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On the Trail: New sheriff in town?

More than half my cordwood’s in the shed, the Full Hunters Moon is building to a brilliant climax and green stocking trucks are rolling for Saturday’s opening day of pheasant season.

Yes, the bird-hunting season is upon us and here I sit in a familiar seat, still procrastinating about purchasing my hunting license online. Imagine that! I guess times change as we age. But trust me, I will soon embark on my normal busy fall pheasant-hunting routine, starting next week and ultimately dovetailing snugly into my customary December vacation. So, first the license — just a hunting license, not sporting, for the first time in memory — then a new pair of sturdy waterproof boots, and maybe, just maybe, even new Filson bibs; you know, the kind made of the Seattle, Wash., company’s patented Double-Tin Cloth, an oil-cloth material marketed as durable enough to provide a lifetime of wear. Well, maybe for some, but not me. After three seasons, my bibs are always tattered and torn, in fact shredded and ready to be cut into patches before throwing them out. That adds up to 18 short weeks of brush-busting behind my energetic Springer Spaniels, sliding through and bounding over dense, thorny cover. No, I’m not complaining. Filson bibs are the best for my money. But, still, they only last me, likely among the high end of aggressive field-testers, three measly hunting seasons, a time-tested reality proven many times over, hopefully many more if my chronic arthritic left knee cooperates.

But I’ll have more than enough time to write about pheasants, swamps, gun dogs and wing shots as the season progresses. In fact, I’m anxious to watch Chubby — now 2 and entering his third season at full speed and agility — come into his own. I know it’s coming. He’ll blow past his 9-year-old mother this year. Which is not to suggest Lily’s any slouch. No, no, no. To the contrary, the old gal can still hold her own, thank you. But Chubby’s just bigger, stronger and much younger, not to mention an absolute unharnessed bundle of energy, all nose and tail, naturally biddable and entering his prime. He’ll be fun to watch.

Till then, though, I’m still intrigued by that Paleoindian archaeological excavation I observed back in September on a sandy southern Mt. Sugarloaf skirt. There, at a place where many years ago I picked tobacco and I shot pheasants over black Lab Sara, Paleoindians camped seasonally to capitalize on favorable topography for caribou hunting and whatever else they may have hunted and gathered there. Having watched Dr. Richard Michael Gramly and crew trowel through layer upon layer of dirt to collect 12,000-year-old, prehistoric treasure below the chocolate-colored plowzone, and having had the opportunity to talk at length to him and many of his loyal, experienced crew members, all donating their time from all over America, I just can’t seem to shake the subject of Paleoindians and their Pioneer Valley travels focused around hunting for survival and clothing.

And now, could it be a coincidence that out of the clear blue sky, quite by accident, I have been told of a new development that suggests perhaps it was a good thing I watched that dig and asked those questions when I did, because such opportunities may soon be impossible if Massachusetts House Bill No. 744 is passed in the dark of night before anyone in the Connecticut River Valley knows what hit them. Presented on Jan. 17 by Peter V. Kocot, D-Northampton, and co-signed by Hampshire County sister Ellen Story, D-Amherst, the proposed bill — the genesis of which I’m still not certain of but have my suspicions — is currently working its way toward enactment. If approved as expected, a Connecticut Valley oversight committee headquartered at UMass will be appointed “to preserve and protect the archaeological and fossil resources of the Commonwealth.” I don’t know what will change with a new Pioneer Valley archaeological watchdog on patrol, but suspect it will tighten the screws on future archaeological exploration here. Stay tuned. I must explore this bill and its aims before commenting further. But I must admit that at first whiff the smell is unpleasant, knowing who likely pushed it behind the scenes and why, while I also know other experts in the field who have reservations about these folks’ objectives, tactics and unaccountability.

In the meantime, you may want to attend a 2 p.m. program Sunday at the Hall Tavern in Old Deerfield. There, UMass anthropologist Elizabeth Chilton and former student Siobhan Hart will unveil a presentation and answer questions about the Pocumtuck Fort site they have been quietly exploring on a ridge just east of Deerfield Village for the past 10 or more years. News of this presentation was not publicized in bold print on the Historic Deerfield website but was promoted on a brochure mailed periodically to Friends of Historic Deerfield supporters.

The long-lost, mysterious Pocumtuck Fort site, said to have been attacked by the Mohawks prior to 1670, has for almost two centuries piqued the interest of scholars and local historians alike. But in the big picture, it’s a Contact Period site that’s small potatoes compared to the nearby Sugarloaf Paleo Site, which is more than 10,000 years older. Most enticing about Paleo exploration is how little is known about these primitive human beings, with new discoveries and interpretation being made weekly. It is difficult to decipher precisely who these people were because time has erased their DNA, leaving behind only stone tools and implements and, if lucky, maybe some calcine (roasted) bone fragments and charcoal bits for carbon-dating. Having queried a broad sampling of the experts passing through the recent Sugarloaf Site dig, and read volumes on the subject, it’s clear to me that there is great disagreement relative to who these Paleoindians were and whether they were the ancient ancestors of the Indian tribes found living here at the time of the Pocumtuck Fort. Some experts believe the River Tribes of our valley carried the genes of the Paleo people Gramly was exploring; others speculate that those genes vanished from our valley with the caribou herds, which, myself, I find preposterous. So count me among the folks who believe that all the tribes who met the European boats landing on our eastern shores from the days of Viking Leif Erikson forward encountered Indians who had evolved from the nomadic, post-Ice Age Paleo hunting bands. At the moment, there are those who will respond to that opinion by claiming I’m “uninformed.” But the fact is that neither my hypothesis nor theirs — that the River Indian tribesmen of 1630 carried no genetic markers of the Paleo people living at the Sugarloaf Site — can be proven at the present time. So put that in your pipe and smoke it, and pack it with a little of old friend Jimmy Pasiecnik’s medical marijuana if you will. Or, if that Whately entrepreneur can’t talk sense into the rigid town officials he’s dealing with, maybe Mike Ruggeri will soon be able to supply some primo green-bone filler. Will pot-Nazis in government ever give up? Hasn’t this gone on long enough? Isn’t it inevitable that pot will someday be legal, no matter what the Nervous Nellies from the Ecumenical Council say? All this bluster is ridiculous, not to mention a colossal waste of time and money. It must have been nice back in the Paleo era when people were governed by the forces of nature, not uniformed officers enforcing laws enacted to preserve and protect the status quo, be it compassionate or corrupt, more likely the latter. But why digress … back to the Paleoindians who slaughtered caribou with spears right where I dropped many a cackling ringneck rooster fleeing for cover deep into the foreboding Hopewell Swamp, still rich in virtually everything a man needs to survive.

Those who believe Paleo people disappeared from our region say they did so in pursuit of the caribou herds, which they followed north to cooler climates. There’s no reason to doubt that Paleo hunters initially followed the shifting caribou range north, because, like all human beings, they were creatures of habit locked into a lifestyle. But don’t people and animals evolve? Did deer, bears and squirrels leave our landscape when American chestnuts died of blight, or did they adapt and learn to survive on other available hard-mast crops? Does anyone truly believe that Paleoindians who savored caribou meat above all else and chased the herds as a way of life didn’t know there were also fish and fowl within the same habitats? Weren’t they aware of other sources of red meat as well? If caribou moved to colder regions as New England warmed, wouldn’t the people who followed ultimately return to their old haunts, find that life was easier and develop new tastes in food? I can’t imagine any other scenario. Do you really need a doctorate to figure out such basic, primal questions of survival? Not in the world of common sense.

All I can say is that I want to know more. I’d like to connect the Sugarloaf Site to Peskeomskut and South Hadley Falls and the Hamp Meadows and a certain balanced rock and prayer seat I know buried deep in a place known to some as The Four Corners. And I get the feeling that if this House Bill No. 744 goes through in the dark of night without public awareness and scrutiny, that future Paleo archaeology will be off limits except to selected pals in agreement with a small cabal of secretive stewards serving their own needs and padding their resumes.

I guess the least I can do at this late point is shed a dull ray of light into the shadow obscuring the bill; that and hope I won’t soon after imminent approval be proclaiming right here in this space that I told you so.

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.

Sharing archaeology and history with the public is important and should be considered by all who do this kind of work. After all isn't knowledge of the past helping us better understand the future?

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