Locked In Place

A white No. 10 envelope. That’s what awaited me Monday on my Recorder desk. It brought me to a place I love to visit and never leaves me.

Imagine that. Captivating snail-mail? Oh yeah. A blast from the past. Old-school correspondence. On the envelope and below the signature at letter’s end was a paste-on return address for Gary R. Linscott of Haydenville. The man starts the tidy, two-page, hand-written letter by introducing himself as a “faithful” reader born in Greenfield to Leverett parents. Then he traipses off on a hilltown ramble.

Cursory online research uncovered no simple route to a phone number or I would have called Linscott. I did discover his age, at 65, a couple of years older than me. So, yes, I guess he qualifies as an old-timer. At least he would have when I was, say, in my 30s. My, how perception changes as we age.

Anyway, it appears that Linscott has lived in Haydenville ever since his parents left Leverett and touched down in that Hampshire/Franklin border town when he was a mere 6-month-old babe. So, it’s safe to say he knows his way around the Adams Road neighborhood he describes as the site of many interesting wildlife sightings.

I can only speculate that his reason for writing to me at this time was my recent mention of sites located within his domain, places like Henhawk Trail and High Ridge, which are dear, if not sacred, to me. In fact, so dear are they that for decades I have resisted  naming them  in the public sphere. They’re wild, idyllic places that are, frankly, in my humble and unwavering opinion, better off known by few and explored by fewer. Big woods scare people off these days, even though pocket-sized GPS technology can indeed inflate confidence.

The primary reason Mr. Linscott reached out for a personal connection after many silent years of reading was to share an interesting little front-page, above-the-fold, banner-scraping “Country Journal” story about Mt. Tekoa timber rattlesnakes in the quaint Russell village of Woronoco. “The Journal,” a Turley Publications hilltown weekly, circulates through 16 upland Westfield River valley towns west of Northampton, Easthampton and Westfield.

The story was written by a reporter named Mike Donovan. A Woronoco native, Donovan grew up where  rattlesnakes were part of life, thus respected. Donovan writes of neighbors’ summer confrontations with rodent-hunting rattlers hiding underneath porches and hen houses, coiled under cars or slithering though dry, sun-splashed backyards bordering streams. Although snakebites were rare, folks in that little hamlet knew enough to be wary during the summer, and to stay away from Mt. Tekoa when snakes are active.

A “fact”  Linscott wisely questioned was Donovan’s mention of a famous photo from a 1930s Springfield newspaper. The shot  showed teenaged George Church displaying what was reportedly an 8-foot, 10-inch Eastern diamondback rattlesnake killed on Tekoa. Perhaps climate-change will someday shift that venomous snake’s range this far north, but today this viper is found only in the South, beginning in Florida and extending west as far as Louisiana and north into southern North Carolina.

Perhaps that newspaper snake pictured some 80 years ago really was  killed on Tekoa. More likely, it was a hoax or had been captured in the sunny south and released here. Maybe it escaped from a traveling circus. Hey, it’s even possible that snake was a rare, behemoth timber rattler that had survived to abnormal old age. Not impossible, I suppose. According to National Geographic and other reputable online sources, timber rattlers top out at a little more than six feet. Nine feet? Ummmm … seem like a stretch.

Linscott didn’t stop with snakes. Uh-uh. That was just his intro, accompanied by a copy of the “Journal” article. Then, as though he had been compiling wildlife sightings in his fanny pack, he opened the top flap for me and allowed them to escape after many years of captivity. All of the tales came from his neck of the woods, which happens to be a place I know and worship after many years of woodland rambles along discontinued roads, faded footpaths and game trails, not to mention freewheeling, whimsical, at times daring diversions. He mentions sightings by him and others of mountain lions, moose, deer and coyotes, all of them between Conway’s Poland Brook Wildlife Management Area and West Whately’s Mountain Street Reservoir. The area, known in topo-map lingo as the Williamsburg Quadrangle, is a splendid mix of upland deciduous and conifer forest, high, stony, hardwood spines, and dense wetland tangles. There, if you know the woods and don’t fear them, among the potential discoveries are an incredible balanced rock of ancient ‘Burgy lore and a high and hidden 1926 brass plaque dedicated to late Daily Hampshire Gazette editor/publisher and High Street Walking Club member Edward C. Gere.

If you do your homework, you may even get to know the cellar hole of 18th-century Whately rabble-rouser Perez Bardwell, a brave soldier who got himself into quite a fix as a post-Revolutionary rebel. Look him up. He’s a fascinating local example of the colonial firebrands called “Old Revolutionaries” by late MIT American-history scholar Pauline Maier, who wrote the book. We’re talking about fiercely independent radicals in the mold of Samuel Adams, Dr. Thomas Young and Patrick Henry. These patriot “activists” ignited the American Revolution, then were kicked to the curb by moderate Federalists after it was won. But let us not digress.

Most of Linscott’s reported sightings unfolded near the old Graves Farm, now an Audubon Society preserve off-limits to dogs. That’s what keeps me away. Back in the day, I knew the elderly, hunchbacked Graves brother who lived in the old farmhouse. His name escapes me, but something tells me it was Marshall. Then again, I could be thinking of the Colrain Denison brothers I got to know through early-morning fishing. Does it really matter? I talked to this old Yankee farmer many times, pulling right through his barnyard to hunt or scout, before parking in the back pasture on  a knoll with  a lonely old apple tree. I shot a deer, many partridge and woodcock, and my first turkey on that 535-acre spread.

On my way home one afternoon, the bent old man was out behind the woodshed bucksawing 15- to 20-foot logs into heavy 18-inch pieces to be split for cordwood. He was  80-plus at the time. Grateful for the privilege of hunting and parking on his property, I pulled over, got out, rattled his cage a bit, and helped him for the last couple hours of daylight. I must have bucksawed off 20 or 30 chunks  before quartering them with a maul while he carted them to the woodshed. I still feel good about helping him and must say I thoroughly enjoyed the homespun conversation.  In fact, it was from that man that I learned about a Sanderson farm on the southern perimeter of his property that had burned to the ground in the early 1900s. I knew the old, charred ruins and chimney but had no idea who lived there.

“Maybe you’re related,” he said.

“Yes, we’re definitely from the same bolt of cloth,” I assured him, “though I don’t know  how. I’d wager that his family came from Whately, probably a West-Whately branch.”

Later research confirmed my speculation on both counts.

Isn’t it fascinating how, the more you study your place — its people, roads and rivers, churches and folklore, its deep history of oral literature and sacred landscapes — it seems only to grow  smaller and more dynamic? That, and easier to stitch the random  threads into a meaningful tapestry.

This Linscott letter to me, written in a neat, steady hand, was just one more reminder of how small our world becomes when we focus on place. Linscott and I are brothers of sort, careful observers of our own little worlds, which, for us, meet in a mystical overlap. Though we have not met and likely never will, our bleeding wrists are joined on the middle ground.

Call it shared,  savored love of place.

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