Beech Blowback

One never knows when a topic tossed into the city square for public discussion will attract interest and spur feedback like last week’s subject — beech trees — did.

Who knows why? It just did.

Among the folks of both genders chiming in were a card-carrying historian/archaeologist, a couple of foresters — one a photographer and poet on the side — a fiery conservation activist, and a couple of longtime hilltown readers, both natives who grew up around and explored woods containing big old beech trees and distinctive, elephant-skinned beech groves suitable for framed display on canvas.

The first comment came from historian/archaeologist friend Peter A. Thomas, who was at the time putting the finishing touches on his late 98-year-old father’s tasteful memorial service I attended Saturday at the closed congregational church of my South Deerfield ancestors. Addressing what I had written about my association of beech trees with upland landscapes, he said he too thought of  beeches as  uplands trees because he  often encountered them brightening high, lonely Vermont ridges during his days as head of the archaeology department at the University of Vermont.  However, he said, late Yale forest ecologist  Tom Siccama — who earned a doctorate from UVM in 1967 and taught in Yale’s prestigious School of Forestry & Environmental Studies for 40 years — had, during extensive deed research of ancient Green Mountain State parcels, discovered many beech trees noted as markers in lowland boundary descriptions. So, beeches are not upland trees in the historical narrative.

Although I could not find the specific report Thomas referred to, likely Siccama’s UVM dissertation, I was able to pull up more than enough online Siccama references to beech trees to accept my friend’s recollection as  fact. Not only that, but the online journey gave me a handle on the postglacial distribution and abundance of beech trees in the Northeastern archaeological record. Beeches first appear in the North American pollen records  24,000 years ago in the Southeast before creeping north all the way to the Great Lakes and Quebec as early as 7,000 years ago. By 1800, beech trees were as ubiquitous and common in the Northeastern forests as they are today.

The local ubiquity of beech trees is clear when reading email commentary by female readers Muriel Antes of Conway and Johanna Pratt of Ashfield, both of whom grew up around and held special reverence for them as youths. Antes, who grew up in Heath, remembers the woods of her farm “blessed with” beech groves, where she annually gathered tasty beechnuts.

“Any nuts that weren’t eaten on my way to the kitchen were incorporated by my mother into cakes and cookies,” she wrote.

As for Pratt, who cited three special beech trees in woods she deer-hunts and identified the beech as one of her “beloved trees,” she wrote that a salient memory takes her back to a chair-lift ride with her dad many years ago on an unnamed New Hampshire ski resort.

“It seems like 100 years ago that he pointed out a tall beech tree as we glided by and said, ‘See that bear tree?’” she wrote. “There were clear bear-claw hieroglyphics right up the side of that big beech tree. The scars displayed a crescent pattern where the bear had climbed the tree to harvest beechnuts, the front-paw marks distinct from the rear paws. Since then, I always search for bear-claw marks on beeches when hunting.”

Look for such sign she and others should, because bear-claw marks on beeches are as common as the smooth gray-barked trees they find their way to. Why? Well, I haven’t researched it but would guess it’s because beechnut meat soon dries into a tiny seed after falling to the ground, so it behooves bears to climb trees to forage this nut when the ripe smell fills the forest air. A friend speculated that perhaps the bear scratches are territorial like deer scrapes on the ground during rutting season. While I wouldn’t dismiss that possibility, it seems more likely that it’s the fruit that draws bears to beeches.

Before Pratt signed off, she shared one last interesting tidbit on beeches.

“Speaking of hunting,” she wrote, “I sometimes amuse myself on stand by biting the small, furled bud from a beech sapling. I like chewing them.”

So, I guess that habit plus Antes’ previous mention of beechnut-enhanced cookies and cakes answers the question of yet another random, unfamiliar Springfield correspondent, Ms. Maure Briggs-Carrington, who reached out with the question, “Are beechnuts edible for humans.” Yes, indeed, Maure. Just ask Antes and Pratt. Plus, anthropological records will tell you beechnuts were among the nuts gathered annually by Native American’s, joining white-oak acorns, chestnuts, butternuts, walnuts, hickories and hazel nuts.

The first forester to reach out was South Deerfield’s Michael Mauri, who sent a tiny book with a long, narrow, color photograph of a high Williamsburg beech grove folded in half to make a front and back cover. Inside  was this little poem. I do hope I’m not violating copyright laws:

 

black bear
the one who—is like us, the one who—
bends small trees in the forest

 

Accompanying the little booklet was a short note to say we had met once in the Montague Book Mill parking lot, where we looked at the topo map of a favorite ridge of mine named Walnut, where, incidentally, there are beech and hickories as well, not to mention an amazing balanced rock and ancient sacred landscape. He didn’t know the glacial erratic. Maybe someday we’ll take a hike and ponder the possibilities. Perhaps we’ll even hike a bit farther south along the spine to a seven-trunked shagbark hickory tree, the likes of which I have never seen anywhere else. I’m sure a poem could be written about this high, lonesome anomaly, which could even be a non-conformist in the mold of  Perez Bardwell, the 18th century hardscrabble rebel who lived below.

The other forester who came this way did so indirectly, through a local political gadfly with a deadly stinger.  This source called last week, then emailed me a recent state Department of Conservation and Recreation-proposal laying out a logging project targeted for the 280-acre Garnet Hill section of Peru State Forest. The initiative is aimed at ridding the plot of red pine scale and beech bark disease by aggressive logging and subsequent controlled forest-regeneration projects, including “chemical control of beech … to ensure other desirable native species can emerge after the harvest.”

Although it’s too late to delve into this complicated issue this week, it’s never too early to share the critical assessment of Michael J. Kellett, executive director of “Restore: The North Woods.”  Founded in 1992 and headquartered in Hallowell, Maine, with a Massachusetts office in Concord, this conservation group’s goal is “to go beyond endless damage control to begin restoring the health of entire landscapes.”

Kellett has reviewed the proposed Peru State Forest logging plan and gives it a disgusted thumbs-down.

“What a disgrace,” he writes. “… This is a plan aimed solely at cutting down as many big trees as possible before they lose their commercial value.

“The so-called forest insect and disease threats are vastly overblown. They will kill some trees, but that is something that happens in all natural forests. Logging will do nothing to mitigate or stop insects and disease, and it will probably make them worse.

“… Nothing short of a full ban on logging will save these state forest lands from liquidation.”

Touche!

Obviously, policy wonks will come forward attempting to destroy this man’s credibility by calling him a tree-hugging kook or worse. But a wise observer doesn’t dismiss such criticism out of hand. No. A sage listens and probes and researches and learns, and maybe, just maybe, discovers that what has been said is legit, not wild, radical-extremist blabber.

Stay tuned. What’s happening in Peru is lurking in a state forest near you. They call it forest-management policy.

Back To The Beech Grove

I have for many decades been fascinated by beech trees and beech stands — from the mature, elephant-skinned sentries standing tall and broad, to their understory infants immediately below, to the empty, thorny husks and the small, three-sided nuts they contain for posterity — all interesting and, when you probe the depths, perplexing in many ways.

I can’t say for sure where or when I encountered my first beech tree, so distinctive and regal. The reason for this uncertainty is that I had probably passed many during childhood woodland wanderings without knowing what they were or what role they served in the ecosystem. Did I first learn to recognize these aristocratic, nut-bearing hardwoods while cutting transit-assisted line with a machete to run traverse as a teenaged member of land-surveying crews? Or was it scouting during my early days of deer and turkey hunting? Truthfully, I cannot recall, but probably both woodland activities ultimately contributed to my ability to identify these trees, which stand out no matter where you find them.

Although I generally associate beech stands with high, hardwood ridges, where deer and bears and turkeys and squirrels and jays and you name it enthusiastically forage their fall nuts, these trees also flourish in the lowlands. I pass such tall, stately, lowland beeches daily, randomly spaced atop an escarpment overlooking a bottomland Green River-side meadow, with many infant trees below in the understory. Mixed with oaks, black cherries, poplars, soft maples, sycamores, and hickories, the mast producers attract a wide array of critters during the fruiting season and beyond.

I have in the past five years learned to value beech as an excellent heating fuel. More and more of it is showing up in the cordwood mix due to a bark-blemishing disease that’s taking its toll on beeches across the Northeast. And while I hate the thought of harvesting perfectly healthy beech trees for firewood, it isn’t necessary these days. Instead they’re culling diseased trees from the forest, hoping to protect healthy specimens from disease. Whether this strategy works remains to be seen. But, oh, how sad it would be to watch beech trees go the way of the American chestnut and American elm, both formerly prolific in these parts, now gone.

Beech trees and beechnuts are not a new subject for this column. I have in the past discussed the overwhelming likelihood that beech nuts picked off the forest floor will be hollow when cracking open and inspecting them out of curiosity. I have personally probed many November beechnuts through massive upland beech groves for nearly two generations and, despite an understory overwhelmed with infant beech trees of various short heights, I routinely find not a one with meat in it. Upon delving into this mystery a little deeper, reading, observing, exposing the quandary to the light of public feedback, I have come to the conclusion that the hollow nuts are not barren. No, what appears to happen is that, once dropped by wind- or rainstorms, the yellowish-white fruit inside the thin brown shell soon shrivels to a tiny, dark-brown seed tucked neatly and inconspicuously into the base. At first glance, the interior appears to be empty, a hollow, barren tomb. But, in fact, these nuts are not empty. Upon close inspection, the tiny seed is indeed visible. That, I’d say, is what produces all the infant trees you see, even though I was once told by a forester that some of the immature stock sprouts off the roots of adults. So, that too may indeed be the case.

Recent reading of German author/forester Peter Wohlleban’s best-selling “The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate” has provided me new insight into beech and many other trees of the forest. To get anything out of this groundbreaking New York Times bestseller, published in German in 2015 and a year later in English, one must put aside that all too familiar Christian lens.

“What?” demand devout Christian readers. “Trees feeling and communicating? Do you need your head examined?”

Well, no, actually there’s no need for a shrink. To grasp such non-Western Civilization concepts, one must clear dogmatic fog and view the world with an open mind, one that leaves room for fresh new paths to discovery and truth. The first time I read about trees communicating to fend off disease or insects, survive dangerous drought, and propagate where it ain’t easy was in botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer’s “Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teaching of Plants.” It’s well worth reading if you want a different twist on how nature works in a cooperative plant community. The piece that introduced me to tree communication through intermingled root systems, wind and pheromones was titled “The Council of Pecans,” presented as a “Braiding Sweetgrass” excerpt in the literary “Orion” magazine, the standard bearer of contemporary environmental writing. Then, by chance, I caught mention of Wohlleben, found his book online, knew it was of the same deep-ecology school as Kimmerer’s, and promptly purchased it.

There is much to learn from Wohlleben, but here and now let’s focus on the topic at hand: that is beech trees, for which he has affinity and explores in depth. Most interesting from my perspective is his discussion of how to age beech-grove infants shaded in the understory by vast adult crowns that quite intentionally inhibit growth of their young. Sources such as “The Sibley Guide to Trees” and many others will tell you beech trees grow slowly, so the wood is not commercially important. But that description in no way prepares the reader for Wohlleben’s discovery that the infant saplings of the grove ranging from three to seven feet tall are — brace yourself — 80 years old.

Wow! Who would have ever guessed it? I have seen many such little beeches in my rambles and have always assumed them to be in the 5- to 10-year-old class. Not so, according to Wohlleben, who’s diligently observed and studied beech trees for many years and ages them by counting tiny modules on their branches. He says these understory juveniles live in the forest as coddled children protected by their mothers for many years. When the moment arrives, due to a lightning strike, tornado or some other event that fells large trees, these children and are ready, willing and able to flourish, having been protected and nurtured in summer adult shade for decades. Given a clear, newfound path to direct rays of hot sunlight, these arrested-development kids are ready to take off, their growth accelerating dramatically to fill the gaping hole carved into the forest’s canopy.

When I walk my dogs daily past a few clusters of these immature beech trees, their dry, light brown leaves still intact, I must admit to holding new reverence for a tree I have always favored. Who would have guessed that these head-high saplings are older than me, and I’m no spring chicken?

Ah, for the wonders of nature, not to mention the refreshing, holistic perspective of deep ecologists, still unfortunately viewed by mainstream commentators as “radicals” or, better yet, “tree-huggers.”  Well, we all know the saying that starts “Sticks and stones will break my bones,” which fits this scenario snugly. The fact is that neither pejorative would insult me personally. I’d just consider the source and invite   the razor-sharp harpoon as platinum praise.

Comeback Kid

Amazing. Incredible. Astounding. Astonishing. Miraculous. Or, maybe just plain unlikely.

Those are the adjectives that snugly fit my geriatric English springer spaniel gun dog Lily’s recuperative powers as she closes in on her 13th birthday. This biddable pet never ceases to amaze me as I observe her during our daily rambles that run deep. What a remarkable flush-and-retrieve companion she’s been, and what a comeback she’s made from the precipice of demise. I admit being shocked she’s still with us.

Less than a year ago, on May Day, I was seriously pondering her burial place, exploring peaceful places we both love, where an indiscreet grave could be dug. Now, though 90 in human age and not nearly what she was in her physical prime, the old lady’s chugging along just fine, thank you, on our daily morning romps. No, she’s not jumping up onto my pickup’s tailgate as she always did, but on a good day she still attempts it and may well have succeeded without a helping hand had I not recognized her intent out of the corner of my eye and intervened. That said, she’s jumping down without the hint of a stumble or stagger, and she’s running up and down steep slopes and through dense, thorny tangles without fear or even a hint of hesitation. She also displays no reservations when approaching frigid standing meltwater, even when a brief swim is required. Hell no. In fact, on warm, sunny winter morns, she even walks out up to her belly into the cold, swollen Green River for a refreshing drink. Yeah, of course I know this could and probably will someday end quickly. But that mortal inevitability in no way diminishes the resilience this spirited, former bundle of energy and enthusiasm has thus far displayed through trying times of growing old.

Doc Schmitt has evaluated a few canines over nearly a half-century as a vet, and he identified Lily as “a tough bitch” after she bounced back from a life-threatening pregnancy that required surgical intervention at age 8. Though he has never seen her trail and flush a pheasant or make what appears to be an impossible blind retrieve, truer words he could not have spoken. His assessment was right on the money. A tough bitch she is, and then some, not to mention an extraordinary yet fading gun dog and daily walking chum.

Back in October, just before bird-hunting season opened, I wrote that it was clear to me that Lily would be of no use as a gun dog and probably would not survive the winter. It was a poignant and painful admission, but one I believed. I had witnessed Lily’s second stroke-like event in six months – this one less severe to the eye but longer-lasting and more debilitating than the first. Although she did tediously regain her balance over time and never lost her appetite or joyful gait, she was unable to slice through dense cover during the six-week pheasant season, and was still often losing her balance and quickly tiring when breaking winter trails through fresh, deep snow. It was obvious to my eyes that Lily was playing her back nine, though not suffering, through it all eager to accompany me and her rambunctious son, Chubby, on our daily morning maneuvers.

When I described Lily’s symptoms in October, many sympathetic readers who’d watched their own dogs suffer similar problems reached out with a potential diagnosis of vestibular disease, often referred to as old-dog syndrome. Although I paid heed, Googled it and thoroughly reviewed the manifestations, I cannot say I was ever totally convinced that was Lily’s problem. All the material I read defined it as a progressive disease, which didn’t seem to fit Lily. Though temporarily encumbered, she continued to improve over time and now, after a few months, she displays no lasting effects. Zero. Plus, she has never shown any indications of associated ear discomfort or ear odor, both of which I learned long ago to keep an eye out for.

I am now convinced that Lily was stricken with two TIAs, or mini-strokes, which she eventually and quite remarkably overcame. A friend who breeds, raises and trains field springers and is a player on the national field-trial circuit believes Lily will eventually die from a stroke, and I’m inclined to agree. I trust his opinions, formed after decades in the company of high-test gun dogs, trainers and especially veterinarians. A man who intently listens to such expert discussion can absorb a lot of free wisdom by osmosis.

That said, I sense Lily’s not done yet. Who knows? At her advanced age, it’s a crap-shoot. She may soon fall on her side, go into tremors and expire. Then again, it’s possible, precluding another event, that she’ll flush and retrieve a few more pheasants this fall. We’ll see. Time will tell. Right this minute, I’m confident she’d flush pheasants from our familiar coverts.

I know better than to sell old Lily-Butt short, and would never question her resolve or resilience. She has been a truly remarkable gun dog with indomitable spirit and unusual recuperative powers. In her prime, say at the age of 5, she was an absolute powerhouse through thick, thorny cover. She literally made punishing coverts shake with her all-out enthusiasm, whether bulldozing through, bounding over or displaying an eye-catching combination of both athletic skills to locate and flush a bird.

Her best days will not be forgotten.

Never.

 

*****

 

It’s time to start thinking about removing artificial, backyard food sources for black bears, which are now active and hungry. So, take down your bird feeders, which bears will often favor over natural food like skunk cabbage, and the same can be said about garbage and compost and beehives. MassWildlife estimates our bear population to be at least 4,500, with their range expanding eastward. Take action by educating yourself and your neighbors about proactive measures to avoid conflicts with bears.

 

*****

 

As rattling brooks  flow into roaring rivers, nearly 500,000 brook, brown, rainbow and tiger trout are awaiting spring stocking from MassWildlife’s five hatcheries, including the four local ones at Sunderland, Montague, Palmer and Belchertown. The other hatchery is in Sandwich. These fish, coupled with holdovers from more than 80,000 trout stocked last fall, will provide excellent fishing in the coming months. Stocking was scheduled to begin this week in southeastern Massachusetts, with other regions of the state expected to soon follow. Anglers can get daily stocking updates at mass.gov/trout or by contacting district office for the latest stocking information.

A Twister Was Brewing

Saturday morning. Mid-May weather. Roaring backyard brook singing baritone accompaniment to the morning cardinal’s joyous melody emanating from the naked pink weigela bush. Across the horseshoe driveway’s snow-lined western leg, a thin, silent trickle of glistening snow-melt spills down toward a puddle behind the mailbox.

Ah, the ebullient sights and sounds of spring, albeit premature.

As we now know, that splendid Saturday morn was the calm before the fury of an isolated hilltown storm that bounced in from Goshen and wreaked havoc first in Conway’s Poland, then Pumpkin Hollow, that quaint  neighborhood  where rebellious spirits lurk, dating back to the earliest days when  Rev. Samuel Ely, Abel Dinsmore, Samuel Wells, Perez Bardwell and other insurgents vociferously challenged oversight and taxation from the thieving, faraway, post-Revolutionary Statehouse.

Maybe we should have seen this catastrophe coming given the rare, balmy 70-degree February day, which was indeed forecast to conclude with a threatening overnight band of heavy rain and possible thunderstorms. Yeah, that’s right, thunderstorms … in February. Hard to imagine, though no longer impossible these days when the people in charge want us to write off  climate change as a Chinese hoax. Well, tell the folks of Conway about this rhetorical “hoax.” You know, the tornado that touched down Saturday night, paying a loud, brief and highly destructive visit in the form of — um — a winter twister dancing through our Berkshire foothills. It was the first winter storm of its type ever recorded anywhere near the Pioneer Valley and its peaceful hills. Maybe it, too, was sent from China, huh? Or was it the work of Putin, our new president’s pal who apparently worked behind the scenes to sway our election? Hmmmmm? It just keeps getting more and more bizarre daily, doesn’t it? Dare we ponder where will it all end?

Anyway, I began the inspiring Saturday past with morning reading, bright warm sun filtering through parlor sheers, woodstove tipped down low and barely necessary. The telephone broke the silence. Childhood buddy Rogie wanted to know if I’d like company on my daily morning walk with the dogs? Sure. Why not? Another human being with whom too chat is never unwelcome, even over sacred, soul-searching terrain.

He arrived pre-noon and we moved right along, navigating carefully through icy shaded areas below tall stately hardwoods bordering the upper level, before following a deer run down a natural, wooded ramp cluttered with beech trees large and small, tall and bushy, head-high smaller ones still wearing a full complement of khaki-brown leaves. Where the trail flattened out onto a thorny, snow-covered, marshy thicket, a slim melt-water channel defined the escarpment base’s contour. It may not be spring yet, but it sure felt like it, minus the soothing splashes of pastel buds coloring the backdrop.

Farther along, overlooking the swollen Green River’s western bank, baying geese passing high above, three black ducks took flight and quickly vanished around a wooded bend. They were the first ducks I’d seen there for quite some time. It made sense they were there. In the cornfield a quarter-mile westward were hundreds of Canada geese, with probably dozens of hidden ducks mixed in. It was a birdie kind of spring day, flocks of red-winged blackbirds as noisy in the marshland as the starling flock we passed in the northwestern corner of  adjacent corn-stubble.

The sights and sounds of spring were omnipresent. As we climbed the gentle double-rutted ramp to the iron gate separating the upper and lower terraces, those same three black ducks again flushed upstream, followed by a pair of flashy white common merganser drakes, again the first I’ve seen in some time on that section of flat-water where I often rouse them.

The rambling conversation between Rogie and me focused primarily on our hometown, South Deerfield, which has changed dramatically since the days when I patrolled it afoot and on bicycles, and when Billy Rotkiewicz’s Frontier Pharmacy was our  unofficial center of the universe. Even the streets and neighborhoods have changed since then, but not nearly as much as the people and government. Gone are the kinder, gentler days of Chief Jim “Twitch” Rosenthal and “Pistol Pete” Kuchieski, friendly fathers of the kids next door who knew the difference between kids’ stuff, small-town pranks and crime.

I’m glad I grew up there when I did. Those were the days when town officials ignored the torching of a decaying Mt. Sugarloaf summit house, leaving the arson largely uninvestigated and unpunished. Then, less than 10 years later, the authorities “probed” with a wink, a nod and a bemused grin the sticks of dynamite flung from a rented plane flying over town  to augment the  1973   Tricentennial Fourth of July fireworks celebration. Many townspeople knew who was responsible for the loud prank and chuckled. Can you imagine what would have become of the mischievous culprits today? Oh my! Gitmo would have been too good for them.

But let’s not digress. Finished walking, solving the ills of the world and reminiscing about the good old days of “Sowdeerfeel,” we wound up back in the front parlor where the phone call had earlier been answered. There, after I brought in a couple armfuls of cordwood to refill the stove-side cradle, our conversation turned to the going price and work required to heat with wood. The discussion soon meandered to a counter-culture vendor from whom I’ve bought many cords, and hired when in need of tree service. When my friend wanted to know more about this interesting East Colrain character and his cordwood operation, I got tired of describing it and suggested an up-close-and-personal introduction.

“You got time to take a little ride?” I asked.

“Yeah, let’s go.”

And off we went, up the hill north, climbing steep Smead Hill Road to Van Nuys Road before winding down to Shelburne Line, West Leyden and Green River roads — a ride of six or seven miles before banging a U-ie on North Green River Road before Guilford, Vt., and heading back to the old Denison Sawmill.

Curiously, out in the boondocks at the fork of North Green River and New County roads, a solitary cock pheasant was picking at roadside gravel. Where in the world did this long-tailed rooster come from? Then, sure enough, the ringneck was still there on the return trip, clinging to the edge of a three-foot, roadside snowbank to let us pass. Maybe someone in that Stewartville neighborhood raises pheasants. Seems to me I saw a similar winter cock bird feeding there six or seven years ago on the way home from friends’ home up the road.

Traveling back up West Leyden Road, climbing west toward Colrain Mountain, Rogie detected activity at my old pal the wood vender’s place.

“Pull in,” he said. “I want to talk to that guy and take a look at his operation.”

I turned right, up a muddy driveway and past a massive pile of unsplit 16-inch wood chunks. Sure enough, there he was, Blue Sky himself — quite the fella — ready to knock off a pleasant February afternoon of wood processing on the cool north face of his ridge.

“We don’t get much sun up here,” he told Rogie, “so it’s necessary to stack it and cover the top if you want to season wood.”

“Wow!” said my friend, “I didn’t think anyone in the business did it the old-fashioned way anymore. It’s a lot of work. How do you make money?”

Blue Sky admitted he didn’t think much about that, claiming he’d been at it a long time and had a loyal customer-pool willing to pay a little more for dry, quality cordwood. His most profitable venture these days is milling lumber, especially black locust, which doesn’t absorb water and thus makes great fence posts among other things. Locust has replaced extinct American chestnut for many common uses. Not only that, but it’s a superior fuel that burns so hot that he recommends mixing it with other hardwoods to extend stove life.

On our way home, maybe a mile up the hill, approaching the old Elwell Farm, a deer trotted out in front of my truck and crossed the road as I took my foot off the gas pedal.

“Be careful,” Rogie cautioned, “there could be another one.”

And, sure enough, seconds later, a second deer soon followed, crossing the road before both high-tailed it into the woods maybe 50 yards from the old Elwell homestead. A pretty sight, maybe yearling twins. Perhaps their mom had already crossed, or maybe she didn’t survive the winter. Who knows? It seemed like a mature doe should have been accompanying two small deer.

We retraced our steps back to my Greenfield Meadows home, arriving around 2:30. Rogie fired up his truck and headed home to South Deerfield. I went back to reading in the same chair where my morning had begun, awaiting the return of my wife from a brief visit in her hometown of Hampden.

That night, we caught first wind of the Conway catastrophe, then followed it closer the next morning. At 5 p.m. Sunday, home for supper, the phone rang. The Caller-ID read Blue Sky.

“Hey, Buddy,” he said in that deep voice of his. “A friend of mine just called and said they had a microburst or tornado in Conway. Do you know anything about it?”

“Yeah,” I answered, “it happened up in my neck of the woods. I guess it did quite a number on Punkin’ Hollow, leveled the dairy barn at the old Page Farm, where the antique dealers John and Jan Maggs now live. You can’t miss it … big barn, just below Conway Pool, opposite the old town common.”

He tried to picture it but was coming up empty. Not his place.

I have an idea Blue Sky was experiencing a flashback of sorts to days past. He must have been thinking about throwing his chain saw and clean-up equipment into the truck, hitching up his noisy chipper and heading to Conway, just like he would have back in his Colrain Tree Service adventures.

Hey, a man’s gotta make a living, you know … even a 67-year-old who’s already furrowed his field and ought to be resting his feet on the living-room ottoman.

Did The Cat Come Back?

Maybe that deer I wrote about last week — relying on eyewitness Tom Ricardi’s report of watching it run for its life from a large bobcat toward the South River just upstream from Conway’s Burkeville Covered Bridge – didn’t escape after all.

Ricardi opined that had he not pulled his vehicle over to observe the chase, the bobcat would have eventually overtaken and killed the exhausted deer, tongue hanging from its mouth. Instead, the cat, unnerved by Ricardi, sat down for a moment, turned around and ran back into the pine grove from which it had come.

Nonetheless, that deer may not have been long for this world, according to neighbor Ed Mann. While out on his evening walk last week with yellow Lab, Boomer, Mann discovered a deer carcass along the river bank just upstream from the covered bridge. He speculated it may have been the same deer, given the location and timing, but wasn’t sure what had delivered the fatal blow. A deep coating of fresh snow had covered the tracks of the culprit(s).

“That cat could have prevailed at the end of the day,” he wrote. “Or, of course, it could have been taken down by coyotes, which have been passing up and down the river this past winter.”

Years ago, domestic dogs would have been the primary suspects, but that has changed dramatically with the enactment and enforcement of leash laws. So, yes, it was probably either opportunistic coyotes preying on a weakened deer they came across quite by chance, or that wily bobcat doubled back to finish the job.

Deer are often taken by predators on ice, where their hooves leave them helplessly splayed for the kill. It doesn’t happen by accident. Coyotes and wolves work in unison to force deer toward ice, where they know they have an advantage. Bobcats? Well, that I cannot say. But, when you think of it, why not? Before Ricardi’s tale, I didn’t know a bobcat would chase down a deer, only that they would occasionally ambush from above and pounce down upon an unsuspecting young whitetail or take fawns from their birthing nests.

This is the time of year when deer are at their weakest and thus most vulnerable to predators, which are tuned into their struggles. In the end, it all comes down to opportunism and that basic law of nature we all know well: That is, the strong survive and the weak perish.

 

*****
Another Conway resident, Gail Connelly, chimed in to report an indelible sighting. She thought maybe someone else has seen the animal she saw “several years ago at the end of March on Hoosac Road.”

Ms. Connelly has lived in Conway for 32 years, during which she has often walked her golden retriever “on logging trails and in fields — running into deer, fawns, raccoons, porcupines, moose, bobcats and numerous black bear.”

Her most memorable wildlife sighting was that of a wildcat she believes, judging from its profile, was a Canada lynx.

“I had my Golden retriever in the car when a huge animal ran in front of me,” she wrote. “I slammed on the brakes, and when I got out of the car, the cat had jumped a small ravine and was running across a field. When it got to the edge of the woods it stopped, turned around to look at me, then slowly walked into the woods. My golden is over 90 pounds. This cat was taller than him, long furry legs, his paws were thick with fur, very padded. I’d be curious to know if anyone else has seen one in our area.”

The problem with such sightings and comparisons to dogs is that looks can be deceiving, especially from afar. I once had a similar deer-stand sighting of a “bobcat” walking gracefully along a stonewall some 50 yards away and was convinced it was too tall for a bobcat, judging it taller than my male springer spaniel at that time, Ringo. Now, that cat may or may not have been taller than Ringo, who stood about 19 inches at the shoulder, but it sure did appear taller from where I sat.

When I studied the Canada lynx photo I ran with this column last week, taken by Jim Shortell in Alaska, it occurred to me that the animal appeared taller and leggier than my current male springer, Chubby, who’s taller than Ringo was. Then it dawned on me that, because of the lynx’s leaner torso it may not, in fact, have been taller, just appeared so. It’s difficult to make such a call from a distance.

Which is not to say that Ms. Connelly did not see a Canada lynx that day. She may well have, and people in these parts may see more lynx in the future. It seems that a southern expansion of this northern species is underway.

Who’s to say that this animal wasn’t here when William Pynchon first stepped foot on this valley and is now on the comeback trail, similar to moose and … dare I say, cougars?

 

*****
One final touch of sage hilltown wisdom on the bobcat/Canada Lynx discussion, this one arriving out of the blue at the 11th hour of 4:24 p.m. Wednesday from old friend Roger “Heze” Ward. It may answer the question we ended the previous segment (above) with.

“Growing up in the hills of Buckland, a couple things come to mind about the presence of bobcat and lynx,” he wrote. “The lynx was the bigger of the of the two, sometimes hitting the scales at better the 60 pounds, whereas bobcats were generally in the 30-pound class. One difference that never failed in the ability to tell the two apart was the size of the feet. Lynx feet were huge compared to the bobcat. Your picture in last week’s paper proves that out.”

He then offered this enticing little tidbit that’s well worth sharing:

“I don’t know if you ever head the story about this ungodly noise we would hear at night. The old timers it said was a bobcat and said it sounded like a baby crying. I heard it many times and never could figure out what it sounded like. I always wondered if was some kind of mating ritual. I don’t remember anyone ever saying they saw the bobcats first hand making this noise. It always seemed to be deep in the woods, and really didn’t sound like domestic cats.”

Hmmmmm?

So there. Maybe lynx are not a new phenomenon to Franklin County.

Conway Roadside Chase

Retired state Environmental Police Officer/administrator and practicing raptor rehabilitator Tom Ricardi of Conway phoned last week and left an interesting message well after I had already launched into a piece on the Patriots’ scintillating Feb. 5 Super Bowl LI win — that record comeback for the ages from which Pats fans are still tingling to the core.

Ricardi, who lives on rural Poland Road near the Ashfield line, was driving Route 116 east approaching the Burkville Covered Bridge when an interesting, midday, roadside wildlife sighting unfolded before his eyes. He thought it would be of interest to me, given all the recent discussion here about Franklin County bobcats and the possible influx of Canada lynx. There, bounding across the road in front of his vehicle was a stressed, running doe, nervously looking back, tongue hanging from her mouth, visibly alarmed and exhausted. On the other side of the road, hot on her trail, was a large pursuing bobcat. So large, in fact, was the cat that, according to the trained wildlife observer, Ricardi, “You could have at first glance mistaken it for a cougar. I first mistook it for another deer.”

Intrigued once he understood precisely what he was watching, Ricardi pulled to the side of the road and reached for a pair of binoculars he keeps handy as the doe headed toward South River. Most interested in the cat, Ricardi focused in and got a splendid look when it wisely decided against crossing the road under obvious human observation. Instead, the creature sat down like a household kitty-cat in front of the parlor woodstove, watched the deer briefly, did a 180 and headed for cover in the pines from which it had flushed the deer.

“There’s no question in my mind that that cat would have caught the doe had I not been there to interrupt the chase,” opined Ricardi. “That was a helluva big bobcat, and it was only 50 yards behind.”

My, how that informed opinion from a sage observer got my wheels spinning about the possibility of bobcat deer predation. It’s an especially ripe concept nowadays, when leghold trapping is a distant memory and cat hunting, too, has gone the route of Edsels and DeSotos with hound-hunting forbidden. Like Edsels and DeSotos, there are still a few cat hunters around, though now they’re relegated to still-hunting and calling them into range with rabbit squeals and other prey distress calls. Still, cat hunters are a dying breed to say the least. Thus our bobcat population continues to grow and, because mature cats now survive longer, they can grow larger … and potentially more dangerous to deer.

It is no new revelation that opportunistic bobcats will await young, unsuspecting deer and occasionally kill them by pouncing off a ledge or tree limb. Plus, there’s always the possibility of random bobcat kills of newborn fawns in their brushy nests. But one mature bobcat chasing down and killing a mature deer? Hmmmm? Why not?

If a coyote or domestic dog can chase down and kill deer, then why not a big bobcat, which is faster and more athletic than canines, be they domestic or wild? And were you to place a healthy 40-pound bobcat in a steel-cage with a healthy 50-pound coyote, which do you suppose would emerge from a battle? In my opinion, the bobcat would prevail every time.

Please, don’t interpret this discussion as a blood-lust, clarion call to thin out bobcats for the benefit of our deer herd. No, that is not my intention. Predators and prey have forever coexisted in the same ranges, and smart wildlife experts will tell you prey is smarter, healthier and overall superior where predators are routinely pursuing and killing them. Look it up if you don’t agree. It’s a fact of nature.

 

************

 

Speaking of wildcats as we await Arizona lab results to confirm a summer cougar attack on a horse in the Quabbin-periphery town of Petersham, cougars have been in the national news of late, showing up in a couple of respected literary magazines. First a heartfelt “Orion” piece about the necessity of Floridians learning to live with their burgeoning panther population, then a similarly sympathetic “New Yorker” article from Greater Los Angeles, where cougars are up against long odds of preserving a sustainable breed of cat, so to speak. There, in the ever-shrinking forested hills overlooking LA, where freeways prevent a good genetic mix from faraway disperser males, an in-bred population has put the cats in peril.

Anyway, when I read such pieces and think to a future I may or may not be here to experience, I suspect the time will come when our farmers and hikers and bikers will have to learn to be wary of occasional cougar encounters, similar to how we must these days be wary of bears, which were not here when I was a South Deerfield lad, fishing streams, climbing mountains and patrolling bottomland woods and swamps.

While there are those who’ll tell you it’ll never happen, I am in the “never-say-never” camp. To me it seems the rewilding process is here, and has been underway for decades.

Super Bowl/Ali Analogy

It’s noontime Tuesday, gray and wet, home snow-removal chores in the rearview, televised Patriots parade underway in Boston.

I’m walking the dogs in steady rain that’s softening the shallow coating of fresh, white, sticky snow. The precipitation had changed from snow to sleet to rain as I whisked clean the snow-blower blades and carriage after yard cleanup.

I’m watching Lily and Chubby romp through the Christmas trees on a floodplain meadow, rain audibly dripping from naked hardwoods, the dogs’ joie de vivre palpable as my mind drifts off as it usually does while walking. I’m thinking back to something I heard Bill Belichick say from ESPN’s on-field, postgame broadcast podium after his Pats’ dramatic, 34-28 overtime win over the Falcons in Super Bowl LI. Talking about his team’s record comeback from a 25-point  deficit, he told retiring sportscaster Chris “Boomer” Berman that Bill Parcells — a former coach under whom he worked and from whom he’d learned much about winning — was fond of usung a boxing metaphor when describing what it takes to be a great champion. He believed that the mark of a true champion is the ability to get up off the canvas and win.

“I think we did that tonight,” beamed Belichick. And who could argue?

Mulling that Belichick quote as I walked the southern perimeter of my daily ramble, dogs chasing scent in and out of the wooded wetland border, my thoughts brought me to Muhammad Ali, the greatest boxing champion of my lifetime. I was trying to compare the Pats’ remarkable Super Bowl rally to one of Ali’s epic wins, and for some reason started with the “Thrilla in Manila” against Joe Frazier. But, no, thinking it over, I knew that fight for the ages hadn’t mirrored what occurred Sunday night at NFG Stadium in Houston. The reason was that at the start of that memorable 1975 fight, it appeared that Ali would make quick work of Smokin’ Joe, peppering his face like he was working an Everlast speed bag in the gym. But a determined Frazier somehow absorbed the punishment and responded by bearing in on Ali and hurting him on the inside until, after Round 11 of a scheduled 15, it looked like Frazier may just beat “The Greatest.”

Not so fast. In Round 12, Ali dug deep, found his second wind and started battering Frazier. By Round 14, Smokin’ Joe could no longer see through badly swollen eyes. Concerned trainer Eddie Futch threw in the towel. Proud, fierce Joe Frazier could not answer the Round 15 bell. Ali had won by TKO. Afterwards, Frazier said, “Lordy, Lordy,” he had hit Ali with shots that could have shaken  the walls of a city yet could not beat him.

The Pats’ historic Super Bowl victory Sunday night really didn’t have that ebb and flow, those changes of momentum. Down 21-3 at the half due to two costly turnovers, New England was getting dominated by Atlanta on the scoreboard. Then, after the Falcons tacked on another score to make it 28-3 with 8:31 remaining in the third quarter, die-hard Pats fans knew a comeback was unlikely indeed, even for an all-time-great QB/coach tandem like Tom Brady and  Belichick.

Which brought me to another Ali fight occurring a year before the “Thrilla.” We’re talking about 1974’s “Rumble in the Jungle” versus a seemingly unbeatable and heavily favored heavyweight champion named George Foreman, a younger, stronger man who packed a mighty wallop. So, what was Ali’s strategy in this fight that few thought he could win, and many feared could end his career, if not his life? He came out by decisively winning the first round with dazzling combinations to Foreman’s face, then shocked the world by leaning back against the ropes, protecting his chin and allowing the powerful champion to whale away at his midsection in a ring tactic dubbed “rope-a-dope,” designed to “punch out” the opponent. Trainer Angelo Dundee pleaded with Ali to get off the ropes while loyal fans wondered what was wrong with “The Greatest.” Was he losing his freakin’ mind? He was going to get killed laying on the ropes in front of such a powerful brute.

After six rounds of his best impression of a heavy bag, Ali sprang off the ropes in the eighth round and dropped Foreman to the canvas with a well-placed combination of punches to the face. Foreman went down, could not get to his feet before the count of 10 and Ali, hands raised above his head,  had a stunning knockout to regain the world heavyweight crown.

That Ali fight was the one that most resembled Sunday’s stunning Patriots comeback in Houston. No, the Falcons did not come into the contest as prohibitive favorites, and they were not recognized as the big bully on the block, either. But with a 25-point lead and 20 minutes remaining, the underdog  sure had taken on a superior demeanor.

Then, like Ali in Zaire, the Pats came off the ropes to score the final 31 points and win their fifth Super Bowl of the Brady-Belichick era. Some called it a miracle. Others blamed it on Falcons coaching ineptitude.

Longtime WFAN-New York, AM-660 sports-talk host Joe Benigno had it right Monday morning when he proclaimed that only one team could have pulled off that historic comeback, then labeled Super Bowl LI as the win that will forever define these New England Patriots’ greatness. Though not a popular view on that station or in that city, where callers and hosts alike prefer to insult the Patriots as cheaters, suffering Jets-fan Benigno had taken a fair view, giving justifiable credit and admiration where due.

It takes a man to tell it like it is in that hostile Big Apple market, and, on the other hand, an arrogant loudmouth like Mike Francesa to claim that the Falcons coaching staff handed the win to the Pats on a silver platter.

It’ll be interesting to see what Francesa’s excuse is next year.
******

The preliminary all-season 2016 deer harvest released last week by MassWildlife is 12,233. This includes record archery (4,661) and primitive-firearm (2,484) harvests and an average shotgun harvest of 4,907, including 58 kills during the special, controlled, four-day Blue Hills Reservation hunt. An additional 53 deer were taken by special permit during the annual Quabbin hunt, and 128 additional deer were taken during the annual pre-archery youth hunt.

Backboned by the archery and blackpowder records, the total harvest was in near-record territory, following a sub-par 2015 harvest. Last year’s low harvest was likely due to unseasonably warm weather, lack of snow and an abundance of wild food, which meant that deer could be virtually anywhere and did not have to move much when hunters were in the woods. The increased 2016 harvest was likely related to the previous year’s low harvest and low winter mortality, plus this year’s excellent hunting conditions.

The all-season preliminary totals in Zones 10 (2,313), 11 (2,715) and 9 (1,115) comprised a bit more than half the statewide harvest. Meanwhile, local Zones 4 North (531), 4 South (299), 2 (479), 5 (542) and 6 (126) combined produced a mere 16 percent of the statewide harvest. My, how times have changed since I was a kid.

The final harvest figures and analysis will be released in May or June.

Conway Cats

Looks like the late Ted Cromack from up on the Mohawk Trail across from Call’s Corner in Shelburne wasn’t the only local fella hunting bobcats back in the day. Not only that, but I guess that 38-pound cat I long ago witnessed Conway trapper Ed Rose carrying out of the Williamsburg woods wasn’t that big after all.

These new revelations arose from one quick look at the classic black-and-white photo emailed this way last week by Bill Burnett of the Conway Burnetts, whose old South River-side farm and sugarhouse embrace the confluence of Poland Brook.

The photo from the Burnett family archives shows Bill’s grandfather, Frank Burnett, standing between a shed and his vintage Ford sedan sporting a 1939 license plate. There, the man displays a 45-pound bobcat he and veterinarian brother Dr. Russell Burnett shot on a hound-assisted hunt through the Conway woods. Peeking out from behind the proud hunter, hanging bobcat’s back legs tied to a thick stick, is one of the happy hounds that likely treed the cat.

Above the attached email photo is an explanatory note beginning with, “In response to your recent articles about bobcats,” and proceeding to describe his grandfather and great uncle as “avid hunters and trappers who supplemented their income by selling furs.” It all made a lot of sense in rural pre-World War II America, which was still digging itself out of the Great Depression.

Burnett then shares a recent sighting: “On the afternoon of Sunday, Jan. 8, at about 3 p.m., my sister and I saw three bobcats of all the same size cross our field on the Ashfield/Conway town line on Route 116. We called neighbor (and retired game warden) Tom Ricardi, who said it was a rare sighting, probably a family unit.”

I would have shared this Burnett email last week had I not already jumped into another interesting bit of feedback that had arrived a day earlier by snail-mail from Haydenville. Unwilling to switch gears with a story underway, I decided to let the Conway tale ferment for a week.

When I phoned Burnett last week to tell him I was going to run the photo, I disclosed that I knew his property well from fishing in my youth. There, wearing hip boots at dawn, I often bumped into old pal and baseball/football coach Tommy Valiton deftly lifting trout from the streams with his long flyrod baited with nightcrawlers. It was also not unusual to run into Whately brothers known in South Deerfield lingo as the “Sudsy Twins,” whose real names were Don and Dave Sadoski, now passed, but for decades a fixture on local hilltown trout streams.

I most often bumped into the “Sudsies” on the lower end of West Whately’s West Brook, but South River and Poland Brook were also on their circuitous weekly tour. Many Franklin County fishermen knew the twins’ Chevy or GMC pickup with a large camper reaching back over the top of their cab, and the wise ones knew enough to fish elsewhere.

Funny how an old photo like Burnett’s can evoke fond memories.

*********

Sticking to bobcats and moving a bit north and east to my own upper Greenfield Meadows neighborhood, I have to assume that the two cats that left tracks crossing my daily path last week were same two neighbor Anne Echeverria reported seeing out her kitchen window a few weeks ago. The two cats, one lager than the other, had covered the entire meadow, meandering throughout while slipping in and out of the narrow bordering wetland. The cats were likely hunting mice, rabbits and squirrels, all of which flourish in this terraced riverside plain of mixed hardwoods, wild grapes, sumac, fruit and berries, and croplands.

The tracks of a cottontail rabbit told me all I needed to know about the bobcats’ riverside mission. Typical tracks of a cottontail hopping through a meadow are a foot or less apart. Not so in the southwest corner of the first field I walked. There, the prints in the snow were a full five feet apart.

Obviously, that bunny knew it was in the company of dangerous predators, and was fleeing for safety. No sign of blood or hair anywhere.

*********

More leftovers: In a “Country Journal” article mentioned here last week and written by Mike Donovan about his native Woronoco — a quaint Russell village located at the base of Mount Tekoa, where timber rattlesnakes are known to lurk — Donovan writes that “some believe the word ‘Tekoa’ meant ‘place of the snakes’ in the (Eastern Algonquian) language of the Woronoak Indians,’” who populated the Westfield River watershed. Well, that got my wheels spinning and sent me off on a Google and library search aimed at confirming or denying the Native American origin of Tekoa.

The first source I dug out was a fresh new (2004) University of Oklahoma Press compendium written by William Bright and titled “Native American Placenames of the United States,” which did not list the word Tekoa or anything resembling it.

“Hmmmmmm? Very unlikely the word was of Algonquian origin,” I surmised, before digging deeper and going to a couple of old standbys, first J.C. Huden’s “Indian Place Names of New England (1962),” then J.H. Trumbull’s “Indian Names of Connecticut (1881),” neither of which produced a word resembling Tekoa.

Then, off on a cursory Internet search to see what I could find on the word Tekoa, and — Bingo! — there it was: a biblical origin.

So, it looks like the Native American origin is a creative myth.

Locked In Place

A white No. 10 envelope. That’s what awaited me Monday on my Recorder desk. It brought me to a place I love to visit and never leaves me.

Imagine that. Captivating snail-mail? Oh yeah. A blast from the past. Old-school correspondence. On the envelope and below the signature at letter’s end was a paste-on return address for Gary R. Linscott of Haydenville. The man starts the tidy, two-page, hand-written letter by introducing himself as a “faithful” reader born in Greenfield to Leverett parents. Then he traipses off on a hilltown ramble.

Cursory online research uncovered no simple route to a phone number or I would have called Linscott. I did discover his age, at 65, a couple of years older than me. So, yes, I guess he qualifies as an old-timer. At least he would have when I was, say, in my 30s. My, how perception changes as we age.

Anyway, it appears that Linscott has lived in Haydenville ever since his parents left Leverett and touched down in that Hampshire/Franklin border town when he was a mere 6-month-old babe. So, it’s safe to say he knows his way around the Adams Road neighborhood he describes as the site of many interesting wildlife sightings.

I can only speculate that his reason for writing to me at this time was my recent mention of sites located within his domain, places like Henhawk Trail and High Ridge, which are dear, if not sacred, to me. In fact, so dear are they that for decades I have resisted  naming them  in the public sphere. They’re wild, idyllic places that are, frankly, in my humble and unwavering opinion, better off known by few and explored by fewer. Big woods scare people off these days, even though pocket-sized GPS technology can indeed inflate confidence.

The primary reason Mr. Linscott reached out for a personal connection after many silent years of reading was to share an interesting little front-page, above-the-fold, banner-scraping “Country Journal” story about Mt. Tekoa timber rattlesnakes in the quaint Russell village of Woronoco. “The Journal,” a Turley Publications hilltown weekly, circulates through 16 upland Westfield River valley towns west of Northampton, Easthampton and Westfield.

The story was written by a reporter named Mike Donovan. A Woronoco native, Donovan grew up where  rattlesnakes were part of life, thus respected. Donovan writes of neighbors’ summer confrontations with rodent-hunting rattlers hiding underneath porches and hen houses, coiled under cars or slithering though dry, sun-splashed backyards bordering streams. Although snakebites were rare, folks in that little hamlet knew enough to be wary during the summer, and to stay away from Mt. Tekoa when snakes are active.

A “fact”  Linscott wisely questioned was Donovan’s mention of a famous photo from a 1930s Springfield newspaper. The shot  showed teenaged George Church displaying what was reportedly an 8-foot, 10-inch Eastern diamondback rattlesnake killed on Tekoa. Perhaps climate-change will someday shift that venomous snake’s range this far north, but today this viper is found only in the South, beginning in Florida and extending west as far as Louisiana and north into southern North Carolina.

Perhaps that newspaper snake pictured some 80 years ago really was  killed on Tekoa. More likely, it was a hoax or had been captured in the sunny south and released here. Maybe it escaped from a traveling circus. Hey, it’s even possible that snake was a rare, behemoth timber rattler that had survived to abnormal old age. Not impossible, I suppose. According to National Geographic and other reputable online sources, timber rattlers top out at a little more than six feet. Nine feet? Ummmm … seem like a stretch.

Linscott didn’t stop with snakes. Uh-uh. That was just his intro, accompanied by a copy of the “Journal” article. Then, as though he had been compiling wildlife sightings in his fanny pack, he opened the top flap for me and allowed them to escape after many years of captivity. All of the tales came from his neck of the woods, which happens to be a place I know and worship after many years of woodland rambles along discontinued roads, faded footpaths and game trails, not to mention freewheeling, whimsical, at times daring diversions. He mentions sightings by him and others of mountain lions, moose, deer and coyotes, all of them between Conway’s Poland Brook Wildlife Management Area and West Whately’s Mountain Street Reservoir. The area, known in topo-map lingo as the Williamsburg Quadrangle, is a splendid mix of upland deciduous and conifer forest, high, stony, hardwood spines, and dense wetland tangles. There, if you know the woods and don’t fear them, among the potential discoveries are an incredible balanced rock of ancient ‘Burgy lore and a high and hidden 1926 brass plaque dedicated to late Daily Hampshire Gazette editor/publisher and High Street Walking Club member Edward C. Gere.

If you do your homework, you may even get to know the cellar hole of 18th-century Whately rabble-rouser Perez Bardwell, a brave soldier who got himself into quite a fix as a post-Revolutionary rebel. Look him up. He’s a fascinating local example of the colonial firebrands called “Old Revolutionaries” by late MIT American-history scholar Pauline Maier, who wrote the book. We’re talking about fiercely independent radicals in the mold of Samuel Adams, Dr. Thomas Young and Patrick Henry. These patriot “activists” ignited the American Revolution, then were kicked to the curb by moderate Federalists after it was won. But let us not digress.

Most of Linscott’s reported sightings unfolded near the old Graves Farm, now an Audubon Society preserve off-limits to dogs. That’s what keeps me away. Back in the day, I knew the elderly, hunchbacked Graves brother who lived in the old farmhouse. His name escapes me, but something tells me it was Marshall. Then again, I could be thinking of the Colrain Denison brothers I got to know through early-morning fishing. Does it really matter? I talked to this old Yankee farmer many times, pulling right through his barnyard to hunt or scout, before parking in the back pasture on  a knoll with  a lonely old apple tree. I shot a deer, many partridge and woodcock, and my first turkey on that 535-acre spread.

On my way home one afternoon, the bent old man was out behind the woodshed bucksawing 15- to 20-foot logs into heavy 18-inch pieces to be split for cordwood. He was  80-plus at the time. Grateful for the privilege of hunting and parking on his property, I pulled over, got out, rattled his cage a bit, and helped him for the last couple hours of daylight. I must have bucksawed off 20 or 30 chunks  before quartering them with a maul while he carted them to the woodshed. I still feel good about helping him and must say I thoroughly enjoyed the homespun conversation.  In fact, it was from that man that I learned about a Sanderson farm on the southern perimeter of his property that had burned to the ground in the early 1900s. I knew the old, charred ruins and chimney but had no idea who lived there.

“Maybe you’re related,” he said.

“Yes, we’re definitely from the same bolt of cloth,” I assured him, “though I don’t know  how. I’d wager that his family came from Whately, probably a West-Whately branch.”

Later research confirmed my speculation on both counts.

Isn’t it fascinating how, the more you study your place — its people, roads and rivers, churches and folklore, its deep history of oral literature and sacred landscapes — it seems only to grow  smaller and more dynamic? That, and easier to stitch the random  threads into a meaningful tapestry.

This Linscott letter to me, written in a neat, steady hand, was just one more reminder of how small our world becomes when we focus on place. Linscott and I are brothers of sort, careful observers of our own little worlds, which, for us, meet in a mystical overlap. Though we have not met and likely never will, our bleeding wrists are joined on the middle ground.

Call it shared,  savored love of place.

Bobcat/Lynx Feedback

Whenever I write about local wildcats, it seems that the feedback locomotive gets rolling full-steam ahead. So it was no surprise that last week’s column drew a spike in reader email.

Oh my! Can you imagine what’ll happen when I finally jump into that Petersham mountain-lion-attacks-horse tale, which I was aware of months before it hit the news on the day after Thanksgiving, went viral for a couple of days and vanished into thin air with  the surface scratched  ever so lightly. Of course, it’s always difficult for reporters to really delve into a totally unfamiliar subject about which little is known, especially when state wildlife officials paid to answer their questions go into their best damage-control shutdown mode, buttressed by their Office of Executive Affairs gatekeepers. I’ll let the issue sit for a little while longer. Confirmation that the DNA samples gathered on the scene by the landowner were indeed left by a mountain lion, as  determined by a reputable University of Florida lab, is due soon from another respected Arizona lab.

Not that anyone doubts the accuracy of the Florida lab’s determination that the blood and hair specimens were left by a cougar. But why not wait a little longer for confirmation from Arizona cougar expert Melanie Culver? This is the same woman who used archaeological evidence from deep-history Native American sites to prove that North American cougars (Puma concolor) from all points of the compass were one animal, not different species, thus debunking the eastern-cougar-extinction distraction propagated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service mere weeks before a 140-pound male disperser from South Dakota’s Black Hills showed up dead on a Connecticut highway in June 2011.

Stay tuned. We’ll let that spicy little Quabbin Country  story simmer in the Southwestern sun  a little longer. Back to feedback from week’s piece about local bobcats and the Canada lynx possibility.

The first response to show up in my inbox came from Fred Bourassa, a Shelburne Falls native who now calls Greenfield home. “I remember back in the late ’50’s/early ’60’s that there was a man named Ted Cromack, who lived on Rt.2 in Shelburne across from Call’s Corner Antiques,” he wrote. “Seemed like every week he would have a bobcat hanging from his front porch. I’m not sure whether he had dogs or not, but he certainly was an avid cat hunter. I’m sure a lot of old-timers from Shelburne will remember him.”

Well, although I’m not sure my hunting buddy, a Buckland native I call “Killer,” admits to being an old-timer, he is, at 72, no youngster. Did he remember Ted Cromack? Oh yeah, remembered him well. And, yes indeed, he did own a pack of hounds. The Killer also confirmed that he often passed the same roadside display Bourassa described at Cromack’s Mohawk Trail homestead. “Absolutely,” he agreed. “He was quite the boy, a well-known cat hunter. My uncle Roland (Cusson) and his buddies used to hunt with him back in the day.”

Those were the only hunting-related bobcat comments to come my way, although this week Greenfield accountant, Marine Vietnam vet and former trapping defender/activist Donald E. Graves of Buckland forwarded a copy of a letter he sent to President-Elect Donald J. Trump requesting that, because sportsmen and gun owners played such an important role in electing him, he should repeal ASAP the Massachusetts law enacted by 1996 referendum forbidding hounding of bears and bobcats as well as leghold traps.

The remainder of the comments came from nature lovers and wildlife observers who’ve had the pleasure of watching beautiful bobcats, and even possibly Canada lynx, around their rural Franklin County homes. These folks sounded much like my neighbor, Anne Echeverria, whose backyard sighting down the road from my home spurred last week’s column. Among the respondents were two women, Betty Schneider of East Colrain and Marti Auriemma, town of residence unknown.

We’ll begin with Schneider, a neighbor of sorts who sent a photo (below) taken last fell by husband Bill on his way to Greenfield. “There are many bobcats in my neighborhood,” she wrote. “My sister-in-law had four in her yard at the same time. How rare is that? She has photos of them. Beautiful animals! I guess the living conditions/food sources are great in East Colrain.”

Not a bobcat expert by any stretch of the imagination, I can’t speak to the rarity of seeing four bobcats in a group but did myself once see three walking cautiously through the woods from my deer stand. I would surmise that such groups are typically family units of mother and kittens. Once the young approach a year old, they’re big and it’s difficult to visually differentiate between adult and juvenile.

Because Ms. Auriemma didn’t pinpoint where she lives, we’ll just call it Recorder country and leave it at that. She and her husband had an interesting backyard sighting a couple of weeks ago that piqued their curiosities enough to push them onto an intensive Internet search for a positive identification. Their conclusion? Canada lynx, which isn’t impossible, given that there have in the past six months been confirmed southern Vermont sightings around the Deerfield River headwaters. What is there to stop such a cat from following the riverside corridors downstream?

“I’ve searched all over online and the animal we saw most resembles the lynx,” Auriemma wrote. “It was silvery gray, with no spots and a tail that was barely there. It was coming out of the woods on its way somewhere with a dead squirrel in its mouth. For several weeks before this sighting, I heard what sounded somewhat like a cat calling most nights (it was not a coyote, which we often hear). I had no idea what it was, but when this animal appeared that morning, I figured it must have been what I was hearing. We’ve seen a lynx in Colorado and are certain that is what we saw there, as there were signs posted warning not to shoot them. The animal in our backyard resembled this lynx, especially in coloration. Interesting?!”

Yes. Interesting indeed. I love it when readers share their observations, though lynx color can vary and thus may not be a reliable identifying characteristic.

Local observers interested in establishing at least a strong suspicion that what they’ve seen is a Canada lynx and not a bobcat should try to shoot a photo in these days of cell-phone cameras. A backyard photo led to the Londonderry, Vt., cat’s identification as a lynx. That photo is easy to find online. The distinguishing visual characteristics of lynx compared to bobcats are their shorter, blacker tails, larger feet, longer ear tufts, and especially hips that are elevated higher than the shoulder in a broadside profile.