Not Devil’s Throne, Please

Ten a.m., Sunday before Thanksgiving, rays of blinding sunlight penetrating naked hardwoods from the source low in a partly cloudy southeastern sky.

I’m parked beside a strong metal gate barring the south end of a long-ago discontinued county road born as in Indian trail. There I had reluctantly agreed to meet three members of a local town historical commission and a couple from a neighboring town – three women, two men – and lead them to a hidden, Native American upland ceremonial complex I discovered more than a decade ago.

With the sun to guide me through dense forest, a compass in my pocket (just in case), and a cold southern breeze to keep us refreshed during our uphill trek of a mile or more, I was confident I could find our objects of interest – a balanced rock and ancient stone structure with a spring hole sandwiched in between. Including the circuitous path I intended to hike back to our vehicles, I’d estimate a round trip of three miles or more.

Buried high and deep in vast forest I used to hunt and explore, I found the site more than 10 years ago, when it immediately became the topic of Native Insight, a weekly local-history column I wrote for the Greenfield Recorder. Accompanying that piece were alluring photos of the balanced rock and, better still, the associated manmade stone structure even Indians had forgotten. I did not photograph the spring hole bubbling up from a ravine because I had known it for years as a watering hole and didn’t view it as remarkable.

The photos created a stir, eliciting email queries from untrained curiosity seekers and credentialed Native American scholars alike. They all wanted to learn more about the site, and were disappointed by my stubborn unwillingness to pinpoint its location, a refusal I still honor. In my mind, some places should remain secret, especially spiritual Native American sites.

Though I had known the balanced rock since stumbling in awe upon it as a teenage deer hunter, the stone structure was new and very exciting. I made my discovery soon after reading Manitou: The Sacred Landscape of New England’s Native Civilization, a classic by Byron Dix and James Mavor. I suspected I’d find something up there and my hunch immediately bore succulent fruit.

Since that day of discovery, my goal has been to preserve and protect a potential treasure trove, which is not a function of newspaper publicity unless presented through a cryptic vein. So, I have kept the location of this sacred hunter-gatherer shrine under wraps, despite yearning to find an expert I could trust to respect confidentiality while aging and analyzing it. My own layman’s belief is that the manmade feature dates back to the late 18th century at a minimum, and perhaps millennia earlier. Thus, my protective vow.

My first objective was to figure out what purpose the stone structure had served, situated on a ridgetop knoll with a panoramic view. Facing south with a slight eastern lean, it looked like a throne, framed by heavy rectangular armrest stones on two sides and backed by a remarkably intact, yet potentially tenuous, four-foot cairn steepling to the heavens.

But what was it? That was my dilemma, and back then Native American study then relatively new to me.

To find answers I searched the Internet for an email address at which I could query expert James Gage, who with his mother Mary have published a lot of material about Native American stone structures in the Northeast. I was confident he would offer insight, if not positively identify what I had found.

Gage knew precisely what he was looking at. His immediate response identified it as a Native American prayer seat in a remarkable state of preservation. He opined that it must be hidden away from beaten paths to remain in such extraordinary condition. Even its cairn was miraculously intact. His observations, coupled with the site’s location high and deep in upland forest, only intensified my internal vow to secrecy. I offered to show him the site but he politely declined, saying it was too far from his Massachusetts home on the North Shore.

Because of its south-southeast orientation, Gage thought the secluded throne may have been constructed for Native holy men performing shamanic summer-solstice-sunrise ritual. Though I accepted this interpretation at the time, and still believe it could have been a solstice seat, further research has led me to believe it may have been multi-functional in the Native American spiritual realm.

Perhaps its deep history dates back to the first Indigenous people to permanently settle our valley. Habitational customs found them changing residence among seasonal camps and villages focused on hunting/fishing/gathering and growing. Before thick forest covered our uplands, open tundra would have supported vast patches of lowbush blueberries for annual harvest and celebration. Perhaps the genesis of this site began with feasts and ceremonies celebrating bountiful berry harvests.

Then, as epochs passed and towering forests attracted upland game, the site may have become important fall hunting ground where the seat was occupied during harvest celebrations. Likewise, it could have been used during random visits by shaman seeking isolation chambers for vision quests, or male adolescents enduring spirit quests in seclusion. Yes, of course, solstice and/or equinox celebrations are possibilities as well.

The sad reality is that we will likely never know exactly what went on in this special place. I don’t believe it was built by Boy Scouts, deer hunters, picnickers or geocaching fanatics of the modern era. That just doesn’t fit.

So why, you wonder, did I recently violate my solemn pledge to secrecy by showing it in recent weeks to a group of people I didn’t know – and thus couldn’t trust – including two perfect strangers? Have I not endangered the site?

Truth be told, I did indeed get cold feet coming down the stretch, and almost pulled out at the last minute upon learning that the aforementioned couple from a neighboring town would join us. When I raised alarm, I was assured that this man and woman could be trusted as dedicated protectors of Native American sites. Time will tell. I rolled the dice. I hope I didn’t blunder.

I had previously shown the site to only three people, all of whom I knew could never find it without me. Times have changed. Most people, including some who accompanied me on our Sunday hike, carry cell phones with GPS capabilities. With that in hand, wanderers have little fear of big woods.

That said, I guess it was time to pass the torch. I’m now 70 and, limping from athletic injuries, not what I once was physically. How many more times will my battered knees carry me to that high, lonesome hardwood ridge of whispering winds? How many more times do I want to hike there?

Hopefully the torch I passed won’t ignite a destructive blast. I’d hate to be responsible for erasing another important window into our fertile valley’s Indigenous people. Even more disturbing is the potentiality that the Pagan site could become associated with Christian evils and dubbed “Devil’s Throne.”

Such a Christian name would bother even a man like me from the tumultuous Sixties, who to this day still cranks up the volume to deafening decibels and sings along with Jerry Garcia’s “a friend of the Devil is a friend of mine” chorus.

Colonial Diary Offers Clues About Scandinavian Cupboard

An impromptu weekend trip to a friend’s Lake George summer home, the fascinating mid-18th-century journal of a scholarly foreign traveler, and an interestingly carved and painted 1789 Scandinavian tabernacle or bonnet-top cupboard that had previously stirred my inquisitive juices.

That’s what’s on my plate today, and what I’ll serve in soothing soapstone warmth wafting from the dining-room woodstove to my morning parlor seat.

First, let me introduce the astute foreign traveler. He’s Swedish-born natural historian Peter Kalm (1716-1779), author of The America of 1750: Peter Kalm’s Travels in North America – a classic diary of his colonial travels through budding villages and unspoiled wildlands extending from Delaware to Quebec. Then we’ll take a look at how Kalm’s important two-volume, 776-page work provides unexpected insight into the antique Scandinavian cupboard that has captured my fancy.

Isn’t it dandy how important information can appear when least expected to a reader’s delight?

Though born in Sweden, Kalm, the son of a Finnish clergyman and Scots mother, was educated in Finland. He was, at the University of Uppsala, the student of famed naturalist Carl Linnaeus (commonly spelled “Linne”), one of many important friendships he built among pillars of Finland’s scholarly botanical community.

It was Linnaeus who sent Kalm on his professional North American mission. The assignment was to gather data on North American plants that could be economically useful to Scandinavia. Privately, Kalm also harbored a deep interest in the history of New Sweden, a short-lived upper Mid-Atlantic colony that began in 1638 along the Delaware River, vestiges of which were still obvious during his tours through Delaware, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey.

Kalm’s journal records what he saw along the way from Wilmington, Delaware, to Philadelphia and up through New Jersey to what is now New York City. From there he followed the Hudson River upstream to its headwaters above Albany, Schenectady, and Saratoga before venturing into what was then uncharted territory – a no-man’s land following Lake George to Lake Champlain and into Canada.

He describes in invaluable detail the colonial villages, the isolated farmsteads and their people, the trees, forests, and soils, the birds, snakes, and wildlife, the rivers and streams, their watercraft and fish, and what was left of the Native American people who had once called his study area home. Sadly, most Natives had by Kalm’s time fled to temporary inland refuge west of the Alleghenies.

Indian presence dramatically increased above Albany, and the learned Kalm predictably showed great interest in their lifeways. In fact, I have not read a better description, and I doubt that one exists, of an early Northeastern Native American fishing camp than the one he stumbled across and recorded on June 22, 1749. Nestled into an old, unoccupied Dutch Island located in the Hudson River’s upper reaches, it was an “old ways” sturgeon camp where men, women, and children worked together to gather and preserve fish stores for winter.

Although what Kalm witnessed occurred roughly three generations after the Connecticut Valley’s infamous, May 19, 1676, King Philip’s War massacre of a Native fishing camp at Peskeompskut Falls in Gill, the fish-gathering activity would have been similar, if not identical. It’s also quite likely that at least some of the Native people Kalm observed descended from Connecticut Valley ancestors driven to the untamed Lake George/Lake Champlain corridor after the “Falls Fight.”

Kalm described in detail the fishing camp’s temporary wooden shelters and pelt bedding, canoes and spears, and wooden drying racks with slim filets dangling in the sun. He also shared his fascination with the people – their hair and face paint, their clothing and accoutrements, their barter economy – while describing massive sturgeon often leaping four feet in the air from the shallows they occupied.

His description of the sturgeon camp and its people is an anthropological treasure. He unfortunately did not offer the same minute detail about the material culture of his own people who had settled New Sweden and were by his day under English rule.

Which circles us back to my friend’s interesting painted Scandinavian cupboard, which I believe to be the work of a skilled American joiner of New Sweden roots.

Yes, it could be Dutch or Norwegian, I suppose. But its rich earthy-green color, the carved and painted vine-and-leaf motif on the doors, and other decorative elements framing them suggest Swedish to me after viewing many Scandinavian cupboards online. Not only that but, given its high-style formality, I suspect that some expert may be able to attribute the piece to an important 18th-century Swedish-American cabinetmaker. Not a one of the many Swedish cupboards I viewed online could match its dignified presence.

My friend bought the piece about 10 years ago at the Brimfield Flea Market while in the process of furnishing her new stone vacation home, built on Lake George property owned by her New Jersey family. The May’s Field vendor told her that it was Scandinavian, and may have accompanied immigrants across the Atlantic Ocean to America.

She showed the piece to me back then and, although it greatly interested me, I didn’t take photos and, regretfully, could not delve deeper in the comforts of home. That said, I never believed it was made overseas. I knew off the top of my head that Swedes had been here by the late seventeenth century and possibly earlier. Then, upon discovering recently that they had been here for 150 years by the time it was constructed, my opinion only strengthened.

On my Lake George sojourn last month I did take photos, thoroughly examine the cupboard, and vow to learn more about its history. Also, having read another scholarly book about the construction of Fort William Henry on Lake George’s southwestern shore, I had seen Kalm’s book referenced and was determined to buy it upon returning home. Little did I know that my online purchase would kill two birds with one stone. Not only did Kalm improve my insight into colonial forests, settlements and Indians, rattlesnakes, blacksnakes, sturgeon, and you name it. His book offered a surprise addendum titled History of the Delaware Swedes.

Although he didn’t cover colonial Swedish material culture or its artisans, he taught me much about New Sweden. Then an online keyword search pulled me to the University of Pennsylvania, which seems to have an active group of New Sweden scholars, at least one of whom must specialize in the colony’s furniture and furniture-makers. If so, I may yet get an attribution for my friend’s extraordinary piece, and learn whether it was hung on a wall or the top section of a Queen Anne chest on frame with cabriole legs that long ago disappeared. Though I suspect the former, I’ll reserve judgment for now. It’s a work in progress.

I am, however, supremely confident that my friend’s cupboard is a keeper. So, too, is Kalm’s journal.

Lake George Oozes WMass Links

Midweek, early evening, front-yard burning bushes displaying a light, peaceful autumn crimson that’s brightening by the day.

My wife Joey is watching local news in the west parlor when she hears the familiar audible alert for an incoming text. It’s longtime friend Debbie, from Cohasset. Debbie wonders if we’d like to join her for the weekend in upstate New York, at her posh home on the shoreline of Lake George’s picturesque Dark Bay.

Hmmmm? Tempting.

Joey rises from her chair and walks through the wing to see what I think. I’m watching The Beat With Ari Melber in another parlor as she approaches through the dining room. She breaks the threshold and says, “Honey, Debbie just invited us to Lake George for the weekend. Would you be interested?”

“Sure. Why not?” was my kneejerk response.  “We can hit the road Friday morning.”

“OK. Let me check with her.”

The answer from Cohasset was yes. A midday Friday arrival would be perfect. Debbie planned to arrive on Thursday night. She proposed taking her boat to the south shore restaurant across the bay in Lake George Village for lunch?

Sounded good. We’d see what Friday brought.

You’d have to know the property to understand the generous offer. My arm never needs twisting for a trip to Lake George – the colonial, and before that Indigenous, inland gateway to the St. Lawrence Seaway. There kindred, starlit spirits lurk to the relaxing call of common loons accompanied by soothing percussion of short, quiet waves lapping the midnight shore.

I was psyched. The acreage where Debbie’s family compound sits was once owned by President Teddy Roosevelt’s New York City sportsmen’s club. Now situated in a privileged world folks like me can only visit, it’s a hop, skip, and jump across the water to the curling peninsula on which Red Sox owner John Henry’s palatial vacation home lies. You ought to get a look at that place. Judging from the staging assembled across the front, it’s about the get a new addition, maybe a spacious porch facing the water and mountains to the north.

The weather forecast looked great – all the makings for a glorious weekend in place. Hey, maybe we’d even find flaming foliage somewhere along the way, its peak running late after an exceptionally wet summer.

Anticipation of the trip immediately set my cranial wheels awhirl. I have rich ancestral connections dating back to the early colonial period in the upper Hudson Valley, as well as the foreboding yet stunningly beautiful Lake George-Lake Champlain corridor. I immediately dug into my library to accurately refresh my personal connections, just in case the topic came up in conversation or we visited an historic site where accurate data would come in handy.

The Connecticut Valley, and especially the Deerfield-Hatfield area, sent many soldiers, scouts, and militia to the Lakes George/Champlain theater from the final days of King Philip’s War (1675-78) right through to the War of 1812. Most intense around Lake George were the decades of the 1740s and 1750s, when the Hatfield-Deerfield Williams family not only commanded but also supplied a “Line of Forts” protecting western Massachusetts’ northern border from Northfield to North Adams. The same family connections also spilled into Stockbridge, the upper Hudson Valley, and, yes, Lake George, where Ephraim Williams, Jr. met his maker at the infamous September 8, 1755 Bloody Morning Scout ambush, a Battle of Lake George component.

That ambush site was near where we were staying, in the neighborhood of Fort William Henry, which was under construction at the time and occupied in November 1755.

The historic first English penetration up Lake George – which flows south to north – occurred following a September 19, 1677 Indian attack on Hatfield during which 21 captives were taken north to Canada. Among the hostages were the wives and children of well-known Hatfield scout Benjamin Waite (often spelled Wait) and neighbor Stephen Jennings, who became the first Englishmen to paddle the Lake George-Lake Champlain water route to Canada. Their mission was to find their way there, negotiate the release of their families, and bring them home.

When they reached Albany, after much official maneuvering, Waite and Jennings secured the assistance of a Mohawk warrior, who delivered them through deep snow to Lake George’s frigid southern shore on December 10. There the Native warrior equipped them with a canoe and sketched out the Lake George-Lake Champlain route to Canada on a piece of birchbark before bidding them adieux.

The Hatfield adventurers made it to Lake Champlain on December 16 and reached the Canadian frontier around January 6. In Quebec they negotiated the release of 17 surviving captives and were homeward bound on May 2, 1678. By May 23 they had reached Albany, where they rested while awaiting the arrival of a Hatfield escort team to help them home.

As my eighth-great-grandfather, Brave Benjamin Waite gives me English roots that grow no deeper in the Lake George/Lake Champlain corridor. In my world that’s a spiritual connection – one that pales in comparison to that of Native Americans who greeted Europeans to this continent, and even to the Frenchmen who had beat the English to these North Country Lakes by about 70 years.

Waite is one of many genealogical links that I and many other locals with early Connecticut Valley lineage share with Lake George colonials. They start with Waite and Jennings, continue with early 18th-century woodsmen and scouts like Captain Martin Kellogg, and intensify during the mid-18th century with the likes of Martin Severance, Agrippa Wells, and Moses Harvey, to name only a few.

On their heels came a new breed of pugnacious Scots-Irishmen who marched with (Robert) Rogers’ Rangers, and whose families populated inland New Hampshire and the earliest Colrain and Pelham settlements. Many soldiers from old, established Connecticut Valley families joined these Rangers and stayed with them right through to the conclusion in 1763 of the Seven Years War, which ended some 75 years of the so-called French and Indian Wars.

Today these colonial warriors, saluted for their rugged individualism, hatred of Red Coats, and healthy mistrust in government, lie in their final resting places, their graves marked by simple slate stones in our oldest burial grounds. Many of them were known soon after the Revolution for rejecting Federalism, which they saw as a breeding-ground for a new American aristocracy, and supporting Shays’ Rebellion.

I’m thankful that an evening text and trip to Lake George opened an old historical vein that loves to bleed, and brought me back to a place where my earliest North American ancestors braved the storm of colonial war. I’m also thankful that this exploration led me new, exciting information about an early Bloody Brook (South Deerfield) settler named William Anderson, who has for decades been a fascination of mine.

Anderson is said by Deerfield historian George Sheldon to have arrived on these shores as a Scottish soldier under British General James Abercrombie (1706-81), who arrived in 1757. Abercrombie’s claim to shame was his defeat as commanding officer at the siege of Fort Carillon, later Ticonderoga. There, on July 8, 1758, despite leading nearly 16,000 soldiers who greatly outnumbering the French, he suffered a humiliating defeat he would never live down, losing more than 2,000 soldiers in the process.

Anderson, a survivor, returned to Carillon a year later, this time under Lord Jeffery Amherst, who defeated the French and captured the fort. Five years later, according to Sheldon, the soldier from Dunfermline, Scotland, was settled at “the Old Anderson Place” in Bloody Brook, which may be so. Thus far, however, despite diligent searches, I have been unable to pin down the location.

Fresh genealogical information indicating that Anderson’s given surname was Jansson, not Anderson, may help me solve the vexing mystery.

Then again, maybe not.


Feinstein Lost Famous Porn Spat

The recent passing of longtime Democratic politician Diane Feinstein of California took me down a faded path that, among readers, I probably followed alone. So, why not share?

It was a meandering trail that circled through racy neighborhoods of San Francisco strippers, police raids, arrests, pornography and obscenity charges, guns, murder, luxury Mercedes sedans, Harvey Silk – and, yes, even the glory days of “Night Manager” Hunter S. Thompson, high priest of Gonzo journalism.

Imagine that: a blast from the past, stirred by the death of a stubborn 90-year-old lioness of the US Senate, who should have retired long before old age sullied her dignity and took her down. In her final days, she was reduced to a confused, pathetic sight indeed. Why would anyone with her resources hang on so long and choose such a demeaning public exit?

Addictive power sure can lead to humiliating ends, and did just that regarding this Left Coast moderate. After graduating from Stanford University, her career took a meteoric rise from the San Francisco Board of Supervisors to mayor to powerful US Senator. Then, sadly, she exited in a sad state that displayed on television as dementia.

I had heard brief personal tales of the San Francisco mayor from a friend who knew her as a customer at his jewelry business in the city’s historic district, and who had been to her home. I had also read about her pornography wars against a San Francisco strip club featured in a biographical compendium about HST published in 2017. Other than that, I only knew her as portrayed on the nightly news and daily cable-news feed.

As I absorbed the many Feinstein tributes in the days following her death, it occurred to me that one of her early springboards to fame was being totally ignored. Not one word did I read or hear about her very public, Goodie Two-Shoes crusade against the infamous O’Farrell Theatre and its controversial owners – flamboyant brothers Jim and Artie Mitchell, who made the movie Behind the Green Door, made a star of Marilyn Chambers, and eventually could fill the fingers on both hands with theaters they owned.

When I went to Wikipedia for Feinstein’s profile, I found the same void related to her altruistic and unsuccessful stand against the Mitchells. Nope, not so much as a whisper.


I suppose Feinstein preferred to ignore defeats and focus on her political victories. Who doesn’t? Still, how could her losing, decades-long battle against the flamboyant Mitchells – Army vets and pranksters with “Okie” roots – be ignored? The brothers Mitchell partied hardy, fished from their notorious boat moored in the Bay, made porn flicks, ran strip joints, spent millions in legal fees and, in the process, managed to rake in dough and soften federal laws governing porn.

By the time the dust had settled, Jim Mitchell had done time for shooting brother Artie dead with a handgun (1991, voluntary manslaughter) and died himself young (2007, age 63), but not before he had carved out a West Coast reputation as the undefeated “Rocky of the First Amendment.” As defendants in more than 200 obscenity-related court cases, not once were the Mitchell Brothers convicted.

Put that in your bong and smoke it.

Although her porn wars with the Mitchells were ignored in mainstream Feinstein obits, I knew right where to refresh my memory with a full and quite biased accounting. From my bookcase I pulled out Who Killed Hunter S. Thompson, an unvarnished Warren Hinckle III tell-all published in 2017 by flower-power San Francisco institution Last Gasp. The late Hinckle was a San Fran newsman and HST pal who had a bigger impact on shaping Gonzo style than Rolling Stone magazine founder Jann Wenner, who loves to hoard credit.

Swashbuckling Editor Hinckle was the man who put leftist Ramparts magazine on the map, publishing the San Francisco monthly during the Vietnam War/civil-rights era when Sixties musical legends like Jerry Garcia, Grace Slick, Janis Joplin, Jorma Kaukonen, David Crosby, Chris Hillman, and Peter Rowan were walking the Haight-Ashbury streets, sitting at Tenderloin bars, and performing to pulsating psychedelic crowds at Golden Gate Park and the Fillmore.

In 1970, after Ramparts fell into fatal financial distress, Hinckle took charge of short-lived Scanlan’s Monthly. There he assigned Thompson to the Kentucky Derby for his breakout article, “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved,” and Gonzo journalism was born. Better still, Hinckle paired Thompson with zany British illustrator Ralph Steadman, whose art accompanied Thompson’s unique tales all the way to the author’s abrupt end.

Like Thompson, Hinkle had no use for “objective journalism” as laid out in the doctrinaire Associated Press manual. Thus, he was the perfect editor for that inaugural Dr. Gonzo-Steadman piece, which, by the way, is republished in its entirety in Hinckle’s Thompson book. Gonzo style was ready to roll, and the Thompson-Steadman partnership for the ages was off and running.

Hinckle, who died the year before his long-delayed Thompson tribute hit the streets, was never widely recognized nationally except in counter-culture circles; however, that was not the case in “Frisco,” where he was born, raised, educated, employed, and died. The University of San Francisco alum became a household name in the progressive city built by the California gold rush and known to many as America’s Paris. Having lost an eye to a childhood archery accident, the carousing journalist was known for the apropos black pirate eye patch he sported.

When he wasn’t managing provocative left-wing magazines that mattered, Hinckle wrote books and penned popular columns for his city’s two daily newspapers – the Chronicle and Examiner. Later his byline appeared in the free San Francisco Independent, a publication similar to our own weekly Valley Advocate in its earliest days of the ’70s.

No San Francisco journalist of his day knew the city’s underbelly quite like Hinckle, a hard-drinking, old-time journalist in the Bay Area tradition of quirky Ambrose Bierce. In fact, in 1991 he even revived the Argonaut, a San Francisco political rag that for many years in the late 19th century published Bierce’s popular “Prattle” column.

Hinckle and his Bassett hound Bentley were regulars at the O’Farrell Theatre, where he enjoyed VIP status, along with HST, who served as night manager for a couple of years in the mid-1980s. Try to imagine the wild scene: Dr. Gonzo perched high above center stage on his director’s chair, training the spotlight on nude performers for a crowd that could on any given night include the likes of revolutionary activists Abbie Hoffman or Huey Newton, poets and performers like Allen Ginsberg and Marilyn Chambers, random pols from nearby City Hall, police, lawyers and a steady cast of celebrities from the rich music scene.

The O’Farrell was a destination capable of pulling in virtually anyone, from curious tourists to local luminaries and regular patrons making their daily rounds. Feinstein viewed the place as an undesirable den of depravity, a city black eye that needed to be closed. She was, however, not exactly preaching to the choir in the progressive Bay Area, where freedom of speech and thought were sacred human rights.

I didn’t choose to focus on a neglected chapter of the Feinstein story to in any way diminish her proud legacy. Like all politicians, she won some battles and lost some. Count the extended O’Farrell dustup among the latter, and it only gets richer when the Hinckle-HST dynamic jumps in. Thompson intended to write a book that never came to fruition about his night-manager days.

Although I never uttered a word in print about Hinckle’s book the first time I read it, I couldn’t resist when mired in Feinstein eulogies. I would recommend Who Killed Hunter S. Thompson to any fans of HST or Sixties/Seventies lookbacks. It opens with Hinckle’s 200-page “intro,” is followed by personal essays from 42 friends who knew Thompson best, and promises soon to be “out of print” and hard to find.


Midfield Takedown

It’s no secret that Mother Nature can be a cruel, unmerciful witch, capable of administering unimaginable pain and suffering while snickering at weepy, bleeding-heart sentimentality.

Nature lovers moored in reality accept the good with the bad, of which there is plenty to go around. The following tale about an unfortunate encounter between a maturing fawn and a big tom bobcat fits the bad like a homespun Merino sock.

The story unfolds in bucolic Waldo County, Maine, where my brother-in-law, Buzz, manages a 125-acre gentleman’s farm about a half-hour inland from Belfast. There, over the past 50 years, he has creatively manicured the old Howard dairy farm into an idyllic, off-the-grid nature preserve tailored to his self-sufficient ways. He harvests cordwood and mushrooms from his woodland, apples from his orchard, lowbush blueberries from his hillside, eggs and meat from his henhouse, and trout from his ponds.

If he still hunted, he could add salubrious wild meats to his diet, but he can do without venison, wild turkey, woodcock, partridge, and waterfowl.

A retired professor and doctor of foreign culture and language, he and his female partner, Leigh, study birds, trees, plants, wildlife and the environment with Thoreauvian passion. A legacy is in place to protect the place when he is gone.

Like the rest of New England, his Montville farm has endured an unusually wet summer that interfered with his orchard, garden, and tractor chores, not to mention the natural seasoning process of open-air cordwood piles. Though Buzz and Leigh made necessary core adjustments as best they could, their normal routine was disrupted, and the necessary modifications weren’t always ideal.

Committed to optimizing their acreage as a sustainable farm and nature refuge, they are fully aware and accepting of nature’s cruelties for wildlife that shares their land. Their isolated location only enhances one of their favorite and constant activities: bird and wildlife observation, be it through the bay window, off the seat of a tractor or doing chores in the barn, fields, orchard and woods.

They know one deer from another, how many tagalong fawns each doe has in tow, the number of antler points displayed by resident bucks, how the nesting season went for turkeys and grouse, and when the occasional moose, bear, or bobcat passes through.

With four eyes constantly scanning the terrain, assessing and sharing what they have seen, the couple doesn’t miss much. It’s a labor of love. Their life mission.

Which brings us to the big bobcat that showed up earlier this summer, a “bruiser” Buzz estimates to weigh in the neighborhood of 50 pounds. If so, it’s a whopper in bobcat world. The graceful, cautious cat showed itself “from time to time” this summer, forcing Buzz to protect his chickens – easy pickins’ for such an efficient, opportunistic predator.

Online research told Buzz that a dominant tom like the one sharing his property covers a range of 36 miles and intentionally works alternate quadrants of that sphere to avoid overhunting an area. Bobcats primarily hunt small game, such as rabbits, woodchucks, squirrels, chipmunks, mice, waterfowl, turkeys and grouse, but are known to take down small deer by ambush and stalking, most often pouncing from trees and other elevated perches.

For several weeks prior to the recent incident, Buzz and Leigh had noticed palpable unease among the deer feeding close to their house. On several occasions under the cover of darkness their curiosity was piqued by the sound of deer delivering sharp, blowing alarms that warned of looming danger.

On September 15, they were awakened at 5 a.m. by a piercing, scream-like fawn distress call accompanied by incessant blowing by its doe mother. The pathetic distress calls continued for five minutes, then stopped as the doe continued blowing and stomping about. Buzz and Leigh knew a kill had occurred. They planned to investigate the scene in the light of day, well aware that what awaited them would not be pretty.

Walking out into the field later that day to a patch of green grass surrounded by a higher hayfield, they easily found the kill site about 80 yards into the middle of the field. There, Buzz reports, “the fawn was tackled, killed, dragged to the edge of the forest, partly eaten and neatly covered by leaves and sticks – classic evidence of a bobcat caching its kill to conceal it from ravens and other scavengers.” The cat had eaten a leg and part of the back before covering his prize for future feedings.

Buzz says the conditions for a midfield kill were ideal: wet, quiet terrain, light predawn fog and mist, a concealing hill, and a favorable, soft breeze that was barely detectable. Those advantageous factors provided the cat with enough cover to creep within pouncing distance and take down the estimated 40- to 50-pound victim.

Fawns, typically born around Memorial Day, grow quickly and are more than capable of fleeing danger by September. Buzz thinks the odds were squarely against the experienced adult cat, perhaps a one-in-10 shot. Everything had to line up perfectly, and did.

The kill was quick. The cat tackled its unsuspecting prey with a jarring neck shot, using his claws and teeth to puncture the fawn’s throat in several places. The fatal wound was a gaping hole opened along the carotid artery and jugular vein that bled out the fawn quickly.

With his kill-assessment phase complete, Buzz’s nature classroom was just beginning.

Wearing rubber gloves and boots to minimize human scent when examining the scene and taking photos, he and Leigh carefully re-covered the fawn with leaves and sticks. He returned to the scene later that day and set up a trail camera, seeking confirmation that the big bobcat they’d been seeing was indeed the predator, and to examine the culprit’s feeding patterns.

Well, as that old folk song goes, the cat came back, but it didn’t even wait till the very next day. Instead, it returned a couple of hours after the camera had been deployed. As expected, it was the big tom they’d been watching, and he made quick work of devouring his prize. By Day 3, the carcass was reduced to bones – a fascinating process to watch.

Though I didn’t tell Buzz so until after the perpetrator had been positively identified, I initially held out hope that the kill had been the work of a cougar. They, too, bury their kills and return in subsequent days to eat them. Never in the world of modern-day New England cougar sightings has anyone captured such an event on film. Could this be the first? On my own brother-in-law’s farm? Nope. Too good to be true. Just a bobcat. Fascinating, nonetheless.

Buzz was particularly interested in one aspect of the feeding routine. With his hunger satisfied on the first visit to his cached fawn, the cat dragged what was left to a new location 15 feet deeper into the forest. “There,” wrote Buzz, “he covered the remains with copious amounts of leaves and sticks. Clearly, this was a time-consuming job. The ground all around the fawn was scraped clean, and all of the debris there located was piled on the remains. Indeed, this second covering was even more thorough than the first.”

On a poignant note, the fawn’s mother kept returning to feed at the kill site, perhaps hoping for a miraculous reunion with her fawn. On the day of the kill, she grazed not 50 feet from the covered fawn carcass. A sad sight indeed – one interpreted by my brother-in-law from the proper perspective.

“We love seeing deer, and especially fawns,” he wrote in an email to friends. “That said, we also like having large carnivores around and know they play an important role in keeping the deer herd in check.”

To him, it all came down to a basic balance-of-nature principle that’s as old as life itself – a tenet that some New Age “nature lovers” would rather forget. Such selective denial is not progressive thinking. It’s ignorance.

Labor Day Memory

Wednesday, September 6 wakes to damp, gray light, with lacy ground fog blanketing spongy meadows. Evocative indeed. Almost spooky.

Striding at my normal brisk pace up the first half-mile of my daily morning walk around the neighborhood, I find Green River Road still streetlamp-lit as the gap between dawn and dusk continues to narrow, daybreak delivered a wee bit later each day. My feet moving, pulse rising, I deeply inhale to open my jets.

My cranial wheels will soon be whirling to a high hum, thoughts dipping and darting like a feeding hummingbird from one topic to another as I walk familiar ground. Most often, they flow down historic streams bubbling with local perspective. I guess some would call it sense of place, which I hesitate to use these days. I’d hate for someone to label me “woke,” whatever that means. If defined as introspective, analytical, and seeking a better way, count me in.

Often, walking alone as light filters in, I imagine what this neighborhood looked like when the paved road was no more than a footpath, a cart-path, a shortcut traversing wetland meadow leading to the old Jonathan Smead saltbox. Considered the oldest house in Greenfield, the Smead homestead stood sentry on the raised eastern overlook. It was built as early as 1739, ancient for colonial settlement in the upper Meadows.

On this day, however, my holiday thoughts take an abrupt turn down Memory Lane, which I enjoy traveling. Perhaps I have been nudged there by cool hints of autumn in the air, by dabs of faint color in some trees, by emerging roadside yellows and purples, and by loose, dry maple leaves crunching underfoot in places. The message is clear. Soon my woodstove will be radiating soothing dry heat for another season ending in May.

The place where my thoughts meandered on this holiday morning was spontaneous, yet totally predictable. I leaped back 41 years to the early-morning hours of September 6, 1982. Labor Day fell on that day that year, when my first-born child and namesake son was born in Northampton. Though he left this world 13 years ago following aortal dissection and botched surgery, I think of him often, especially alone and snuggled into an inner chamber I love to occupy.

Whether quietly walking a hardwood spine where shagbark hickories and black bears roam or slogging through a thorny marsh where cock pheasants crow and partridge drum, thoughts of Gary and his late younger brother Ryan waft through my consciousness like whistling winter breezes. I always welcome such thoughts, be they in the warmth of peaceful dreams or the chill of a frosty winter hunting stand with my back to a stonewall or twin red pine.

My wife, Joey, calls such occurrences “visitations,” which I don’t challenge or try to explain. When the time is right, they just happen.

But why digress? Back to Joey’s Labor Day labor pains and Gary’s holiday birth, which couldn’t have come at a worse time for me. You see, he chose to arrive on decision day of Athol’s annual holiday softball tournament, for which I had found a sponsor and assembled a team of former hardball players who could handle about anything thrown their way.

The annual Pequoig League Labor Day Tournament was a double-elimination affair that attracted at least 24 modified-pitch teams accustomed to playing a faster brand of semi-fast softball than Franklin County offered. The leagues from Athol, Gardner, the North Shore, and Keene, New Hampshire allowed bunting and stealing, not to mention hard-throwing pitchers known in softball lingo as “slingers.” Though these pitchers couldn’t use the 360-degree, fastpitch windmill windup, they were allowed to stretch modified rules by pivoting their hand and wrist out at the apex of their backswing to above their head and snapping it at release to increase velocity and ball movement.

It was a great way to end the season for a pickup team of old Franklin County hardball players who loved the challenge of knucklers, risers, and sizzling heat that could be heard up and in.

At 29 I was the oldest positional player on our team, but not by a wide margin over some. Readers will recognize the Powertown players, such as Bobby Bourbeau, Mike Parenteau, Fran Togneri, and Ray Zukowski. The rest of the roster included my South Deerfield chums, people like Matty Murphy, Eddie Skribiski, Glenn Deskavich, and Big Richie Kellogg. Top to bottom, that lineup came to play and could handle anything thrown its way.

On that final day of the steamy three- or four-day tourney, our hand-picked skeleton crew was marching into Silver Lake Park for the winners-bracket finals against the tourney favorite, a veteran Keene team with fireballer Tim “Whitey” Lepisto on the mound. Gametime was 11:15, and a large, boisterous crowd was expected.

Because our barebones roster had no depth, there was no room for injury or emergency. How do you find a capable ballplayer willing to sacrifice his Labor Day Weekend by sitting the bench as a backup? It’s not fair.

Winners-bracket finals are always huge. The unbeaten winner moves into the driver’s seat, needing one more win for the championship. The loser falls into the losers’-bracket final, needing to win that game and then beat the winners’-bracket foe back-to-back in the championship finals.

I can’t pretend to have been unaware that my wife’s pregnancy could interfere with my availability before I submitted the tourney entry fee. But her late-August due date convinced me to roll the dice, confident everything would work out. It was wishful thinking. You’d have to have known Gary – or both of us, for that matter – to truly understand the long odds against smooth sailing.

Sure enough, the pressure-cooker started to whistle as the tourney approached with Joey more than a week overdue – not uncommon for first pregnancies, we were told. By the time the tourney opened and the pregnancy endured, all I could do was hope and pray to the hunter-gatherer gods that the birth could wait until after Labor Day.

Not to be. Go figure.

When Joey awoke with labor pains at around 4 a.m., I called a teammate to apprise him of the unfortunate situation. Hopefully, I told him, the birth would happen fast. I’d get there as soon as possible. If I didn’t make it for the first pitch, they’d have to play a man short, without a fourth outfielder, like the real game. By 4:30, less than seven hours before the scheduled first pitch, we were off to the Northampton hospital.

We went straight to the emergency room, where Joey was assessed. With fetal distress detected, an emergency C-section was ordered and the holiday scramble was on. A surgeon was found, and I attended the birth, hung around awhile, and was informed that my wife needed rest. It would be best to give her space and let her rest for several hours of post-op recovery. Music to my ears.

Before 11 a.m., I was on my way to Athol with no hope of playing.

I arrived at Silver Lake Park with Keene at bat and up by two runs, I think either 3-1 or 5-3, in the top of the seventh inning. After witnessing the final two outs from the bench with scorekeeper Brudger Bialecki, I went to the third-base coaching box for our last at-bat. I want to say the storied Lepisto was pitching. He was a hurler with many state titles and Nationals victories under his belt. (But, remember, it was four decades ago. I could be conflating one tourney with another. Does it really matter?)

Down to our final three outs, we rallied to load the bases with two outs, sending always-dangerous slugger Murphy to the plate. It was high drama before a festive holiday crowd ringing the fence-enclosed diamond. Murphy was always a tough out and, as usual, he worked the count to 3 and 2. Then, with one mighty swing of the bat, he ended the game in dramatic fashion – sending a towering, game-winning grand-slam home run over the left-center-field fence.

I can’t say for sure, but do believe we went on to win that tournament. If not, we were runner-up. Honestly, I can’t remember. Don’t forget, I was at the time hopelessly ensnared in more pressing family distractions – ones that raced down Memory Lane like a bolt of flashback lightning on that recent, crack-of-dawn, Labor Day ramble around my neighborhood.

It now seems like ancient history to me as I grow old. I have outlived my sons, and competitive local men’s softball leagues have followed the passenger pigeon’s poignant path. What remains are happy memories and fleeting, ghostly “visitations” that come and go like blustery winds. Never ignore their gentle knocks on the back door. Invite them in to savor joyous reminiscence.

Timber Rattler on Deerfield Mountain

Measuring a property’s perimeter for a new fence can be hazardous to your health.

Potential dangers include but are not limited to stepping in an unseen hole and spraining an ankle, disturbing an underground yellowjacket nest resulting in a pantlegful of angry hornets, and perhaps tripping over an old, rusty, hidden strand of barbed wire and taking a hard, injurious fall.

Then there’s the problem Whately fence contractor Dan LaValley encountered in April – one he wasn’t expecting.

Walking a measuring wheel to determine the length of the back property line for the last house on Juniper Drive in the Pine Nook section of Deerfield, the L&L Fence Company general manager’s tool hit something concealed in six-inch, unmowed spring grass and got stuck. Not an uncommon occurrence; he paid little attention, figuring he had flipped a stick that hit his measuring device.

He soon learned otherwise, discovering it was in fact not a harmless stick. He had disturbed a timber rattlesnake, stretched out near a Goshen-stone wall.

“I looked into the long grass, heard a rattle, and saw a snake curled into a strike position,” he said. “So I, of course, jumped back, then actually finished measuring.”

LaValley went to his truck to retrieve a six-foot level and his cell phone before returning to the scene and finding that the black, four- to five-foot rattler hadn’t moved far. He stood back and snapped off a few photos of it stretched out in the grass. When the snake curled into a defensive pose and rattled, LaValley snapped off a blurry shot of its head, ready to strike out in front of its coiled body, recorded a short video of it rattling, and vacated the scene.

He showed his video and photos around in the days that followed, but had erased them from his phone by the time I got wind of the incident on the Fourth of July and queried him by email soon thereafter. He was, however, able to recover two photos from his computer, and emailed them to me. One showed the beautiful, black rattler stretched out in the grass. The other displayed it coiled and ready to rumble.

“I’m not a snake guy, lol, and usually run in the other direction,” he wrote in a subsequent email. “I deleted the photos and video from my phone because I got sick of scrolling past them.”

Among the many people he showed his evidence to was an Environmental Police Officer friend who confirmed it was a rattlesnake. It was likely hunting mice, chipmunks, and red squirrels in a feeding lair near the tidy, modern stone wall about 40 feet from the house. In April it would have recently come out of a winter den populated by several other rattlers. Snakes come out of hibernation in the spring hungry and ready to feed through the forest and meadow.

So, take it to the bank that this mature snake was not a solitary traveler – there are undoubtedly others nearby. But you’d have to be very unlucky, or stupid, to get bit. Timber rattlesnakes, which run in color from black to various shades of brown, are endangered species in Massachusetts, and thus protected. They avoid conflict if possible. State law forbids people from harassing, chasing, disturbing, capturing, harming, or killing timber rattlesnakes.

As it turns out, this recent Deerfield Mountain sighting was personal vindication of sorts for me. Many years ago during this millennium, I wrote a series of Greenfield Recorder outdoor columns about rattlesnakes. Although my impetus is irrelevant, it was most likely related to a hike I took with a friend and a Mount Holyoke College geologist to the summit of Mount Nonotuck, which overlooks Northampton from the south. We were there to investigate a long-forgotten lithic chert source once mined for stone tool material by ancient Native Americans from our slice of the Connecticut Valley.

Nonotuck is the southernmost ridge of the Mount Tom Range, which curls south toward West Springfield along the western shore of the Connecticut River and is one of the state’s strongholds for venomous rattlers and copperheads. This I knew as we poked around on a high lonesome talus slope.

I was also aware, from historical research, that rattlesnakes were common “inconveniences” throughout the Connecticut Valley and most of early New England through the 19th century, and that they are associated with talus slopes.

When I wrote about rattlers in Franklin County locations like the Pocumtuck Range in Deerfield, Rocky Mountain in Greenfield, and nearby Rattlesnake Mountain in southern New Hampshire, across the river from Brattleboro, Vermont, many readers a generation older than me chimed in with personal rattlesnake recollections. One respondent, a woman, wrote of a well-known den on undeveloped land around today’s Cherry Rum Place in Greenfield. Another source identified the rocky ridge from Poet’s Seat Tower to the mouth of Fall River as a Greenfield hotspot.

My own cursory research identified the Mount Toby range in Sunderland, Montague and Leverett as a known rattlesnake lair, with North Leverett’s Rattlesnake Gutter still displayed on maps.

Given what I had heard from emailers and knew from my own travels – including a personal encounter during my land-surveying days with a nest of rattlers basking on sunny ledge along the Mass Pike in Russell or Becket – I wrote that someone who knew where to look could likely still kick up a rattler along the eastern slope of Mount Sugarloaf, or on a secluded shale bed I know in the Conway State Forest.

In response to that prediction came an email from a trail runner or hiker who often toured the Deerfield Mountain ridge trail between the Eaglebrook School ski slope and Stage Road in South Deerfield. There he claimed to have encountered a big rattler crossing the trail in front of him. Intimately familiar with that ridge trail myself, I asked him to pinpoint the sighting. He located it near a threatening “No Trespassing” sign warning violators that survivors would be prosecuted.

That’s all I needed to know. The signs were those of my childhood friend “Fast Eddie” Urkiel, a notorious game bandit widely known and aggressively pursued by game wardens till the day he died. His woodlot’s southern boundary, marked by that threatening warning, is less than a mile up the hill to the west from LaValley’s encounter.

I rest my case.

Was it not predictable that timber rattlers would ride the comeback trail to Franklin County due to reforestation and global warming? Now it’s advisable to learn where dangerous snakes lurk. It’s wise to be cautious, not terrified. We can co-exist just fine, thank you.

Fourth-Grade Photo Stirs Childhood Memories

A 60-year-old photo posted recently on Facebook by a former classmate really got my wheels spinning.

Shot on the final day of school in June 1963, the black-and-white image appeared on Deerfield Now. It showed my fourth-grade class standing on the front granite stairs leading into the two-story, brick South Deerfield Elementary School that then stood on Conway Street, which in those days was Route 116. The building long ago met the wrecking ball, clearing the way for the Deerfield police station.

Our teacher was Nancy Judd, from the family that owned Turners Falls’ Judd Wire. To us she was Miss Judd. In fact, I wouldn’t have known her first name had it not been provided by the Facebook submitter.

Miss Judd was young and innovative – a breath of invigorating air on a staff dominated by old bats. She was by far the best grammar-school teacher I had. Easy for me to say now. The rest of my grammar-school teachers are dead. Which doesn’t mean I’d hesitate to criticize most if they were still among the living. Uh-uh. In this case, it’s not necessary.

My path to Miss Judd was a stroke of dumb luck. Strictly a right-place, right-time dynamic. It happens. I was the beneficiary. If I’m not mistaken, she was a one-year wonder. She popped briefly into my young life, like a hummingbird feeding through a flowerbed, and was gone soon after school ended. She got married, became Mrs. Coughlin, and soon transitioned into an office job at her family business.

At least that’s my recollection. Don’t hold me to it. It was long ago. I wonder if she’s alive? It’s possible. She’d likely be in her mid-80s.

Although I can’t say how many of my pictured classmates survive, I know the two friends I’m standing between are gone. One received a tough cancer-recurrence diagnosis after recuperating from unrelated open-heart surgery, and chose a bullet over surgical intervention. The other drank himself into the grave, 50 years after murdering his younger brother with a serrated steak knife during a drunken scrap over the last piece of cheese available for wee-hour ham sandwiches at their parents’ home. The suicide victim and both brothers were my friends. Life takes strange turns.

That said, I can’t say my first thoughts went there upon viewing the photo.

What immediately came to mind was the summer that followed – when I accompanied my maternal grandparents on a retirement tour of the Midwest. We started by driving the New York State Thruway to Niagara Falls, then stayed with family in Illinois and Minnesota.

The trip gave me my first peek into Black urban poverty, driving through the Gary, Indiana ghetto. Then I was introduced to desolate, rural, Native American poverty on the high plains of South Dakota. There I still vividly recall tattered sheets of flimsy plastic window coverings flapping in sultry prairie breezes. Both glimpses shocked an impressionable, small-town boy from South Deerfield.

My grandfather’s sister, Delia (Keane) Berg, owned a bar and restaurant in Stockton, Illinois, joined to her son John’s downtown gun and tackle shop. Both establishments attracted a steady stream of chatty Midwestern characters. Stockton, a farm town, was an interesting place, a tasty slice of latter-day Mark Twain’s riverboat America.

John Berg, my mother’s first cousin, was then about 30. He took me fishing on the Mississippi River, brought me along to a friend’s dairy farm to reduce a nuisance pigeon population, and taught me how to catch pond snapping turtles on baited overnight droplines attached to floating plastic jugs.

The highlight of my extended Illinois stay was a Sunday dinner of baked snapping turtle prepared by Great-Aunt Delia. It was delicious and unforgettable, to this day my only snapping-turtle feast. Delia told me in her Irish brogue that snappers offered an assortment of seven different types of meat from under one shell. Though I sampled them all, don’t ask me to name them. I know three were beef, pork and chicken. Maybe lamb, too. That’s the best I can do.

Our next stop was Minnesota, the so-called “Land of 10,000 Lakes.” My mother’s older brother Bob lived in a northern Twin Cities suburb of St. Paul named New Brighton. My late uncle, a World War II vet and Georgia Tech graduate, was a well-paid electrical engineer at Honeywell. He had four children close in age to me, including a namesake son who would be killed as a teen 10 years later when his car was struck by a train near his rural Saugerties, New York, home.

Salient memories from my extended Minnesota visit included discovering tiny snapping turtles hatching from the sandy, undercut bank of a backyard “crick,” learning about developing film and making black-and-white prints in my uncle’s well-equipped cellar darkroom, and shooting trap and skeet at the local sportsmen’s club.

From there we embarked on a camping adventure through South Dakota and eastern Wyoming – what I would then have called “cowboys and Indians” territory. We visited the Black Hills, Mount Rushmore, the gold rush town of Deadwood, the Badlands, and Devils Tower, all of which left deep impressions.

I saw my first buffalos, visited the saloon where Wild Bill Hickok was killed by Jack McCall, fed wild Badlands burros, and even found an Indian artifact I still own in the small creek flowing through our campsite on the prairie-dog infested Devils Tower plain.

At Mount Rushmore, I met Benjamin Black Elk (BBE), a Sioux Native of the high plains, who joined us for a lunch of buffalo burgers and fries. His calm dignity impressed me greatly.

My grandfather, a Galway Bay native and kisser of the Blarney Stone, had the so-called Irish gift of gab. He struck up a conversation with the Oglala Lakota elder dressed e struck up a conversation \in full Native regalia, headdress and all, as he shook hands and promoted the now-classic Western movie How the West Was Won, in which he had a bit part. When an invitation to join us for lunch was accepted, I got the opportunity to meet him up close and personal.

BBE was the son of iconic holy man Black Elk, a Custer’s Last Stand witness who knew Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse and many other warriors associated with the famous 1876 Battle of the Little Big Horn. In 1932, Black Elk collaborated with poet John G. Neihardt to write Black Elk Speaks, a classic anthropological work that’s still in print and widely read. We knew nothing of it at the time.

I realize now that that glorious summer, combined with Miss Judd’s enlightening fourth-grade class that preceded it, were the high points of my uninspiring 13-year journey through Deerfield’s public schools.

It was all downhill after 1963, beginning with the hiring of a new, sadistic elementary principal named Dan McAllister, who greeted me to fifth grade with an evil snarl. McAllister was an angry, handicapped man who acted upon his frustrations by intimidating boys to tears in his office – a small, stuffy room situated off a landing halfway up the staircase. He would invite you in for disciplinary matters, and close the door behind you. His next move was a firm grip with thumb and forefinger on the back of your neck, followed by the vicious threat to smash your head through the east wall.

In today’s world the man wouldn’t last six months in a Massachusetts school. He’d be disgraced by news accounts, never again to torment helpless young schoolboys.

Two years of dealing with that man’s cruelty under puberty’s spell didn’t teach me to curl into a fetal ball of submission. No, it taught me to hate, to fight back, and to question authority. Before the calendar moved into 1964, toward the final bell of a November fifth-grade afternoon, President Kennedy was shot in Dallas, igniting the tempestuous Sixties. When I got home, Kennedy was dead, and my mother was bawling. I will never forget it.

Soon the sound of protest and the smell of tear gas were in the air as Vietnam lingered on, political assassinations continued, cities burned, Nixon was reborn, and challenging authority became cool.

Even the likes of sinister Dan McAllister, with the fearful “clump, clump, clump” of his elevated shoe hitting the wooden floor, could not stem the idealistic tide. I followed autodidactic paths to knowledge, and found a few college mentors to nudge me in the right direction.

I found a way.

Shad Run Ain’t What It Used To Be

Early June – front yard sweetened in pink weigelia, peony and mock-orange fragrance – 2023’s Connecticut River American shad run down to a trickle.

Although the announced June 8 tally of 269,720 could grow slightly by the time all fish passageways are closed, it’ll be irrelevant. The run’s over. Chalk it up as another so-so spring run, in keeping with recent trends. Although the number is about 80,000 better than last year’s, it pales in comparison to the glory years – 1983, 1984, 1991, and 1992 – when over a million shad entered the river, and to many other years with a half-million or more. Since 1976, the average run stands at 316,415.

The numbers don’t mean what they once did. Officials stopped compiling a total Connecticut River basin count in 2017. Now the tally is limited to shad passing the counting stations at the West Springfield and Holyoke dams.

From my punky perch high in the crown of an old, riverside sycamore, the Connecticut River anadromous-fisheries program seems to have taken a significant step back due to reduced funding since the cooperative, multi-faceted Atlantic Salmon Restoration Program died in 2011. Plain and simple, the cash cow was slain when the salmon-restoration plug was pulled.

With salmon now out of the mix – four thus far this year, none last year – the landscape has changed, and it’s starting to show in the fish-passage infrastructure. For years, migration past the Turners Falls dam has been under attack as ineffective. Now, the Rainbow Dam on Connecticut’s Farmington River is closed due to poor performance. So there you have it: one less outpost on a beautiful, important Connecticut River tributary. It promises to get worse in the years to come, as climate change sounds a death knell of rising river temperatures and shifting migration ranges.

I have now reported on the annual upstream migration of shad and other fish through our valley for parts of five decades. That would include American and gizzard shad, alewife and blueback herring, American eel and sea lamprey, striped bass, shortnose sturgeon, and still even an occasional wayward Atlantic salmon. My primary focus has always been gamefish. That means salmon, American shad, and, to a lesser extent over the past quarter-century, stripers. I have also watched with interest the demise of blueback-herring runs, which once far outnumbered shad and are now reduced to irrelevance.

By a wide margin, American shad are the gamefish of our annual spring migrations, and many recreational anglers take advantage of the approximately six-week-long sporting opportunity. The annual run begins in late April, when water temperatures rise into the 50s Fahrenheit, and peaks when river temps reach into the 60s. It stops when they rise into the upper 60s and low 70s, signaling spawning time. Then shad establish fixed spawning lairs and stop running.

This I have learned not only from personal observation during many enjoyable years of shad fishing, but also from countless conversations and email correspondence with experts employed by a network of state and federal agencies.

As a longtime recipient of the weekly Connecticut River anadromous-fish-migration reports issued by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, I look forward to them, and have learned to independently interpret numbers that ebb and flow relative to river flow-rates and water temperature. Once snowmelt is out to sea from the upper extremes of the Connecticut Valley in northern Vermont and New Hampshire, river temperature and volume are controlled exclusively by the weather, especially rainfall.

River temperatures rise during clear, sunny, warm weather and drop during the inevitable flooding brought by spring rains. The mix of rising river temperatures and a moderate, steady flow produces optimal shad runs. On the other hand, the runs slow dramatically when heavy rain events raise the river to turbulent flood levels and drop the water temperature.

Whether these dynamics would exist on a Connecticut River without dams is a question worth pondering, because some of the migration slowdown caused by flooding results from temporary closure of fish passageways at overburdened dams. Nonetheless, my sense is that even without dams, the flood waters would slow shad and other migrating fish, which seek refuge along the edges during turbulent events.

In a perfect world for shad runs, snowmelt and spring rains would raise the river slow and steady to a crest, then gradually recede through to the peak, after which the shallows become calm for optimal spawning. But it never quite happens that way. Instead, weather events produce erratic annual runs. Nonetheless, by early June, the run is typically over, and spawning has begun.

I vividly recall one notable exception to this formula. Relying on memory alone, I would have said my recollection occurred on Memorial Day weekend in 1984; however, thanks to a tool I wouldn’t have had back then, I Googled it and found that the flooding event actually took place on the weekend after the holiday, the worst occurring between June 1 and 4.

I was a 30-year-old (soon to be 31) Greenfield Recorder sportswriter at the time, with a weekly outdoor column running each Thursday. The Recorder was then an afternoon paper with a Saturday a.m. edition that necessitated Friday split-shifts, with a skeleton night crew responsible for production of the Saturday morning paper. My Friday-night post was the so-called “sports slot,” with a midnight deadline for production of the sports section. I’d work to a furious deadline crescendo, wait for the press to roll, take one last look at my pages, and head for the South Deerfield Polish Club for last call to wind down before hitting the hay.

That June 1, driving home to South Deerfield during the midnight hour, I had to drive a quarter-mile or more through foot-deep floodwater that spilled over onto Route 5 between the current Old Deerfield Antiques shop and the northern entry into Old Deerfield. The river crested at 15 feet above flood stage the next afternoon in Hartford, Connecticut, temporarily halting what would become the second straight shad run of more than a million.

When all was said and done and the river finally settled down, the river-basin shad count was 1.231 million, which stands today as the third-best run since numbers have been kept. The previous year produced the second-best total, 1.574 million, bettered only by 1992’s record 1.628. The only other count to top a million was 1991’s total of 1.196.

Those numbers will almost certainly never again be approached.

Back then I was then an avid shad angler, making my own lures by soldering stainless-steel willow-leaf blades to large, hollow, stainless-steel hooks. My preferred tackle for the Holyoke tailrace was an 8½-foot graphite fly rod, equipped with 6-weight sink-tip line, rigged with a creative string of leaders separated by bead-chain trolling sinkers. I had learned this deadly setup from commercial fly-tier “Indian Al” Niemiec, founder of Indian Nymphs and Flies, later politically corrected to Native American Nymphs and Flies.

Once sinker adjustments were to deliver the willow leaf at the proper level in the migration channel, the action was incredible. Many a day we left the site arm-weary, following several enjoyable hours of toe-to-toe battles with pugnacious shad.

Because that ’84 flood delayed the run for weeks, I was still catching shad hand over fist into July, working a busy channel three-quarters of the way across the Deerfield River below the mouth of the South River. I had shifted to trout-fishing on that familiar stretch of river with a precious 4-weight Tonkin-cane rod after things slowed down in Holyoke. I remember fishing dry flies and cream-colored Caddis Emergers there on my 31st birthday, June 30, when I noticed the unmistakable silver flash of small shad schools passing up the channel.

No problem. I dug into my vest for the Velcro-sealed fabric bag that held my extra spool of sink-tip line, snapped it into place, and had a blast catching shad on light tackle with a variety of colorful streamers. Though I feared breaking my delicate Thomas & Thomas Hendrickson bamboo rod, it passed the test with backbone to spare.

I returned to the scene for three days with heavier shad-fishing gear and homemade willow-leaf lures, and enjoyed continued success. Then came the Fourth of July holiday, by which time I found shad circling spawning beds in the shallows. Experience told me the season was over.

I briefly stood still to observe the spawning ritual, knowing they would no longer strike shiny objects. Then I turned tail to hike back up the steep deer run to my Jeep and call it a season – one extended a month by a flood the likes of which hadn’t been seen since the Hurricane of 1936.

It was a year to remember in Mother Nature’s classroom – my kinda place.

Turkey Talk

I enjoyed a fascinating spring turkey season and never handled a gun.

Who needs one? Not me. Not now.

After many blissful decades of roaming through marsh, meadow, and high lonesome hardwood spines hunting fur, fish, and feathers, I’m now perfectly content as an elder observer. Whether touring the road on my daily daybreak rambles circling a neighborhood where wildlife sightings are common, or hiking a wooded trail, I stay alert to the sights and sounds of nature. I look. I listen. I evaluate. No need for a deafening roar and jarring recoil finale. To me, observation and analysis, stitched in introspection, is more than enough.

Take for example the recently-concluded, four-week, spring turkey season, during which I was thoroughly entertained by a gobbler I wasn’t hunting. That’s not surprising. Wild turkeys have fascinated me since they entered the local scene some six decades ago. Though younger folks accustomed to often seeing turkeys may find it difficult to fathom, I remember a day not long ago when there were none.

Hard to imagine, huh? But true.

Around 1960, when I was a boy, the turkey situation in my world was about to change. First, New York devised a plan that reintroduced turkeys to the Hudson Valley by capturing surplus Pennsylvania birds for release there. The initiative worked to perfection and set into motion a string of events that ultimately re-established a thriving, sustainable turkey population in New England as well.

As New York’s turkey population grew and expanded, birds started crossing into southwestern Vermont, where state wildlife biologists wanted more. To meet that goal, Vermont forged a trap-and-release agreement with New York that paid immediate dividends. Then, with turkey populations rapidly spreading along our borders with New York and Vermont, birds inevitably started appearing in western Massachusetts habitat in Berkshire and northwestern Franklin counties – including border towns like Leyden, Colrain, Heath, and Rowe.

Enter bespectacled, professorial MassWildlife biologist Jim Cardoza, who in 1969 became Massachusetts’ first Turkey Project Leader. I got to know Cardoza well. We often discussed turkey-restoration on the phone or at events as he pulled the strings on his successful program, which has since the Seventies delivered us to our current status. The success story was a colorful feather in Cardoza’s fedora, opposite the one saluting his similarly successful reign as state Bear Project Leader.

By the time Cardoza retired in 2009, a state that had zero turkeys when he joined MassWildlife now had them interfering with city traffic.

When Massachusetts spring turkey hunting was reborn in the spring of 1980, precious few permits were issued by lottery, and hunting was limited to a small swath of western Massachusetts. Back then, permits were tough to get, and turkeys were hard to find. Not anymore. Now wild turkeys are everywhere, including neighborhoods like mine, where I’m never surprised when a hen scoots through the backyard.

Before becoming a turkey hunter I was a turkey-restoration chronicler. I kept readers apprised of new measures enacted under a gold-standard management scheme, including trap-and-release programs aimed at populating eastern Massachusetts counties all the way to the tip of Cape Cod’s final frontier. I also tracked and compared weekly and annual harvests along with writing many personal-interest stories for the local rag about turkey hunters. I still feel today like a beneficiary of the Cardoza team’s masterful plan, despite deciding about a decade ago to retire my camo and lock down my shotgun.

I didn’t stop hunting because the thrill was gone. Honestly, there is nothing quite like the heart-pounding process of calling an amorous tom to the gun from its daybreak roost. It’s exhilarating. Exciting. Captivating. Many times I have articulated the experience to prospective hunters, informing them that if their blood doesn’t boil to a gobbling turkey closing in fast and loud, they have no pulse.

Yet for me, the kill was never the greatest satisfaction, and it got old. Why kill such a beautiful creature? My wife won’t eat wild fish, fowl, or game, and I ain’t hungry.

Nonetheless, I still enjoy observing turkeys and studying their seasonal patterns. I love to hear the coffee-shop chatter about a dozen longbeards in one winter flock; or mixed flocks exceeding 60 in number feeding through the deer woods; or big, dominant, springtime toms strutting their stuff for the ladies in someone’s backyard. It’s nature. It’s magical. I never tire of watching, listening, and learning.

Which brings us to a neighborhood boss gobbler that captured my fancy this spring – a garrulous tom that brightened the first leg of my daily daybreak romp around the neighborhood. That bird sounded off at the same time every day, rain or shine, warm or cold, windy or calm. He was boisterous in sounding off from various, overnight, sidehill roosts overlooking his fertile meadow and wetland mix.

The commotion began a good two weeks before the season opened on April 24 and continued non-stop through the final week. Like clockwork, he’d deliver his first muffled gobble soon after my sneakers hit the pavement, then many more before I got out of earshot.

He was consistent, for sure, but his distant calls were tough to pinpoint from the road. Too far. I could have easily solved that problem by cutting the distance in half with a pre-dawn walkthrough the meadow. Then I could have marked him, set up in a strategic spot, and called him to me if that was my goal. It wasn’t. I was content just listening – an art that ripens with age.

I had been listening to that bird’s throaty daybreak gobbles for more than a week when a neighbor called to chat. Toward the end of our rambling conversation, he reported a sighting the previous evening of a gobbler for the ages, beard dangling to the ground, all puffed up and fanned out for a backyard harem of nine hens.

I told him I wasn’t surprised. I had been listening to that bird every morning for more than a week. I knew he was a good one, not to mention an easy target if I wanted to take him. He was, in my humble opinion, ripe for the picking.

His rambunctious gobbling continued right through the final week of the season, when it started to diminish. The mating season was winding down as hens tended nestsful of eggs. Finally, not a peep on the final day or since. Poor devil. With his favorite activity in the rearview, his harem was unavailable. Oh well. That’s life, Big Boy.

To this day, I have not laid eyes on that gobbler, but he taught me something. The lesson learned was that unfavorable weather doesn’t shut down dominant toms’ gobbling. Experience had told me that there was more noise from the roost on clear than cloudy mornings, especially following prolonged spring rain that tended in my experience to shut them down.

I always felt most confident as a hunter on the first clear morning following rain, figuring the toms would gobble their fool heads off to greet clear skies offering optimal range.

Now I know that’s not true – at least not for the boss gobbler I monitored this spring. It surprised me to hear him gobble a couple of times the morning I got caught in a sudden downpour that drenched me to the bone. Even on that stormy morning, with big, heavy, saturating drops pouring down, he was determined to establish his presence.

It surprised me. During my hunting days, I had low expectations in rainy weather. In fact, I recall many silent mornings in wet woods – even when I was doing everything in my power to initiate a gobble with a variety of owl hoots, crow calls, and plaintive hen yelps and clucks. Even desperate fly-down cackles couldn’t get a response.

Back then, my rule of thumb was to stay home in rainy weather and be there on the first clear morning when lustful gobbles would fill the air with or without my inducements. Given what I witnessed this spring, I’d tweak my strategy a tad if I was still hunting. Wet weather would not present discouragement. I now understand that, when hunting a king of the mountain like the bird I encountered this spring, he’ll gobble in a hurricane.

It took me a long time to figure that out. Too long. Stern old schoolmarm Sentience finally set me straight.

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