Atop Another Hill

This post is a follow-up to another. Stories are circles. We are caught in their gravity.

January has melted away most of December in southern Vermont. The bare trees of winter – maple, locust, oak – allow a glimpse of landforms usually hidden beneath their leafy cloaks. The lay of the dormant land is easily discerned through the gray haze of branches now; broad strokes and minute details appear right under one’s nose.  I was driving along a busy commercial road in town and happened to glance eastward toward the Connecticut River in an area that had earlier piqued my curiosity. Sure enough, there was another flat-topped drumlin or river terrace, wildly untouched, conjured up as if by sheer imagination amongst the heavily developed surroundings.
embankment west

I parked at a nearby business, hiked across a fallow field to the steep-sided elevation and climbed to the uncannily level top. Upon reaching the summit, I was immensely pleased to see the raised banks of an earthwork fortification left relatively intact on the southern rim, curving some distance around to the west and east. This is the same tribal territory of the Squakeag or Sokoki band of Western Abenaki which I visited in Northfield, Massachusetts at King Philip’s Hill (a bit of a misnomer, since he – Metacomet of the Wampanoag – was a famous visitor passing through Squakeag territory). Situated in a very similar manner, this settlement was probably subject to quieter times than its neighbor in its day, fishing and farming at the rivers’ confluence, but still with an eye toward defense as needed. I trudged around in the shallow, melting snow cover and scouted the perimeter; the land showed the minor touch of historical alteration but the topography which had attracted the original inhabitants was still much in evidence.

Even with the flurry of nearby traffic and the encroachment of businesses, apartments, and parking lots, there was a palpable aura of timelessness in that spot. I walked back toward my car, past a tall dead maple stub covered with porcupine claw scratches, and resolved to return another day.

eastern embankment

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Atop the Hill

wooly bear

A wooly bear caterpillar looks for winter refuge along the ascent.

Note: This story happily continues in a later post.

We went exploring this weekend, off the workaday beaten path and on an ancient predecessor. Upon the shoulder of an out-of-the-way road stub in Northfield, Massachusetts is a dilapidated historical marker announcing the viewer is in the presence of King Philip’s  Hill, a significant landmark in the unfolding of the mid-17th century War bearing his name (more properly, Metacomet). I can let you do the research; the story you may unravel is long and deep. It is a strangely calm and evocative place: a glacial drumlin-like river terrace immediately adjacent to the west bank of the Connecticut River rises precipitously 80 feet from the river plain, its steep sides of perhaps 45 degrees or more battering a strikingly flat, level top. This natural formation was a fortification of the region’s indigenous people, the Sokoki band of the Western Abenaki, joined lastly by the nearby Pocomtucks and others, across the water from one of their great villages, Squakheag (an alternate name for the tribe also), and the fertile bottomland of Great Meadow. The remains of several ditch and bank fortifications are still to be seen striking in a straight line through the open full-story oak and hemlock forest. I thought about the lives and events this quiet place had witnessed and listened for their ancient echoes, faded away nearly 350 years. In the winter and early spring of 1676, at the height of the New England tribes’ effort to drive the English settlers back from their homelands, Metacomet, second son of Massasoit and grand sachem of the Wampanoag, had encamped here with his massed alliance of warriors to prepare for raids and battle. It is estimated that there were 3,000 allied tribe members gathered with him in the pine woods beside the great Kwanitekw, the highwater mark for his furious effort to drive the interlopers back to the Atlantic coast. Hunger and weather proved a greater foe than the English that fateful year.  It was the beginning of the end.

trench fortifications on King Philip's Hill, Northfield, MA

The southwesterly end of the first trench, on a rare warm November afternoon.

trench fortifications on King Philip's Hill, Northfield, MA

The easterly end of the second and much longer trench, north of the first.

Connecticut River by King Philip's Hill, Northfield, MA

The broad sweep of the Connecticut below the hilltop site, provider of food and passage.