"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.
I am a good negotiator. I understand the relationship between the value we place and the values we hold. I know that intangibles matter, and that there are no bank vaults in heaven. I know that it is rarely if ever the case in my personal or professional negotiations that it comes down to destroying the village in order to save it. I can walk away without burning all my bridges.
My father has a remarkable ability to turn vocal adversaries into staunch allies. Once, when he was a young headmaster at a struggling boarding school where our family roots go deep, he promoted one of his harshest critics to a position of leadership that grew to a close partnership. He saw something in this individual that was keeping him from reaching his potential and turned a potential threat into an opportunity. It does not always work out this way, but when it does the results can be astounding. Abraham Lincoln did something similar with his cabinet, and in many cases won the admiration and effective partnership of his former opponents.
I am not, by inclination, a cutthroat player of zero sum games. I do not consider negotiation a game at all. It is often possible to get an excellent deal that benefits more than one party. It is sometimes possible to get an acceptable deal that improves with age if tended with care.
Especially in land protection transactions, the best outcomes take both patience and clarity of communication to achieve. At the end of the day, the conservation organization has more leverage than it might appear to a small nonprofit staffed by volunteers as it negotiates with high net worth individuals who are used to corporate business transactions. Saving land, especially family land, is a different animal than mergers and acquisitions, and takes a different sensitivity to qualitative values than simply determining the appraised value of real estate.
Negotiations in my personal relationships are most satisfying when I end up feeling good about my motivation for generosity. There was a time in my life when I found it very hard to say no. Now I am more concerned with when and how to say it. If I have an Achilles Heel, it is that I would prefer to be liked than to get what I want by being difficult. I am quick to accept responsibility for my own mistakes, and am getting better at discerning which are mine to own and which belong to another. I have a temper, and work hard to suppress it. I have learned how to give criticism and express displeasure effectively in some conflict situations and am still learning in others. I do not chew out ineffective or unhelpful people, but neither do I choose to continue to do business with them.
Wendell Berry in The Mad Farmer's Manifesto challenges us to "Love someone who does not deserve it." I would recast this injunction as embracing opportunities to be generous when there is no obligation or expectation that we would do so. Goodwill often stills the troubled water. My grandmother used to speak about unkind silences, those missed opportunities to praise and acknowledge, and I find that with anything less than mortal adversaries, this can lead to better relations.
I say all this as someone who is preparing to walk into court tomorrow morning and finalize a divorce from my partner of nearly 20 years (15 of them as husband and wife). I see this not as a failure but as an investment in the future of our family. There is hurt and resentment, certainly, and doubt and pain, but there is also quietness and clear-eyed confidence. Some doors are closed, new windows are opened, and the bridges that remain are maintained by us both and are crossed by the children we cherish. It is an acceptable outcome, the best of all workable options, and has the potential to improve with age.
I saw Dances with Wolves during its theatrical release. I was mesmerized, but I was predisposed to be so. I have been a fan of westerns since I was weaned on recordings of The Lone Ranger, and was a Civil War buff of longstanding. I was also a fan of the anti-western, or rather, the alternative to the standard, white hatted version of western history where the story was not just the one that made it into dime novels or technicolor. When I was in 2nd grade, I started receiving volumes from Time Life books Old West series, and I knew that there was more to the frontier than cowboys and Indians. I also knew that Indians generally got short shrift in westerns.
The movie, as with any creative work, is a reflection of its own time. It feels dated now, with its sympathetic retelling from the perspective of the native people (the Lakota, anyway) and depiction of ecological devastation and culture genocide associated with European dominance of the prairie. It is not a movie that would have been made in 1970, or 2011. It is a love story, really, a yearning for something lost, or maybe to be lost ourselves in that wide open solitude of the young land before the plow.
The use of the Lakota language and the many domestic scenes in the camp of the Sioux, make the film feel more like ethnography than Hollywood. Its native American actors are far more authentic than their predecessors on the silver screen. The cinematography is gorgeous, seductive, even, for one who loves the wild, and fell in love with the idea of Native Americans back in the days when I played "pioneers and Indians" as one of them.
It is an ugly movie, also, when it shows the degradation of the despoilers of the West and the savagery of the Pawnee (humanizing the Sioux at their expense). It is unsubtle, and yet easily dismissed in our cynical age. It embarresses us, today, sticky with the political correctness of its day and its seven Academy awards. We prefer to think that Clint Eastwood reinvented and ressurected the Western genre with Unforgiven in 1992, forgetting that Wolves won Best Picture as well and two years before. Both films are about moral ambiguity, but Dances with Wolves is about choosing sides across an irreconcilable gulf between two worlds, while Unforgiven has only antiheroes and is a much bleaker vision of humanity. All that is missing is the profanity of Deadwood to bring it up to date.
Dances with Wolves is a romance on an epic scale. It is a throwback because it is a romance that wears its loyalties on its buckskinned sleeve, but a decent one, by and large. It reminds me of my years living in Africa, among those of other cultures where everything was new, for us all. I relate to that part of the movie in ways I cannot relate to the characters in Unforgiven. It is not a true picture of the West, any more than any western movie can be, but it is moving and it was groundbreaking twenty odd years ago, and an important piece of film history even if it belongs to another time.
A wet meadow becomes a forest unless browsers and beavers knock it back. A ground fire releases the sticky cones of pitch pines and so brings new life. An uneven aged forest is a mosaic from sapling to canopy in response to disturbance. It is not the same place after flood or fire but another expression of itself, a variation on a larger theme.
This Friday, at the same time as the royal nuptials, my divorce will be final. This disturbance in our lives is creating opportunities for new growth even in loss and dislocation. It has been a long and difficult transition which until last month had us still living under the same roof, but to our mutual credit we have managed to come to our separation agreement through mediation and hard work rather than fighting it out in court to the detriment of all.
My former partner has moved to an apartment a few streets away in an adjacent neighborhood of our small town, close enough for convenience but removed enough for privacy. The children are in the same school, and can walk from either house.
For me, the process of unravelling my marriage has brought into clear relief where one of us depended on the other and now must manage things alone. That includes taking ownership of and demystifying my finances, which has been something of a liberation. I am making different choices about where and how to save and spend and the bills are still getting paid. I have been very fortunate in debt reduction and consolidation and am blessed by the love and support of many.
Caring for the children as a single father for me is less a question of learning new parenting skills than of managing more transitions. With joint custody and alternate weeks in the other parent's home comes the challenge of ensuring there are enough changes of clothes, of the right sort, in each residence, and remembering where the flute and library books were left. More than that, it requires a tired parent to remain curious and engaged on the weeks when the children are home, and learn to use the weeks when they are not for personal needs and chores without guilt.
Caring for oneself after two decades as a couple is another fascinating change. I am reclaiming a life of my own after years of defining myself by my responsibilities. I have established new routines, am shopping for food differently and cooking differently. I've lost weight and am starting to regain sleep. I have followed up on old interests and new pursuits. I am sometimes lonely but not alone in spirit. Those I love and who love me are a constant source of joy and support regardless of physical proximity.
My sister the wise woman told me when I confronted the clear signs that my marriage was ending to expect joy, even where it would seem to be absent. And beyond expectations, I have found joy along the way. Some of it is the quiet easing of a tense and troubled heart. Some is the rediscovery of old strengths and delights. And some of it is comes from the recognition that I am worthy of love, and still have the capacity and desire to risk new love.
I have a different image of myself at the midpoint of my life than the one that had been previously presented. The creases around the eyes and the gray at the muzzle give character to a face that still has dimples, a voice still prone to merriment. This is the time for letting some things go and taking ownership of others. It is when I am soft but less vulnerable, clear eyed and yet full hearted. I am sad but not bitter, hopeful but pragmatic, and ready to learn from what life offers, now that the whirlwind is winding down and rain falls gently on good soil.
There are fewer than 450 North Atlantic right whales living today. Nearly 100 of them are feeding off the tip of Cape Cod this week, and the children and I went out looking for them. Off Race Point we joined scores of people gazing out at the twin spouts and rolling flukes of half a dozen whales about half a mile from shore. over at Herring Cove in the lee of the dunes we saw a dozen or so more, lifting their tails and gorging on the zooplankton that has brought them to this place in (modern) record numbers.
I had never seen a right whale before today. I have watched finbacks and minkes, humpbacks and pilotfish, and once in Puget Sound saw a pod of orca swimming in procession past San Juan Island and another time a beluga whale in the Cape Cod Canal. Never before had I seen this rare and wonderful giant, let alone nearly a score of them, and right off the beach. I could have watched them all afternoon, and wityh binoclears and telescope they seemed very close indeed.
My children were very interested in the whales, but also in shells and sand and the feel of the sun on their bare pink toes. There were gannets and mergansers and sandpipers darting, and all along the horizon a backdrop of whales to crown a magical Earth Day. If you look closely at this picture, you will see the telltale Vee of a right whale spout far beyond the children at play.
I have always liked the idea of playing Robinson Crusoe on the beach at Windrock. This would best be done during the summer, when foraging for shellfish, beach peas and the like would be more fruitful and less bone chilling. Fresh water would be a challenge (at least the sort I would drink when it was not a survival situation, but given a hammer and some nails there is plenty of driftwood about for making a windbreak, or even a sweet beach fort.
Today I made a beach fort. It has been a long time since we had one of these - the high water of winter storms, rising sea levels and the glancing blows of tropical storms tend to scour them away after a few seasons - but today seemed a fine day to make another one. We found old pieces of shattered boats, decks and random planks enough for a simple shelter with few refinements, and several hours of leisurely construction later, the result is here to see.
Tomorrow I may add a few more boards here and there, or I may just sit in the sun and watch my barefoot children who think it must be summer already though the wind is brisk and there was frost on the lawn this morning. It is impossible to resist the lure of sand between the toes, pockets full of beach glass, and the west wind scudding the clouds Down Cape. One might as well tell the tide not to turn.
Hope is a herring leaping, though the falls are high and gulls wait by the plunge pool. Though other fish cluster below, backed up in eddies and crowding the stream, the herring that leaps is all quicksilver, blue backed and shimmering above the swift dark water,
It gives everything to instinct all in a moment when it shoots the flume. Nothing less than total commitment, risking all on a single cast, will break the bonds of the running stream and carry the fish above the falls.
Whether the gull swoops or the force of the stream forces it back to its fellows, the herring that leaps is a fastball rising, and we at the herring run rise too in wide-eyed wonder, willing it to clear the wall.
I was the lucky recipient of this fine wooden canteen for my birthday, and I am looking forward to using it for upcoming Revolutionary War Reenactments. It has wooden bands - less effective but more authentic than iron - and in order to ensure that it holds water, I am going to use a very 18th century product - pine pitch. Also known as brewer's pitch, in comes in peanut brittle sized chunks. The idea is to take an old enamel pot I do not care about and melt the stuff on the stove, then pour the canteen about 3/4 full , slosh it around, and dump back into the pot for future use. If my water ends up tasting like resin, at least it will not taste like tin, which is the other period container option for continental troops.
Turns out there are all sorts of authentic products one could use in this hobby to keep up appearances. I have ordered some black ball, a mixture of beeswax, lampblack and tallow, to waterproof my shoes and cartridge box. If I wanted to do the same for a canvas backpack, a period-correct paint is made from brick dust and buttermilk. That same brick dust and olive oil is just the thing for polishing up gun barrels and other bright work.
All this spit and polish is needed in the real world in which I spend most of my time as well. My house needs more than its usual Spring cleaning in the upheaval of various comings and goings. Next week I will be away, the the following week I plan to tackle the significant amount of clutter, and detritus both inside and out. There are seedlings to start and yard waste to pile into small but functional fires. This not only spares my neighbors the smoke and me a visit from the Fire warden, but also provides fuel for outdoor cooking. I have a three legged pot, after all, and the skills to go with it. If you smell mutton curry wasting on the wind from my backyard, you are welcome to drop by for a bowl, and maybe a swig of whatever is in my canteen.
Now that I have finally put to bed my gargantuan series of posts on the minor sideshow of the American Revolution that was Sullivan's disappointing Staten Island Raid; there is time for me (and my loyal readers) to come up for air. Clearly, I have stretched the blog format to the utmost in writing these posts, and probably should have written a history dissertation instead.
Actually, while all this was going on, I did, in fact, of my own volition write a 30 page academic paper documenting the route and encampments of Burgoyne's Convention Army through my part of Connecticut in November of 1778. I will spare you the details for now, but to those who claim my obsessive geekdom knows no bounds, I plead nolo contendere.
All this feverish activity, as my analyst could tell you if not for the confidentiality of the doctor / patient relationship, is a sign of other things going on in my life. Out of consideration for my spouse, I have not written much here about the long process of teasing apart the tangle of our lives and household and moving toward divorce and what follows in our lives going forward. There has been great movement in the last couple of months, and now there are two residences, a signed separation agreement, and a couple more weeks left before we stand in court and accomplish under law what we have managed to achieve already through patient mediation.
During the mandatory parent education classes that we both attended together as part of the divorce process, she and I observed that the heart of the message we were receiving was to be more attentive and deliberate partners in parenthood than we managed to do in all our years as husband and wife. From our couple's therapy we found that we are still a family, however reinvented and physically displaced. From our children, we know that they need and love us both as deeply as we do themselves.
Our new situation has us both still living in the same small town, within walking distance of each other but not on roads either one regularly has to travel. The children spend alternate weeks with each parent. I remain in the house we bought back in 2002 and she has an apartment in a duplex in a neighborhood with friendly dogs and other children. I have not yet had a moment to sort through the upheaval of the move or to rearrange the place and make it feel like my own.
That will come, over time, but for now I am too busy managing the many details of a reshuffled life - including getting an unexpected car loan this week to replace my van that was not worth the transmission repair it needed - to let myself feel empty or abandoned. That grief, too, will come, but there is also great reason for hope and joy in my life and good things to come.
In the meanwhile, my time at home this coming week is my own. I may read, or rake the yard, or make a big batch of green chili with great northern beans. I will put bell peppers in my salad and play old LPs from my youth. I will grumble about the plumbing in the downstairs bathroom and consider whether I can afford to pull up the wall to wall carpetting I have never liked and get the hardwood floors sanded so I can lay down coats of polyurethane.
I will watch the green shoots of new spring wildflowers making daily gains against the newly thawed ground. This is the time for resolution, for patient ears and open hearts. Perhaps a bit of wide-eyed whimsy as well, to make a fresh start with what I have and those I love.
In the days that followed Sullivan's Staten Island Raid, while the General marched his division to rejoin Washington's Army at Philadelphia, some of his officers wrote bitterly to their friends and patrons that he had bungled the whole affair. Sullivan - with a Nixonian nose for enemies within - assembled his field commanders and let them know he was aware that some of them had written to Congress about his conduct. The other officers had agreed to keep silent, but Colonel Samuel Smith of the 4th Maryland, who had been officer of the day and was not aware of this pact; stood up and told Sullivan that he had, indeed written to his uncle in Congress and then "in the strongest terms, but in polite language, gave a full view of the errors which he considered to have been committed."
Sullivan advised his officers, in particular General DeBorre, to keep silent about the matter until he had had the chance to have a hearing and defend his actions, but the horses had already left the barn. Major John Taylor of the 2nd Canadian Regiment, which had lost 8 of its officers captured on Staten Island, wrote first to his superior Colonel Moses Hazen, and then brought formal charges against Sullivan that prompted Congress on September 1st to order a court martial.
"Tho' I would willingly pay every attention to the Resolutions of Congress, yet in the late instance respecting the recall of Genl Sullivan,I must [beg leave to] defer giving any order about It, [till I hear further from that Honble. Body.] Our Situation at this time is critical and delicate, and nothing should be done to add to its embarrassments. We are now most probably on the point of another Action, and to derange the Army by withdrawing so many General Officers from it, may and must be attended with many disagreeable, if not ruinous, Consequences. Such a proceeding at another time, might not produce any bad effects, but How can the Army be possibly conducted with a prospect of Success, if the General Officers are taken off, in the moment of Battle? Congress may rely upon it, such a measure will not promote, but injure the service. It is not my wish to prevent or to delay a proper inquiry into Genl Sullivan's Conduct, a single instant, when the Circumstances of the Army will admit; But now they prohibit it, and, I think, the suspension in his command also."
The proceedings of this Court of Inquiry are among the few from this conflict where documents relating to the testimony and deliberations not only survive but are available online. They have featured prominently in the documentation I have drawn upon in writing this series. Rather than repeating evidence previously cited, I will briefly summarize the proceedings and then turn to the verdict.
The Court Martial was convened on Washington's order with Major General Alexander Lord Sterling presiding. Sterling was the division commander whose men fought on the right of Sullivan's Division at Brandywine, and like Sullivan he had been captured in 1776 during the Battle of Long Island. The other members of the tribunal included Brigadier Generals Alexander McDougall and Henry Knox, Colonels Oliver Spencer of New Jersey and Thomas Clark of the 1st NC, with Timothy Pickering as A.G.
They received oral and written testimony from thirteen officers. Maj. Edward Sherburne's was given on September 6th, but he was mortally wounded during the Battle of Germantown before the Court Martial had concluded its deliberations. Some officers were unavailable to appear in person and gave their testimony in written form. Some of these were cross examined, and others not.
The charges dealt both with the plan of attack and its execution. Questions were raised about the ability for Sullivan's Division and Col. Ogden's force to support each other at a distance of over 10 miles during their separate landings and engagements, and the wisdom of marching Sullivan's men to Old Blazing Star Ferry to link up with Ogden rather than returning to the Jersey shore by the shorter route they had followed when they crossed over to the Island. Charges of rampant looting and poor control over the troops were levelled at Sullivan, particularly during the withdrawal to Old Blazing Star, and during embarkation with the three boats that were available for the return to New Jersey. His decision not to bring cannon to support the raid, and to march more than 20 miles the day before and as much again during the fighting without giving the men time to rest and refresh themselves was also part of the charges.
"The Court...are Unanimously of opinion that the expedition against the enemy on Staten Island was eligible and promised great advantages to the cause of America. That the expedition was well concocted, and the orders for the execution proper, and would have succeeded with reputation to the General and Troops under his command had it not in some measure been rendered abortive by accidents which were out of the power of the General to forsee or prevent. - That General Sullivan was particularly active in Embarking the Troops to the Island and took every precaution in his power to bring them off - That he made early provision at Elizabethtown for refreshing the Troops of his Division when they returned to Jersey, and that upon the Maturest consideration of the evidence in possession of this Court, General Sullivan's conduct in planning and executing was such in the opinion of this Court, that he merits the approbation of his Country, and not its censure. the Court therefore are Unanimously of opinion that he ought to stand honorably acquitted of any unsoldierlike conduct in the expedition to Staten Island."
Sullivan was soon thereafter cleared of the charges brought against him for Brandywine (aided by the resignation of his inept subordinate DeBorre). He was gleeful about the verdict, and wrote yet another gloating and vindictive letter to Congress on October 17th in which he stated that "Congress must be at some loss to know how it was possible for Lt. Col. Smith and Maj. Taylor to write so warmly against me to their friends in Congress when there was no Colour in it." He then proceeded to lay out yet another conspiracy theory that there was bad blood between these officers and his now deceased Deputy Adjutant General Maj. Edward Sherburne, aided by the now disgraced DeBorre.
Sullivan knew how to deflect criticism and assign blame to his subordinates, and he also knew how to intimidate them. With regard to his second Court Martial, he demanded that the officers of the regiments under his command sign politically motivated letters that were essentially loyalty oaths. Sullivan sought a similar endorsement from the officers who served under him in 1779 during his more successful campaign against the Iroquois, but did not secure the signatures of all of them (Matthias Ogden demurred). Examples of the letters from 1777 are also compiled online with the Court Martial proceedings. That of the Delaware Regiment (absent, it will be observed, the signature of Captain Enoch Anderson) will stand for the whole:
"Sir - Agreeable to your request in the order of this day, informing the officers of your Division, that you were Inform'd in the hearing of His Excellency, that the officers were Universally dissatisfied with your Command, and had no confidence in you, as an officer. - We the subscribers officers in the Delaware Regiment, in Justice to you and ourselves, do declare, that we repose the highest Confidence in you as an officer, and are entirely satisfied with your Command, and do not wish to be succeeded by any other."
The best he could secure from the disgruntled 2nd Canadian regiment was the following letter from Lieutenant John Erskine;
"Sir - I have just now been informed by Maj. Taylor, that you have been told by some Persons, that all the officers of this regiment are very uneasy at being under your Command, that you were desirous to know their minds on the subject - I have only to observe for my own part, that if I could reconcile myself as well to the Conduct of the Officers with whom I am more immediately concerned (I meant the Filed officers of Colo Hazen's Regimt) I could live in the Army as happy as I could wish."
Sullivan knew how to win support with flattery as well as through intimidation. His after action report to Congress singles out Colonel Matthias Ogden, who with his men "behaved with equal bravery" to the troops in Sullivan's sector, and forwarded Ogden's recognition of those of his men who preformed with zeal and activity. Ogden, for his part, wrote a supportive letter to Sullivan and praised his handling of the raid (the idea for which he may well have been presented to the General). Sullivan was also sure to praise the brave stand made at the landing by the captured Majors Tillard and Stewart, who were not available to give evidence conflicting with his own about the way he handled things on the return to New Jersey.
Perhaps we should give Captain Enoch Anderson the final word. Writing to his nephew years after the war, the old soldier observed;
"The Jersey Troops got much spoil, - fair game. The Delaware regiment got nothing, save what was taken by my company. One of the officers in my troops gave me a share of his spoils, but it was not much."
[I am grateful to the kind assistance of Todd Braisted and Tim Terrell who generously shared access to documentation that was of critical importance in writing this series.]