Seeing Is Believing

Tiny red rose hips are aflame and alluring as cornfields brown and swamps glow their familiar purple/yellow hue with the autumnal equinox and Harvest Moon behind us, the waning half-moon reduced to a faint, ghostly mid-morning spy in the clear blue western sky.

You may have noticed my absence the past two weeks. I was away tending to a life-threatening family emergency, yet another surgical intervention, one that nearly took someone dear. But he’s out of the hospital recovering, so here I sit, back in familiar surroundings, thinking about bears and deer, a book, and an important local Paleolithic site that was recently and quietly explored by an eclectic group of “amateur” archaeologists. The veteran researchers hoped to and succeeded in flying under the radar to avoid potential interference or obstruction, uncovering many extraordinary artifacts along the way in square, layered holes dug by hand with shovel and trowel on a sandy Sugarloaf skirt. But let’s start with an appetizer on bears to get it quickly behind us, then move to a brief deer observation before rolling up our sleeves, tucking our napkins behind our collars and diving into the meat and potatoes.

Mid-afternoon Saturday, seeking distraction from my son’s serious situation, I was reading in the bright sunny parlor off the carriage sheds, sun backlighting the pages through the large plate-glass door, when silence was interrupted by what sounded like a hunter firing five shots in a familiar cadence that immediately captivated me.

“Pow-pow-pow!” The first report sounded.

Then, a few seconds later, another echoing “Pow!” followed by a few minutes of hollow silence and a final “Pow!” likely the coup de grace. This barrage emanated from the wooded ridge west and south of me, cornfields below, orchards above, hickory groves in between. Is there a more likely spot for a bear to die on the final day of the three-week September hunting season? If all goes as expected, by the time the second segment of the split six-week season ends in mid-November, we may see as many as 160 kills, less than half the annual harvest officials deem necessary to stabilize a burgeoning Bay State bear population that could become problematic if it isn’t already.

I suppose I could ask a middle man’s permission to phone checking stations and compile a preliminary harvest like I always did years back, before all the stifling new rules and regs and state protocols. But, no, must be I’m getting stubborn in old age, have given up on weak-kneed kowtows so am now reduced to the pitiful state of waiting for press releases like the rest of the struggling print media. It’s not my preferred news-gathering method. No, it’s the state’s way, and I guess I must live with it as I fade toward what I pray will be a productive and creative retirement, maybe even one laced with genuine passion. I guess officials figure it’s safer to control all outgoing “news” nowadays, which, of course, becomes history by the time newspapers get it. Come to think of it, I haven’t even seen the spring turkey-harvest figures yet. Go figure. The season ended in May. Maybe the Westborough office’s calculator is busted. And they call this progress? Not me. I call it boooooooring and unacceptable, can’t flee fast enough from “news” like that.

Truth be told, I used to enjoy chasing down preliminary bear harvests with former professorial state Bear Project Leader Jim Cardoza, now retired. In fact, I looked forward to it. But there must have been someone who didn’t appreciate me consistently beating him to the umbers (hint-hint, one of few Pioneer Valley outdoor scribes with a longer reign than me). So now we have rules to assure “fairness,” that is a routine that provides all media with the same press releases at the same hour, guaranteeing that radio and TV breaks the “news” before newspapers. What gives? Are there not rewards for diligent pursuit by determined scribes who’ve built their sources’ trust? No sir, not today, even in a politically correct, dog-eat-dog, violent capitalistic society. Hey, isn’t that oxymoronic? Or am I straight-up crazy?

As for deer, well, what I have to say is hardly worth a new paragraph in these days of tight news holes — just that it amazes me how the deer I’ve been monitoring all year seem to bed down in shin-high hayfields nightly, probably out of sight to all but the keenest outlaws shining fields with headlights at night. I pass their matted beds daily on my morning walks with the dogs, most often two but sometimes as many as five right in the middle of dense red-clover patches. So put that in you pipe and smoke it, fellas, and file it for future reference. When the pressure’s on, deer will hide in swamps and fields where they were born. Bank it!

But enough trivial stuff … on to recent reading, a paperback review copy of soon-to-be-released “Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants” — an important collection of essays by a wise wilderness voice named Robin Wall Kimmerer, a professor and member of the Potawatomi Nation who lives outside of Syracuse, NY, where she teaches at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry. All I can say is it’s a blessing for those who murdered and drove her people from their homeland and stole their land that Indians like her had no written language way back when, because had they been able to articulate their message like Kimmerer, they would have gained many allies and been much tougher for utilitarian Christian mercenaries to defeat for the public good; oh yes, always for the public good, it defined by government greed and injustice. These deceptive leaders anointed by election create frightful demons, brainwash the uninformed and dazed to a state of intense fear and hatred, then send them off as twisted soldiers to dispose of fictitious devils.

I discovered Kimmerer in Orion magazine, a literary publication headquartered in Great Barrington, printed in Dalton and dedicated to nature/culture/place — my kinda reading. I found her holistic world view refreshing in the article, Council of the Pecans, then in “Braiding Sweetgrass” skipped over it and another essay I had previously read online about the human defilement of Syracuse’s Onondaga Lake. I would recommend Kimmerer’s new book to anyone, even political enemies who may yet see the ray of light shining in from a sacred faraway place where plants and animals, wind and water and the landscape are viewed a brothers and sisters, not servile beasts to be raped and pillaged for profit. Kimmerer fears it may already be too late. So do I. But it’s never too late to read the likes of her when searching for new wisdom and alternative thinking. What a sweet breath of fresh air she is. “Braiding Sweetgrass” is a great coffee-table book, one you shouldn’t blow through quickly. No, you’ll get much more out of it by just reading a chapter here and there and probing the depths of each dynamic message.

So now let me close with a few observations about that archaeological dig I observed intermittently between trips to the hospital in Springfield the past two weeks. The site is located close to Interstate 91 between home and hospital, and it just so happened to be on land deeply stained with my DNA and quite familiar for many other reasons. Led by Dr. Richard Michael Gramly — a respected, published Harvard PhD and American Society for Amateur Archaeology founder — his sophisticated work crew included a star-studded cast of experienced excavators, all of them present on their own dime, donating their time and paying out of pocket for lodging. Also randomly visiting the site on various days were many world-renowned experts in the field of Paleo archaeology, all of them passing through to observe the dig and add perspective. Among the diggers toiling for 14 days in the hot sun were respected authors, college professors, museum curators, magazine editor/publishers, and learned archaeological “hobbyists,” some retired for years and carrying PhD’s in other fields, not to mention brains bulging with valuable archaeological-excavation experience.

Why were these folks there, straddling the Whately/Deerfield line between barns filled with drying field tobacco and a long tall mound of dirt covering an important Paleo site discovered in 1978, yet still waiting for interpretation? Because, according to scholar Duncan Caldwell and other unimpeachable on-site sources, it may be the most important Paleo site in America this side of the Mississippi River. Google Mr. Caldwell, who I personally met and took on a brief tour last week, if there are any doubts about his credibility. He may be the world’s most respected Paleo authority. He left the site Friday headed for Columbia University, where he was scheduled for a guest lecture before departing for his winter Paris home.

Among the participating “amateur” archaeologists, all of them veterans of many Gramly digs worldwide, was a retired Connecticut brain surgeon and his wife — she perhaps the preeminent authority on Northeastern lithics — as well as a retired PhD chemist with degrees from Dartmouth and Cornell who’s been with Gramly from the start. That’s just a few. There were many, many others folks with equally impressive archaeological credentials.

All I can say is that now that I’ve seen “amateurs” in action, maybe I’ll get a chance to observe a “professional” dig. You know, one led by academics and state officials who delight in throwing spiteful stones at Gramly and his impeccable entourage. For me, seeing is believing and, my oh my, did I ever get an eyeful between trips to my son’s hospital bed. So stay tuned. I’m just getting started. Promise. Unless the state archaeological junta can succeed in silencing the messenger and keeping important prehistoric discoveries buried under long, lean mounds of dirt they ordered dumped.

The ice is broken. For that we can thank a daring and enthusiastic man named R.M. Gramly, a Harvard man who’s a rebel and a scholar. He’s twice displayed the courage to defy bureaucratic opposition and explore the important site, previously in 1995. And although he’s passed 70 and says he doesn’t intend to return in a leadership role, someone undoubtedly will,  maybe one of his protégés. Let’s hope so.

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