch. I’m not exaggerating when I say you could have whitewater rafted through that meadow at around 11:15 a.m., helmet and flotation gear mandatory for survival. No lie, that wild — huge excitement for a little hilltop community dating back to the French & Indian Wars’ line of forts.

The potential natural disaster had already drawn a crowd of neighborhood characters by the time we arrived, including affable tie-dyed tree-man Blue Sky, “branch manager,” animated as usual, chatting with onlookers about the spectacle. It’s not every day an upland September meadow becomes a roaring river. Being familiar with the landscape, I immediately knew the cause. Decades-old beaver ponds a half-mile or more up the road, in a peaceful hollow once farmed by my Snow/Miller ancestors, had busted loose. Many times I had visited the overgrown, derelict farmstead north and east of that wetland to exercise and bathe my Springer Spaniels in the third of a series of at least four beaver ponds. I never traveled far enough back to get the exact count, but there were four I knew of.

Many times, as my dogs romped, I had remarked to whoever was accompanying me that all hell would break loose if a dam broke under the pressure of heavy rain. Well, it happened Saturday and was quite an event until the basin drained, sending a destructive pulse of water through East Colrain and into the Green River below, briefly polluting potential Greenfield drinking water with giardia and other harmful parasites or bacteria associated with beaver colonies.

When my friend and I returned from Halifax after 4 p.m. to inspect the damage, the roads and bridges had weathered the incident remarkably well, touch-up repair needed here and there. The damage was nowhere near as bad as the devastation that had occurred nearby, perhaps 10 years ago, above Camp Apex on Peckville Road in Shelburne. That rainstorm dam-break left a deep washout that closed the road for days, until it could be filled and repaved. Not so Saturday at Fort Lucas Road, where we drove over an intact post-flood culvert funneling the small stream under the road. Whoever built the hand-fitted stone collar surrounding that culvert should be proud of a job well done, because it proved miraculously capable of handling the ferocious flood that swallowed it without sweeping it away.

Sunday morning, I drove out past the old farmhouse and partway into an adjacent overgrown mowing with my wife, grandson and dogs to check it out. Nothing appeared to have changed from afar. I didn’t go all the way back to see precisely where the break had occurred, but the wetland looked undisturbed — dead, gray, triangular pine skeletons centered, hemlock and poplar along the lips, hardwood ridges forming a deep green V. But undoubtedly by then the industrious beavers, always fast and efficient, were already patching the hole.

On my way out, crossing the damaged land bridge, I looked upstream at the path of destruction. All I can say is that it’s fortunate no one was standing in the streambed that day, because they likely would not have survived.

”Yep, those are the beavers we protect,” said a sarcastic abutter, shaking his head, referring to state regulations adopted in 1996 forbidding leg-hold traps that once kept the potentially destructive wetland rodents in check. Yes, it’s true they create wetlands and habitat beneficial to fish and birds and wildlife. I understand that, and even support it to a point. But I must admit I’ve stood and observed that marsh and beaver ponds many times, thinking to myself how much nicer that hollow must have looked when my ancestors farmed it. I have pictured the land cleared, the hayfields scalped, tree lines following roads and stonewalls, meadow stream unobstructed and clean, probably pure enough to drink from, definitely squaretail water. A lot has changed since then.

In 10 more years, unless something is quickly done to reopen it as farmland or a clearing, that hollow will look a lot more like it did in 1740 than at any time since. The hardy Colonial Colrainites trapped the beavers, traded their pelts for supplies, drained the swamps, and built the fortified house known as Clark’s and Lucas’ fort. After the Native threat subsided in the 1760s came orchards, pastures and mowings, sugar bush and shacks, working farms with stately dwellings and barns, corncribs and henhouses, cider mills, distilleries and tanneries. Over time, most have been relegated to stone-clad craters, some larger than others. Soon this ancestral relic will join them in obscurity, buried under young forest that’ll rapidly grow old.

My people vanished long ago. Their farm’s following their path.

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