Divine Intervention, plus

Cabin fever? Nope, not me.

It’s true the dead of winter is upon us, the temperatures frigid indeed. Yet for some reason, it doesn’t seem to matter this year, news swarming like black flies, the brittle carcasses piling up on chests of drawers, tables, chairs — you name the piece of furniture in rooms where I sit most, it’s likely holding a book or report or packet thereof. But let’s take a circuitous route to the serious matters. First, a playful little diversion focused on an occurrence that transpired quite spontaneously out by my cold, sunny carriage sheds Saturday, the clock ticking toward noon. With that behind us, I intend to hop back to those Cheapside Indian burials we touched upon last week, then return to the Sugarloaf Paleo site that’s still producing fresh, exciting archaeological data, and, well, who knows where else we’ll traipse off to? Though I have a desired path in mind, I do cherish the freedom to ramble, am more than willing to pay the consequences.

So, here we go. It’s Saturday morning and I’m relaxing in the west parlor, bright sun warming my lap and upper torso through the southern window as I read a book titled “On Overgrown Paths,” which I revisit on this whim or that. It’s written by Norwegian literary giant and Nobel laureate Knut Hamsun (1859-1952), called by many the father of 20th century literature. Well, he was considered that before occupying Germans used him as a propaganda tool with World War II turning sour, forever besmirching a fine man’s reputation. Published in 1949, when Hamsun was 90 and in post-war police custody, “On Overgrown Paths” is a brilliant apologia and defense, written in his trademark lyrical élan, prose that flitters from scene to scene in memory over a long life, darting from one thought to another like a chartreuse hummingbird dipping into sweet white blossoms of wild-rosebush tangles. I find it sad that it had to end in disgrace for Hamsun, victim of a devastating war he was too old to concern himself with or fight in. Then again, he didn’t fight in World War I, either, so maybe the man didn’t like wars or the governments that start them.

Anyway, back to that comfortable parlor La-Z-Boy next to the scalloped-top chest. By the time the beckoning sunlight finally jostled me outside to feed and walk the dogs, it was 10:30 a.m., pretty typical for me this time of year. When I arrived at my customary walking spot, I was pleased to see snowmobile trails passing through and around the site to make the walking easier. The dogs were happy, too, rocketing out of their crates under my truck’s cap, young Chubby sprinting out of sight down the packed trail following a narrow wood line along the escarpment edge, Lily close behind. Some dogs may suffer in the cold. Not mine. In fact, they appear invigorated by it, though annoyed by the snow that builds up between the pads of their feet. They often stop to sit or lie down on their bellies and remove the icy build-up by teeth and tongue, Lily always more bothered by it than Chub-Chub.

On the drive home, I realized I had neglected my fire-hydrant clean-up duties on the common, and decided it was as good a time as any to complete the obligation. I parked my truck in the yard, fired up the tractor to let it warm, released the dogs from their crates, and walked them to the backyard kennel, where I filled their water, removed their Tri-Tonics collars and took them inside, walking right past the purring green tractor. Returning to the sheds for a couple of quick snowblower swipes past the hydrant, I hopped on the tractor, opened up the throttle and drove down the driveway toward the common. Once there, of course, for some reason, the snowblower wouldn’t engage. After a few unsuccessful tries, I surrendered and drove back to the carriage-shed stoop, where I parked under cover in the sun for further investigation, suspecting something simple. Likely some wheel or part was frozen in place after the last storm, though everything inside the snowblower casing looked free and clear.

I went inside for a quick cup of coffee and, on my way back out, right outside the door, a gray SUV was parked in the driveway. Out of the vehicle popped two Jehovah’s Witnesses I recognized. They often stop to chat on Saturday mornings. I had missed them a few weeks back, and they left some reading material curled behind the doorknob. This time they caught me, so I exchanged the normal playful pleasantries and shared with them my mission. They were more than willing to help. In fact, one of them had just dealt with a similar problem at home. He solved his problem by splashing the blades and sprocket with hot water. I knew the other man was familiar with farm equipment and could likely also be helpful. They looked over the blades and sprocket and, like me, concluded that my problem was elsewhere. I sat on the machine, fired it up, and again tried unsuccessfully to power the blades in motion, after which one of the fellas — wearing dressy, forest-green, wide-wale corduroys — dropped to a knee on the paved carriage-shed floor to look at the undercarriage belts and wheels.

“The back belts are turning fine,” he reported, head tilted up from above the floor, “but the front ones aren’t engaging. Why don’t you try stepping on the brake?”

I pushed the brake down two or three times and, yup, sure enough, a small chunk of ice dropped with a thud to the pavement. I then pulled out the power switch and the snowblower blades turned like a charm. I grinned and attributed my good fortune to divine intervention. That tickled the boys’ funny bone before they launched into one of their spiels. Aware that I’m a reader with an interest in history, they had with them a little magazine, “The Watchtower,” with a lesson about World War I. Imagine that! The First World War, me not an hour ago focused on its Second cousin. Surreal.

“It says right here that World War I changed the world forever,” one of the boys informed me, pointing. “The Bible predicted it would happen as it did in 1914. The scriptures warned that heavenly war would break out between Jesus and Satan, that Satan would be expelled and bring to earth death and destruction.”

Again, the man had hit a harmonious chord.

“You’re preaching to the choir,” I answered. “I, too, believe World War I opened a sad nightmare of American internationalism we’re now living, spawning the military-industrial complex and opening the path to our current course of perpetual imperialistic war.”

What an ideal segue to Hamsun. I laughed and informed them they had done it again: hit upon yet another salient topic fresh in my mind. Yes, just that morning I had been reading a Norwegian novelist who was punished for supporting Germany during World War II. Because of this, the man has ever since been ignored by mainstream Western educators, who view him unfavorably. But I then took it a step further, telling them Hamsun was an avowed Anglophobe, who had for many years harbored deep distrust and resentment of imperialistic Great Britain. Not only that, but Hamsun had twice visited America and was annoyed by loud, chauvinistic boasts of American exceptionalism during his days as a Midwestern immigrant Swede called Noot. Well, No. 1, he wasn’t a Swede, and secondly, the K in Knut is pronounced in his native language, so he was offended by what he perceived as ignorant, disrespectful Americanization.

I took it a step further, explaining that Hamsun’s only sin was being famous and supporting the wartime loser. I don’t believe he knew of the Nazi atrocities, and never will accept that he did.

“Do you think everyone who supports the losing side of a war is a bad person?” I rhetorically asked.

“No!” snapped the man in wide-wale corduroys with no hesitation. “Our view is that in war there are no winners.”

Hmmmm? Why oh why do these “random” visits seem to arrive at my doorstep at such opportune times? Who puts these folks right in my grill when my mind is bubbling with thoughts about a subject they bring in their bag? Do my brain waves pull them in? Who knows? They’re questions I will likely never answer; at least not in this lifetime. Yet I don’t view it as coincidence. In my mind, such occurrences happen for a reason. What reason? I cannot say. But I embrace it.

So, with that behind us, let’s fly off to another place, free as bluebirds in thin air. Time to revisit last week’s column about ancient Indian Cheapside burials. First, I must correct some misinformation I released about a burial displayed in a wooden case for many years at Old Deerfield’s Memorial Hall Museum. Then off to that new discovery from the Sugarloaf Paleo site, then outta here, the snowblower bracing for a wet, heavy snowstorm.

A neighbor told me during a Friday phone conversation about a home visit paid by a longtime female friend. She wanted to discuss the Wilder-Whipple excavations of no fewer than 13 Cheapside Indian burials discovered during construction of a trolley-track spur in October 1916 behind today’s Franklin Regional Transit Authority garage off Deerfield Street in Greenfield. A lifelong Greenfield resident in her 60s, the woman wondered aloud how it was possible to have lived her entire life in Greenfield and never heard a peep about the Cheapside burials. That’s a good question with maybe an easy answer. For some reason, despite coverage of the Greenfield discoveries in the Springfield Union, I could not find a word about the scientific Wilder-Whipple investigation in either of the Greenfield newspapers of the day: the Gazette and Courier or Recorder. Why? Who knows? Either the papers were asleep at the wheel (very doubtful, given coverage by a Pioneer Valley competitor), or town officials deemed the discoveries better hushed. Perhaps the Greenfield papers did at some point report the discovery of those graves uncovered in the fall of 1916 and spring of 1917, but I could not find a word of it reported in a timely fashion, and all the dates are clearly recorded in Harris Hawthorne Wilder’s field notes and subsequent “American Anthropologist” magazine articles.

More recent are intriguing “rumors” about similar ancient Indian burials uncovered during 1974 Franklin County Technical School construction on the other side of the Connecticut River. Hints surfaced during a May 31, 2004 thread written by “Yank” on penrick.com, a local chat board that was buzzing with chatter surrounding controversial Mackin Sand Bank Indian burials. Yank was curious why such a fuss arose at the Mackin site, considering that 30 years earlier there had been no public outcry when Indian bones and artifacts were exposed during Tech School construction. The same correspondent also alluded to similar discoveries years earlier during Turners Falls Airport construction. I scanned Recorder Tech School archives from 1969-1976 and found not a word about Indian bones or artifacts. Did I miss something? Does anyone out there have a clipping they could share? Personal recollections from the construction site? If so, I’d love to see/hear it. The public record appears to be a void.

Regarding the Memorial Hall display case containing a Pocumtuck skeleton of a boy said by a local source to have come from the area of Walt’s Bakery/The Trading Post located below the Cheapside railroad trestle, well, no one seems to know for sure where that burial came from, or when. But it appears that is was discovered way before the 1960’s, as suggested here last week. What little I could learn of that skeleton indicated that it had come to Deerfield from Amherst College’s Pratt Museum and was returned to Indian representatives in 1993 for reburial with many other bones from the Deerfield collection. It appears likely that the skeleton in question could well have come from Cheapside, where Amherst College professor Ralph Wheaton Whipple did indeed assist Wilder and take at least one of the skeletons back to Amherst with him. Enough said. It’s old news, not worth chasing, bigger fish to fry.

Finally, in closing, that little Sugarloaf Paleo-site tease I promised. Scientific analysis of some of the lithics (stone artifacts) dug from the 12,350-year-old site along the Deerfield/Whately line reveal a Pioneer Valley source, adding a new twist to site interpretation. Scholars had previously believed that Paleo people who left traces in this valley came from elsewhere and were just passing through in pursuit of migrating caribou herds. We now know that some of the chert found at the site was quarried right here in the valley, at Mt. Tom of the Holyoke Range, which establishes early valley residence by Paleoindians. That’s all I have for now; that and a pile of little-known reports on Connecticut Valley chert sources — not only on Mt. Tom, but also across the river on Mt. Holyoke and farther north on the Pocumtuck Range, each with its own distinctive color. Who knows? Maybe tools made of this stuff will start turning up elsewhere. Wouldn’t that be wild?

Please allow me the opportunity to study the reports piled up in my possession before commenting further. But this is huge, and fresh as fresh can be. Reached Friday afternoon at his North Andover home, archaeologist Mike Gramly admitted he was scrambling to rewrite his report about the site he’s now twice excavated. Yes, it seems that all tool-making stone being used here in the valley more than 10,000 years before Christ was not mined faraway, as previously believed by the scholars. No sir. There was a source right here in the valley, and people were using it.

Gotta go.

See you next week.

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