"Sharp, quirky, and occasionally nettlesome", Walking the Berkshires is my personal blog, an eclectic weaving of human narrative, natural history, and other personal passions with the Berkshire and Litchfield Hills as both its backdrop and point of departure. I am interested in how land and people, past and present manifest in the broader landscape and social fabric of our communities. The opinions I express here are mine alone. Never had ads, never will.
The quest for a Salisbury cannon dating from the Revolution lead a committee of the Salisbury Association Historical Society to another town in NW Connecticut which has an antique field piece that may be a candidate. As none of the more than 837 artillery pieces known to have been manufactured at the Salisbury Cannon Foundry during this period is known to have any distinguishing markings, or has even been definitively proven to have survived to the present day, our task has been to take detailed measurements and build up a database of potential Salisbury guns as an important step in a process which we hope will one day enable one of these cannon to come home to its town of origin. Here was an opportunity to test our data gathering methods on a likely cannon with a fascinating history of its own.
The cannon proved to be an iron small bore field piece (possibly firing something less than a 3 pound ball).
The first documentation of its provenance dates from 1811, when it was removed from the county seat of Litchfield to participate in 4th of July celebrations in another town and never found its way back. It was purchased locally and fired off on numerous occasions, as a local history puts it, "Indiscriminately, by both political parties to express the greatest jubilation and complete dissatisfaction." Clearly, when pamphleteering was insufficient for sounding off in the new Republic, a bunch of civilians with an old iron cannon could really draw attention to themselves.
The frequent noise and disturbances associated with this exercise of 1st and possibly 2nd Amendment rights inspired several of the women in the community to purloin the cannon, which had been left unattended on the town green, and bury it in the back garden under a pear tree under the watchful eyes of several small boys who nonetheless declined to share this secret. So the offending field piece lay dead and buried, until the mid 1840s when a 12-year-old boy digging for worms unearthed the gun and brought about its resurrection and much masculine rejoicing and cannon fire shortly ensured.
In 1856 the cannon was tossed into a mill pond by the Republican party and retrieved by the Democrats. It was later buried in cement in a basement but exhumed. It now is in the care of the local historical society, on a rebuilt carriage and in remarkable shape considering its hard usage after its previous military service.
And what of its history before 1811? Was it a trophy from the French & Indian Wars, or a surviving Revolutionary war field piece? It is a light cannon (I was able to life the carriage off the ground by the axle) and has 4 reinforcing rings. It is a practical barrel, free of other adornments, though it is pitted and has lost whatever light markings it may have one retained, such as were sometimes laid on the barrel below the vent and to either side to guide with sighting for guns with a bore that was not exactly true. We will need to compare it with many other cannon before we start to see any patterns, but we do have permission to do a metallurgical analysis to compare with what is known about Salisbury iron. We shall see.
I was blissfully in an eddy of time for the past week, out on an Island 12 miles from shore in the Gulf of Maine. I shared this time with dear family and good friends and with no electricity, no white noise, no workaday crises to detract from the here and now. Monhegan for me is one of those enchanted isles that rises to the surface every other year or so and offers me a 1930s summer for a brief and blessed space of time before receding back into the mist. It restores my soul with a sweet expectancy that that can neither be rushed nor conjured at will. It is a place that I carry in my heart through the long seasons ashore until the next time I surface on its rocky shore.
It had been three years since the last time I was able to take my children to Monhegan, and watching them respond to its wonders and make it their own was one of the great joys of our time together. Emily the seal girl swam out over the cold blue water with such joy she forgot she would eventually be chilled to the bone. Elias explored every tide pool and found young urchins, went to the library for a book about dolphins and picked all the blueberries and red
raspberries in sight. There were six children aged 6-9 (2 girls, 4 boys, 4 cousins,2 great friends) and five adults, including my sister and her husband who I love and see far too rarely. It was a time of fresh discoveries and views so familiar I know every crease in the rock and contour of the cove like I know my own sun-bronzed smile.
I love this island of gaslight and fog. One afternoon I pulled out the red kayak and slipped over the dulce and Irish moss into Deadman's Cove and paddled out along the shore toward the Seal ledges while the rest of the crew took the shore path behind our scampering children. I went out toward Eastern Duck rock with its harbor seal colony and watched them arched on the rocks or bobbing in the swell watching me with their dark, curious eyes. The wind was stiff behind me and fog coiled around the next headland, reminding me that I was in a little craft low in the water and far out to sea if I let the mist close behind me, so I did not linger. But a seal followed me all the way back to the shelter of the cover when I hauled back out on the rocks below the cottages.
I have been coming to Monhegan since 1974 when I was younger than my son Elias. It used to be a week or 10 days every summer for at least a decade, and I remember when the cod and pollack were so large and plentiful than three hours of jigging off Sherm Stanley's "Phalarope" or his son Shermie's "Desperado" would fill a skiff to overflowing with 20-30 pound fish. I remember the island before the dwarf mistletoe decimated the spruce forest, opened up the headlands as they were a century before when sheep grazed above the surf. Eli and I walked the graveyard below the Lighthouse where the Islanders had to build up enough fill and soil to bury their dead in six feet of earth atop this granite mountain in the sea, and saw that I knew many of the names on the markers as individuals as well as representatives of old Monhegan families. As with our beloved Windrock, I have strong place memory here that allows me to be simultaneously in an older time as well as the present.
In a place where some things seem immutable, there are always changes in the wind. The community is
fiercely debating the merits and concerns about a possible wind generator on Lighthouse Hill. The "poop and power" discussions are critical to sustainable living on an island where there is no more topsoil for leaching fields than their is to cradle the dear departed. The small winter community has its own dynamics and relationships with those they support during the summer and with each other during the long stormy lashed winter. There are just 13 working lobster boats in the harbor, where once in the 1950s there may have been three times that many making their living from the sea. Now there are more artists in residence than fishermen.
There are parts of this Island, not 2 miles in length nor a mile broad, that get very few visitors. Out by green point and some of the spur trails, one can be alone with the sound of the bell buoys on distant ledges and the mist dripping from spruce tips in delicious solitude. There are trails where I know to look for lowbush blueberries, or a rock that looks like a smiling
seal, or a weathered pile of driftwood above the wrackline, and lose myself in my five visceral senses, and the inner sixth sense that spins like a gyroscope to keep me centered in time, be it fast or slow. What I carry forward refreshes and reinvigorates, even as there is longing when the time comes to sail back to shore. On our return trip there were porpoises and a minke whale and diving gannets to send us over the water and back into the mainstream of our lives with joy in our hearts.
An hour before twilight yesterday, the sun was a glowing coal in the wood ash sky. Feeling lightheaded in my air conditioned car, I rolled down the windows and was met by the heady scent of horses and curing hay. An admixture of high summer and elevated emotion had me off balance as I made my way home after a glorious weekend away. It was a strange contrast, like the thinning of the walls between parallel worlds.
This weekend I will lift my sleeping children into the car before daybreak and drive Down East. We will pass beyond this time and place and into the slow and easy gaslight pace of a week on Monhegan Island. I will plunge into the cool waters from the rocks below the cottages, fill my lungs with the sea air. The children and my sister's family and I will roam the headlands, explore the old wreck at Lobster Cove, and row over to wild Manana with the tumbled remnants of the old hermit's shack and rumors of runic inscriptions from Vinland Vikings. I will watch the sun set over the water and in the tumbler glass. I may even get some sleep, rising and setting with the sun.
An old friend remarked to me recently that when you embrace change, sometimes it hugs you back. I have found joy in my complicated life recently that exceeds all expectation I am branching out beyond the roles of father, husband and provider that have preoccupied me these many years. Much to my relief, the children responded to the news of our planned divorce with greater acceptance and seeming comfort than I had hoped would be possible. I find it strange and a bit uncomfortable that these dear people now want to reassure me that I am a good father and they love me. I am very very lucky. Still there is much to be done before I can truly exhale.
Today is another scorcher, flirting with triple digit temperatures and steaming like bake oven bread. The tomatoes in my garden may ripen by the time I return from Maine, and raspberries are ready now. I will blend cucumber and yogurt with cumin and coriander and make peppermint iced tea tonight to beat the heat. For now, I move slowly, conserving energy, knowing that the night wind will cool my skin in good time.