Wednesday 14 April 2021


My pal P from Boston sent me some wonderful upbeat news about the rise and rise [it's the thermals silly] of bald eagles Haliaeetus leucocephalus in the contiguous 48 states. Seems that there are now more than 300,000 of these distinctive birds; up 4x from 75,000 just ten years ago.  They put it down to gradual draining of DDT from the environment - these apex predators accumulated those organochlorine pesticides and it rotted out the shells of their eggs. Remembering Rachel Carson's Silent Spring! It brought back the 1980 memory of driving from Boston to see The bald eagle at Quabbin Reservoir a 100 straggle of flooded river valley dammed in the 1940s to supply water to Boston and other communities in Massachusetts.  The appearance of that erratic must have been a big deal because it wasn't until 1989 that bald eagles successfully fledged young near Quabbin. Today there are at least 50 eagles making a living on and about Quabbin.

Needless to say, we didn't see the damned eagle, although we did get cold. Nowadays such ventures would be covered by twitter minute information updates and we could have driven to the best spot for sightings. I seem to remember we went into Amherst, one of the homes of U.Mass, for something to eat and warm up. We may have driven past Emily Dickinson's house at 280 Main Street.

I couldn't remember much of this after 40 years and wasn't even sure if Amherst was further West than Springfield MA. The answer is no: they are both in the Connecticut River Valley which runs more or less due South from Canada to Long Island Sound.

Googling "Amherst" got me to the story of its purchase and settlement by Europeans from 1703, two generations after the littoral from Boston to New York and beyond had elbowed the First People aside to build pubs and churches. "John Pynchon of Springfield, down-river a piece, negotiated with three local blokes Umpanchla, Quonquont, and Chickwalopp from Nolwotogg (Norwottuck) upon ye River of Quinecticott (Connecticut)" and bought the Amherst area for "two Hundred fatham of Wampam & Twenty fatham, and one large Coate at Eight fatham wch Chickwollop set of, of trusts, besides severall small giftes".  Wampum consists of beads hand-crafted from the polished white centres of the shells of whelk Busycotypus canaliculatus or B. carica, and black / purple shell beads made from quahog Mercenaria mercenaria clamshells. The beads are small [~8mm x 4mm] and strung on threads for convenience. A fatham is 6ft = 1800mm long. Wampum was originally used to make decorative belts which acted as a certificate of authority. In time, the raw material for constructing these belts /sashes came to be used as currency.

Although these sea-shells were only available on the shores of Long Island sound, they travelled widely through NE North America as a wider circle of people speaking many different languages agreed to accept wampum in exchange for other goods - arrow-heads, beaver skins, one large coate, delft . . . like the basalt axes that travelled far and wide across the Pacific. The burghers of Nieuw Nederland [NY, NY] set the value as so many beads to the stuiver with black worth two white. Like Bitcoiners in the present times, the steel and water-power mentality of Dutch entrepreneurs turned a handicraft industry, largely in the hands of women, into mass-production pipelines which soon enough debased the value in a spiral of inflation. 

Like Chinese characters, wampum could be used to write messages, and record treaties, in a code / convention that transcended the spoken language. 

No comments:

Post a Comment