"Nothing, from the slightest little thing to the universe itself, was ever taken for granted by Native Americans. Life was in all things, and they respected that life. There’s a huge field that has never been written about, and I call it spiritual archaeology." -David Wagner
My Nephew, Ryan, was graduating from Amherst, with a degree in history and a passion for prehistoric New England. We had spent a brief time in the Pratt Museum along the Connecticut River, collected over a two hundred mile stretch from New Haven, Connecticut to Maidstone, Vermont.
Ryan described what he called the Path of Life, a spiritual migration of the Abenakis that encompassed what is now the Long Trail, running the crest of the Green Mountains, from Killington to Mt Mansfield to Jay Peak and into Canada. He explained that the return trip went the length of Lake Memphremagog, down the Nulhegan river, and eventually followed the Connecticut River back to the ocean.
It was an interesting story, made moreso by its passing within miles of my home just two miles north of the Clyde River, a certain part of the trail. It was a story that sounded romantic, and belied the tragedy that I would later learn -- the conflict of a spiritual Path of Life going south along the river, and a migration of white families going north along the same route into Vermont.
Although I had read the gravestone of John Stanton, I did not put these stories together. Nor would I for some time come to learn that the fate of my family was intricately tied to the Path of Life and the conflict that erupted between the Hamonassetts and the Europeans.
After the main commencement ceremony, there was a reception for the family and friends of history majors. Dr. Greene’s primary appointment was in the Anthropology department, so she arrived late for the history reception. She had served on the Ryan’s senior research thesis committee. Ryan had previously mentioned my interest in the history of New England to Dr. Greene. When he introduced me to her, she said, “Ryan told me that you have been tracing your family tree.”
Ryan was immediately distracted by a classmate who wanted to introduce Ryan to her family. As Ryan was pulled away, I tried to accommodate the woman in front of me with what Ryan had told me about Dr. Greene.
I was intrigued by her head wear. Rather than the traditional commencement cap, she wore a tight-fitting scull cap decorated with feathers. Protruding from the top were two triangular tufts that seemed to quiver as she moved. She noticed my inspection of her cap and said, “It is an Owl Hood.”
She had said it with the calm of a seasoned teacher who knows that learners must be given time to assimilate novelty. With her dark eyes seeming to drag a reply from me, I guessed, “It has a traditional role in rites of passage?”
She laughed. “My father told me once that his father always wore one when he went hunting. I’ve seen a picture of my grandfather beside a moose he had killed and he was wearing on Owl Hood.”
I could tell by her tone of voice that she was not speaking of any cultural tradition. “And like your grandfather, you just like owls.”
I could tell she was pleased that I could sense her motivation for wearing the Owl Hood. “When I find an owl in a forest it is like finding an old friend. Suddenly I am in the house of the owl and I listen to hear what the owl can tell me. You know, owls can talk.” She had a mischievous glint in her eyes and I could sense a joke brewing.
I chuckled, “I don’t know a hoot about owls.”
I sensed that she wanted to say more but she glanced over her shoulder and said nothing. I wondered if she felt inhibited from speaking her mind in front of other academicians. I prompted, “It sounds like you spend a lot of time with owls.”
She nodded. “As much as possible. Unfortunately, it is a long drive to the particular forest I am exploring.”
I remembered what Ryan had told me about the Dr. Greene’s research aimed at tracing the full Path of Life of the- at that moment I could not recall the name of the tribe. I just said, “To find the Path of Life.”
She reminded me, “Each tribe of the River Culture had their own Path of life. The Hammonassetts were the keepers of the oldest and most well known one in New England.”
I tried to remember some of what Ryan had told me from when he had taken an anthropology course with Dr. Greene two years earlier. “I was surprised just how ancient you think the Hammonassetts are.”
She shrugged, “Most of the earliest dates are guesses. When the ice first retreated from New England, the coast line was very different. Still, with the recent advances in underwater archeology, we may yet get proof of exactly when human habitation of New England began.”
I had heard of under water archeological finds in other parts of the world, but not around New England. I was aware of the fact that the southern coast of New England had been radically altered in the post-glacial period. I supposed that people just had not looked in Long Island sound for Native American habitation sites. Ryan rejoined us and Dr. Greene continued, “The main problem is that the earliest inhabitants of the region did not have permanent settlements. They did not practice agriculture and were true nomads, following the changing seasons and sources of food.”
Ryan said, “But I thought the earliest long-term habitation sites were not agricultural communities.”
Dr. Greene nodded. “Humans have often settled near rich sources of marine life; shell fish, salmon, marine mammals. Unfortunately, the earliest such settlements in New England undoubtedly existed on the ancient shoreline which was later submerged.”
It was hard for me to relate such far off ages to my own historical interests which were limited to the colonial time frame. “You think there was cultural continuity from those first Native American inhabitants of New England to the Hammonassetts?”
Dr. Greene seemed to stiffen at my skeptical tone, but her response remained enthusiastic, “I do. Of course, I admit that I am biased by unverified folklore.”
This sounded much more interesting to me than submerged archeological sites. Folklore might reflect events from the colonial period. I guessed, “You are talking about stories from your grandfather.”
She seemed truly surprised that I would guess that. “I never knew my grandfather. He died when I was two. But my father repeated the stories he had heard, although he did not have a knack for story telling. He condensed them to the bare minimum and left out all the details. Still, I always found the stories compelling and believable, no matter how outrageous.” She winked at me and grinned.
Ryan’s parents were hovering and ready to hit the road. Ryan said goodbye to Dr. Greene and thanked her for all she had done for him. She wished him luck. As Ryan and his parents turned to leave, I said to Dr. Greene, “I’d love to hear some of those folktales.”
We started walking towards the door behind Ryan. She said, “Next week I’m going on a scouting trip to Mt. Cabot. Ryan told me you live in upstate Vermont. If you are free I could drop by, either on my way in or on the way back.”
I suggested, “If I wouldn’t slow you down too much, maybe I could go with you to Mt. Cabot.”
We stepped outside and Dr. Greene handed me her business card. “Have you ever camped in snow?”
I replied, “In a tent? No. But as a resident of northern New England, I have no fear of snow.”
She stuck out her hand and we shook hands. She said, “It was nice to meet you. I’d be glad to have you along as long as you are willing to be part of a working field trip. Think about it. Give me a call in a few days. If you don’t chicken out, we’ll make our plans.”
She was giving me a chance to back out, but I knew right then that I would not do so. “Thanks for the invitation. It was nice meeting you.” As I hurried to catch up with Ryan, I was already thinking about a store in St. Johnsbury where I could rent a low temperature sleeping bag.