IN THE MANAMOOSKEGIN – THE RETURN OF A NATIVE
The wild requires that we learn the terrain, nod to all of the plants and animals and birds, ford the streams and tell a good story when we get back home,
Gary Snyder, The Practice of the Wild
“How am I theirs/If they cannot hold me/But I hold them?”
Ralph Waldo Emerson, Earth-Song from Hamatreya
The ice is no longer safe to travel on, so I’ve taken the snow covered trail to the back end of the pond. One of my destinations is a small point of land jutting into the blue gray ice, a point distinguished by the tall and graceful white pines that sough in the winds there and catch the gold of sunsets on their rough bark. This is the place where my childhood fishing buddy, Donny Loud, taught me how to gut and scale yellow perch, roll them in flour and then fry them in butter in a skillet over a fire of dead pine limbs until they were golden brown.
For the purpose of this story, I’ll call the place “Listening Point”, in part because, in its small way, the place reminds me of Sigurd Olson’s description of the point where his cabin was situated at the edge of the Quetico-Superior – and because it is a place that I have been retreating to for most of my life for the purpose of listening and watching.
On this evening in late March, Listening Point is different than it has been in the past at this time of year. One difference is that there are no spring peepers – at least not yet. In a more normal year I’d be hearing their first tentative peeps at this time of the evening. And then, with the sun slipping lower, more peepers would begin taking up the song. At last, with the red sun dropping below the cedars on the far shore, the song would arrive at a crescendo of high celebratory trilling from the thousands of impossibly tiny frogs that are all raucously bent on reproduction. This strident announcement of the amphibian’s triumph over winter always marks the true start of spring for me. But this year, at the end of March, ice and snow still prevail. At Listening Point, true spring has yet to arrive.
There are, however, hopeful signs that winter is at its end. The pond is open where the current of Beaver Brook flows in; and narrow leads of open water extend down the pond between where I stand on the point and the long, oak and pine forested island that casts its shadows across the rotting ice.
Motion at the edge of the ice draws my attention, and for a moment I assume that it is a muskrat exploring the extent of open water, until I see the shape of the animal’s head. Long and wedge shaped, the head belongs to a beaver.
Beaver are common enough in southeastern Massachusetts these days that people should not be surprised to come across one. But this beaver happens to be the first one that I’ve ever seen in the Beaver Brook watershed, and I’ve been tromping around this brook for over 60 years.
Watching this beaver, as it cautiously works its way up the narrow open channel in the ice, it seems ironic to me that it has taken beaver so long to return to this place that was named for them. This prodigal beaver, testing the ice, is a late comer. With much fanfare from Fish and Game, deer and turkey were “restored” decades ago. Beaver are another matter. Like our “bush wolf”, the Eastern coyote, the beaver is deemed a nuisance, and has had to find its own way back.
The Wampanoags had called this granite ledged divide of land where rivers are born, Manamooskegin, which was translated by the English as meaning “land of many beavers.” The English name for the stream, Beaver Brook, is likely to have been based more on the Wampanoag’s naming than any first hand knowledge. The beaver had been trapped out of the Manamooskegin by the Wampanoags and the Massachusetts before the mid 17th Century, traded to the English in exchange for guns, iron kettles and a dependence on English technology that ultimately proved to be disastrous for the Native People of the region. The English settlers, in turn, used the beaver pelts from the Manamooskegin, and elsewhere, to pay off their debt to the Merchant Adventurers; that motley group of 17th Century venture capitalists who financed the English settlement in Plymouth.
The Manamooskegin is a height that, in many places, is too subtle to detect unless you happen to be one of the type who watches running water. Here the water runs in tannic rills out of the cedar swamps that collect rain in the shaded bowls between the ledges. These swamps and bogs feed the streams that flow into the two great river systems, the Taunton and the North, that define this bio-region of Massachusetts.
Today the Manamooskegin is, in one respect, similar to when the beaver lent their name to it. It is a watershed of dams and ponds. But unlike the beaver and their dams that once came and went across the landscape as fluidly as the waters of their streams, the Manamooskegin that I live in today, is a place long ponded and sediment choked by the centuries old rock walled mill dams that now stand as useless monuments to a failed civilization.The mill dams, the endless miles of stone walls that wind through the woods, along with the grown in cellar holes and old rock wells, are relics left by a people that gave up on trying to eke a living from this hard land.
As the sun drops, the beaver slowly makes its way back toward the brook, sometimes putting its weight on the ice, as if it is trying to break it and hasten the widening of the narrow channel. In the dimming light, he slips beneath the slick pewter surface of the water. The spell it had cast is broken, and I remember that I’ve walked the mile or so of woods road that tracks north along the pond for a reason other than visiting the point.
Where a thin trail rises to higher ground out of a dark grove of cedars, I stop at a massive beech with gray bark the color of elephant skin. This was the trail that, as children, we would take on our way to fish at Listening Point. Where the brook flows in, sunlight reflects off of the open water of the pond sending ripples of amber light across the broad trunk of the beech.
Across a small stream on the far side of the cedars there is a field growing up in buckthorn and juniper where an ancient slate headstone marks the resting place of the farmer who labored to contain his hard won fields within stone walls. We would pass the stone in the early light of April mornings, shouldering rucksacks, carrying our fishing rods like lances, our thoughts full of fish. If my little sister was with us, I’d carry her piggy back across the stream and through the puddles between the cedars. On one morning we stopped, and as kids will, carved our names and the date into the beech tree where the trail begins to rise.
The names are gone, reduced to scabs decades ago. The beech grew and healed like the forest that has reclaimed the farmer’s fields. I’m at the beech to check on a more recent carving, one that I dug into the bark of the tree last February. And, as I knew they would, the cuts are beginning to fade. The carving reads: D. Loud 1946 – 2014. In the fading light I stand by the tree wishing that I could tell Donny about the beaver… so I do.
“Donny – man you would not believe what I just saw.”