My Filson woolens — Woodland-camo, toasty-warm and oh-so silent through winter thickets — are still hanging where I placed them in the carriage shed after Thanksgiving to air out in autumn winds. Yes, and the rugged, insulated hunting boots I twice dressed with different waterproofing oils are ready to go if I get the itch, unlikely indeed at this point. No regrets. I enjoyed a relaxing vacation spiced by alternative hunts, those for information in a home I enjoy, interesting items scattered about, all with tales to tell, even family lore that can stir the imagination on random midday whims. Just me, I suppose, not for everyone.
I was hoping a book I ordered online some time ago from a California dealer would be in the mail when I heard the distinctive purr of mail-lady Rose’s jeep approaching Monday morning. That way I could get a holiday jump on it, waking early to read when all is still. No such luck. I knew it would take a while to travel cross-country this time of year. No problem. I can wait. So here I sit, day off, banging out my first column after a free month, time once spent chasing around, trying to match wits with deer on their turf, never easy. This time, I never stepped foot in the woods, gun in hand. Just couldn’t get motivated after what I observed during two long preseason rambles through high country that has lured me for more than 40 years. And, yes, I must admit the fresh “POSTED” signs dated Nov. 25, 2012 on a backyard woodlot I’ve hunted for 15 years didn’t help any, either. I tried but was unable to hook up with the owner to reacquire permission. Oh well, plenty of other stuff to keep me busy. Interesting explorations at that, some related to Indians who once called our Pioneer Valley home.
The book I’ve been awaiting was written by a man I have vague memories of from my South Deerfield boyhood. Probably 10 years older than me, his name is Peter Thomas, a retired UVM anthropology/archeology professor, son of retired Amherst High English teacher Les Thomas, still going strong in his 90s — his thick, white, wavy head of hair the envy of young men. Both places I called home as a boy were in the Thomas neighborhood, where my daily travels downtown or to the Sugarloafs and beyond would have led me right past the eastern and western perimeters of the neat, yellow North Main Street homestead. Which isn’t to say I knew the family. No, in fact, were I to bump into the author tomorrow afternoon on the South Deerfield Common, I wouldn’t recognize him. I’ve known his work for some time and have read many of his essays, but not his signature work, “In The Maelstrom of Change: The Indian Trade and Cultural Process in the Middle Connecticut River Valley: 1635-1665.” Well, that’s about to change. I finally broke down and bought it, not cheap, toward the end of vacation. Published in 1990 and nearly 600 pages long, it’s regarded as the definitive scholarly work on the Native tribes that resided in our valley at the time of 17th century Dutch and English intrusion. We’re talking about Sokoki, Pocumtuck, Norwottuck and Woronoco, Algonquian cousins, friends and allies connected by marriage, seasonal fishing celebrations and cooperative trade networks in every direction. What I find most fascinating about these indigenous people is the mystery. Much more is unknown than known about these tribes we ruthlessly displaced. And now, according to a local amateur archeologist and researcher well known to the professional community, many “secret” excavations have recently been conducted right under our noses, the recovered artifacts squirreled away in dark UMass repositories, the written reports hidden from public consumption. Why? I guess I’ll have to explore these claims over the winter, a good time for such endeavors. According to my source, no one involved is forthcoming with information, in fact quite secretive. We’ll see. It could prove interesting. I believe the discoveries should be public, exposed and explored to the fullest extent. People would be interested. How can anyone not find our rich Paleoindian history fascinating?
Myself, awaking daily as a teen looking out at the Bloody Brook Monument across the street, I developed a lively curiosity about our vanquished Pioneer Valley tribes, and have over the years absorbed much about them as well as neighboring tribes of the Connecticut, Hudson, Mohawk and Champlain valleys, not to mention those of the Merrimack Valley, central Massachusetts and coastal New England. This insatiable hunger for knowledge, which has been active since childhood, was rekindled in recent months by introduction to sacred landscapes in the book “Manitou,” which immediately brought to mind a remote spot high in our western hills. I just knew it fit snugly into the ritualistic-landscape scheme I had read of. Well, a couple of Sunday-morning trips to this site overlooking a historic Indian trail and the faraway lower Pioneer Valley did nothing to discourage my suspicions; in fact, quite the contrary. And when I snapped several pictures of a newfound cairn and stone structure I believed to be a prayer seat above an active spring and balanced rock of local legend buried high and deep in the woods, I emailed the snapshots accompanied by a site description to an expert who’s written books on the subject of New England stones and stone structures with prehistoric Native significance. The man shared my photos with his scholarly mother, fired back with many questions and ultimately concluded that I was onto something important, which I can’t say surprised me.
Call me crazy but that entire ridge, the impressive stonewalls surrounding it, and especially the balanced rock have always, to me, screamed of spirituality. When, just before Thanksgiving, I revisited the rock for the first time in some 20 years, I overshot it to the south, traveled through a wet, narrow ravine and ascended steep rocky terrain to the peak of the next ridge west, where I stumbled upon the cairn that closely resembled photos of others I had seen in recent books read. That’s what really got my wheels spinning. So here I sit, pondering my next move, eagerly anticipating another mountain-top mission, camera in hand, plan in mind. I’ll follow the walls in search of irregularities, zig-zags, openings, half-moon or square warts. You name it, I’m looking, probing, trying to connect the dots, a fascinating jigsaw puzzle of sorts.
Those two trips through traditional trophy-buck country sure didn’t rev me up for deer hunting, though. In four or five hours traipsing around an area where I’ve seen lots of imressive deer sign in the past, I saw one lousy pile of old black droppings and not a rutting scrape anywhere. Moose? Well, that was another story. Moose sign was everywhere, lots of it fresh and loud on the second trip. But there was nothing in those woods to excite a deer hunter. Oaks, beech and hickory everywhere, not a nut on the ground, no birds, not even the distant bark of a squirrel. The silence was deafening, eerie, in fact. With feed scarce, so were the beasts that eat it, having likely moved to hayfields at lower elevations. Don’t ask me why the moose were up there. I don’t understand moose. But what a mess the rutting bull that passed through had left, marking territory by rubbing small tree trunks bare, shredding and snapping several two-inch hemlocks in half. Helen Keller could have seen it.
Other than that, only ancient indigenous spirits whistling through naked, barren, ridge-top hardwoods, almost spooky, especially the unusual shagbark hickory sporting seven sturdy trunks. No camera on that trip, the first.
I shall return. Promise.