Live & Learn

March is near, the deep-freeze just won’t let leave, and I’m dry-docked, thinking about place — my place and that of my ancestors, the one I chose not to leave and continue to learn about by the day, the month, the year, and when things get really exciting, by the very minute.

It all started as a young South Deerfield lad following frozen Bloody Brook on skates, a human snowplow pushing a shovel from Urkiel’s to Yazwinski’s, building streamside forts and fires, getting into the kind of harmless mischief I hope kids can still find in shadows hidden from adult scrutiny.

Once the snow left, we’d follow the same infamous brook, fishing rods in hand, using treble hooks to foul-hook plump suckers beneath the retaining wall in front of the old Kelleher place, even pulling out a rare little squaretail now and then dunking worms far downstream. Honestly, I can’t believe there are still brookies in that sluggish stream that took its name from crimson wartime mayhem.

When we got older and rode our bikes from one end of town to the other, picking up schoolmates along the way, we started venturing out, following gullies, fence rows and tilled edges east to the base of North Sugarloaf, where, in winter, we packed ski and toboggan trails on Boro’s and Gorey’s hills and spent long, cold, windy days horsing around, no adults invited. Then, when the snow left those hillside playgrounds, we found the Indian trail our folks told us led to the peak, a steep footpath on which we sidestepped occasional ugly vipers coiled along the climb to the high, lonesome shelf cave. Once we reached that lofty, secluded perch looking down upon the village, we felt free as mountaintop eagles waiting to set sail and soar over the valley whenever they felt like it.

As we grew bolder, we’d wander deeper off the trail into unfamiliar woods down the east slope of the ridge to see what we could find, often realizing too late that we were far away from familiar ground and must find our way back. But find it we did, no Boy Scout leader or preacher’s deputy necessary. It taught us all that we could process crises on our own, find our way home from the foggiest upland swamps and tangles by calmly assessing the predicament, reviewing the options and devising a plan. We always found a way out, which built innate confidence that we could solve our own problems without crying for help.

When I was a boy, this is what we thought we were supposed to do, having sat through nightly bedtime reading sessions with our mom going a chapter a night through “Tom Sawyer” and “Huckleberry Finn” or maybe “Drums Along the Mohawk” or “Boy Captive” tales. These oral-reading sessions endured until our heavy eyelids dropped shut, opening up a fanciful dream world. And now, here I sit, writing for the local newspaper, still trying to piece it all together in this place I call home, anxiously awaiting the day when I can share the whole story, the one preferred by sophisticated readers, bored with cream of wheat. It’s like the difference between childhood tales you’d tell a Cub Scout troop and the ones you’d share with your trusted friends and lovers. It’s no secret that the difference is significant, so much more spirit and meaning in the latter, yet still, always the danger of ruffling bright, tidy plumage, if you get the gist. What can I say? I’m a feather-ruffler from way back, and it’s way too late to change now. For what? Ecumenical-council praise or maybe an award from some fraternal order of windbags, bluffers and hypocrites? No. Not for me. It’s meaningless.

Running thin on space and trying not to curdle my slow-simmering stew — always steaming and gently bubbling in some deep, dark chamber of my soul — let me close this narrative with a new local legend I stumbled across quite by accident while reviewing a version of Sugarloaf’s indigenous beaver myth I had seen and forgotten in E.P. Pressey’s “History of Montague.” Brought to my attention by a friend assembling an exciting archaeological display in a sparkling new town-hall cherry cabinet, I read and evaluated it as OK before noticing another tale below associated with Mt. Toby, the higher peak to the east now capped by a fire tower, the expansive range straddling Sunderland, Leverett and Montague t’other side the river, as they used to say with a New England twang in this neck of the woods.

Titled “The Demon Wittum,” it’s a deep-history yarn from this splendid slice of the Pioneer Valley, involving the same indigenous transformer spirit Hobomock, a benevolent behemoth of Algonquian lore said to have bludgeoned the beaver that died submerged in Lake Hitchcock before appearing in the drained valley as Mt. Sugarloaf, North Sugarloaf and East Mountain or Pocumtuck Ridge. The question is, why did I happen upon such a relevant topic while reading about European spelunking for Paleo art? Could it be a random coincidence that in the process of studying cave art I happened upon the tale of a man-eating Mt. Toby cave-dweller? No! I don’t believe in coincidence. I think things happen for a reason, this just another example.

Pressey’s source is Deacon Phineas Field of Charlemont, a 19th century character who seemed well versed in upper-valley Indian history. So it was he who recounted for the author the ancient tale of Hobomock taking it upon himself to rid the valley of a problematic demon named Wittum. After flushing this dangerous villain from a deep, dark cave hideout high on the eastern face of Toby and chasing him through treacherous cliffside terrain to the peak, the evil spirit leaped for the river below and Hobomock followed, clubbing his fleeing foe to a bloody death. It is said that Wittum’s carcass fell to earth in a Sunderland meadow and vanished, leaving only an eternal bare spot for posterity.

So now it looks like I’ve got some exploring to do when Old Man Winter finally decides to release his white-knuckled grip on Franklin County. Yes, come joyous, inspiring spring, with the snow gone and the upland footing solid, I’ll be there to chase the legend of Wittum, probing caves, finding that “secret glen in the fastnesses of the mountain,” and hunting that bare spot in a riverside Sunderland meadow.

I do have an idea where that bare spot lies. Native elders claim that when you get to know your place well enough, even white men, the land speaks to you.

Call me crazy, but I follow the whistles and whispers of the wind sliding through trees and ledge and upland bogs. It pays to listen carefully because they deliver.

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4 Responses to Live & Learn

  1. Thanks for the support, ENart. Does The Ranger still stand above the crowd? God, would love to see you when you come thru, but don’t know if your schedule lines up with mine. … I really would like to retire and move onto my final chapter, especially now that new management at the good old Reeecorder has clipped my wings big time. It’s tough when you have to write for editors, not the readers I’ve been in touch with for 35 years. I’m trying to figure out a way to make numbers add up, at least for the transition period. It’s scary, but once I get on my feet, find a few markets, I’ll be off and running. I have overhead but desperately want to go off and do my own thing. Sometimes I wish I never went off on this tavern adventure that’s now holding me back. Off I go. You caught me at work.

  2. Ed Nartowicz

    Hey Bags,
    As I sit here in my hotel room reading your columns it strikes me again that you have an ability to conjure up images that even if I had not seen them myself I’d be able to picture in my mind easily. While at this point my mind is somewhat addled by inexpensive bourbon ( provided by the local Embassy Suites ) I can still recognize the innate talents that you possess. This is a gift that should not be diminished or wasted. I will actually be up in that neck of the woods next week. I just started working for a company that has major customers in Billerica and Tarrytown. As the director of business development it is my job to get them to spend more money with us as well as get some more business, so I’m also calling on Ben and Jerry’s, Red Hook Brewery and the hated Boston Dead Sox. We now have six NHL teams in our fold but I can’t call on NHL teams as they are under the auspices of a distributor, so I’m working on baseball teams. ( ) While I’m there I will be doing a surprise visit to my mother Tuesday afternoon, she’s still kicking, and in fact is having minor back surgery tomorrow. Although minor surgery is always surgery on someone else.
    Sorry to go on and on with this soliloquy but i know you know how it is! Inexpensive bourbon is better than no bourbon.
    Please keep up the good work and consider writing that thing all writers say they want- the great American novel. You do have it in you.
    Take care,

  3. Glad you’ve found some of this stuff fruitful, Rob. Yes, that’s King Philips Seat. Congrats? I haven’t been there in many years. We’ll have to get together, for sure, sharing several interests as we do. In a rush right this second. Will communicate later via email. Till then, keep probing. It never gets boring, just infinitely more interesting.

  4. RRolen

    Hi Gary,
    I’ve been reading your blog nonstop for awhile and can’t seem to get enough of it. I drove by Toby today and was wondering if you ever found those caves on the east side and the bare spot in the plain. If you haven’t made that hike yet, I would be interested in joining you.

    I also managed to finally scout around the south side of Wequamps along the old indian trails. I also hopped the fence like you recommended I not do and scaled along the edge of the cliff until I was under the little fenced off rocky promintory at the top. Is that King Philip’s seat?

    I also made out the Whately Oxbow from up there and was wondering if the peak of the island might be that fallow land with the scattered little pines just east of what looked like possibly a potato field, but it was hard to tell from that distance. I would be interested in walking that “island” sometime soon.

    I was also wondering if you could point me again to the superb work of that woman you mentioned who had compiled the research on the great beaver myth. I though you might also be interested to know that there also happens to be a very similar great beaver myth up in New Brunswick that happens to also coincidentally involve a mountain since named Sugarloaf.

    Long Life. Honey in the Heart. Thirteen Thank-yous!

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