Colonial Roots Are Shallow Indeed

What does it mean to be connected to a place, to have a sense of a place… and how does it change over time?

I pondered that question during a recent daybreak walk along the shoulder of a lonely, gray, Upper Meadows road in Greenfield. Since then the thought has reappeared, darting through my consciousness like one of those gray squirrels, tail raised high, that darts out in front of your car, comes to sudden halt, and scoots back in the nick of time to live another day.

The impetus for that initial thought may have been the frosty air entering my nostrils. It cooled my throat, expanded my lungs, revved my gait, and got my wheels spinning.

Down the road a piece, the fluid thought train only intensified. Running a bit late as I turned west for the homestretch, I was greeted by flaming orange maples illuminated along the western ridge by the first rays of sun peeking over the eastern horizon. Ten or 15 minutes makes a huge difference at that time of day.

What a glorious sight. Right place, right time. It so moved me that the thought lingered all the way home and reappeared throughout the morning and sporadically over ensuing days.

I suppose at the root of it all was the deed research in which I’ve been hopelessly immersed for the past three years, ever since the COVID scare began. Piecing together the genesis of South Deerfield, my path has also meandered through East Whately, Greenfield, and Montague, all connected by the same founding families, from some of which – Arms, Allen, Allis, Catlin, Hawks, and Williams – I descend. What better way to occupy a retired man’s time and energy than exploring land records dating back to the beginning of Franklin County’s colonial settlement?

Thanks to 21st-century digitization, these records can now be reviewed in the comforts of home. What a grand luxury. A far cry better than passing through courthouse metal detectors to page through large, cumbersome volumes in the Registry of Deeds library.

But be forewarned: home deed research can become an obsession. The problem is that one search leads to another, all of them with dangling threads of inquiry to pull and see what unravels. And that’s just the half of it, leaving out entirely all the unexpected “peripherals” leading down into enticing rabbit holes.

Newbies will struggle to lean how to navigate through the online database, but once that’s accomplished, it’s all downhill and captivating.

I suppose diligent researchers who pursue all leads could be in danger of learning far more than they need to know. But, really, is that possible? Can one ever learn too much about anything?

Late, esteemed English philosopher Alfred North Whitehead would say no. He favored focused, specialized learning over a liberal education that bombards students with a little bit of everything. In his classic essay The Aims of Education, he dropped a critical hammer on modern education by opining that “a merely well-informed man is the most useless bore on God’s earth.”

Those who favor the modern standard of a well-rounded liberal education and standardized testing will likely take issue with Whitehead’s assessment, but the line has stuck with me since reading it five decades ago as a student under UMass journalism professor Howard Ziff. Or maybe it was philosophy prof Robert Paul Wolff. Not certain. One or the other.

It’s not that Whitehead couldn’t tolerate an introductory liberal education for elementary students. He just believed that specialization must be the goal, and that it can’t come too soon. That’s where he bucked modern educational trends.

Which circles us back to the sense-of-place narrative: that is, choosing a place to inhabit – and learning everything there is to know about it.

I remember well my days on the road as a professional fundraiser, living briefly in strange places I did not know. Having grown up isolated in small-town South Deerfield and gone to college in nearby Amherst, I was ready to explore new places. Life on the road was exciting at first, but then became disorienting. It was six weeks here and six weeks there, with interesting stops in Colorado, Wyoming, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Delaware, New Jersey, and all over southern New England.

Those were wild times for a young, single man speeding the interstates to new places and living out of a suitcase in Sheratons, Holiday Inns and worse. I ate in restaurants, drank in bars, and felt like an outsider. I spoke a slightly different dialect than the locals and most often felt like a rudderless ship navigating swirling, unfamiliar waters. I eventually tired of the destructive lifestyle and returned home, marrying my current spouse in 1979.

Before I tied the knot, I quit the fundraising game and took a temporary job as a laborer for the Montague DPW. Then I got a break when my Uncle Ralph called me from his second home in Charlemont. He knew I had studied journalism and wondered if I wanted to get my foot in the door at the Greenfield Recorder – a classic who-you-know, not-what-you-know job opportunity.

It just so happened that the Recorder editor of the day spent a lot of time at my uncle’s Berkshire East ski chalet, and was looking for a part-time sportswriter. My uncle promised he could plug me into the job if I wanted it. The rest is history. I worked in that newsroom for 40 years until retirement, working my way up the ladder as far as I dared.

The pay was meager, the hours chaotic, the holidays few. My first full-time sportswriter paycheck was 185 bucks a week – less than I made as a DPW laborer, and a lot less than I made on a good day as a fundraiser. No lie. But at least I was home in a place that I knew and wanted to know better. That was important to me, and that’s why I stayed, bought two homes, and raised a family here. I didn’t want to bounce around from paper to paper, city to city for more money. Been there, done that. Place was important to me.

By the time I rose to sports editor in 1986, a position I held until my 2018 retirement, I was probably best known for my weekly column, On The Trail, which appeared each Thursday. Its backbone was hunting and fishing, but its soul was local history and place. Think of it: how do you separate place and local history from topics like flora and fauna, woods and waters, fish and wildlife restorations, hunting harvests, stocking reports and fish migrations, cellar holes and decaying maple-sugar camps on abandoned roads? Truth is, it can’t be done. Not if it’s done right.

So here I sit, retired and still writing about the same stuff, now for a weekly paper in the same general community. Over the years I’ve read thinkers like Gary Snyder, Wendell Berry, Robin Wall Kimmerer, and many others who believe in place-based living and narrative. They all advocate setting roots in a place, and spending a lifetime learning about it. That means wading its rivers, braving its swamps, walking its faded trails, following its stone walls, walking its ridgelines – and always paying heed to the whispering winds.

Deed research has only deepened my understanding of this place, while strengthening my personal connections through my father’s gene pool. His ancestors and mine were here in the Connecticut Valley for the first wave of colonial settlement. Of that, I have been proud for decades, and less so about my maternal grandmother’s ancient Acadian roots in Nova Scotia, which, to me, is still foreign ground.

Now, a sobering fact – one that speaks to the temporal insignificance of colonial settlement here. Franklin County deeds only date back some 350 years. That’s at least 12,000 years after Native Americans arrived here.

No matter how you slice it, that’s a harsh reality. On those terms, I am reduced to a mere squatter – a clueless brother from another mother who will never understand this place like they did.

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