As the Beaver Moon builds in the midnight sky, I’ve been stuck on the ancient beaver myth, my meandering thoughts briefly disrupted by backyard leave-removal chores and a fresh cordwood load dumped out back Wednesday morning by Blue Sky, a good man who left a tidy mound in front of the sliding woodshed door. I do hope to get it in promptly and return to pheasant hunting.
Lily and Chubby, eager and capable gun dogs, have been displaying that familiar, palpable, pouting melancholia they wear when anxious and frustrated on idle pheasant-season days. They’ve grown accustomed to hunting daily, if only for an hour or two, and are quite disappointed when dry-docked. Me too. But I had to button down a few chores, including this one, just in case that predicted winter storm does add an interesting twist to Sunday’s Pats-Broncos tussle, not to mention my considerable yard work.
My refocus on the Mt. Sugarloaf beaver myth of ancient indigenous origin began last week during a spontaneous, post-hunt visit with a late friend’s wife and daughters. I had never before met the ladies, who reside and raise horses and goats on a picturesque knoll with as good a view as exists of the petrified beaver bludgeoned by Hobomock to rid the terrain of a threatening beast causing death and destruction in and around proglacial Lake Hitchock some 15,000 years ago. As the legend goes, Hobomock — a giant transformer of the ancient Eastern Algonquian spirit world, believed by some early historians to have been evil — killed this pesky beast by issuing one well-placed blow to the neck with a massive tree trunk, which sank the dead pest’s belly to the murky depths. When the lake drained to become what is today our Connecticut Valley, the beaver reappeared on the landscape as the distinctive Sugarloaf/Pocumtuck range: Mt. Sugarloaf the head, North Sugarloaf the shoulders and torso, and the long Pocumtuck ridge the tail. The deep notch between the two Sugarloafs, where I often explored as a boy, is the site of the fatal blow.
Which brings me to the riddle I’ve been tossing around during lively introspection since visiting with the three friendly ladies on that clear sunny day, to me too warm for brush-busting in heavy oil-cloth bibs. As we stood chatting, looking out at an eastern horizon dominated by the abrupt termination of Sugarloaf, I initiated beaver-myth discussion and the ladies knew the tale. I shared my personal conception of the beaver, an image formed over many years of observation from many western promontories on both sides of their property — yes, the same one described above with the long Pocumtuck Ridge as the tail. There have however been other interpretations published over the past 150 years, some identifying the beaver’s tail as the lower ridge between Eaglebrook School and the Deerfield River bank across from Cheapside. Still others extend the beaver’s tail all the way to Fall River, which enters the Connecticut just below the ancient falls first known as Peskeompskut, now hidden behind Turners Falls Dam. But if you’ve lived here all your life and patrolled the western hills, the lower slopes of which would have formed Lake Hitchcock shoreline, the head-body-tail profile is clearly defined. Placing the tail between Eaglebrook and Cheapside, gives the beaver an extra body component. The ladies agreed. Two of them descendants of Whately’s first master builder, the other the wife of a descendant, they knew the same beaver I did, and you couldn’t find a more defining view than theirs, which before the lake drained would have appeared to human eyes as two small islands and one long one, with Woolman Hill likely underwater.
Remember, as far as I can decipher, the beaver myth was first published in the mid to late 19th century by historians from deep-rooted Deerfield families, writers who obviously had learned of it as a fanciful local legend told around toasty winter fireplaces. The people who first learned of the indigenous myth were a rare breed indeed, that is people who could communicate with the contact-period Connecticut River Valley tribes. But really, how precise was their understanding, how accurate was their retelling, and wouldn’t the tale have become far less reliable after generations of oral tradition delivered through a Western Christian lens?
A similar oral-history conundrum involves a legend that circulated in Whately lore at least through the 19th century, beginning in the Parker family from which I descend. Sixth-great-granduncle Abraham Parker built the first home below Sugarloaf in the Canterbury section of then North Hatfield in 1749, migrating from Fort No. 4 in Charlestown, N.H., by way of Groton. Parker — who would have had a lot of exposure to Indians in a lifetime cut short by winter drowning in the Connecticut River below Sugarloaf (March 1757) — was probably the Caucasian originator of the witch tale that his family recited for many generations. He likely heard it from marauding Indians living in seclusion nearby and/or passing through his spread on sacred ground within the old Whately Oxbow. What became Hopewell Swamp is still today good hunting terrain that has been in continuous use by hunters for more than 12,000 years. I’ve told the tale before, but to refresh your memory, alongside a one-room schoolhouse that no longer exists somewhere near Chang Farm was an earthen depression said to have been left by a witch who leaped from Sugarloaf and disfigured the giant oak limb upon which she landed before hopping to the ground and disappearing into the spooky hole that could never be filled. Indians had witches, too, but they typically appeared as animals, for instance a bear or cougar or wolf. My guess is that the witch tale was born at that site long before colonists arrived, and the witch was probably over time Anglicized from animal to human by Christian interlopers who swindled Indians for the land.
Today, bears and maybe even cougars and wolves are back, the Indians have vanished, and old legends sprout new growth, some inaccurate if not malignant. Not only that, but a smaller beaver species is back wreaking havoc in the uplands and lowlands alike.
There’s more, much, much more. I’m currently assembling information for a spring Whately Oxbow program I agreed to present for the Whately and Hatfield historical societies. A complex subject, I hope I can meet the challenge.
To do so, I must remain open-minded and keep digging.