Up there is one of my favorite landmarks in all of New England, because it serves as a visual reminder — standing out against the sky with its thick, ruddy arkose — of the crazy awesome geological and biological history of this valley I inhabit.
Mount Sugarloaf sits just over the Deerfield River as you cross from Sunderland into Deerfield, MA. Despite its slight stature — it’s only 791 feet tall at its highest point — it offers a pretty breathtaking panorama of the Pioneer Valley.
You also might recognize it (but probably not) as the setting of the top secret weapons facility in Mel Gibson’s unintentionally hilarious 2010 crime thriller “Edge of Darkness.”
But Sugarloaf has its own, far more interesting story to tell.
I first heard it from Dr. Margaret Bruchac, an anthropologist and Abenaki storyteller, when she visited one of my anthropology classes my sophomore year at UMass. I heard it again, from Bruchac, in an oral history course a year later. It came up a third time during my summer working on an archaeological dig in Old Deerfield, as we shuttled between the site and the lab, passing the mountain each way.
But first, some background: This valley used to be a glacial lake, and despite any nonsense you hear about 1492 or 1608, there were people here at least 12,000 years ago, possibly even 15,000. They were the Pocumtuck, a subset of the Wôbanakiak people who had been making New England habitable since old England was still the new England.
There were also megafauna, including beavers. Giant. Fucking. Beavers.
According to Pocomtuck legend, Mt. Sugarloaf, called Wequamps, is the remains of one of those megafauna beavers, who once terrorized the people living near the lake that is now this valley.
I couldn’t find the version of the story I heard from Bruchac online, so here’s a dead white guy’s:
“The great beaver preyed upon the fish of the Long River. And when other food became scarce, he took to eating men out of the river villages. Hobomuck, a benevolent spirit giant, at last was invoked to relieve the distressed people. Hobomock came and chased the great beaver far into the immense lake that then covered the meadows, flinging as ran great handfuls of dirt and rock at the beaver. Finally he threw a bunch of dirt so great upon the beaver’s head that it sank him in the middle of the lake. Hobomock, arriving a few minutes later, dispatched the monster by a blow with his club on the back of the beaver’s neck. And there he lies to this day. The upturned head covered with dirt is the sandstone cliff of Wequamps (Mt. Sugar Loaf), and the body is the northward range. The hollow between is where Hobomock’s cudgel smote down his neck.”
“For the European-inspired histories, landforms like Mount Sugarloaf are relegated to a time outside human history,” UMass archaeologist Robert Paynter, who ran the field school where I worked in Deerfield, wrote in a paper. “But by animating this feature, the Native story presents a challenge to European notions of time as an infinite line and to European colonization of the homeland of people known today as the Pocumtucks.”
Beats the hell out of the plot of “Edge of Darkness,” doesn’t it?