Douglas State Forest sits on 5,907 acres in south central Massachusetts that once belonged to the Nipmuc and Narragansett people. Estimates are that 80 percent of the Nipmuc people may have died from epidemic disease brought ashore by the English settlers who landed at Plymouth and, on November 11, 1620, 301 years ago this month sanctified what would be a genocidal land grab with these words:
[We] Do by these Presents, solemnly and mutually, in the Presence of God and one another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil Body Politick, for our better Ordering and Preservation, and Furtherance of the Ends aforesaid: And by Virtue hereof do enact, constitute, and frame, such just and equal Laws, Ordinances, Acts, Constitutions, and Officers, from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general Good of the Colony; unto which we promise all due Submission and Obedience.
The Narragansett people fared even worse. In 1675, they allied with King Philip and the Wampanoag in an effort to get their land in Massachusetts back. This resulted in an atrocity called the Great Swamp Massacre in which a combined force of Massachusetts militia, including a delegation from high-falutin’ Plymouth colony, laid waste to a large Narragansett encampment near modern day North Kingstown, Rhode Island. Somewhere between 300 and 1,000 Native non-combatants were killed or died of exposure after fleeing into the swampland in the middle of December. The site of the massacre is about 45 miles south of Douglas State Forest, the stolen land on which I had my first real job, in the summers of 1972, 1973, and 1976.
I was floating around the internet the other day while waiting for a bus, and I came upon the obituary of Bill Annese, who had been my supervisor at the state forest for all three of my summers there. Billy had died on August 10th of this year. I owe him a great deal, which we’ll get to in a minute.
We couldn’t have been an easy crew to wrangle. We were all college students, except one of us, who was finishing law school and getting ready to take the bar. We all were temporary help with our eyes down the road at what we wanted to do with our lives. We were smart-assed and prank-prone, and several of us had no bloody idea what tools did what. (I could swing an ax and clear brush, but I was absolutely hopeless with wrenches and ratchets and nobody dared give me a crack at the chain saw.) But this park was Bill’s livelihood and his love. He knew every trail, and there were a lot of them that hadn’t been cleared since the WPA came through to build a railroad bridge in the 1930s. He knew every inch of shoreline of Wallum Lake, the state forest’s body of water that extended into Rhode Island. Billy loved that place and, gradually, by working us hard at maintaining it, he made us love it, too.
To this day, when I feel Ishmaelishly grim and spleenful, I often drive back to the park and just sit by the water. There is a small, wooded peninsula just off the main beach where, in the summers between college semesters, I used to sit and think preposterously self-important thoughts until the waning sunlight spreading on the water cleared my head again and got me back in the moment, with the night breeze just coming up.
Billy Annese cared for the land. He might not even have been able to explain why, but he nurtured what he had and worked to preserve more of it. In his 38 years with the state, he added 75,000 feet of shoreline to the park and 657 acres to the forest itself. He taught me how to work hard and to love what I’m doing. He taught me the worth of the satisfaction that descends at the end of a hard day’s work. Cutting a trail in the deep woods or finishing a piece commissioned by a magazine, the feeling is the same. In my mind, I go back to the tip of that wooded peninsula, and the sun is going down and orange light is blessing the waters and, overhead, the ospreys are circling, circling, and stooping, finally, through the twilight toward the water, the way it should be, the way it always has been, all the way back to the people whose land this once was, who fished the same waters as these deathless hawks. I am thankful for the land and the water and the birds of the air and for all the people through the long ages who worked to keep faith with them all. That’s what I am thankful for in this year, 2021, 301 years since the Pilgrims landed and trouble advanced on the continent.
The shebeen is dark until Monday. Happy Thanksgiving, one and all, and to all that celebrate it.
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