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Monday, July 16, 2007

Natural History of Anomalies

Wonders and Mysteries of the Natural World
By Joe Durwin

This week marks the final installment of These Mysterious Hills as a regular column. While Advocate readers may hear from me again, from time to time, as strange new developments occur, or the occasional obscure case from the past emerges from some dark and dusty hiding place, its time as a regular, reoccurring source of folklore and forteana has run its course.

The simple fact of the matter is that there is not an endless supply of haunted places and unexplained occurrences, at least not in any one locality. People are always telling me they don’t know how I have come up with so many topics to write about, month after month. Usually I just nod and smile- because I don’t either, not really. I have no idea how I’ve managed to keep this going as long as I have.

One thing is certain: these hills have far more than their fair share of mysteries. Few regions can boast such a rich landscape of eerie lore and inherent curiosity. Nonetheless, there is still some limited room to swing a dead cat without hitting a ghost, a UFO, or Sasquatch. Weirdness, though pervasive, is finite, and this column has always had an inevitable end.

What I’ve enjoyed most about revisiting these subjects again and again are the human dimensions involved. For the most part, these accounts of local legends, historical mysteries and haunted places are human stories, stories about people who lived here, what they did and what they saw and what happened to them. In this final chapter, though, I turn the spotlight off humanity and onto the hills themselves, to the beautiful and mysterious landscape of the place itself. This time, I will let nature tell its story.

Despite the picturesque views and romanticism of the changing seasons, bizarre and unpleasant weather has always been a perennial topic in this area. On occasion, the tendency toward severe elements goes right off the grid, and conditions allow for meteorological occurrences of a more inexplicable nature.

On August 23, 1892, a large number of Pittsfield residents witnessed a cloud formation behaving in a most uncanny way in the midst of a hailstorm. The cloud was moving fast, and very low to the ground, when suddenly it tore asunder, with two parts blowing off in different directions. The larger part passed across the tops of some tall poplar trees, cleanly shaving the tops right off, as though an airborne lawnmower had passed by.

Another curious hailstorm struck Bennington on June 17, 1950, pelting the town with metal. Around noon that day, a heavy hail storm swept through town, and as the hail melted local people were perplexed to find that it had left tiny pieces of metal behind everywhere. Word spread quickly, even garnering some national attention from Life magazine. Meteorologists in Boston and Albany for the most part scoffed, calling the phenomenon impossible.

Still, this is not the worst form of precipitation seen hereabouts. On March 27, 1960, Mrs. Larry Roche of Dalton heard what sounded like an explosion in her front yard. Running out to see about the commotion, she found a large hole containing three pieces of what had been a chunk of ice weighing over 30 pounds. There were no airplanes over the area at the time, and the ice bomb appeared to have fallen right out of a cloudless sky.

As if that was not enough, a hurricane of stones and mortar chunks hammered two buildings astride the border with Connecticut at Sage’s Ravine in 1802. For five days, stones struck from no identifiable source, destroying over 50 panes of glass but otherwise leaving the buildings largely unharmed. As similar bombardment occurred at the farm of Thomas Paddock in North Powna.l in 1879, where stones not only fell from the sky, but rolled upwards along the roof against gravity, and when picked up felt hot to the touch.

The local fauna has also been a dependable source of anomalous phenomena and bewildering behavior. Besides sightings of Bigfoot-style “wild men,” supposedly extinct catamounts, wolves, and even “demon dogs,” as described in past editions, there’ve also been a number of more documented oddities amongst known species.

One example is the two-headed calf born to A.J. Somers of Adams in September, 1896. Born alive, the calf also possessed six legs and two tails. The calf died a couple of days later, and it was said at the time that Somers intended to have it stuffed, but I do not know whether this taxidermy ever took place or not. Interestingly, the very same year, a kitten in North Adams was born with eight legs and two tails. All these appendages grew from one body, with only one head. The feline, quite alive, was briefly on display at Reeves’ Pool Room on Commercial Street.

It was also near North Adams, four years before, that a vast number of Hessian flies seem to have rained down from the sky. According to the Fall 1892 edition of the journal Insect Life, specimens of larvae were submitted by Professor S.F. Clark of Williams College, collected from the very surface of the snow immediately following a storm. Untold numbers of these insects were found living across acres of this snow. The scientific advisors of Insect Life presented this along with numerous other cases of flies and worms found on the snow’s surface that winter. Their explanation was that the larvae were tempted to the surface from their hibernation by a sudden warm day, only to be trapped by a sudden freeze or storm.

They admit that this will not suffice for many cases, which they attribute to air currents displacing these insect from more southern regions. This is the old Segregating Whirlwind Theory, trotted out as a last resort to explain (when simply ignoring will no longer suffice) the frequent rains of stones, frogs, fish, snails, snakes, or coins worldwide throughout history. The Segregating Whirlwind is that alleged atmospheric phenomenon in which a storm cloud manages to sweep up a large quantity of an animal or object all of a same type, without picking up any significant traces of any other kinds of fish, dirt, leaves, moss or other similarly light matter in the process. The Whirlwind then deposits these objects squarely –and often entirely unharmed, in the case of fish, frogs, etc— in an entirely different locale. Neat trick, that.

In 1806, a large insect ate its way out from deep within a grand wooden table in the home of Mr. P.S. Putnam of Williamstown. The table was made from an old apple tree cut down in 1786, when it was already 80 years old. In 1812, another ate its way out, and 1814, a third. This last one tunneled out from a spot 45 cortical layers into the table, meaning its egg originally was deposited in the wood more than 73 years before it hatched.

This last specimen measured an inch and a quarter. The owner had heard it chewing its way out for weeks before it emerged.

And there may be stranger creatures still. In April, 1890, a fisherman encountered a water snake said to have measured twenty-five feet long in one of the Twin Lakes. And just a few months ago, I received reports of an enormous unidentified animal in North Adams, a predatory beast able to fly but heavy enough to bend a metal railroad tie just standing on it.

These are just a few varied expressions of the often bizarre natural landscape of These Mysterious Hills. There are still more, here and in the back story of every city and town and county in America... so very many that it makes me wonder whether there is such a thing as ‘straight’ history at all…if that is not itself the mythical phenomenon.

But when you go to sleep tonight, remind yourself that it’s all ok. There’s no such thing as inexplicable forces, or impossible occurrences. Remind yourself that you don’t believe in that sort of thing. There are no ghosts, no ghouls, no monsters and no flying saucers, no matter how totally ubiquitous these things seem to be. No visions or miracles or meaningful coincidences. Everything is under control.

And remember, whatever cannot be properly observed, replicated, or explained or understood: just blame it on the weather.


Joe Durwin is a Pittsfield native on an extended sabbatical in the desert, from which he will soon be returning. Always, always, always, send tips on haunted places, unexplained sightings, weird stories, ghost photos, bizarre gossip, odd experiences, cursed artifacts, crackpot theories, pernicious rumors, and accounts of the strange to:

As a final note, I’d like to thank the Advocate editors who have all been so marvelous to me: Glenn Drohan, Lani Stack, and Rebecca Dravis. Not every free weekly is willing to devote so much space, year after year, to meandering explorations of a region’s skeleton-filled closets, no matter how vital a part of the local story it may be.