Part One: Summer Into Autumn
September 1 2021
We’ve been a month in the new house, in the new state. August in New England is lush and sweet, the nights hot, the days moist. It’s a good thing the nights are hot because the movers still haven’t delivered our belongings. We sleep on mattresses kindly left by the landlords, with shabby pillows, thin sheets for cover, sweating until the morning sun blasts through curtainless windows. The only cool nights have been the nights two hurricanes passed over – Henri two weeks ago and Ida now, tonight. Rain slams down on the roof, wind bends the cedar trees and the big shaggy willow in the yard. We’ll be fine – we have water, flashlights, food. This place is safe, so far.
The rest of the world just beyond my door, though, feels palpably unsafe. Tonight all of New Orleans is dark, hurricane dark. Across the planet in Afghanistan decades of war is grinding to a brutal conclusion as the U.S. abandons its nation-building project and the Taliban take power. Out in California, where we came from, the wildfires rage. “You got out just in time,” a friend in Oakland friends tells me, and it does feel that way. Yesterday, when I finally got the moving company on the phone to vent my anger at their month-long delay, the woman on the other end said, “Sir, there are natural disasters everywhere. We’re doing our very best.” I can believe her company’s criminally liable for losing my family’s belongings, but I can’t argue with her about the disasters everywhere.
September 3 2021
I’ve been exploring the area as much as time and family will permit. Some days this means a short walk down the creek on the property we rent (they call them brooks here); other days, a 30-minute bike ride through the hills to ta poorly stocked used book store in a converted mill, or a drive to the town dump to seek furnishings for the house, or a trail hike into the gorge at Rattlesnake Gutter or along the marshy edges of Cranberry Pond. On one of my first walks down the brook I noticed snapped branches, cut by what did not look like human tools – an angled break striated with parallel furrows and worked to a Fibonacci point. The work of beavers?
I’d read that the nearby Pokumtuk Range, a series of steep hills clustered to the east of the Connecticut River, had been seen by the natives as the head and body of a giant beaver who once wreaked havoc in the broad river. Curiously, scientists have unearthed beaver skeletons the size of black bears, 15,000 years old – about the age of the oldest known human settlements here.
Days after noticing the evidence of beavers, while playing in the brook with kids, I walked upstream in the waist high water and came upon a woven dam of sticks and mud blocking the flow. Every stick in the dam had the same marks, which I now confidently identify as beaver dentition. Excited at our discovery, my two teenage companions and I climbed the beaver dam and swam in the reservoir – cold, still water up to my neck with deep mucky silt on the bottom. We dove and pulled up fistfuls of cold slimy sediment and had a mud fight in the warm afternoon.
Days after that, swimming at the town pond in Wendell, some neighbors warned me: never swim in a beaver pond unless you want leeches or giardia. “They wreak havoc in the rivers,” I was told.
September 5 2021
There’s something about walking through a landscape that was inhabited by your ancestors that gives every observation, every step almost, a weight of meaning. What that meaning is, is layered, complex, bound in time like the outer sapwood of a tree.
I pick up leaves to examine them, to learn their names. Four hundred years of blood ancestors have walked these forests. Just last week, I already met a Shirley Conant – a distant cousin? To identify the leaves, I use an app on my phone: Ulmus, elm: ovate and serrated; Tilia Americana, America linden: heart-shaped leaves that inspired song in the troubadors of L’anguedoc and Anjou. (The app is, as of recently, owned by Google.)
So what do these forests mean to me as I walk them? Or is the question, what do my footsteps, and the footsteps of ten generations of my ancestors, mean to these forests?
September 7 2021
At a public gathering of local tribes and their allies, the Pokumtuk Homelands Festival, I discover that Massachusetts, from Muswachasut, means “Great barren hill place” and Kwenetegot means “At the long tidal river.” The man who tells these names looks at the river where its dammed all the way across by a wall of concrete and a green steel truss. He points in the other direction and says “The Connecticut River here used to flow that way, over towards the Stop & Shop, if you can imagine that.”
A Missisquoi Abenaki man sings a song with the pow-wow drum. When he’s done singing he tells the story: when the Abenaki culture hero Passaconaway heard about the Mayflower anchored off Cape Cod,,he traveled to the world’s edge to see it. When he got there, he tried to sink the ship with his will. After trying for two days he gave up and decided that Creator wanted the colonials and the natives to live in peace. By singing this story here, along the Connecticut River at a place called Turner’s Falls, the singer reminds us that his people, Abenakis from north up to Lake Champlain, have been part of the story here for centuries.
Turner’s Falls was named Peskeomskut: gathering place at a broad bend in the river. Peskeomskut, he says, was once a gathering place for people from as far west as the Ohio River and north into Canada. In May 1676 thousands of Indians were encamped here, preparing for negotiations with Hartford Colony to the south, when they were attacked by a force under the command of a Boston Baptist named William Turner. Many were killed, women and children among them. A counter attack by the natives killed Turner and many of his men – but now the war was on, and eventually the majority of the Pokumtuks were hunted down, or fled to the north for refuge with the Abenaki, or were captured and hanged on Boston Common or sold south into slavery.
The man telling this history, a local historian whose name I would later learn, says there’s a movement among well-intentioned white people to shed the memory of Turner and rename the town Great Falls. “I don’t see why we don’t just call it Peskeomskut,” he says. “That’s its real name anyways.”
September 15 2021
Swimming in Fisk Pond on a mid-September day I come up for air and am startled to see a stand of maples on the far shore suddenly aglow with the tawny red leaves of autumn. This land is new to me and its mysteries reveal themselves in the present tense: I would not have expected fall to arrive so quickly, or so suddenly. Or, is that just this year, a year of torrential rains, tropical storms and summer moons smeared over with haze from the fires in far-off Oregon and California? They say spring comes a week earlier than it used to – so I suppose fall does too. Is my experience of the land and its seasons showing me New England as it has been – or is this, too, a symptom of the climate emergency – New England at a crisis point in the Anthropocene, when past and future are divided by the chasm of ecosystems in collapse, of mythological change occurring in real time?
This is Maple Nation, Robin Wall Kimmerer has written in Braiding Sweetgrass. “The oath of citizenship for the United States stipulates that citizens will defend the nation against all enemies and take up arms if they are called to do so. If that same oath held in Maple Nation, the trumpet call would be echoing through these wooded hills. Maples of the United States face a grave enemy. The most highly regarded models predict that the climate will become hostile to sugar maples within fifty years. Rising temperatures will reduce seedling success and regeneration will thereby start to fail. It already is failing. Insects will follow, and the oaks will get the upper hand. Imagine New England without maples. Unthinkable.”
I’m splashing across this pond in mid-September, thoroughly and deliciously alone, not another person in sight. The afternoon is warm and the water pleasant. When I come up for air and admire the flaming maples again, thinking the unthinkable, I can’t tell if the crimson flush of the forest is a welcome, or a warning.
September 25 2021
I drive down the Connecticut River Valley to attend a cultural presentation by the Nehantic people, with my three-year old Raisa in tow. You don’t know the Nehantics? I didn’t either, and its no wonder. The name means, The People of Where the Land meets the Sea; their place is what’s now known as Essex, Connecticut – a wealthy colonial era town of whitewashed clapboard houses and shops where the river widens out into its estuary. They were never great in number – maybe 5000 people at their pre-contact peak – and were tucked among and tied by kinship to the nearby Algonquin speakers – Pequots, Mohegans, Naragansetts, Quinnipiacs. Like all those nations, their numbers were vastly diminished by English acts of genocide. When they were declared extinct by the State of Connecticut in 1912, an old Nehantic woman with the delightful name of Mercy Nonesuch said pointedly, “They can call me extinct but that does not make me extinct.
Indeed, a group of Abenaki drummers from upriver in Vermont is drumming and singing throughout the day in a cloud of cedar, sweetgrass, sage and tobacco. One of the hosts of the event, a cultural historian of Nehantic descent says that the drum has not been played in this territory for perhaps 200 years, and perhaps far longer. So, it is an auspicious day, the return of the drum to the Nehantic heartland – and it is celebrated by a small gathering of maybe 12 native descendants and 20 or so spectators like myself, listening to slide presentations and breaking for a lunch of hot dogs and chips.
This whole day is apparently devoted to a clean-up of the Connecticut River from the source to the sea, from Maine to Long Island Sound, in a beautiful effort to unite people in ecological care at the regional scale of a large riparian watershed. A tremendous, hopeful endeavor to be sure. So, while grandparents and children, all settler descendants or immigrants of more recent provenance, are out picking up litter and clearing brush in towns and cities all along the river to the north, here at the river’s mouth, a minute group of Indians, whose very existence is an unlikely accident of history, is sending up humble prayers with the smoke of their medicines to plant the seeds of the next millennium. A tremendous, hopeful endeavor to be sure, and a sign of the mythic changes afoot.
September 29 2021
Here in this new-to-me place the rivers feel like they emerge out of the ground. Not like in the big West where a river sprouts with great drama from the grinding glacial ice and high snowpack that caps the granite peaks of the Sierras or the Rockies or the Grand Tetons – Mount Hood and Mount Shasta shedding their snowmelt into fast, roiling creeks and down deep gullies to the broad Columbia and the vast, ponderous Sacramento to let out in the turbulent, mad Pacific. Here, inland in New England, the land is soggy, laced with black verdant pools and grassy marshes, sudden reedy swamps and forest clearings turned to bog by the quick work of beavers. Everywhere small brooks emerge from the marshlands and dig mossy furrows under the glacial boulders that have lain here for millennia, the land turning to water turning to land turning back to water.
My lineage here is like that – they appeared here one day four centuries ago, in the guise of a man named Conant, Roger Conant. He came from across the sea but he may as well have sprung from below the earth. Threadlike, my own ancestral origins are everywhere here but are nowhere visible. They hide beneath the soft ground, beneath the moss, beneath the marsh.
The place I grew up, 130 miles to the south, was Quinnipiac – the People of the Long Water Land – and Pequot – the People of the Shoals, or Shallows. That is where these marshy brooks and jumping little rivers go: after their subterranean meanders and their long swim down the Connecticut – literally, again, “the long tidal river,” – the waters at my feet spill into Long Island Sound and thence flow into the wide Atlantic gyre.
My own childhood among the shoals is now a distant dream. I’ve traveled many worlds since then, and lived a dozen lives. To return here, just upstream, four decades in and four centuries after my blood ancestors settled here, what does it mean? To be drawn to this boggy place at a tributary of a tributary of a long tidal river on land where ten generations of my ancestors walked, and farmed, and fished…what, here is my task?
In an age of permanent disruption, of climate emergency, of pandemic and plague, it seems to me there is no better way to be than to find a place and inhabit it. And yet, in an earlier era of religious wars and colonial brutality and pandemic and plague my forebears found this place and inhabited it, and their legacy – ecological collapse, genocide, oblivion – is all but unforgivable.
October 3 2021
Kitty corner from the house I’ve moved my family into is a dirt road that slopes up through woods of maple and oak and white pine about a mile until it sinks into a black boggy pond. The pond spreads for acres toward distant woods and is carpeted in water lilies and punctuated by standing snags of dead trees broken against the pale autumn sky. In the middle of the pond, about a quarter mile distant from each other and the same distance from the shore, two beaver lodges rise above the water’s surface like sudden burls erupting from the trunk of an ash tree.
The pond, I’ve learned, is fairly new. On Google maps the road continues through the woods and connects to the town center at Montague, miles distant. But here on planet earth, the road vanishes in the bog, because beavers put an end to it. Some years ago, they dammed Williams Brook as it flowed through a meadow here, and rest is time and hydrology. Because beavers are protected, the town conservation commission let the dams stand and the road sink – a righteous decision if you ask me, and one that resulted in the austere beauty of this inhospitable weedy swamp.
A lichen encrusted wooden bench sits where the road ends and the bog begins, set there by some thoughtful New Englander as a quiet suggestion to sit awhile and admire the beavers’ handiwork. This bench too will crumble into the bog before many more seasons pass – but for now its sturdy enough to take a seat and watch the rippling reflection of autumnal foliage afloat beneath a still sky.
I walked up here alone this afternoon on a short break from my desk work. In the pocket of my ochre-colored Pendleton rain slicker I carried a hardback copy of a book, The Rings of Saturn, by the German author W.G. Sebald. A quintessentially literary writer, Sebald died at the turn of this century, not much older than I am now. This book, like several of his others, is composed of a dense and intricate retracing, or surfacing, of memories of a long walk through the countryside – in this case the countryside of East Anglia in the U.K., where Sebald lived and taught in the last decades of his life. The narrative is solitary, melancholy, and at times morbid verging on perverse, as when, from a cliff overlooking the North Sea where sand martins fast as bullets vanish beneath his feet into nesting holes perforated in the earth, Sebald accidently spies a couple making love on the distant sand spit below. “Misshapen, like some great mollusk washed ashore,” he writes, “they lay there, to all appearances a single being, a many-limbed, two-headed monster that had drifted in from far out at sea, the last of a prodigious species, its life ebbing from it with each breath expired through its nostrils.”
Sebald is not pleasant reading – I don’t think many of my own friends would spend their time with him – but his writing has an ineffable beauty that I’m coming to love. And now, sitting on a mouldering bench at the edge of a dark beaver-made bog in the woods of west central Massachusetts it occurs to me that I might should appropriate Sebald’s style – why not, at what feels like the end of civilization, plagiarize a little? – (greater crimes are occurring before our eyes) – to surface ancestral memories of these New England landscapes I may walk through possibly for the rest of my days.
Where Sebald visits the decrepit coastal town of Lowescraft and meditates on the collapse of the herring fisheries – did you know that dead herring have a phosphorescent glow? – I will walk the rocky coast of Gloucester where Roger Conant fished four centuries ago and look for the shades of orphaned cod fish troubling the shoals of a wealthy seaside enclave. Where Sebald, in his first novel Vertigo, walks the mountains of Central Europe in the shadow of Kafka and Stendhal deliberately not writing about the holocaust that happened 40 years before, I’ll walk the Mohawk Trail and the bluffs of the Metacomet Ridge and the contours of the Bloody Brook, shadowed by Hawthorne and Melville and Dickinson, not writing about the genocide that emptied these forests and bloodied these brooks four hundred and three hundred and two hundred years ago, and still today.
I’ll be less perversely morbid than Sebald – less “preoccupied with the paralysing horror that had come over me at various times when confronted with the traces of destruction” and more, what – life affirming?
On second thought, why bother, why try to please? It is, after all, the Age of Consequences. As a new resident of these boggy woods, I can’t know if the enchanting canary yellows and beet reds of autumn are coming too early, or right on time at the end of their apical meristems, or if that is even a reasonable question to ponder. I can’t really know if the creeping bittersweet vine that hangs entangled in the trees is an exotic invasive or a welcome inhabitant for a new anthropogenic era. I can’t ultimately fathom whether the deer that browse the birch trees beside a collapsed greenhouse at dawn are best welcomed as becalmed neighbors in a rusty, rustic idyll; feared as hosts of a terrible, incapacitating disease borne in the ticks that ride upon them; or hunted as my food once I’ve purchased my rifle and secured a hunting license in a late life turn towards carnivorous survivalism.
The fact is, they are all of the above, and I too am all of the above: enamored, horrified, a hungry hunter. I am some form of the dream of my wildest ancestors, and so I can be both paralyzed with horror and firmly in the grip of this succulent, seductive and above all sacred life. It’s the only way to be.
At the Pokumtuk homecoming festival last month I purchased a gorgeous hand-forged antler-handled hunting knife made by a Cherokee man with the not-unlikely name of Wild Bill. I’ve learned that one must name one’s blades as one names dogs, so I made a small ritual of biting the knife on its steel back, a gesture to tell it who’s the master, and I named it with a word I’d just learned in Western Abenaki: N’kizi, I am capable. The name of my knife is in accord with my sense of how I need to be in this landscape, my perception of relations with the deer people, the beaver people, the tree people. In order to survive here – or said more affirmingly, in order for my future grandchildren to survive here and to plant the seeds of the next millennium – I must be capable. It’s the only way to be.
The Age of Consequences is after all a morbid time: a time of reckoning, of old myths dying and new mythologies being born. Another northern European writer, the contemporary Icelander Andri Snaer Magnason writes, “Earth’s mightiest forces have forsaken geological time and now change on a human scale. Changes that previously took a hundred thousand years now happen in one hundred. Such speed is mythological; it affects all life on Earth, affects the roots of everything we think, choose, produce and believe.”
So, the task here is to dream with the Massachusetts landscape into the mythologic changes overtaking us. To detect the fragments of former moons that were exploded by gravity’s tidal effect and to read in those moon fragments of a new story, like the Egyptian legend of Osiris torn to shreds by his murderous brother and revived by Isis his Queen. And so the land, the body of Osiris, the very flesh of God, is reconstituted by the spring floods along the ancient Nile. And so I will walk the banks of the Long Tidal River, depleted of Salmon and Lamprey but restocked with Crappy and Trout, and remember the majestic salmon while feasting on the engineered trout.
And one by one, the beavers will conspire to drown all human settlements and turn the roads into swamps.
One thought on “Massachusetts Diary”
Just the taste I read makes me want to get out of the house and down to the creek!