Weird: that’s how I’d characterize what’s been happening in my travels since we last met. Then, at other times, same-old, same-old, nothing at all peculiar. Oh well. That’s life.

The weirdness started on my ride home from work through The Meadows before midnight a week ago. In a field where I often see deer, yup, you guessed it, a set of shining eyes I suspected to be those of a deer and were indeed — a doe, ears at 45-degree upright alert, head high, lying in a shin-high hayfield. Honestly, I cannot remember ever seeing a perfectly healthy deer lying in a field on the side of the road like that, just chilling. I swung my lights partially in its direction to check for antlers but it had none, just lying there alone and quite comfortable, though alert to my approach. Its countenance suggested that it was just fine, but I did check the spot next morning to see if it was dead or dying, which was not the case. It had vanished.

What happened next is even more bizarre, playing itself out a few days later in the backyard alcove created by my north-pointing woodshed and barn, joined on the south by the carriage shed’s back wall. It was Sunday morning when my wife first alerted me that she was hearing some strange gnawing or pounding at the house outside the west bathroom. She wasn’t sure but thought maybe a squirrel or raccoon was in the upper unfinished shed area above the carriage sheds and extending over the long, narrow west parlor, historically the third stall of the carriage shed, housing an overstuffed tool shed and workshop I’ve only seen in photos. Before the carriage shed and scale house were built to attach the home to the barn, there would have been an exterior staircase along the west wall of the wing, leading up into the ballroom’s fiddler’s box from the north. Anyway, enough of the history lesson, back to the noise that was concerning my wife.

Around noontime Sunday, I went in to pour a fresh cup of coffee following my daily meadow romp with the dogs and heard something banging away like a machine gun out back. I walked to the counter, looked through a corner French window and spotted a downy woodpecker hammering away at a white vertical corner board to which he had already done significant damage. Quick Google research identified the deep new additions to the board as roosting holes. Hmmmmm? The question was, why? No woodpecker had ever before done damage like that to a home I’ve lived in. Why then?

Well, further Internet investigation by my wife led to conversation that pulled the answer from my memory banks. She said such woodpecker behavior often occurs when a bird has lost a mate and drums on a building to call it back or attract a new mate. When she mentioned that, I recalled a day or two earlier finding a dead downy woodpecker on the ground under a set of four long, slender windows that act as a picture window looking out toward the backyard brook through the west parlor’s north wall. Many birds have hit that window over the years, including a pair of ruffed grouse I once wrote about salvaging for supper many years ago. Others birds have hit one of those windows as I’ve sat there reading or watching TV. Some survive, others don’t. Luck of the draw, I guess. That downy woodpecker was dead as a doornail. I picked it up by the feet and underhanded it into a large pine tree along my neighbor’s driveway. So that’s what my destructive feathered guest must have been searching for; either that or a suitable replacement. Thankfully, it seems to have given up on my yard and moved on. I kept chasing it away and haven’t seen it since Tuesday afternoon. Thank god. Before departing, the little critter was kind enough to leave me some deep-hole destruction by which to remember him.

Which reminds me … an hour or two after discovering that destructive little bugger banging away out back Sunday, and several times chasing it off, I was reading in my La-Z-Boy in the everyday front parlor when someone started knocking on the door leading from the inset porch into the dining room. I arose, looked out, and saw a man I didn’t recognize with a gray goatee. His name was Peter Tusinski. He had seen my truck in the yard and stopped to report a cougar sighting up close and personal a couple weeks ago on lower West Leyden Road in his hometown of Leyden. He isn’t the only person in Leyden who’s seen the mountain lion. He claims members of the Neipp family have also seen it.

Tusinski placed his hand about thigh high to describe the height of the cat, which he described as smaller than he’d expect but very muscular and powerful looking. He estimated it to have had a three or four foot body and a tail about the same length or a little longer. When the beast stepped out in front of his car, he stopped and they looked each other in the eye for several seconds before the cat went back into the woods he came from.

I have no reason to doubt the man’s sighting. It was withing 10 feet of him. And it’s not the first sighting reported to me from that vicinity. In fact, I’d call that part of Franklin County a hot spot, with many sightings reported on both sides of 10-Mile Bridge, which crosses the Green River from Leyden to Colrain below old Denison’s Mill. It’s wild country on the north end of a daunting gorge known to the earliest Colrain settlers as the Falltown Gore, which you could only travel through, not across.

Off I go, leg-weary and satisfied. Chubby and Lily burned me out this morning in a dense, thorny, punishing covert we all know well — always challenging and worth the effort.


Sweet 16

I returned from my daily walk with the dogs Tuesday morning, taunting firewood load piled on the lawn in front of the backyard woodshed, and was greeted by a long, narrow, triangular package leaning upright against the iron vice attached to the carriage-shed work bench by the side door. I knew what it was: a one-piece Tico Tool 12- and 16-guage shotgun cleaning rod I had ordered online. Nice! The final piece of the puzzle with upland bird-hunting season opening Saturday. No. Check that. One chore lingers. I still must buy an online hunting license in the comforts of home, where now a man can even check in some kills, as demonstrated during the record September bear season.

In the meantime, I must admit how ecstatic I am to have my old French Jean Breuil side-by-side, stamped with St. Etienne proofs, back in action. Early last season, with the dogs making game during a balmy hunt, I was in a hurry to get through a familiar hedgerow and tripped over a buried barbed-wire fence I have negotiated hundreds of times without disaster. Not that time. No, likely leg-weary from a day of brush-busting, I caught my left toe on the hidden wire I knew was there and went down face first. I broke the fall with bent elbows to hold my weapon up and out of black marshy soil, but the awkward landing created enough of a jolt to break the stock, which was requiring constant tightening. I heard it snap and knew I would be forced to retire my favorite shotgun, with two new cases of 16-guage shells on a shelf at home. Not like I had no options, with a newer, 12-guage Browning Citori over-and-under that gets the job done just fine ready to go in the gun safe. I just prefer hunting with the lighter, more stylish side-by-side that has been very good to me despite imperfections.

To be honest, I had written that gun off, was ready to store it away, maybe someday hang it on the wall for posterity. That was before I mentioned it to South Deerfield friend Bud Driver, who wanted to see it during a visit. He inspected it, smiled and was certain he had just the man to fix it. “Let me take it with me,” he begged. “My man’ll take care of it, no problem.” He wasn’t lying. In less than a month, I was at the Westhampton gunsmith’s shop to retrieve it and hand over 60 bucks for his services, the best 60 bucks I ever spent.

The invisible interior issue causing the instability which had forced me for some time to tighten a screw just about every time out was a broken screw that the gunsmith discovered upon removing the stock. He tooled a new screw in his machine shop, cleaned the interior wood, applied epoxy, wrapped the interior stock tight with fiberglass tape and sent me home with a sporting gun that’s in better shape than when I found it leaning against a Kittery Trading Post rack some 20 years ago. I remember being surprised at the time to find such a nice European side-by-side, and even searched out a store clerk to investigate. His answer didn’t surprise me. It hadn’t been there long. He’d put it out about an hour earlier. Right place, right time.

The 82-year-old Westhampton gunsmith descends from and carries the surname of famous West Springfield Shays’ Rebellion supporters. He trained as a teen at Smith & Wesson and stayed many years before going out on his own. These days, he makes historic replica guns for re-enactors of colonial 17th- and 18th- century wars. Not only that but he’s a collector of weapons from that early period of American history and recently sold a 17th-century cutlass purchased many years ago from a West Deerfield family that had found it somewhere near its Lower Road home. Historic Deerfield bought the sword recently after bringing in experts to authenticate what historians believe may have been lost during the French and Indian retreat from Deerfield following the famous 1704 attack.

What really piqued my interest was Driver’s speculation that it could have been the weapon of famed Hatfield frontiersman and Indian fighter “Brave Benjamin” Waite, veteran of the Falls Fight and rescuer of faraway English captives held for ransom in Canada. Waite, my eighth-great-grandfather, died in the Meadow Fight, unwisely pursuing the raiders as they fled the 1704 attack through Old Deerfield’s North Meadows. Though it will never be proven that the sword was indeed Waite’s, it could have been, and even if it wasn’t, they had probably been in the same neighborhood a few times. I would expect that Historic Deerfield will soon send out a press release about its recent acquisition, which has been in its possession a month or two.

Back briefly to my Jean Breuil double-barrel. Driver called me promptly after delivering it for repair and was quite enthused. He said the gunsmith raved about the weapon, called it a work of art made before World War II, which I knew. Then, when I later met the man at his shop, he repeated his effusive praise and showed me all the important barrel marks that told him this and that about the quality of the steel and the fact that it had been “nitro tested,” whatever that means.

“If it was mine, I’d probably retire it and hang it on a wall somewhere,” he said. “It’s a beautiful shotgun made for hunting small game.”

I don’t know what the man who owned the gun before me hunted with it, but I can say he took care of it, with thin, well-done repairs to the stock spliced in where it meets the receiver. I’ve put a ding or two in the outer barrels myself, and can’t say the interior barrels were ever perfect since I’ve owned it. But I can say that, despite shooting 2½-inch shells, it brings down pheasants, grouse and woodcock, even when you think you’re squeezing off a hopeless long shot or one obscured by dense branches. It’s choked improved/modified, and that back trigger has surprised me many times, something I don’t expect to change anytime soon. It’ll be a great gun to train my grandsons on, a slender antique with style, a gun that’s been loved, cared for and used, and will likely be used for many more years to come.

It is by no means a museum piece, just a fine old field gun that comes up quick and fits like it was made for me.


Hunters Moon

The equinox has passed and the Hunter’s Moon is big and bright. The time’s right to write about the new bear-harvest record.

But, no, even though I probably should begin with that tidbit, it happened in September and the press release arrived last week at deadline so, in my world, it’s old news by now. It appeared in my inbox late last Wednesday afternoon, my column nearly finished. I had run out of time, and there it has lingered, red-flagged for a week. My take is that most who care have by now heard or read of the first Bay State harvest exceeding 200 in this the world of texts and tweets and other forms of shallow electronic news that flashes, sparkles and sizzles but is weak on substance, detail and insight. Thus, I’ll start with something else and work my way back to a bear harvest that will only grow come November, when the less-popular, final three-week segment of the split season commences.

Let’s start with a few random thoughts and occurrences that have crossed my mind or path here and there, starting with a vision that keeps reappearing on my daily walks around the upper lip of Sunken Meadow, where the cornfield I wrote about last week is gone. Yes, it vanished overnight last week, leaving behind uncut stalks that escaped the chopper and now lie flat on the ground, still offering sumptuous surplus ears for the dogs to hunt and eagerly devour. Before I reach that field, after busting through a thin, thorny patch of woods between the two upper fields, for some strange reason I find myself looking at the western and northern horizons and imagining what it must have looked like 14,000 years ago, when the field I walk was underwater, the bank of pro-glacial Lake Hitchcock less than a mile west. I look at the western ridges, ravines and notches, and a distinctive, abrupt Leyden mount to the north and wonder what those features symbolized to the folks who worshipped sacred landscapes that kept them alive. Then I look east, down into Sunken Meadow on my right, a Green River floodplain, and visualize water in a swollen ancient river that was much wider and deeper than today’s, protruding off of it bulbous oxbows and bogs rich in foodstuffs. I don’t know why my mind goes there, but it does, often in fact, perhaps because I’ve read so much about it and understand what little is really known about those prehistoric times and their mysterious people. Oh, how my rambling imagination can wander off when I let the wheels spin free and easy.

Then there was the morning, Sunday or Monday, down in sheltered, peaceful Sunken Meadow, walking the final southern leg of my daily trek with the dogs, just past the spot where Chubby chased a doe and her little lamb right into my lap a month or so ago, more memorable sounds and sights. Having just passed a small cattail patch that juts out, I heard what sounded like someone in the swamp trying to fire up a chain saw or lawn mower. When I looked to investigate the sound, I was surprised to see an airborne blue heron flying toward the Green River, Chubby racing underneath in full chase mode. Interesting. In all my days, I had never heard that sound from a heron, likely the same bird I’ve been watching all summer, most often hunting a wet roadside hay field west of Colrain Road in frozen, statuesque silence.

The last time my grandsons were in town (they’re back this weekend), I pointed out the bird standing straight in the hayfield to 5-year-old Arie, who was curious indeed about a weird, unfamiliar prehistoric-looking creature. I told him that it was likely hunting frogs, snakes, mice, grasshoppers or all of the above, that it used its long, pointed beak as a spear and was given long legs to stand in shallow water and fish. Then I threw a little seed of wisdom at him, one I do hope will, with a little nurturing, germinate, sprout, climb to the heavens and bear succulent fruit. I explained that the bird’s was a good spear used for survival, unlike the spears used by armies to steal property and exploit resources. I don’t think he “got it,” but trust he will in time, after exposure to other teaching moments that pop up in our travels like friendly apparitions to help instill ethics and virtue. Then again, there will be those, maybe even uncles or cousins or school teachers or coaches, who differ with my interpretations and worldview. Yes, there will be those who tell the boy that the spears I view as immoral are justified because they make our lives better and obtain valuable natural resources for the good of our glorious republic. Praise the almighty Red, White and Blue. And while you’re at it, count me, and hopefully the ones I love, out of Mammon’s creed.


I’d hate to stir that hornet’s nest I so enjoy jostling. The discussion reminds me of an old saying that seems to ring truer and truer as the corporate-news and messaging machines fine-tune their deceptions. It goes something like this: A lie can race around the world before the truth puts on its shoes. Maybe Mark Twain said it. Not sure. Does it matter? Fact is that it was true then, and is even truer now.

Now, quickly, back to that record bear harvest before I bump the electric fence at the bottom of the page. Preliminary numbers reveal a record 202 black bears were harvested by licensed hunters in central and western Massachusetts during the Sept. 2 through Sept. 20 season. The tally included 186 animals reported online (either by home Internet users or by staff at physical check stations), six registered in at check stations in the Western District, and 10 checked at Connecticut Valley Wildlife District stations. The previous record was 185, set in 2012 during September and November. Despite the new record, it’s at least 100 shy of the annual number needed to stabilize our burgeoning bear population. The problem is scanty hunting pressure, which even eternal optimists don’t predict to increase in the future. Sad but true, with hunting just another of many dying old-fashioned American traditions.

With that, I’m off — this welcome weekly chore again in the rearview, Hunter’s Moon big, bright and casting a devilish midnight hue.


Feeding, Reading

Raw and rainy, ripe for a soggy Wednesday walk, the backdrop bursting with flashy splashes of new fall color each day as drab, premature yellow maple leaves with dirty brown stains fall like feathers to the turf, never to attain their flame-orange splendor. I trust enough leaves will stay aloft to paint the sugarbush radiant orange and add brilliance to sunny landscapes.

Oh, how the dogs love rainy-day rambles, especially when I’m toting a shotgun, which ain’t far away, only a couple of weeks, in fact. Maybe I ought to purchase an online license. Can’t forget. I always used to buy a sporting license around New Year’s. Not anymore. Now I wait for fall to buy just a hunting license, which I may or may not use for deer. My deer-hunting dilemma surrounds the knee brace I must wear to trek the hardwood ridges. Four straps on the light brace made of a space-age alloy line up my worn, tattered, deformed joint to limit swelling and resulting pain. The problem is that the contraption carries body odor from daily use, a no-no when hunting alert animals sniffing the wind at all times. That said, wearing that brace the last time I went to my favorite stand two days before my older son’s death four years ago, twin bucks surprised me by trotting into the wind through noisy dry leaves right into my lap before I had time to shift my position and gun in their direction. There I sat, defeated and helpless, with two handsome antlered twins standing straight and alert nearly within spitting distance. So, true, stranger things have happened than deer presenting themselves to man wearing a sweat-soaked brace. But I like my chances better when scent-free or close to it, impossible wearing that brace necessitated by years of abuse sustained by stubbornly ignoring medical advice favoring conservative left-knee use. Hey, I was only given one left knee and plan to use it limber or lame, pain or no pain till my last day. Sorry.

Enough! What pulled me back to that memorable moment from my deer-hunting past, anyway? There are other things I want to touch upon before calling it a day — stuff like the Meadows moose, which has been spotted once that I know of by a man down the road from me; a deer-foraging shift that’s been quite obvious; and, hey, maybe a little bit about what I’m reading, the most recent of which appeared in my mailbox Tuesday and connected right into a couple of fresh reads vilifying Henry Ford, that poster boy of American industrialism, champion of capitalistic greed, friend of fascism, foe of organized labor and workers’ rights.

Regarding deer, well, they’re into acorns big time these days, leaving tell-tale crumbs everywhere along my crunchy path through waist-high, mellow-yellow timothy, its seed heads aching to explode onto fertile soil between a cornfield and thin woods lining an escarpment lip overlooking Green River floodplain. Yes, the deer have it good these days in the Greenfield Meadows flatlands, where last week I even found that a large moose print accompanying willy-nilly tracks of deer feeding under tall, broad oaks. In addition to the acorns underfoot, the four to six deer feeding there have sumptuous red and white clover, nutritious rye, and from the best I can tell, are devouring a little corn as well.

My first hint that the corn was ripe and ready came from Chubby, my 3-year-old male springer spaniel who began chomping down small ears last week. This week, I investigated further and found that something, presumably deer, was flattening single cornstalks to supplement their diet with an ear of corn here and there. When I discussed this development with a colleague and friend I call “Big Boiczyk” — whose family runs an adjacent produce farm and who will soon surrender his freedom to the holy institution of marriage — he suspected “coydogs,” not deer, an assessment I’m not sure I agree with. The “coydog” damage he described in his sweet corn did not match what I’m seeing in the thin silage cornfield I daily tour. He said coyotes rip down cornstalks and pull them out into the open to eat the cobs. The corn damage I’ve seen that Chubby has taken advantage of displays single rooted stalks lying flat in the field, not uprooted or lugged out of it. It looks like deer damage to me, perhaps coon, though minor, if not insignificant. When I catch Chub-Chub lying down to salvage a leftover cob, I tell him to “Give,” which he does, waiting patiently for me to husk and give it back. He likes that. Lily does, too. But I only take what raiders have left behind. It’s funny. Years back in that same agricultural strip, my dogs were pilfering cantaloupes. They’d roam the weedy field, pick a ripe, fragrant melon from its vine, run out into the hayfield carrying it high, lie down and eat and the whole damn thing, no waste. When I sheepishly apologized to the farmer one day in passing, he told me not to worry, he was too busy to pick them. In a week or two, he cleaned up what was left and everyone was happy.

Before I run out of space and depart, a quick reading recommendation for those of you still undecided about the controversial natural-gas pipeline they’re trying to run through our forests and across our rivers and streams, not to mention straight through Clarkdale Fruit Farm. Pick up the newest Rolling Stone magazine that arrived at my home Tuesday, comic Brit newsman John Oliver on the cover. In it you’ll find a long exposé about the infamous, diabolical, gazillionaire Koch brothers. Because of local connections I won’t mention, I must be careful what I say about the Kochs, but they have owned as many gas and oil pipelines as anyone, and you really ought to read about their negligent maintenance practices aimed at maximizing profit. Is Kinder Morgan any different? Who knows? But do we really want to find out? These folks are cut from the same greedy cloth as old Henry Ford — air, water, croplands and citizen-health be damned.

Could it be simple, random coincidence after more than a week of reading about Ford’s greed, and being just 20 pages from finishing Upton Sinclair’s “The Flivver King,” that into my mailbox was delivered this provocative Koch Brothers piece? No! I don’t believe it, have stopped accepting such developments as coincidence. I think this stuff happens for a reason.

If you hunt truth with an open mind, it can find you in many ways, yet there’s never enough, especially for the fools who arrogantly dismiss it with a smug weak-knee jerk.


Nut Job

The Harvest Moon has passed, wild asters smile and Henry Ford was a fascist. If you don’t believe it, look it up. It’s true.

I don’t know where that came from but must admit I’m under the gun. Off to a late start. Where does the time go?

I do have an excuse. Got tangled in titillating conversation with an overnight guest. Old friend. Retired, high-ranking military officer who must have inhaled old-tavern truth serum. Yes indeed, a spellbinding chat we had over morning coffee — stunning, in fact. Quite surprising were the views expressed. Not what you’d expect from a good Eagle Scout. But don’t forget that this proud soldier got a saturating whiff of humid Southeast Asian death and destruction way back when. So it’s all about combat perspective, I guess. Truthfully, I could spin off into pages of reflection from that intriguing three-hour conversation, but won’t. Not now anyway. Maybe I’ll return to the topic if space permits. We’ll see.

Let’s start with the easy stuff, like quick mention that the fall-trout-stocking trucks are rolling, then a quick recounting of an exhilarating Saturday hike through the highland hardwoods in the neighborhood of old Uncle Abel Dinsmore, another military man who, after serving with distinction and valor in two colonial wars, eventually saw the light and questioned his own infant government, ultimately taking up arms against it and receiving a home visit from Sam Adams himself, the American Revolution’s real father, way before drones and satellites and mechanical honey-bee surveillance devices made to eavesdrop and record conversation in private homes. My Saturday mission was a hard-mast hunt, assessment of available acorns and whatever other nuts I could find walking secluded rocky spines that bring me as close to heaven as I’ll likely ever get on two legs. What I found is what I expected, based on bottomland observation: a good crop of acorns, some hickories and, for some reason above my pay scale, not a freakin’ beechnut anywhere, at least not under the smooth silver-barks I examined.

What a difference a year makes. A year ago along virtually the same route — twice — there was some moose sign but not a hint of deer or bears, no sight or sound of a squirrel. This time, with nuts available, the deer and bears were back, along with moose roaming up from the swamps, all foragers crunching acorns and leaving behind tell-tale crumbs. The question is: what will be left by the time the shotgun deer season arrives? I have been witness to similar Septembers when the hunting prospects are promising indeed, then the deer vanish with the acorns by December, when they’re forced to find other food sources to carry them into winter. Unless the acorn crop is overwhelming, which I have also seen, it can be wiped out in a couple of months by deer, bear, moose, squirrels, turkeys and whatever else devours them as a rich protein source.

As for apples, well, although I didn’t go out of my way, what I saw from the road in small stands differed little from the lowland scene — scanty fruit in trees or on the ground, yet no apparent shortage of grapes and berries. It would appear to me from casual observation that bowhunters who like to hunt wild orchards should change strategy. Then again, as we all know, some hunters seem to always “find” apples in their trusted orchards, but we won’t go there in a family newspaper. It’s naughty stuff.

Speaking of taboo, why not traipse briefly back to the overnight visit from that old friend and Vietnam vet, some of which I can tie into an interesting Monday wildlife-related sighting followed by what I personally viewed as annoying intrusion into my otherwise peaceful Greenfield Meadows neighborhood later the same day.

The sighting was that of a big, deep, solitary moose track discovered along the edge of a cornfield littered with acorns, until recently, ignored for weeks by deer. I have seen a moose in that very field in recent years and figure if I spent a little more time searching, I could have found a few more hoof prints. Why bother? I can’t imagine that moose stuck around the Meadows long after the helicopter invasion we all endured midday Monday. When I first heard the choppers stuttering overhead, I tried to ignore them. They pass through annually this time of year looking for marijuana, and had been in the neighborhood once previously this year that I knew of. But this time they hung around for some time, were loud and disruptive, circling, hovering, making a racket. I thought perhaps they had found those three Afghani officers who went missing from Cape Cod. But I minded my own business and never left my reading chair, figuring I could inquire about the maneuver at work with a farmer colleague who lives down the road.

Although I couldn’t get much from my trusty source that night, the chatter really started to fly freely the next morning, when the neighborhood was abuzz. Word had it that it had been quite a paramilitary operation, with loud choppers, tinted-window SUVs and police swarming to recover four lousy pot plants from some poor soul’s backyard garden near GCC. The prevailing attitude was: “What a waste of taxpayers’ money.” When I called my wife to deliver the neighborhood scuttlebutt, she had witnessed the commotion Monday and figured there must have been a bad accident somewhere. So the fellas had a loud presence, one that apparently didn’t set right with private citizens trying to relax in the comfort of home.

Well, lo and behold, a chopper returned to my neighborhood Wednesday during the parlor discussion with my Vietnam-vet friend, and anyone familiar with Vietnam vets is probably aware that the sound of choppers can trigger bad reactions that can spin a man back into places you don’t want to go with him. Grounded, this vet didn’t get sucked back to the Mekong Delta, Khe Sahn or Da Nang. No, the sound just stirred conversation about America, politics, law enforcement, surveillance, you name it. The opinions uttered from this insider were shocking, unexpected and, to be honest, comforting to a man of my ilk. I do wish I could go into it, because the average Joe needs to know and likely will never catch a faint whiff. The people pulling the strings behind the scenes are clever indeed, deceptive spinmeisters skilled at creating demons and slogans, instilling fear and delivering messages aimed at obscuring reality. It’s a diabolical con game.

Ooops! Better skedaddle. Back to the fascist-Ford book, which is nothing new to me.


Animal Instinct

A strange, busy week it’s been, spiced by interesting visits, some physical, others mental, maybe even a tad esoteric.

We’ll begin with a light little deer caper anyone can get their head around — an unusual encounter that, due to its rarity, will not be soon forgotten — then see if there’s room for anything else. My wildlife encounter occurred on a splendid Monday morning, one of two such bright, crisp fall-like days bookending a gray Tuesday, the day of a visit by the man who’s been pursuing me for some time. Persistent, we finally connected for a couple of hours, he frustratingly attempting to push me into places I wouldn’t venture before — hail patience, perseverance and a dash of luck, not to mention dogged determination — he finally brought me to a place I agreed to go. Though circuitous, I think we arrived where he wanted to go, that is with me reciting a reading he may splice into a musical CD he’s recording with a theme of activism and protest. Whew! Was I happy to get that behind me. And here I sit in this familiar Wednesday station, trying to say what I have to say in one narrow column on one tidy newspaper page, seldom easy.

Monday morning, sunny, cool, the tall clock’s minute hand ticking toward 10:30 as I secure a brace to my balky left knee. I’ve been reading published correspondence (“Distant Neighbors”) between poet/writers and counterculture spokesmen Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder as my dogs await backyard breakfast followed by a daily meadow romp. The selected literary correspondence between these two brilliant American thinkers who view the world through different lenses with much common ground is gripping, at times even tingling, thus my La-Z-Boy “procrastination” by the sunny window, much to Lily and Chubby’s dismay. They’re eager to eat and tour enticing acreage without restraint. Well, I guess it’s always there if needed, but I’m a freedom and liberty man, not the law and order type.

When we finally arrive at upper hayfields, a dense mix of clover and timothy the dogs enjoy exploring, they run in ecstasy, searching for places where deer have eaten and left behind shiny black pellets that for some reason they eat and, when so inclined, roll in with carnal glee. Why they seek deer scat for dessert I’ll never know, but in my mind, they wouldn’t eat it if there was no nutritional value. Call it my faith in animal instinct and Mother Nature. I guess no one has ever instilled in the dogs the idea that scat is gross and filthy and disgusting. All they have is their nose and instinct, which pulls their heads to the turf. Who am I to question this?

We reach the back corner of a one-acre parcel known to the Nims family as Hideaway and the dogs are all jacked up by scent passing through thick, verdant clover bedding between Christmas trees. As we approach the thorny path through a slim treeline between meadows, Chubby, on a mission from Satan, disappears into the wooded escarpment lip overlooking a narrow swamp bordering Sunken Meadow. I never worry about Chubby, or Lily for that matter, running off, so I just let him do his thing as I walk my trodden trail. But this day, when I get through to the other field and can’t hear him rustling through the swamp below, I give a whistle — no sign — buzz his collar — not a glimpse — and whistle again before, last resort, sending a low-level shock, which soon brings him back winded from an aggressive chase.

“Hmmmm?” I ponder. “Turkeys?”

We continue on, reach a gate, walk the gradient into Sunken Meadow and, on a whim, I choose the opposite direction we typically walk around the perimeter, just a spontaneous little change of pace. We pass the barren riverside apple tree and follow the swamp toward a beaver pond when Chub-Chub breaks through the brush into the mucky tangles, a typical move to which I pay no attention until I get some 100 yards away and realize there’s no sign of him. I call, figuring he’s near, then whistle, then call again in a louder voice, but still no Chubby. Thinking, “Uh-oh, maybe he’s picked up where he left off on that previous chase,” I buzz him — no sign — whistle without results and give him another electric tickle that soon produces a flash of white headed my way. I first think it’s Chubby but am surprised to see a fawn hightailing to a collision course with me. The little creature runs up to within 20 feet of me and 10 feet of Lily, standing with a friendly wag, and the little deer stops, stares briefly and flees. I hear something approaching, glance right, and here comes the mom, bright white flag bobbing, Chubby in playful pursuit, giving that pathetic yip I often hear when his mom goes inside their dog house and won’t let him in. He wanted to play, would have undoubtedly licked that deer affectionately had she permitted.

The small doe finally turns and takes a playful run at Chubby, who circles playfully away as the deer switches direction and takes three or four bounds right at Lily and me. She freezes and looks me in the face, probably looking for her fawn, but seemingly without fear of us, displaying the countenance of a pet approaching for affection. I speak to her in a soothing voice, saying, “It’s OK, Baby, we won’t hurt you.” She flexes her ears forward, cocks her head this way and that, as though trying to understand my words, before Chubby arrives and she flees down the trail left by her little skipper.

What a sight to behold, a moment in nature that sticks with you. Those deer and others that live there know me, my truck, my dogs, my voice and whistle, and typically skirt us year around without incident. This day was different. We must have caught them out feeding late in the clover and Chubby just couldn’t resist chasing hot scent. I was the beneficiary.

Ooops! That’s it. No time to delve deeper into Berry/Snyder or the musician’s home visit. But let me leave you with this poignant exchange from Wednesday morning:

Stirring in bed and ready to rise as my wife passed on her way to an early medical appointment, she stopped briefly to say, “Honey, can you imagine that four years ago today we were at the auction.”

That’s code for the night 28-year-old son Gary was stricken with an aortic dissection that required surgery he did not survive. More recently, just this past April, younger brother Rynie suffered the same fate, dying a day before his 29th birthday. So, yes, it’s been a difficult time for us, last week’s column hitting the street on the first anniversary of Rynie’s surgery.

“That happened on Sept. 17?” I responded, speaking of Gary’s dissection. What I really wanted to say was, “Please, Joey, give it up. Danger lurks when you look in the rearview and take your eyes off the road ahead.” I believe that and try to live it.

But that’s enough. Back to Berry and Snyder, a Heartland Christian and a San Francisco Buddhist in heady discussions, me soaking it up in the comforts of a brown La-Z-Boy by a bright, sunny window that locks me into the present, hoping for better days ahead.


Guinea Gulch Is Calling

An interesting crosstown trip to the feed store after my morning walk, a behemoth faraway bear, many familiar people, my ears buzzing with swarms of feedback about this and that, all of it pertaining to recent topics aired out right here in this space. Why not a little ramble?

No, no, no! Fear not. I’ll keep to the out of doors, sort of, which is about as confined as I prefer to be, no razor-wire fences, no foreboding “Keep Out!” warnings, please.

So let’s begin with a playful little apology to the place that shows up in my checkbook as the acronym GFCE, which means Greenfield Farmers Cooperative Exchange. That’s where I buy my pet food and anything else I need that’s sold by the local store run by local families. Why? Well, because, given a choice, I always support local economy and stay away from corporate big-box establishments. Just me, I suppose, and not the least bit ashamed to admit my local bias. I’m from here. My soul evolved here. Plus, I happen to know folks who own stock in the place, good people I’m happy to support. I can’t pretend to have similar loyalty to the Walton boys from the Sunny South, no matter how much cheaper they sell stuff.

Anyway, I went to this popular local establishment on a whim one morning this week to buy food and cedar bedding for the dogs, which I had just walked on a cool, pleasant day, plenty cool enough for them to safely remain in their crates a little longer than usual as I shopped. When I walked up to the counter, female employees I didn’t think knew me from Adam recognized me and started right in with, “Hey, you caused quite a commotion around here. You wouldn’t believe the number of people who asked us what you feed your dogs.”

The ladies, smirking, were referring to something written here recently about the earthy-crunchy, corn-, glucose- and filler-free dry food I had been feeding my pets with extraordinary results at the recommendation of a helpful employee named Jeff.

“Sorry,” I grinned, “but I didn’t name the product because I didn’t want to be accused of promoting brand names.”

They understood.

When I turned to leave, standing right there to my left was Ernie Kelley from Conway. I hadn’t seen the man in years, had coached his son, Loren, in youth baseball and basketball. Then my brother coached the kid at Frontier. Those youth-coaching days are to me distant memories by now, but that didn’t stop us from having an enjoyable chat that moved from the counter to the parking lot to the warehouse storage racks. As we moved from one subject to the next out on the pavement, Frank Karas, an old South Deerfield friend, passed accompanied by his daughter and new grandson. I didn’t have a chance to talk to them but would have liked to, his daughter home briefly from England.

But enough of that, and, no, I still won’t name the pet foods I feed my dogs and cat. I can, however, tell you there are many products out there that fit the earthy-crunchy profile I speak of, and pet owners who desire peak performance and health in their four-legged friends should give them a try. Trust me, you’ll see the difference.

As for the big bear, well, email photos of it came to me from longtime South Deerfield reader Patricia Potter, who has intermittently chimed in on this and that over the years. This time, presumably because she knew Bay State bear season was underway, she sent shots of a massive brown grizzly bear recently killed in self-defense by Alberta, Canada, hunters who, quite by accident, lured it in with an elk call. If you trust the story accompanying the photos taken from many angles, the beast that was well known to local ranchers — it had killed three horses, five cows and a penful of chickens at the very least — walked to within 10 yards of the caller before his alert partner spotted and killed it with five rapid-fire shots from his .338 Winchester Magnum rifle. The big bruin stood 11¾ feet tall on its hind legs and weighed 1,300 pounds. Just for fun, I forwarded the photos to a couple of bear-hunting buddies, warning that they had better hope nothing like that ever came their way in the woods.

Another subject that drew higher-than-expected feedback was last week’s hard- and soft-mast assessment based on what I’ve been seeing daily on my bottomland meadow romps. The chatter emanated from the uplands, where reliable sources say the apple crop is no better than what I’m seeing lining agricultural plots. “I’ve seen it with my own eyes just a couple of miles above you,” said one trusted old pal on the phone. Then another source from the neighborhood of the historic Uncle Abel Dinsmore House in Conway wrote to say the apple crop there is sparse because of a late frost that froze tender spring blossoms.

When I responded to my Conway source, an Amherst native, with a tease that it wouldn’t be difficult to lure me into exploring Guinea Gulch, a forested marsh near him which I suspect to be a place of “high spirit” on the ancient Native American landscape, he begged off, saying he’s headed for China and unavailable. In the next breath, he suggested I look up an old trapper I’ve known most of my life. He couldn’t have suggested a better man. I bet he had no clue I knew him. Not only that, but I can say without hesitation that there is no one on earth with whom I would rather probe that deep, dense, verdant upland bog and aquifer than the man he recommended. Once an artistic stone mason, now a clever handyman working toward a state pension, my late son Ryan often ran into him and considered him “cool.”

Which reminds me of how much I’m missing Rynie. Like older brother Gary, who died three years before him, he’s gone, not a thing I can do about it. What I can, and pledge to both late sons I will do is continue placing one inquisitive foot in front of the other while following my life path, the forward pull growing stronger by the day, the week, the month. Who knows where it’ll lead? Who cares?

Somehow I get the idea my next stop will be into Guinea Gulch, that hidden sanctuary few choose to roam — wet, wild and saturated with meaning and significance in this hollow, tweeting, texting, twerking land that’s lost its way and seems destined for destruction.

This trip I won’t be looking for deer or bears or moose or grouse. No, I’ll be hunting native whispers I can’t decipher but can follow. Sometimes whispers like that can lead you where you want to go.



Don’t let this hot summer weather deceive you. Fall is slipping in. I have felt it for a while now, seen it in the swamps, the sumacs.

Just this week I spotted a nice, full, bitter but tasty triangular bunch of blue wild grapes, and the sight and scent immediately transported me back some 30 years to an old Williamsburg haunt that was, before the Audubon Society took over, my favorite partridge covert, also a productive spot to hunt turkeys and deer. I knew the old codgers who owned the farm, shared many Connecticut Valley genes with them and actually helped the old hunchback with chores when I caught him out in the act. Brothers in their 80s, they qualified as what used to be called hayseeds, yes they were, and I guess they “didn’t want none of them damn McMansions” built on their old scenic pastures. So today, despite the constant presence of coyotes, bobcats, fisher cats, hawks, eagles, owls and many other natural pests and predators that call it home and wreak havoc on singy-songy birds, you can’t even walk your freakin’ dogs through the mostly wooded 535-acre parcel. Yes sir, times change — and not always for the better. In fact, I’m not even sure the “protected” birds have it better.

But let’s not get wanderin’ off. It’s time to return to those wild deep-blue grapes, about the size of buckshot pellets, not the only harbingers of fall I’ve been passing daily. How about the tiny black cherries that have started to accumulate underfoot? Smaller than the grapes and probably a shade darker, they started showing up this week and there seems to be no shortage. The same cannot be said for apples, though. No, judging from the trees I pass on my daily rambles, plus the one in my front yard, in all five or six mature trees, my opinion is that apples aren’t nearly as plentiful as last year. Under trees where my dogs daily ate to their heart’s content for weeks last year, in recent days they’re lucky to find one apple during furious, competitive searches to be the first to a random green one. Yeah, I know, perhaps deer or bears or something else is beating them to the site overnight, but I don’t think so; more like apples are few and far between. We’ll see what develops in the highlands. I’d guess it’s similar, but you never know. Maybe just one of those “spotty” years.

As for hard mast, well, that appears to be a different story. Acorns have been scattered for weeks along my path, and now, this week, sporadic hickory nuts have begun appearing alongside. I would from casual observation rate the nut crop thus far as “available,” with visible butternuts still clinging to their branches. Perhaps beechnuts are clinging, too, though I can’t see them; however, I can say I have yet to see one on the ground. My guess is that those thorny beechnut husks will soon start falling. Maybe the first indication of their presence will be a flinching or limping reaction of a dog that’s stepped squarely on one in the tall grass down by the Christmas trees. So, there you have it — my bottomland assessment of the hard and soft mast crop from the fertile Greenfield Meadows.

As for the uplands, which I have visited less but prefer, I have nothing current to report because I haven’t hiked the ridges in a month or more. I’ll get up there soon, though, trust me, because I’m always looking for a good excuse to venture off to the high and mighty hardwood spines shading massive outcroppings of ledge and random stones, close to heaven in my world.

But enough mast assessments, let’s catch up on a few things I’ve let linger. First, don’t be alarmed by the sound of rifle-fire in the woods near you. The first three-week segment of bear season opened Tuesday and will continue through Sept. 20. The second three-week segment opens on Nov. 3 and closes Nov. 22, a dreadful day in American history. The 2014 harvest will depend on hunting pressure, which is never as dense as state wildlife officials would like to see it. As a result, our bear population keeps growing and spilling into places too near suburbia, which can over time become an issue to the men and women hired to manage wildlife. Unless something’s changed, the experts would like to see 12 percent of the population killed annually by hunters, who have never approached that goal. Thus the burgeoning population. The problem is that bear hunters have become a rare breed, just a sliver of the ever-diminishing statewide hunter pool; that and the fact that harvesting a bear is work with a capital W, especially after the animal is dead and the successful hunter must get right to the strenuous butchering chores unless there’s a walk-in cooler available, which few have access to. Without the luxury of a cool place to hang the carcass for “seasoning,” a bear must be skinned and butchered quickly to avoid spoilage of meat in summer temperatures. And that doesn’t even address the job of dragging a large, heavy carcass out of the woods in summer weather, also no picnic when dragging dead-weight on the end of a rope.

Speaking of large, potentially dangerous beasts of the forest, we had a July 16 “downtown” Conway cougar sighting by Nancy Bovio, who lives on Elm Street. Alerted by her Scottie dog’s indoor barking, Ms. Bovio looked outside expecting the deer that had been regular visitors and was surprised to see a big tawny cat with a long tail. So confident was she of her sighting that she posted it prominently in the Aug. 14 edition of “The Visitor,” a community newsletter published by a local church, asking others to be on the lookout: “Crossing our yard near the woods was what I believe was a mountain lion,” she wrote. “It was too large for a bobcat and had a long tail. It was tan, sleek, about 6 ft. long and 3 ft. tail.”

Hmmmm? Imagine that! These local cougar sightings just keep on coming. Yes siree. Just keep on comin’. And with that, off I go … back to fascinating local history I’ve been researching but hesitate to bore you with.


Old & Eager

The swamps are sporting their royal, invasive purple, yellows are lining the edges, rose of Sharon’s in bloom, mud-splattered acorns are scattered underfoot, my favorite sweet-16 side-by-side is in the shop for repairs and — ah! — life is good. Yet, still, I find myself pondering the mortality of Lily, a dynamo gundog whose age hit double digits on my 35th wedding anniversary in April.

Of aristocratic springer spaniel pedigree, Lily is looking frisky these days, free-wheeling, a bounce in her step, fully recovered from a disastrous final litter more than three years ago. Yeah, it’s true that litter produced kennel-mate Chubby along with a bitch now enjoying pastoral splendor in the morning shadow of Catamount, but how can I forget the bad news; the two stillborns and expensive surgery to, in one fell swoop, spay Lily and retrieve the fifth pup stuck in her womb. Oh, I remember it well. Like yesterday in fact. No profits from that litter. Uh-uh. Chalk it up as an expense.

Later that fall, during the final week of pheasant season and just days before the death of my older son, another costly setback was brought on by a beaver-bog puncture wound to Lily’s ribcage that festered into an abscess requiring additional surgery and post-operative care. Yes sir, someone up there sure did put ole Lily-Butt through the ringer that year. I vividly recall longtime vet friend Doc Schmitt informing me with his wry trademark grin that she was a “tough bitch.” It was an astute observation. Yes, he hit the nail square on the head. And now the old gal is running strong, probably stronger than she should be, given what she’s endured.

I pray I’m not jinxing her, am well aware that once a dog hits 10, things can unravel fast. I watched it happen to Ringo — Lily’s kennel-mate, friend, lover and protector — not long after wondering aloud in print how many good years he had left, then marveling at his determination and stamina in the field at age 12. The way he ran through heavy cover all day long that year gave me unfounded hope that he had at least a year left, maybe two, as a productive gundog with no quit. Then, out of nowhere, like a flash of lightning in a black sky, the old fella took gravely ill, deteriorated rapidly and pathetically before my eyes, and was gone. Just like that, a week after witnessing him blowing through fresh, deep snow off an old Indian trail through the Williamsburg/Conway woods, he went into rapid decline and had to be put out of his misery.

As for ole Lily-Butt, who knows? She seems to be a survivor, a bundle of swamp-inspired fury.

“Why do you call her Lily-Butt, Grampy?” asked younger grandson Arie, now 5, long ago, and that’s been a common question from youngsters over the years. I guess the nickname is catchy among kids.

“Well,” I respond to the query, “I can’t say for sure when or why I added the Butt, but it was probably because of the way she furiously wiggles her hind quarters when pursuing fresh scent. Plus, Lily-Butt just rolls off the tongue, and she responds to it with loyal affection.”

It’s funny. The last kid who questioned the nickname a few weeks back in my backyard brook was 3-year-old Saben from Cambridge. When he returned home from a long weekend in New York City, his mother wondered why he was calling one of their dogs Lily-Butt. I got a charge out of that one. Good thing she’s not the type that washes a kid’s mouth out with soap. No, not at all. Quite the contrary.

But why digress, back to Lily’s current geriatric enthusiasm. I truly believe I can credit her youthful vigor to a man named Jeff at the Greenfield Agway store. A reader and fellow springer owner from Leyden, the man recognized me at the till a few years ago when Chubby was a young pup and asked my why I fed my dogs a well-known high-end brand I was purchasing. When I told him I believed it to be a superior product and had had good luck with it over the years, he said, “Let me show you something,” and proceeded to introduce me a lesser-known food that was less advertised, thus cheaper, yet better for my dogs. Grain-, gluten- and filler-free, I tried it, the dogs loved it, the food agreed with them and over time I noticed a difference in their overall health and zip.

I have now switched over to a similar cat food and have noticed a big difference in overall appearance and health in her, too. Though I must admit to being previously clueless to such healthy pet foods, and have since discovered that my old preferred brand even offers the same type of food (more expensive), I have stuck with my Agway source’s recommendations ever since. When the first brand he showed me was bought out by another company, then sold again, he showed me the new labels and others like it, which I have faithfully purchased.

I would recommend this type of pet food to anyone who desires peak health and performance from working pets. And while you’re at it, maybe you ought to investigate what you yourself are eating off big-box market shelves. I did, started making smarter choices and have reaped the benefits, dropping weight and even reducing irritation to my chronic left knee simply by adjusting to a less contaminated diet some would call “earthy-crunchy.”

That’s OK. Call it what you wish. I’m sold on it for my pets and me.


Nuts & Bolts

Photographer friend Erik Hoffner, whose eclectic interests intersect mine in several areas related to nature, worldview and politics, chimed in from the wilds of Ashfield this week speculating that, judging from what he’s seen thus far around home, there’s a bumper-crop of acorns this year.

Although I haven’t toured my favorite high ridges, where freeborn spirits whisper in primitive tongues I cannot understand near geological wonders of our little world, I tend to agree with my friend. On the bottomland terrain I daily tour with my dogs, not only acorns but butternuts as well seem to be plentiful. So now I guess I have impetus to soon find a partner who wants to take a hike to a special place with me, maybe tote a camera up to the balanced rock and beyond, where the distant hardwood ridges are chock full of oak, hickory and beech groves to ramble and conduct a hard-mast assessment along the way. Maybe I’ll even try to find that rare, large, high-altitude, seven-trunked shagbark hickory tree I found a few years back and neglected to snap a photo. It’s not far above an expansive hickory grove to the south, the largest of its type that I know of, where many years ago I sent a bear hunter I barely knew through a mutual pal. I showed him the spot and, go figure, on his first day in the woods, the man from somewhere in the eastern half of the state came away happy indeed, driving home with a handsome 285-pound afternoon bruin shot through the chest with a Winchester .308 while leaning his back against one of many massive outcroppings of ledge complementing the soft, passive-gray, shaggy-barked woods on a gentle, sun-splashed southern slope within earshot of rural dirt-road traffic. I imagine a hunter’s chances would be far better in that spot today, with the bear population likely three times or more what it was back then, in the 1980s.

That’s about all I have on bears, which will in a couple of weeks be fair game to hunters during the annual three-week September season that always begins the day after Labor Day. The hard mast may lure the beasts into the deep woods this year instead of lurking around silage cornfields, but the agricultural enticements are always worth investigating because food is easy for the taking there, and farmers rarely deny hunters who help eliminate pests that create crop damage and harvesting issues.

Better late than never dept.: Some fresh news to mix with old from the catfish-derby circuit, which seems to have cooled since the Channel Cat himself, old buddy Donald Partyka of Chicopee, passed on to the happy hunting grounds likely known to men of his ilk as Cautantowwit-ski’s House in the land of the setting sun.

So, let’s start with the old news first, that of the 34th annual Holyoke Post 351 derby Partyka founded, promoted with all his affable energy for decades, and proudly boasted of it as the granddaddy of all catfish derbies. This year’s edition was held in July and winner Geoffrey Croteau of Chicopee came in with quite a fish that tipped the scales at 14 pounds, 6 ounces before being released back into the Connecticut River to swim another day. Runner-up Nick Yelle of Gardner came in with a 13-pounder, followed by third-place finisher John James, who, from parts unknown, also caught a 13-pounder weighed after Yelle’s.

Fresher is the news that arrived on my desk this week, courtesy of Greenfield’s Gary Hallowell, who along with his brother founded and ran last weekend’s fifth-annual “Last-Cast Catfish Derby.” Like Partyka’s granddaddy of them all, the local derby is held “anywhere on the Connecitcut River and its tributaries.” This competition is annually headquarters at the Turners Falls Rod & Gun Club on the southern shore of Bartons Cove.

James Lund of Greenfield was the top dog with an 11.75-pound catfish, followed by A.J. Sackett from Gardner (10.33), James Miller of Greenfield (7.03), Cooper Southworth Purdy of Montague (6.98), and Patrick Woods of Northfield (5.66).

Chiming in: Although it’s too early to start running victory laps and bouncing victorious cartwheels on the town common just yet, men of my ilk who love the woods and favor conservation and preservation find comforting the negative response to the proposed natural-gas pipeline targeted for Franklin County. Don’t let your guard down, fellas, because the folks in favor of the project are still lying in the grass waiting to strike in favor of this controversial pipeline. Trust me, they’ll soon be out in force, crowing in the public square about the jobs this project could deliver — good-paying jobs at that — not to mention ready access to cheaper natural gas for business and industry alike. They’ll likely call it a win/win economically, using threadbare arguments as inevitable as November frost. Although support is building momentum behind the scenes, I suspect the pro-growth crowd has a steep hill to climb on this one, no matter who takes the lead in crafting a sales job. From this white-oak perch just west of Bill and Camille’s in Shelburne, it seems to me that proponents are baying up the wrong tree. Just one rooted man’s opinion.