On The Trail

On The Trail: Debunking myths

OK, it’s time to correct the record. Well, let’s just say set it straight as can be expected, because, well, you know, hypotheses can always change.

I’m not here to apologize, and have no regrets. No, it’s just that, having read and pondered and listened and spoken to scholars and authors and experts of all stripes in recent years, my outlook on some bedrock concepts have changed dramatically. Like everyone else, I’m guilty only of being drawn in and accepting at an early age what I was taught out of some Houghton Mifflin textbook by an unimaginative grammar-school teacher who accepted its contents as gospel. Yes, I’m guilty of listening, then at times of actually repeating the nonsensical misconceptions instilled in me by institutional history and star-spangled logic instilled to fill the flock with patriotic pride. So let’s call today’s topic a simple case of elderly reassessment, with me 60 and embarking on my 35th year at the newspaper of record in the county where I were born, and where my roots lie deep as their tiny little subterranean Anglo tendril-hairs can dig.

Let me begin by defining my goal in any intellectual journey as a search for truth, one unencumbered by ideology and knee-jerk opinion, prevailing wisdom be damned. Because, you know, what I’ve discovered through years of probes and ponderings is that such diluted types of pseudo-wisdom are often ignorant of the facts, sometimes intentionally so — ideology driven home with a ball-peen hammer of deceptive half-truths and outright lies crafted by clever spin-doctors devoted to supporting an agenda and shaping public opinion. All I can say is, thank the heavens rhetoric classes were still chic when I attended college, back in the day when defiant Sixties dissent and defiance were still palpable. Without those Liberal Arts lessons taught in the dark, dingy bowels of Bartlett Hall, I would not harbor the cynicism/skepticism I so value. Maybe innate curiosity and suspicion was in my blood all along; that and an anti-Federalist Yankee persuasion, thus I was different and refused to embrace those so-called guardians of freedom and liberty and justice who try to create legions of flag-waving Boy Scouts, altar boys and true believers. Somehow, I was able to see through and reject their empty slogans and pledges, their dress codes and ethical standards aimed at building conventional views framed by propaganda and misconception.

As I sit here in this familiar seat for the first time in more than a month, coming off a long vacation, I selfishly used to read, explore and reflect on subjects dear to me, I find myself, as usual, thinking back to the walk I just showered off from — a ramble that took me and dear four-legged companions Lily and Chubby through squeaky, frozen, crunchy Sunken Meadow, down by the free-flowing Picomegan. As I followed the narrow four-season path I’ve carved into the circumference of two adjoining bottomland fields bordered by a dense collar of naked rosebushes framing slim frozen marshland, it occurred to me how tempting it is, even for animals, to follow beaten paths. After heavy rains and frigid overnight temps, the snow was compacted and solid enough for the dogs to walk comfortably atop without breaking through, yet most often they ran ahead of me right on the trail, meandering in and out of the rosebush border to investigate random swampy scents, yet always returning to the trodden trail. I remember thinking how interesting it is that even animals prefer traveling established trails?

I have noticed this many times in my daily rambles, snow or no snow, the path always discernible, me, almost always, and the dogs, for the most part, following it. For that matter, even the deer who avoid us when we’re there walk our trail when we’re gone. So don’t believe those who tell you deer vacate an area ripe with human scent. It’s fiction. I have seen deer many times follow my trail right to a stand during hunting season.

As I pondered the dogs preferring the beaten path, my wheels started spinning wildly, one thought leading to another, all of them relevant to where we’re going with this narrative. As often happens when I observe animal behavior, I realize we too are animals, no matter what those aforementioned guardians of freedom and PTA moms want you to believe. In fact, I truly believe that those of us who admit we’re animals and learn to accept and savor our animalistic cravings, are ultimately happier, psychologically healthier and overall better grounded than those who spend their entire lives fighting such urges, fearing evil and pretending they don’t exist. Which brings me back to trodden trails, yes, that and setting the record straight on propaganda I may have passed along over the years before coming to grips with reality, never easy when bombarded with doctrine and patriotic idolatry along all the most popular paths. I learned young that it’s often enlightening to wander off the beaten trail to cut your own, always confident that you’ll find your way back to the main path.

When you think of it, wasn’t it caribou runs that humans followed to the areas they eventually populated along rivers after the glaciers left. And wasn’t it those same game trails carved by large ancient beasts and followed by primitive hunter/gatherers that later led more advanced humans from south to north as the climate warmed for habitation? And as those migrating, evolving people settled, multiplied and assimilated with other people from other places, and were eventually led, perhaps by animals, to nutritious berry patches growing on otherwise barren upland tundra, wasn’t it they who annually burned off these vast, tangled, wild croplands of thorny bushes and winding vines to regenerate the fruitful ridges and keep them open for seasonal villages and ceremonial sites when the food was there to be gathered and devoured. And didn’t that same soft mast attract the deer and the moose and the bears that the humans killed for meat? And weren’t those same ridge-tops and their slopes later invaded by groves of hickory and oak, which Indians learned to manage for the nuts they produced, not to mention the foraging sources of meat they attracted in the fall?

Yes, I’m now convinced that the story with which we’re all familiar, the one about our Bunyanesque colonial forebears carving their hilltown farms out of the primeval forest by felling massive virgin timbers with their axes is romantic myth, because much of the first lands settled were already cleared by the Native Americans who had lived there for thousands of years before them. When the French explorer Samuel Champlain toured the New England coast from southern Maine to Cape Cod 15 years before the Mayflower, he marveled at large populations of physically impressive people who had cleared vast acreage for their maize fields within sight of his boats and up the major river valleys. Behind these highly civilized agricultural landscapes stood open, park-like forests with massive trees spaced over a barren underbody managed by seasonal fires set to remove the brush, vermin and poisonous serpents. A decade later, English explorer John Smith of Jamestown fame explored the same region from the opposite direction and described a slice of paradise that he feared to be off-limits to European immigration because of large populations of Native Americans permanently settled along the coast. At the same time Smith explored our coast, Dutchmen were sailing from Long Island Sound up the Connecticut River as far as the Enfield, Conn., falls, and they also reported a heavily populated agricultural valley, which, even though it wasn’t then known, extended all the way to busy Pocumtuck villages in Deerfield/Greenfield, where four rivers flowed into the Connecticut River near sacred fishing/ceremonial falls called Peskoumskut. Then came European disease epidemics that ravaged the Native population and wiped out up to 90 percent of some villages, leaving prime land to be claimed and settled as it was.

The first Pioneer Valley sites inhabited by colonials were Springfield, Northampton, Hadley, Hatfield, Deerfield and Northfield, and they all presented cleared riverside land that was fertile and ready for settlement between 1636 and 1675. Then, by the time outlying areas in the eastern and western hills opened up in the mid-18th century, even though much of it had become thickly overgrown with infant forest brought about by Indian exodus and demise, it would not have been as daunting a task to clear as our patriotic historians would lead is to believe. In fact, had the frontiersmen been willing to take a lesson from their Native predecessors and put a match to the dense, young, reforesting plots, the clearing would have been fast indeed. And don’t let anyone kid you — the settlement pattern in what are now our western hilltowns of Conway, Ashfield, Buckland, Heath, Charlemont and beyond began around large clearings left behind by a noble race that occupied their property hundreds, perhaps even thousands of years before them. Take it to the bank: Conway’s first settler Cyrus Rice, was led to his farm by a prominent Indian trail, and he staked his claim to a pretty upland site that had been cleared for centuries before he happened upon it. Remember, the Norwottucks who occupied the sandy terraces of Mt. Sugarloaf’s southern Connecticut River-side skirt claimed as their last refuge following the French & Indian War a place called Indian Hill, now Whately Glen. The site of Rice’s farmstead sits on an extension of that wooded upland terrace, which was likely maintained as a nut grove and fall hunting ground by contact-period Indians, who would have moved their wigwams a mile or two to set up temporary seasonal habitation sites used over and over for fall hunting. No problem. That’s when men were men, and women were in many ways their equals when it came to physical labor.

Unlike European Christians who viewed life as a linear journey, Indians’ world view worked in circles; when they met in council, they sat in a circle, which had no starting and ending point, no location more powerful than another, a sphere where everyone’s observations and opinions were received without interruption, anger or charges of insubordination. Find a business or organization that works like that today in our corporate world and you’re likely viewing a successful operation, one receptive to open and honest discussion aimed at improvement. Which reminds me that I’ve now come full circle, right back to those days of Bartlett Hall rhetoric classes. We’d study news accounts of the same incident or event from different political perspectives, as presented in various newspapers, magazines and television sources, comparing the spin, analyzing the motives. Time and again, the professor would remind us with a wry grin that you can’t believe everything you read in newspapers and magazines, or saw on TV news. We were taught to dissect stories, read many accounts and explore what really happened and why various accounts and official government statements were often contradictory. Well, never has “news” been more suspect than it is today in Orwellian America. But, if diligent and open-minded, you can still figure out what’s really going on.

A case in point is the controversy surrounding certain local Indian issues pertaining to long-lost villages, sacred fishing sites and sandbank burial grounds, all of which have endured heavy-handed misinformation campaigns that reach deep, deep, deep into local and state government, institutions or higher learning and the press. But the truth is out there for the taking with a little legwork. No! Strike that. A little legwork won’t cut it these days. There are way too many obstacles constructed by powerful people with political/economic agendas and vociferous rabble support. It’s hard work.

To discover the truth, you must cut your own path through a dense, foreboding swamp, still among Mother Earth’s most fertile ground, yet always capable of swallowing a big man whole with one sloppy gulp of deep, oily, black mud.

The alternative is to believe textbooks, punch timecards, salute flags, genuflect and shut your mouth.

Recorder sports editor Gary Sanderson is a longtime member of the outdoor-writers associations of America and New England. Blog: www.tavernfare.com. Email: gary@oldtavernfarm.com.

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