by Pam Newton
I live on Nipmuc land at the base of a hill. This place was once anything but flat, rather part of a small sloping piece of Pompositticut, “the land of many hills”. My office floor sits on a footprint in a circle recently carved into a glacial kiss. I live and work in a bend in the Assabet River on the upper Mill Pond created by the Ben Smith Dam. It was built in 1870 to power the woolen mills in the town below. This property is quite close to what is now called Great Road. My treasured 1/3 of an acre is a tiny, yet powerful, source of creative fantasies. Dreams, former human and animal visitations, and present day sightings: the town dock, barking dogs, bicycles, birds and beasts, neighbors of all colors and kinds are my daily companions.
This land can never really belong to me, yet my name is on the deed. We should not be living this close to the wetlands. We should be pushed back or torn down. Somehow the builder was allowed to bulldoze into the virgin land in 1998, this small parcel at the bottom of a hill, a still recent extension of Taft Avenue. It is now illegal to hover this close to the rocky border of the river, yet our real estate deed has grandfathered us into living illegally in Maynard for as long as we shall live.
For me, this land feels like a guilty pleasure, home, in the environment I had always hoped to find. A sense of place, however, comes with its surprising, sometimes violent realities. Their were horrific murders between the whites and Native Americans right around here. Ducklings often disappear due to the huge snapping turtles residing in the middle of the Assabet River. Blanding Turtle eggs (laid in our yard) are often dug up by marauding skunks or weasels. The tiny turtles that do hatch are only about one inch long and are frequently decimated by people in their cars. I hear vicious dog fights across the river.
Then, there are those episodes that are more like a joke on the human residents. One summer we had a chipmunk invasion. They were constantly under foot, eating our neighbor’s sugar snap peas and lettuce while torturing my cat. Since, it is illegal to move wild animals in Mass., there was human talk of other ways to lessen the population.
The plans made me sad. Research was needed. I read online that chipmunks detest Irish Spring soap and used dryer softener sheets. I tied squares of soap into dryer sheets with ribbon and placed them around our property. Voila. Most moved elsewhere. Ticks, snakes, moles, mice, mink and beavers love the river and the wetlands. The lush collection of ferns and bushes run right up to our rock wall, and the animals often interfere with my plans to modify their habitat. Chili powder, white vinegar, and salt have not been as successful in deterring varmints as I had hoped. I have lost my innocence; there are those who do not want me here.
That wall is only about ten feet from our back stairs. Squirrels love to straddle the railings and steal nasturtium seeds in the planters above. Rabbits and multiplying ground hogs eat only the most exquisite Asiatic lilies and Echinacea in the yard, munching right through any barriers we have attempted to construct around our civilized garden plots. The natural world is wild and free. They gnaw, attack the ground with burrows, cart flower tops into their storerooms, plan new strategies. Praise be, they are not tempted by Dahlias and mature Roses! But, what next?
My immigrant soul knows I am an imposter here. Born of a former British Canadian father and a mid-western mom, I will never really belong in this setting. I am not an interloper into the Mill Town world so much but into the sacred spaces of wild beasts and Native Americans. The white folk cheated the Nipmuc out of their land, built the Ben Smith Dam, watched the upper mill pond fill up and gush down a canal to the sprawling mill on Main Street. The bosses lured immigrant peoples to build, care for, and work in the mills. My beautiful location is dependent on that history.
Yet, I thank the land for being here, work for the protection of immigrants, and pray that all will be well unto seven generations. I remember the Nipmuc and the species that came before, honoring their memory and the beauty of the land we stole. For now, it is mine, so to speak. The deed in the safe deposit box says so.