Whisperin’ Winds

Sights, sounds and smells: hourly stimuli awaiting a well-placed flick of the forefinger to set the pinwheel into a blurry gyre that can flitter off to enticing places, if you let it. If you don’t dare, well, you probably spent too much time in church or school, where free-thinking and free-play is discouraged, maybe even forbidden, if that’s possible. I guess you can either play the game or design your own. Count me among the latter.

What pulled me into this weird train of thought was a common gesture by my demonstrative 3-year-old Springer Spaniel, Chubby, who early this week stuck a familiar pose that brought me back to the previous week, and way, way beyond. His pathetic expressions for sympathy occurred in the yard after breakfast, when we were dry-docked by deep snow, my truck unable to scale roadside snowbanks and park out of harm’s way for our daily rambles. Yeah, yeah, I know what you’re thinking: that that’s no excuse. Obviously, I could have walked my pets on leashes, with a colorful plastic bag dangling from my free hand, such a common sight these days. But, uh-uh, not my style. I’m cut from a different fabric, so to speak; born in a different day, prefer running unrestrained, and my dogs are no different.

Anyway, back to Chubby’s thought-provoking pose, the morning cool, gray and refreshing as we approached the metal gate leading down into Sunken Meadow. When I arrived at the barway and was passing through two sturdy wooden posts, gate ajar, I noticed Chubby standing broadside at the bottom of the double-rutted farm road. It was a familiar, statuesque and quite suggestive pose, ears perked and ready to race through thorny tangles. This day, he was looking for direction. The week before the identical stance begged, “Please, can we hop in the truck and go for a run today.” It hurts when the answer is no, but sometimes the elements dictate.

This week, the scene had shifted and I extended my right arm to the side, like tossing a stone underhand to the right. Chubby didn’t hesitate, was off in a flash, nose high, tail wiggling in glee as Lily sprinted past me to join him. That’s when I wandered off in thought, comparing Chubby’s inquisitive pose to my own plight for more information about Pioneer Valley prehistory. The information’s there. You just have to catch a scent in the wind, chase it, dig for it, sometimes even beg, because the people in control aren’t always cooperative, using one lame looting excuse after another to deny requests for reports, most refusals aimed at secrecy. Still I’ve somehow managed to navigate my way around the obstacles in a snowballing investigation that’s led from subject to subject with the help of books and papers and phone conversations, correspondence and personal visits. I’ve read archaeological reports, visited the sites they describe and scanned old newspapers looking for mention that’s rarely found. Then I ask questions, many of them, followed by many more, the probes connecting lines in an intricate, at times puzzling labyrinth through which experts are still finding their way, and often covering their tracks.

It’s a fact that you must understand ancient human behavior to comprehend the peopling of the Pioneer Valley, the settlement patterns and buried clues. But what I have recently discovered is that, more than that, you must understand the land, because plants and animals depend on it, and primitive humans depended on them to survive. The formula is not really that complex when you think of it. Glaciers melted and formed lakes that drained over time, leaving behind wet, fertile, meandering basins that attracted vegetation, which supported insects and reptiles, and drew foraging birds and beasts, which helped broadcast seeds and attract human predators who ate them. Soon Paleo man also learned to forage selected plants, such as cattails, ferns and water lilies, which, over time, they learned by trial and error could even have medicinal value, thus settlement along the edges of the bottomland swamps and oxbow lakes in green river valleys. As the climate warmed and accelerated drainage, new vegetation took root in the uplands, and foraging humans and beasts reached out to new habitats offering nuts and berries on the near horizon of old habitation sites.

Though I have always viewed ancient Pioneer Valley settlement patterns through a topographical and ecological prism, it was a December visit from a Smith College biology professor that sharpened my focus regarding a place of personal interest and family lore about which I harbor fascination. Aware that there had been a contact-period Indian village there and that many artifacts had been mined from both sides of the Connecticut River over the years — including the earliest colonial decades when my ancestors owned and farmed it — I didn’t know how long Native people had lived there, and had no clue it had been the site of a Paleo lake that drained into an Archaic and probably early Woodland oxbow. From the D-shaped interior parcel separated from the mainland by a 2½-mile river loop curling south from the base of Mt. Sugarloaf arose the name “Island” that I now believe to be of Native origin. Although this oxbow island had vanished long before my ancestors arrived, they likely heard Indians refer to their land as “The Island,” thus continued calling it that for many years, including generations later, by which time all concept of origin was lost. By the time of 18th- century colonial settlement, this rich chunk of fertile terrain had become a valuable agricultural resource that was and still is bordered on the west by what my kinfolk and neighbors called Hopewell Swamp. Only diligent historians and local folks with deep East Whately (or “Canterbury”) roots know that dense, crescent-shaped marsh as Hopewell today. Fewer still have ever heard of the flat, narrow terrace sandwiched between two others referred to as “The Island,” where today Frito-Lay potatoes grow on a long, thin tilled patch.

My focus these days centers on Mt. Sugarloaf and reaches out in a 15-mile radius pulling in  — starting in the south and circling west to north to east — the Northampton Meadows, Hampshire/Franklin’s western hills, Peskeomskut falls at Gill/Turners Falls, and the drainage corridor following Route 63 past Lake Pleasant and the Montague Plains to Cranberry Lake and North Leverett before emptying into the Long Plain (or Sunderland) Delta. There it swings all the way back to the ’Hamp Meadows, through Hadley /Hatfield farmland. This rich bottomland of the Lake Hitchcock drainage would have offered many lush marshes attractive to Paleo people living on the edge and hunting for caribou, waterfowl, fish and who knows what else. Truth be told, there’s still much to be learned, and the time is now, before the ancient footprints fade.

What’s interesting is that throughout my ongoing Pioneer Valley prehistory foray, it just so happens that there stood in the bookcase behind my library desk an important though somewhat dated book I had until two weeks ago neglected to revisit. Published in 1988 and purchased while I was exploring the history of Connecticut Valley Atlantic salmon, “Holocene Human Ecology in Northeastern North America,” edited by UMass-Amherst anthropologist George P. Nicholas, is a collection of scholarly papers, many by UMass scientists, about local/regional prehistory. Combined with the Marjorie Holland/John Burk papers on the WMass oxbows (1982), this collection sharpened my perspective on ecological settlement dynamics here and elsewhere in New England. Then, after phone conversation about the subject with archaeologist Mike Gramly, leader of the September Sugarloaf Site Paleo excavation, the man mailed me follow-up scholarship on the same subject; it’s titled, “Revising the Paleoindian Environmental Picture in Northeastern North America,” by Lucinda McWeeney, an independent, Yale-trained and formerly Yale-employed archaeobotanist at the top of her field.

Despite the importance of the Sugarloaf Site straddling the Deerfield/Whatley line — and the Massachusetts Historical Commission’s acknowledgment of its importance for 40 years running — it is totally ignored in the aforementioned reports above. I find this blackout curious if not troubling and can’t help but wonder why. When archaeologists are uncovering remains and reporting the importance of hazelnuts, water lilies and cattails in Paleo diets from surrounding regional sites, shouldn’t they be attempting to gather corroborating data from known Connecticut Valley sites like the one below Sugarloaf, possibly even Canada Hill in Greenfield or the Turners Falls Airport? Shouldn’t archaebotanists and biologists like McWeeney be begging for permission to take sediment core samples from “The Island” and its bordering Hopewell Swamp in Whately? Even Greenfield’s White Ash Swamp could be a revealing research site. And wouldn’t all this information be helpful in piecing together the bigger puzzle that’s begging to be solved?

It’s difficult to understand the archaeological delay or holding pattern present here in the upper Pioneer Valley, an obstructive secrecy that’s palpable indeed. Where’s the opposition? The public criticism? Isn’t this cutting-edge research that’s ripe for the picking by the Five-College community? Wouldn’t ground-breaking discoveries from such fieldwork become career-defining components of platinum scholarly legacies?

The perspective from King Philip’s Seat hidden high under a shelf on Sugarloaf’s southern point screams that the dysfunctional squabbling is all about politics and must stop for the sake of discovery. Why keep a lid on it? Why conceal information from public view for another second? It makes no sense.

From this perch, it feels like high time to pool resources in a cooperative effort, eliminate petty games and professional jealousies, join heads, and allow a fascinating tale to unfold. The ancient soul of our valley screams as its spirit whispers. Listen to the winds. If you can’t understand the words, they mean, “It’s time.”

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