March is near, the deep-freeze just won’t let leave, and I’m dry-docked, thinking about place — my place and that of my ancestors, the one I chose not to leave and continue to learn about by the day, the month, the year, and when things get really exciting, by the very minute.
It all started as a young South Deerfield lad following frozen Bloody Brook on skates, a human snowplow pushing a shovel from Urkiel’s to Yazwinski’s, building streamside forts and fires, getting into the kind of harmless mischief I hope kids can still find in shadows hidden from adult scrutiny.
Once the snow left, we’d follow the same infamous brook, fishing rods in hand, using treble hooks to foul-hook plump suckers beneath the retaining wall in front of the old Kelleher place, even pulling out a rare little squaretail now and then dunking worms far downstream. Honestly, I can’t believe there are still brookies in that sluggish stream that took its name from crimson wartime mayhem.
When we got older and rode our bikes from one end of town to the other, picking up schoolmates along the way, we started venturing out, following gullies, fence rows and tilled edges east to the base of North Sugarloaf, where, in winter, we packed ski and toboggan trails on Boro’s and Gorey’s hills and spent long, cold, windy days horsing around, no adults invited. Then, when the snow left those hillside playgrounds, we found the Indian trail our folks told us led to the peak, a steep footpath on which we sidestepped occasional ugly vipers coiled along the climb to the high, lonesome shelf cave. Once we reached that lofty, secluded perch looking down upon the village, we felt free as mountaintop eagles waiting to set sail and soar over the valley whenever they felt like it.
As we grew bolder, we’d wander deeper off the trail into unfamiliar woods down the east slope of the ridge to see what we could find, often realizing too late that we were far away from familiar ground and must find our way back. But find it we did, no Boy Scout leader or preacher’s deputy necessary. It taught us all that we could process crises on our own, find our way home from the foggiest upland swamps and tangles by calmly assessing the predicament, reviewing the options and devising a plan. We always found a way out, which built innate confidence that we could solve our own problems without crying for help.
When I was a boy, this is what we thought we were supposed to do, having sat through nightly bedtime reading sessions with our mom going a chapter a night through “Tom Sawyer” and “Huckleberry Finn” or maybe “Drums Along the Mohawk” or “Boy Captive” tales. These oral-reading sessions endured until our heavy eyelids dropped shut, opening up a fanciful dream world. And now, here I sit, writing for the local newspaper, still trying to piece it all together in this place I call home, anxiously awaiting the day when I can share the whole story, the one preferred by sophisticated readers, bored with cream of wheat. It’s like the difference between childhood tales you’d tell a Cub Scout troop and the ones you’d share with your trusted friends and lovers. It’s no secret that the difference is significant, so much more spirit and meaning in the latter, yet still, always the danger of ruffling bright, tidy plumage, if you get the gist. What can I say? I’m a feather-ruffler from way back, and it’s way too late to change now. For what? Ecumenical-council praise or maybe an award from some fraternal order of windbags, bluffers and hypocrites? No. Not for me. It’s meaningless.
Running thin on space and trying not to curdle my slow-simmering stew — always steaming and gently bubbling in some deep, dark chamber of my soul — let me close this narrative with a new local legend I stumbled across quite by accident while reviewing a version of Sugarloaf’s indigenous beaver myth I had seen and forgotten in E.P. Pressey’s “History of Montague.” Brought to my attention by a friend assembling an exciting archaeological display in a sparkling new town-hall cherry cabinet, I read and evaluated it as OK before noticing another tale below associated with Mt. Toby, the higher peak to the east now capped by a fire tower, the expansive range straddling Sunderland, Leverett and Montague t’other side the river, as they used to say with a New England twang in this neck of the woods.
Titled “The Demon Wittum,” it’s a deep-history yarn from this splendid slice of the Pioneer Valley, involving the same indigenous transformer spirit Hobomock, a benevolent behemoth of Algonquian lore said to have bludgeoned the beaver that died submerged in Lake Hitchcock before appearing in the drained valley as Mt. Sugarloaf, North Sugarloaf and East Mountain or Pocumtuck Ridge. The question is, why did I happen upon such a relevant topic while reading about European spelunking for Paleo art? Could it be a random coincidence that in the process of studying cave art I happened upon the tale of a man-eating Mt. Toby cave-dweller? No! I don’t believe in coincidence. I think things happen for a reason, this just another example.
Pressey’s source is Deacon Phineas Field of Charlemont, a 19th century character who seemed well versed in upper-valley Indian history. So it was he who recounted for the author the ancient tale of Hobomock taking it upon himself to rid the valley of a problematic demon named Wittum. After flushing this dangerous villain from a deep, dark cave hideout high on the eastern face of Toby and chasing him through treacherous cliffside terrain to the peak, the evil spirit leaped for the river below and Hobomock followed, clubbing his fleeing foe to a bloody death. It is said that Wittum’s carcass fell to earth in a Sunderland meadow and vanished, leaving only an eternal bare spot for posterity.
So now it looks like I’ve got some exploring to do when Old Man Winter finally decides to release his white-knuckled grip on Franklin County. Yes, come joyous, inspiring spring, with the snow gone and the upland footing solid, I’ll be there to chase the legend of Wittum, probing caves, finding that “secret glen in the fastnesses of the mountain,” and hunting that bare spot in a riverside Sunderland meadow.
I do have an idea where that bare spot lies. Native elders claim that when you get to know your place well enough, even white men, the land speaks to you.
Call me crazy, but I follow the whistles and whispers of the wind sliding through trees and ledge and upland bogs. It pays to listen carefully because they deliver.