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On The Trail

On the Trail: Dysfunction junction

Yes, it was indeed April Fools Day, but it was no spoof. Finally, spring had sprung, and the cock cardinal sitting in the burning bush off the inset porch was announcing it to the neighborhood, his joyous morning melody brightening the clear, pleasant air before fading off into infinite clear-blue sky.

I celebrated the event by doubling my morning walk over March-brown, soggy splatter — oh, how the dogs loved it — and, before that, I even aired out the barn and house by opening doors and windows, an exhilarating first rite of spring, especially opening my home, which had absorbed a long, cold winter it needed to relieve itself of, the sooner the better. The forecast called for three beautiful days. Splendid! I was more than ready for it and would venture a guess that I wasn’t alone.

And wouldn’t you know it: speaking of harbingers of spring, there in my inbox sat an email announcing the first spring-trout-stocking round by MassWildlife’s Western District office, a notice that arrived a day after an online press-release from the agency’s Westborough Field Headquarters announcing statewide stocking was underway. Which, allow me to digress for a moment, reminds me how much I now enjoy the newfound freedom to write that word, underway, as one instead of two, thanks to high-ranking Associated Press windbags who recently met at some posh hotel to arbitrarily decide it was time to change the style from under way to underway. Trust me, within 20 years it’ll go back to two words. Who knows? Maybe I won’t live to see it, but it’s coming — as soon as the insecure Lourdes of style finally become so painfully inflated with air of self-importance that they’ll have to release the discomforting buildup with an explosive new and irrelevant style-change that stinks to the high heavens and makes absolutely no difference in the world of reading comprehension. But enough of that. No, not another millisecond of pointless and quite disrespectful digression. Onto something that matters, like, for instance, Lake Hitchcock’s ancient drainage some 14,000 years ago, a subject I cannot seem to shake as I travel our Pioneer Valley and analyze its bottomland contours, many of them soupy cattail marshes and alder swamps I’ve followed my flushing gun-dogs through in search of sporting game birds, maybe even waterfowl back in the days when lead-shot was still legal for both.

I must say I’m pleased how new information about an old, familiar place called home can radically change my perspective. Still mired in Pioneer Valley prehistory these days, my crosshairs are centered on the overlap Franklin-Hampshire delta between Mts. Sugarloaf and Toby on the north and Holyoke and Tom on the south. In between those ranges stands solitary Mt. Warner, named after a transplanted European family that arrived in the Connecticut Valley five centuries ago to become a thread in my genealogical quilt. Millennia before that immigrant family migrated upriver from Hartford to Hadley with the followers of Rev. Hooker’s Teacher Stone, that pointed peak standing across the river from The Bashin and the old Hatfield Oxbow stood as a small island protruding between the aforementioned neighboring ranges, which were also islands surrounded by the vast pro-glacial Lake Hitchcock extending some 200 miles south from St. Johnsbury, Vt., to Middletown, Conn. It was there, at a place now known as Rocky Hill, where a natural dam burst some 14,000 years ago, opening a fertile valley to human habitation. At least, that’s the conventional wisdom. Others believe a sparse population of pre-Clovis migrants had found their way here from warmer southern climates, arriving in the Northeast 1,000 years before Lake Hitchcock drained.

Evidence of pre-Paleo occupation has been found in the lower Hudson Valley at the Dutchess Quarry Caves (DQC) near Middletown, N.Y. Those caves would have overlooked pro-glacial Lake Albany, which was contemporaneous to and about 100 miles west of Lake Hitchcock in these parts. Archaeological research conducted there in the Sixties and Seventies by R.E. Funk, D.W. Steadman and others unearthed Cumberland points, Indian artifacts associated with the Southeast and never before or since found in the Northeast. For that matter, to this day not a single artifact of this style has ever been recovered from the Albany Lake bed. All of them came from the highlands looking down on the old lake.

Veteran Paleo researcher Dr. R.E. “Mike” Gramly — a DQC participant who led a recent Connecticut Valley Paleo excavation on the southern skirt of Mt. Sugarloaf and dated bone samples dug from the sandy soil there at 12,350 years old — said there’s no reason to doubt that bands of these same pre-Clovis people who left hints of their presence in southeastern New York were here, too, in limited numbers. However, two formidable obstacles stand in the way of unraveling this mystery: 1.) pre-eminent retired UMass anthropologist/archaeologist Dr. Dena F. Dincauze and her minions championed the Clovis-first human-settlement theory and have not been open to alternative hypotheses, and 2.) the Pioneer Valley mountains and their hidden rock shelters, which may well hold pre-Clovis evidence, have been largely ignored by the archaeologists because of strenuous labor associated with upland digs.

Gramly, a bundle of energy, intellectual curiosity and self-confidence, is not hesitant to speak frankly about what is wrong with archaeology and his pet peeve, cultural-resource management. In personal communication, Gramly wrote: “It is only via physically challenging efforts that pre-Clovis human presence in and around pro-glacial Lake Hitchcock will ever be laid bare. Academics working from the comforts of cushy armchairs will not produce the data you seek. One must sweat and risk pinched toes and fingers, or worse. The labors at the Dutchess Quarry Caves are in the best tradition of scientific archaeology and were carried out by real researchers who understand that ‘pure imagining’ or ‘hollow hypothesizing’ are inadequate. Musings must be followed by fieldwork.”

Not only that, but after fieldwork is completed, the findings should be published in a timely fashion to accelerate discovery through interactive research that brings many voices and opinions to the table. From what I’ve observed during what is approaching two year’s worth of aggressive information-gathering, cooperation among rival researchers is rare indeed. In fact, I would go so far as to suggest that researchers with similar aims intentionally conceal important information from each other in the race to ultimately “own” ground-breaking discovery.

A case in point focuses on the Whately Oxbow, discovered and first written about by Dr. Marjorie Holland in the 1970s as a UMass graduate student. Her subsequent Smith College doctoral dissertation on the western Massachusetts oxbows, plus related papers co-written with Smith professor/mentor Dr. John Burk and published in scholarly journals, were likely the impetus for a paper on Paleo Lakes of the Connecticut Valley co-authored by UMass archaeologists Mary Lou Curran and Dincauze. Those are only the papers I am aware of on the subject. There are undoubtedly others I have no knowledge of even though I do thoroughly study bibliographies and footnotes.

When I asked Holland a couple of months ago why the pollen dates associated with Whately were so vague in her oxbow papers, she explained that only the Northampton Oxbow had been pollen dated, and that sampling the other two “would be a great project for someone up there.” Then, when introduced by Gramly to more recent Paleo-site pollen studies conducted by independent former Yale researcher Dr. Lucinda McWeeney, I wondered aloud why she hadn’t visited Whately and Hatfield to gather samples that could be compared to other New England sites, including one in nearby Swanzey, N.H. It made no sense to me that communication was so poor among top researchers in the field.

It gets better, and far more twisted. During the recent reading of a fresh archaeological report focused on Kellogg Hill in Hatfield, I discovered, lo and behold, that McWeeney had indeed been in the area to analyze ancient vegetation surrounding the state-permitted UMass dig of an Indian village site. Why, when here, hadn’t she taken exploratory samples at the two nearby oxbows aching for answers? I wanted to email her and alert her to Gramly’s recent Sugarloaf dig, maybe even suggest that she might want to sample the Whately Oxbow as a related project, but I was afraid of stepping on toes, too many to mention in one breath. A day or two later, an excited Gramly phoned me to say he had been in contact with McWeeney, who had taken Whately Oxbow pollen samples that revealed dates of 9,300 and 8,600 before present (BP), which translates to a ballpark figure of 11,300 and 10,600 calendar years BP. Hmmmm? Why didn’t my Smith College source know of these dates? Had they been published anywhere? And even if they were not published, you’d think someone may have hit me with an email when a few weeks back I taunted Amherst’s Five-College Consortium to get it together for further research at the site? Then, late last week I learned that at least preliminary testing had been performed there and kept quiet. Can someone please explain how that kind of secrecy is in any way beneficial to science and discovery?

If the silence was broken and the voices were united in a public forum, I think we’d all be stunned at how fast this prehistoric Pioneer Valley puzzle would come together. In the meantime, just rumors and whispers that “insiders” are surreptitiously and quite privately working the hot spots in the dark of night and selling important artifacts to faraway collectors who pay top dollar, removing their prizes from their home and forever clouding local history.

It seems to me that there’s a lot of blame to go around, including the officials who scream the loudest in favor of secrecy to prevent looting. What they don’t tell you is that many of the very best archaeological pilferers have come straight from their classes and field schools before venturing off on their own.

It’s a fact.

Pu t that in your sumac-stemmed pipe and smoke it.

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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