Witch’s Brew

Gray and rainy, trees frosted with thin white shadows, backyard brook whispering a melting melody that soon will roar that spring’s here; and, oh yeah, one brilliant, lonely, lazy cardinal whistling a happy tune from his midriff perch in a tall streamside sugar maple.

Me? Well, content, not melancholy by any stretch, welcoming spontaneous introspection, a solitary probe indeed. Just one of those days, I guess, restless energy building like steam in a Tite-Top Dutch oven, the result of two sedentary weeks brought by deep snow. I do miss my daily walks with the dogs, the brisk air and gentle breeze whisking away cranial cobwebs, setting dusty thought particles airborne for others to inhale, explore and liberate for introduction to another sphere.

Don’t ask me what triggers such impulsive introspection. I suppose it varies. This time, part of it was a Tuesday visit from an old journalism professor, who parked his Volvo wagon by the front-yard post lantern, exited with a shiny turquoise bag of strong Costa Rican coffee dangling from his right hand, and entered for a delightful four-hour chat in the green parlor off the dining room. There we touched upon this and that, no boundaries or rules, lots about the Connecticut River, its ground-breaking designation as the first “National Blueway System,” and, yes, of course, the rich indigenous history saturating its shores, its banks, its landscapes, none more sacred than Peskeomskut, that sacred fishing temple within earshot of where we recently by-chance met and arranged our visit. A literary-journalism disciple, this man knew me from my column. When I told him I had taken a class of his at the recommendation of my late UMass/Amherst mentor Howard Ziff, he didn’t recall but, sure enough, upon reviewing old rosters, there I was in one of the first UM classes he taught, “Reporting Cultures” 1979. Back then, I had taken a part-time job at The Recorder and re-enrolled at UM in its University Without Walls program. The class title is apropos to the present, considering my recent research into the “River Tribes” that called our Pioneer Valley home and left underfoot countless clues that they were here long before devout Puritan legions stole their land and ruthlessly drove them asunder.

Upon my academic visitor’s departure from the driveway that afternoon, I found myself pondering our parting conversation about those who return to school to earn degrees late in life. I don’t recall what led us there but I assured him it was not a path I’d follow. For what, I asked? At my age, such a degree would hold for me no value. Only a piece of paper. Would it make me any wiser? He grinned, nodded and conceded that classrooms and homework assignments are meant for the young, not confident, grounded adults who’ve discovered their identity. So that’s what jolted me into whimsy, which, when unchecked in a man like me, can snowball fast … and did.

Truth be told, I was ripe for it, given many factors, not the least of which are fresh recollections of oral family tradition passed on by spinster great-aunt Gladys, a family historian of sorts, who was always watching during my mischievous childhood travels. We called her “Antie” until the day she died in 1989, then living downstairs in my previous home, which I bought following my grandfather’s 1980 death. With life estate, old “Antie” came with the purchase, which I didn’t resent one iota. She was born there, belonged. Vivid memories of her sitting in that stuffed rocking chair peering over knitting needles through tall mullioned windows transported me directly back to my youth and frequent summertime treks up well-defined Indian trails to the Sugarloaf caves, north and south. Not only that but also memories of the  sturdy Pine-Woods fort we built with a roof strong enough to jump on, and, yes, those spacious secret igloos we hollowed out of the broad, tall snowbanks in the high-school lot. From those distant South Deerfield memories, as well as old photos, family correspondence and oral traditions was borne a deep spiritual connection to this place I call home, and especially to that vast southern plain below the distinctive Pioneer Valley landmark the Indians called Wequamps. On that fertile Sugarloaf Plain extending across the old Denison and Bradstreet grants to the Bashin, Hatfield Pond and beyond, the trees, the tiny blue grapes of Hopewell Swamp, and twisted red-sandstone ledge high above carry a powerful dose of family DNA that’s no thinner than that found in the East Whately burial ground, where the oldest grave belongs to sixth great-grandfather Joseph, progenitor of my Whately Sanderson line.

Come to think of it, the impetus for my nostalgic meanderings aren’t confined to all of the above. There’s more. Something else that got my wheels spinning to one of those shrill screams that teacher’s pets and patrol boys alike find so threatening was a splendid William Giraldi essay I read in the new “Orion” magazine. Titled “Splendid Visions: A meditation on the childhood sublime,” it is one of many laments I’ve read in recent years about a troubling disconnect between kids and nature. More and more critics believe children receive far too much supervision and not nearly enough free play and unsupervised woodland adventure, which builds into their psyche precious qualities like autonomy, independence, liberty and a taboo subject called individual sovereignty. These social critics warn there’s no harm in letting kids’ figure things out for themselves, learning along the way to make sound decisions without adult intervention. You don’t learn that stuff in school nowadays. Probably never did. You learn it during free childhood exploration, while your mom is home watching Matt Lauer and scolding the tomcat for sleeping on the kitchen counter. I understand the concept of childhood freedom because I lived it and am truly thankful I did. When I look back now and think of all the Bloody Brook fishing and skating and horsing around, the daily treks up steep Indian trails, sitting above it all in shelf-cave secrecy, rising to throw stones as far I could from the cliff to the oaks below, I am grateful I had the liberty to be there. It is clear to me that I learned much more there and in the woods building forts and baiting hooks and shooting BB guns than I learned in Alice Spindler or Bill Steinecke’s English classes.

I admit I was fortunate to find college professors like Ziff and Chris Howell and Robert Paul Wolff, all of whom made an impact; and I’m even more grateful that Howell defied his English Department chair by including Norwegian Nobel Prize-winning novelist Knut Hamsun’s “Pan” on his creative-writing reading list. Later, during one of my many adult returns to Hamsun, I remembered Howell as an angry young man fresh from an eye-opening stint as a Vietnam War correspondent. I Googled him and found him alive and well on the faculty of Eastern Washington University, nine books of poetry to his credit. I dropped him a line to thank him for introducing me to Hamsun, which led to a lifetime of reading works by and about the enigmatic artist. Had Howell not been an angry, defiant young man of the Sixties, he likely would have obeyed his boss and I would never have discovered Hamsun, blackballed in the West as a Nazi sympathizer after World War II. Hamsun was no Nazi. No, not a Nazi at all. Just and old man and ardent Anglophobe, who had visited the U.S. twice and come away with total disrespect for its impure, diluted, melting-pot culture. He thus chose Germany to root for in both wars. As a result, the man regarded by many as the father of 20th century literature, was pilloried by the guardians and enforcers of Western culture. It’s all about politics and ideology, not fairness.

Speaking of stories and storytellers, let’s close with oral tradition from the Sugarloaf Plain I call home without ever having lived there a day. This tale was passed down for many years by my family and the Parkers, whose early Hatfield residence brought Joseph Sanderson and wife Ruth Parker (Abraham’s sister) here from Groton in 1752. My guess is that the story began as an Indian Wequamps myth and was stolen and altered by the first colonial settlers of Canterbury in the northeast corner of Hatfield, now River Road, Whately. “Antie” knew the yarn and told it well, and likely so did her ancestors, all of whom were said to have avoided the haunted site as children. The story goes that a witch disguised as a bear jumped from the top of Mount Sugarloaf and landed in a large oak tree along the road in front of the original Sanderson home. The force of the landing permanently disfigured the top branches before the witch sprang to the ground and disappeared into a hole that could never be filled. The hole was still evident as late as 1827, when a schoolhouse was built along the northern property line of third great-grandfather John Chapman Sanderson’s home, where students avoided Satan’s depression with screeching terror. Who knows? It may still be there, though doubtful indeed.

Perhaps that witch sprang from the flat sandstone roof of King Philip’s Seat, below which we used to sit as kids pretending to be Indians standing watch over the valley below. Now, sadly, the perch is off limits to my grandchildren, the ancient path blocked by an ugly, rusty, chain-link fence sealing off precious childhood fantasy.

It doesn’t matter now. That ancient Native lookout, the deeply trodden trail for the ages leading to it and the plain below will never leave me. In my boyhood soul I recognized the place as home, still do and always will.

It’s in my blood.

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