Blind Faith

He was out for an afternoon walk on a sunny fall Friday, I on my way home from hunting, a fun day behind two seasoned gun dogs through thick thorny cover.

I pulled over, stopped, slid down my passenger’s window and said hello, he having just crossed to the south side of a bridge. I have known the man for many years and share many of his Whately roots, but don’t ask me how the conversation began because I don’t recall. Eventually, though, I pulled down from over my visor a computer printout of Alvan Fisher’s 1821 oil painting of Mt. Sugarloaf to show him. I could see he was having difficulty deciphering the image and, to my astonishment, a few minutes into the conversation, he sheepishly inquired, “Please tell me who I’m talking to? I can’t see. The doctors say I’m legally blind, and I can’t recognize you. I was watching TV and seeing fine around noontime one day, then the next minute I could see nothing.”

When I identified myself, the conversation took on a warmer glow. At our core, we are Whately brothers separated by time and what some would call progress. To me, well, modern technology is not always a good thing. What you gain in time and convenience with all the new contraptions and gadgets, you lose tenfold in your knowledge and wisdom of the place you call home. I guess that’s what draws me to that thick swamp I was hunting, a bottomland tangle once owned, trod and worked by my ancestors. And I suppose that’s why, according to my aging octogenarian friend, “You’re about the only one who still consistently hunts that mess. Another hunter was telling me the other day that the state ought to do something about it.”

I sure hope not. Because if they transform that so-called “mess” into something similar to the popular Greenfield covert known as the Filter Beds by poisoning rosebush, scalping cover and maintaining brush-hogged lanes for hunters to walk, it’ll then be to me just another boring covert. Give me deep, wet and thorny any day, because I prefer a robust physical challenge, and so do my springers.

Honestly, I value every second spent speaking to elders like this man I met by chance that day, a wise, rooted native who farmed and hunted the land — a humble man who loves his place and enjoys imparting wisdom if you hit the right chord, which I often do.

Out of the clear blue sky, he changed the subject.

“Do you still hunt deer?” he asked.

I paused.

“Well, I guess so. My dilemma is this damn knee brace I’m wearing. It can get pretty ripe after daily walks and strenuous hunting seasons, and I feel at a disadvantage hunting prey guided through life by a superior nose.”

“Aaaghhhh,” he grunted in his soft, reserved Yankee way, “do you believe that? I never had problems hunting deer without all those new soaps and scents they’re selling. I’d just milk the cows, throw on my barn coat and head out. Never had much of a problem.”

So there. Call it Yankee logic or whatever you choose. Whatever it is, it ain’t far from the truth, and it’s coming from a man who’s killed scores of deer. All these scentless deodorants and scent-neutralizing body soaps and sprays and detergents are money-making gimmicks aimed at consumers, and hunters are buying the pitch, even cynics like myself. Not only that, but writers are field-testing free samples and singing high praise. Sometimes you need a wise old man to set you straight, and I must admit I got a helpful dose of reality on that fine Friday afternoon.

Our conversation moved from the lowland swamps and pastures to family matters, the land and the uplands up by the Whately Glen and beyond. I would venture a guess that no one knows the rocks, rills and ridges between North Street, Whately and Roaring Brook Road, Conway better than this sage gent. But remember, that terrain is in my blood and soul, too. We talked about the old Sanderson mills on the first rise, the size and depth of the pond there. When I told him Forbes Library once displayed a long-lost, late-19th-century painting of the site, he oozed how he’d love to see it, has never seen a picture.

“Do you know what kind of mill it was?” he asked.

“No, I’m not certain,” I responded, “but I think it was the sawmill, and the gristmill was across the road.”

“They say a drunken man drown in that pond,” he said, recounting a tale I would not for a second doubt. “I guess he was passing too close, tipped his carriage over and drown. At least that’s the story I was told.”

By then, the stately, colonial, center-chimney home on that first bluff looking east toward Sugarloaf was the home of my uncles, aunts and cousins. One of my prized possessions is a six-drawer wedding chest from the Glen, wearing on its back the hand-written names of all the brides who owned it. But my branch of the family left the site with the 1824 death of Deacon Thomas Sanderson, father of Alvan, the Ashfield minister and Williams College man who founded Sanderson Academy.

Mention of that tall chest spurred our conversation to the Whately Glen forest and landmarks within.

“The first bride’s name on that chest is Mehitable Wing,” I told my friend. “From Conway, I always wondered how she met husband Silas Sanderson. But then when I explored Conway’s first cellar hole, that of Cyrus Rice, I was able to put it together. Right there in the same neighborhood were two Wing farms, one of which was Mehitable’s home.”

“I betcha one of those cellar holes is on our property,” my friend said. “I could show it to you if you want. I don’t know how we acquired the land. My grandfather believed woodlots would always hold value.”

The man invited me to visit some day when I have time and he’ll take me to the site, plus show me some interesting stone bounds marking the Conway/Whately line. Also, he’d like to show me the bound where Conway, Whately and Deerfield meet, the stone marked with a C, a W and a D, and chiseled marks left every seven years during mandated town-border walks.

I’ll surely take him up on his offer to glean every ounce of wisdom he wants to share. Imagine that: being led by a blind man to ancient sites buried in the forest. The man’s eyesight may be failing, but his vision in that place is acute, way better than 20-20.

He knows the way.


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