Here I sit for the second time today, just couldn’t get started on my first attempt, distracted, too many options. To remedy the little stalemate, I decided to load up the dogs and take a walk through the twin sunken meadows, which always seem to lift me to a better place.
When I returned a half-hour or so later, my inbox contained a fresh, thought-provoking letter from faraway pen pal Hannelore, the German lady with whom I enjoy communicating, have never met. She was responding to my week-old response. We are intellectually attracted to each other, far more precious than any physical temptation that will ever land on your doorstep. I’m grateful for the freedom I’m given as a married man, no petty jealousies to preclude such harmless, Platonic relationships. Life’s too short to abide by tedious, stifling routine. Why not a little excitement? But enough esotericism; better stick to benign matters even dearly departed Rick Santorum would approve of.
Considering that I teased to cougars at the end of last week’s column, I feel obligated to begin with that subject but, not the locked-in type, allow me, please, to sidestep it briefly. Let’s instead go to an interesting Monday spent with a bright young woman photographer closing in on her Hampshire College degree with a challenging thesis about, in her words, “the middle road between industrial farm-animal production and vegetarianism.” She had emailed me to say she had all the needed subjects — hunter, farmer, goat herder, slaughterhouse, traveling butcher — but had yet to find anyone who fished for sustenance. A mutual acquaintance, also a photographer, had suggested she query me, thought maybe I could come up with somebody in a pinch. Well, let’s just say that following a wetland walk, a trout and fiddlehead hunt, and a half-pint of Jack Daniels, she didn’t walk away disappointed.
It’s funny how I orchestrated the outing by Shanghaiing a hunting buddy I was sure fit her needs and would be entertaining if I could only somehow get him to cooperate. I also knew he’d be a tough sell, so I introduced the concept to him while picking fiddleheads Friday and, as anticipated, he wanted no part of it. But, as goes the old saying he’d better relate to than I, “there’s more than one way to skin a cat,” and, in backwoods vernacular, I “skun” it my way.
Because my buddy and I prefer Eastern brookies, our native trout, to the rest, I had many times told him of a secluded little beaver pond I’ve been monitoring for months. I promised that someday when I had time, preferably with my grandson in tow, I’d take him there to investigate, fishing rod and a bucket of crawlers in hand. Well, let’s just say I used that enticement to facilitate what must have seemed to the young woman like a hopeless 11th-hour assignment. With deadline looming, it all worked out like a plan from the sweet heavens.
When my buddy called Friday to say he was anxious to revisit the pond, I told him I’d rather wait till Monday when I had time and he said that sounded fine. Later, I wrote back to the woman, whom I had not met, and suggested she meet me at my home Monday morning between 8:30-9, no guarantees. She wrote back that she was willing to give it a shot and, sure enough, pulled into my driveway before 9. We took a quick walk with the dogs, returned home to kennel them, called my buddy and picked him up with a little surprise riding shotgun. I introduced them and we drove to the beaver pond, where we caught seven nice, colorful squaretails, picked three pounds of fiddleheads and returned to my kitchen table for a long, tape-recorded interview. Running late at the beaver pond, where she even pulled in her first two fish, she had called into work on her cell phone to cancel her 11 a.m. shift at the school library. She departed from my yard a little after 3 p.m. with a lively taped interview, several photos, a Ziploc bagful of trout tucked into a plastic grocery bag containing two pounds of fiddleheads, and oral instructions on how to clean and cook her savory wild fare.
When walking the dogs before the expedition began, the young lady was curious why I couldn’t be her fishing subject. I explained that I didn’t fit the mold because I haven’t fished for many years and, even if I had, I was a catch-and-release man. The fella I wanted her to interview was a meat fisherman, not to mention an authentic hunter/gatherer who raised a garden, gathered wild plant foods, hunted and fished for meat, and had even in his day run trap-lines to supplement his income, a bonus indeed. And, oh, how that half-pint of Tennessee whiskey improved the woman’s information-gathering process.
We stopped for the little bottle of truth serum at Harper’s, down the road from my place, at his request. He needed a drink the day after Easter; you know, must have been dry from eating ham. Oh, I forgot, he had leg of lamb. Anyway, when he asked if I could stop, I said, “Sure,” and our lady friend was in full agreement, hoping, “Maybe it’ll loosen your tongue a little.” A visionary she was. I think the interview went well, probably better than either of us expected. I’m glad I was able to help at the last minute. For the record (my old townie and frat buddies would get a kick out of this), she and I drank maple-syrup-sweetened Lipton tea. Getting old, I guess. Don’t bet on it.
At one point during our pre-maneuver walk, the young lady and I were addressing random subjects when I warned her that although she had likely lucked out and found the right man to complete her academic project, “I’m not sure you know what you’re getting yourself into. You may have bitten off more than you can chew with me.” She responded with a priceless, bemused little grim I will not soon forget. No, she wasn’t a bit afraid, nor did she seem too taken aback by what unfolded, Jack Black and all. But you must remember that the kid did come from Hampshire, a little different, my kinda place. Yes sir, she was a trooper. I can’t wait to read the thesis, which she expects to exceed 100 pages.
Before returning to cougars, I noticed my old UMass professor, Howard Ziff, died Tuesday morning at age 81. Friend George Miller noticed mention of Ziff in last week’s column and was waiting for me Monday evening at work to tell me my UWW sponsor was ill in hospice care. He died the next morning. What I find most interesting is that out of the clear blue sky I had mentioned the man last week in one of my rambles. Who knows why? He just came to mind and I went with it. Frankly, I don’t view it as a coincidence. No, call me crazy if you will, but I believe Ziff was creating a lot of energy as he faded in his deathbed, and somehow it found me. Often, when thinking of an old friend or lover or late family member, I find myself wondering why. Then I think I have intercepted that person’s thoughts, new or old, which I believe infinitely float through our universe, and they have pierced my consciousness. But enough of that, back to cougars, the four-legged variety, of course. Why in heaven’s name would any 58-year-old man fancy the two-legged? Way too late for that.
Anyway, where to begin? These days, cougar stuff seems to be coming at me like June “no-see-ems” on the balmy edge of a Maine cedar swamp. Just Tuesday morning on my daily rounds I stopped and talked to Ev Hatch, always pleasant, who told me he had something for me. At a roadside Brattleboro information booth, my good neighbor had picked up a magazine containing a cougar story he thought would interest me.
“I bet you mean that ‘Vermont’s Northland Journal’ with an old black & white photo of a man sitting next to a dead cougar on the cover,” I responded. “If so, someone from Heath sent it to me at work and I just read it this morning before walking the dogs.”
Yes, indeed, that was the magazine. The cover photo shows triumphant Alexander Crowell of nearby Readsboro sitting beside the hometown cougar he killed in 1881, still accepted as the last known Vermont catamount. What’s surreal is that our conversation occurred within inches of where Ed Galvin had stopped me a month or so back to hand me the winter 1994 “Vermont Life,” which featured a story about a 1993 cougar sighting in the Northeast Kingdom town of Craftsbury. The recent Journal piece evens mentions that Craftsbury sighting among others, and suggests that cougars are indeed back in the Green Mountain State.
That said, the cougar tale I teased to last week has nothing to do with either of the aforementioned magazine pieces, or with Vermont cougars. Nope. This tale emanates from the heart of Recorder country, in the happy little Millers River hamlet of Wendell. Of course, Wendell cougar-sightings are not news to me. Several reports from that vicinity have reached me over the past 10 years, including a couple from my old softball buddy, “Big Richie” Kellogg, now a proud Wendell resident.
So, when Peter Fisher sent me a string of cougar comments a few weeks ago from an online Wendell community bulletin board, it piqued my curiosity. Among the people who had seen cougars near the same location was Fisher himself, who wrote: “The responses are sent in the order received. The commonality of five different sightings is their geographic proximity to Wendell’s Bear Mountain, which rises on the south side of Route 2, across the way from the Farley ledges, a popular climbing site, above which lies the Northfield Mt. reservoir.”
Something he didn’t mention is that there are many deer in that area, an attraction for big cats, which rely on deer as their primary food source.
Broadening the scope of eastern Franklin County cougar reports over the years, I have been told of several sightings in the Quabbin region, through New Salem and into towns along the northern perimeter like Orange, Royalston, Templeton and Warwick, also a few from adjacent Northfield. Another string of sightings came from Wendell’s southern periphery, in Montague and Leverett, so how can anyone just ignore them as hallucinations or LSD flashbacks, which I would guess occur from time to time in sleepy Wendell? But that’s just wild speculation based on some of the folks I have known to live there. Again, my kinda folks, kindred spirits of Hampshire students and Timothy Leary’s old Harvard research group, if you get the gist.
Enough! A fine place to call it quits this week. No, wait! One more little tidbit before I go:
If it’s travelin’ music you’re looking for, you can’t go wrong with Blake and Rice, better still, B&R joined by Doc Watson for a couple cuts, flat-picking at its finest.