Property One: The Mahican-Mohawk Trail

This post is a conglomeration of lecture notes, slides, and other information. I compiled all of this as part of my preparation for my OLLI course on Berkshire History, in which I talked about six different preserved properties that all have walking/hiking trails on them.

An overview of the course can be found here.

From my syllabus:

The Mahican-Mohawk Trail is an imagined re-creation of the original “Indian Trail” (as the English called it) that was a trading route between the Connecticut River (near Deerfield) and the Albany area.

  • When I was a kid, we all knew that “Indian file” referred to walking through the woods in single file. Based on my hiking experience in general, and after seeing the section of this trail that is known to have been in existence since before the English arrived, I’d say that was the easiest way to walk through difficult places.
  • I have long wondered why the auto route that goes from Greenfield to North Adams is called the “Mohawk Trail.” I knew from the stories my grandmother told me that the Mohawks did not live around here, but were over on the other side (to the west) of Albany.

To be Discussed:

  • Where is the Mahican-Mohawk Trail?
  • What was its original purpose?
  • Who are the Mahicans?
  • Who are the Mohawks?
  • Are there other, similar, trails, and if so, where?
  • What was Berkshire County like before it was Berkshire County?
  • How and when did Berkshire County come into existence?
  • Why do I have so many questions?

We can only touch briefly on most of these questions, and we will have an opportunity to learn more about these topics in later sessions, especially when we discuss the origins of Stockbridge and The Bidwell House. I will try to address all of these questions, though not as neatly nor necessarily in the order shown here. My brain doesn’t work that way. If you want linear thinking, you’re in the wrong course. But you’ve probably already figured that out…

Where is the Mahican-Mohawk Trail? and what was its purpose?

I have long wondered why the auto route that goes from Greenfield to North Adams is called the “Mohawk Trail.” I knew from the stories my grandmother told me that the Mohawks did not live around here, but were over on the other side (to the west) of Albany.

Each one of you will receive (if you so desire — no obligation to take one) a map of the Mahican-Mohawk Trail. As is pointed out on the front of the map, this Trail is intended to recreate the route of “the original American Indian trail” that was used as a trading route by the indigenous people. The re-creation of a footpath on or near the original can only be an approximation, because some sections were paved over in the 20th-Century as automobile roads, as you know if you read Lauren Steven’s article on the subject.

Notice that he mentions the Hoosac Tunnel

A few comments on Stevens’s article:

  • “In Colonial days, almost all European arrivals in Berkshire County came from the south…”
    • I would say that’s an overstatement — although many people came from Connecticut (if you consider that “the south”) most of those folks could trace their origins back to the Boston area.
  • “… a Mohawk raid on the Pocumtucks … in timely fashion for the arrival of settlers of European extraction.”
    • In class, I told the story of the 1664 Mohawk war party that wiped out the Pocumtucks, which may have been in response to an English rumor, since they had their eyes on the desirable farmland to the north of Deerfield, occupied by that tribe (already greatly reduced in number by disease).
  • “… the closing of the American frontier. ‘Wyoming Bill’s Wild West Show’ …”
    • I’m sure he meant to say “Buffalo Bill” (who was from Wyoming). Again, I told the story in class — John L.E. Pell, a friend of my grandmother’s, send me a photo of Buffalo Bill and Sitting Bull, and on the back he wrote “to Michael Wilcox, age 8, from John L.E. Pell who saw Buffalo Bill and Sitting Bull when he was 8 years old”

Speaking of wilderness, here is a passage from the essay I shared, The Trouble with Wilderness, by Bill Cronon.

Indeed, one could almost measure wilderness by the extent to which our recognition of its otherness requires a conscious, willed act on our part. The romantic legacy means that wilderness is more a state of mind than a fact of nature, and the state of mind that today most defines wilderness is wonder.

Now since it is but foode and rayment that men that live needeth (though not all alike,) why should not the Natives of New England be sayd to live richly, having no want of either?”

Thomas Morton 1632

The practice of land management by controlled burning of undergrowth and detritus (there were no earthworms in North America before the Europeans arrived) was widespread, not at all confined to the forests of the Northeast.

I have walked a goodly portion of sections 4 and 5. A couple of resources to help you find your way, as well as some background information, are at

When I was a kid, we all knew that “Indian file” referred to walking through the woods in single file. Based on my hiking experience in general, and after seeing the section of this trail that is known to have been in existence since before the English arrived, I’d say that was the easiest way to walk through difficult places.

A group of 8 (I’m taking the photo) tackled most of Section 4 last December. It was an extremely difficult hike (not recommended for casual walkers).

One of the many views from the outlooks along the BNRC’s Hoosac Range Reserve (part of Section 5), this one looking west. That’s me in the red cap.

There are a few instances on this otherwise wonderful map where the wording needs to be improved. That will happen. The most glaring error occurs here, in locating the Mohawks in this area, which they were not. This is perhaps a common misconception, not at all helped by the naming of the Mohawk Trail auto route — as Lauren’s article points out — for marketing purposes, it would seem, and perhaps based on a flimsy bit of historical lore.

But before we get further into indigenous names and languages, allow me to share a couple of more graphics to put this Trail in perspective. Here is a present-day map to show that the general route of the M-M Trail, from Deerfield to the Albany area, goes nearly directly west, ending only slightly to the north of where it begins.

I forget, sitting in Alford (blue dot) that when I head over to Albany, I am heading more north than I am west.
The Hoosic River ends up flowing into the Hudson about halfway to Saratoga from Albany.
A continuation of route 2 goes almost due west toward the Hudson at Troy, which is the northern end of the tidal nature of the River. The closest waterway is the Poesten Kill. Route 43 takes a more southerly route to Albany, and doesn’t seem to have any associated waterway. NY Route 67 to Mechanicville is the road that most closely follows the Hoosic River.
Error, to be fixed.

As mentioned, the text says, in part, “… to honor the Mohawk Nation that inhabited Western Massachusetts and New York State.” Wrong! This is as good a place as any to discuss the various names of indigenous peoples, and some of the other language that goes with that. While I’m at it, let me warn you about another source that seems to have some trouble with this very topic. If you have (or see) this book, be very careful of ascribing accuracy to its descriptions. The author makes a big deal, for example, about the difference between Mahican and Mohican, ignoring the advice of experts, and coming to his own unsubstantiated conclusion that these were two different peoples. He also talks about the casinos in eastern Connecticut as though there are somehow connected with the Berkshires. He seems to be confusing the Mohicans with the Mohegans.

Has some difficulty with identifying Indian groupings
From The Mohicans of Stockbridge by Patrick Frazier

The similarity between their names is due to coincidence and European mispronunciation–“Mahican” comes from the word Muheconneok, “from the waters that are never still” (the Hudson River), and “Mohegan” comes from the word Mahiingan, “wolf.” Today there are about 3000 Mahican Indians in Wisconsin, where they were forced to emigrate, and many Mahican descendants scattered throughout New England.

Well, not quite…

In addition, the French called the Mohicans “Les Loups” or “Wolves” because that was their totem animal. The Pequods split apart over a dispute about whom to form an alliance with (the French or the English), and one group, under Uncas, took the name Mohegan. This group may have come, in part, from New York State. It’s hard for me to sort out all the disruptions caused by the colonists among the natives in places of origin and in affiliations.

A few words of caution when dealing with Native words and spellings. All of this can be very confusing and controversial. Even what to call the people who originally occupied these lands brings out fierce debates. Many of their descendants prefer the term “Native American” to “Indian” but, for others, it is the other way around. And some use “First Nations” or “Indigenous People” or any number of other variations. Language is our primary form of communication, and, as such, clarity is important, so context will often determine which is the best terminology to use. At the same time, language can also convey and even shape our values. As with the rest of life, there are always tradeoffs.

To add to the confusion, the Europeans seem to have attached names to groups of Indians that were actually the Indian names of places that were in their territory. I have, for example, seen the Munsee Indians referred to as the Minisink Indians, but that is the name of one of their council fire places, at the end of the estuary on the Susquehanna River, which is more or less where Trenton New Jersey is located.

So, back to the Mahican-Mohawk Trail (Deerfield to Albany over northern Berkshire County), as an example of the evolution of transportation modes from pre-contact footpaths to the automobile/train passages of today. Many of the auto routes we now use closely follow ancient footpaths, which were developed over hundreds or even thousands of years as the easiest/fastest/safest routes to travel.

The original footpath ran for about 100 miles between the Connecticut River (near Deerfield) and the Albany area, mostly along the Deerfield and Hoosic Rivers. The original inhabitants of this area did not have wheeled vehicles or beasts of burden (such as oxen, mules, or horses). For transportation, they relied on foot-power and water-borne transport.

Specifically, on the water, they used canoes, a craft not known to the Europeans when they first arrived. (Europa was a consort of Zeus and the mother of Minos, King of Crete. The concept of Europe, as we know it today, is fairly recent, having developed in the 17th Century. In the early days of colonization of the Americas, people identified only with their country of origin.) Canoes were long and narrow, and, as a result, fast. In the northern and inland parts of what is now New England, birch bark canoes were common. They were lightweight and sturdy, made waterproof by being sealed with pine pitch. The English happily copied their design, although they often used alternative materials to construct them. The standard length of a colonial canoe was one English rod (also known as a perch or pole — 5½ yards, or 16½ feet). By coincidence, an English rod was approximately the length of most Indian birch bark canoes. The original rod, from which the standard measure took its name, was one that was used by farmers to prod their oxen while plowing, so it had to be long enough to reach over the plow. But I’m getting ahead of the story here. We’ll talk more about the English measurement system when we discuss the colonists’ agricultural practices. Rods, chains, furlongs, and acres are all related, and we’ll need to understand them in order to make sense of old deeds and other documents. But don’t worry, these terms will not be on the final exam.

Since we’re talking about canoes, here’s a bit of related trivia. The term “nautical” comes from the Greek nautikos/nautes (sailor) which in turn comes from naus (ship). A nautical mile is one minute of latitude (1.1508 statute miles). One knot (a similar sounding word having a totally different derivation) is one nautical mile per hour. In colonial times, ship speed was measured by dropping a knotted line into the water and letting it reel out freely for 30 seconds, then reeling it back in while counting the knots.

In the southern part of New England, along the major rivers and the seacoast, dugout canoes were more common. They were made from chestnut or tulip (magnolia) trees, because of their resistance to rot and saltwater. These canoes were not as easy to maneuver as the birch-bark canoes, and the largest ones required several people to propel them, but they were more useful for carrying large loads and for fishing. Ocean fishing was often done at night, using torches to lure the fish to the surface, where they would be speared and brought onto the boats.

The Taino people, who inhabited much of the Caribbean, were known as whalers. It appears that some of them followed the whales to the waters just off the coast of Lange Eylandt (as the Dutch called it), and some of them settled and intermarried with the Algonquins. The Canarsie Indians, who occupied what is now Brooklyn, evidently spoke a language that was not entirely a dialect of Algonquian, but was perhaps mixed with Taino. And their culture may have mixed with or influenced the Wappingers, who occupied the eastern bank of the river above Brooklyn. All of this, like so much else about this period, is partly speculation, since contemporary accounts are sparse, though it is based on the study of the languages and on archaeological finds.

In any case, ocean fishing in the large dugout canoes was a thing, and could be dangerous as well. The boats would go out as much as a mile or more from shore. To help guide them back home, council fires were kept burning at strategic promontories. One such fire was located at Navesink (sometimes spelled Navasink on old maps) in what is now Highlands, New Jersey, where in later years the Twin Lights Lighthouse was built. This promontory is near the mouth of what is now called the Navesink River, although the name seems to have meant something like “the place of the high cliffs” — the “ink” ending was similar to the “ic” ending that we find around here, and meant “the place of” — such as Taconic, meaning the place of the forest, or Housatonic, meaning the place of the bend in the river (although if you know that river, there are about 400 places that could claim that name!). The Navesink River seems to have defined (more or less) the southern border of Munsee territory, and below (to the south of) that is Unami. I’ll show you some maps that will make all of this crystal clear, but I realize I’m getting a bit far afield. Let me just mention that the Navesink council fire may have been the first sign of habitation that Henry Hudson saw as he sailed up the coast on his way to “discover” the Muhecannituck, which now goes by another name — that river now bears Hudson’s name.

Most of the peoples I have named so far were closely related, and were members of the larger Algonquin (sometimes pronouned Algonkin), or Algonquian language group. There is a science (some would say a pseudoscience) called glottochronology. It is a study of how related languages have diverged, in order to estimate how long ago they became separated. Based on this study, the Mohican language became a distinct dialect about 3,000 years ago. The Algonquian language group as a whole dates back at least 6,000 years, and archaeological evidence suggests there may have been human habitation in the Berkshires as much as 7,000 years ago. The glaciers of the Ice Age retreated from this area about 10 or 12 thousand years ago, and it would have taken some time for plant life to become re-established.

As people spread out and populations became more dense, dialects developed, although most of the Algonquian peoples could understand each other. There is no sign of word borrowing that would suggest that any other language was resident before the Algonquins arrived. There are some instances of later mixing, such as was mentioned in dialects of Canarsie and Wappinger, which appear to be Mohican combined with some Taino influences, happening perhaps a couple of hundred years before the Europeans arrived.

The Algonquian Language Family

Eastern Algonquian

Iroquoian Languages

Things to note about this map:

  • Fort Orange is the original (Dutch) colonial name of Albany
  • The Dutch had originally tried to establish a fur-trading fort on Schodack Island, named Fort Nassau. They abandoned this in favor of Fort Orange after a year or two of dealing with frequent flooding. There is still a NY town named Nassau that is nearby.
  • The Pequots are the center of many stories. They were the dominant nation in the southern parts of this map, and had been extracting tribute from the Podunks. (Another example of a people being named by the colonists after a location — “podunk” means something like “the place where you sink in” or a marshy area.) My town, Alford, used to be named Podunk, which I can understand, because there are many very wet areas (and were probably more when there were more beavers) in the center of the valley, where the Alford Brook — formerly called the Seekonk (“wild geese”) River — flows, at one time supporting several mills.
  • The Mohegans (not to be confused with the Mohicans) split off from the Pequots over a dispute as to which colonial group — Dutch or English — to support.
  • The Dutch had been the first colonists to establish a trading fort on the Connecticut River, near what is now Hartford. They eventually had to cede their claim to the River to the English, who outnumbered and outgunned them. For a time, the English claimed sovereignty over the land from the Atlantic coast west to the Hudson River, and the Dutch from that river east to the Connecticut River. They both seem to have been able to conveniently ignore the fact that there were already people living there.
  • The Podunks were feeling squeezed by the encroaching Dutch, and were not pleased about having o pay tribute to the Pequots, so they appealed to the English in the Boston area to send colonists to their area. Thus began the invasion later to result in Connecticut Colony. One of my ancestors was the first Governor of that colony, and I can trace both of my father’s parents’ lineages back to Founders of Hartford, John Bidwell and John Wilcox. And there is the Bidwell House connection. Stay tuned.

These next two maps show examples of the vast networks of trails that existed prior to the arrival of the European colonists. Many of our present-day roads and highways follow (more or less) these trading routes, since the Native People had figured out the best routes through hundreds or even thousands of years of experience.

Agawam Public Library

Some Factoids About the Origins of Berkshire County

Many of these facts come from Indian Deeds of Hampden County, by Harry Andrew Wright, 1905, provided to me by Rob Hoogs.

  • Hampshire County was created March 7, 1662 O.S., It included all of what are now the western four counties, as well as part of what would become Worcester County. For a time, Massachusetts claimed all the land west to the Hudson River, and the Dutch claimed all the territory east to the Connecticut River. What is now Berkshire County was in the middle of this disputed area, and had very few European colonists.
  • Worcester County was organized July 10, 1731, leaving Hampshire County with the present boundaries of the western four counties.
  • Berkshire County was created on June 30, 1761, although its eastern boundary would be adjusted several times as new towns became incorporated.
  • 50 years later, Franklin and Hampden Counties were split off from Hampshire (which had originally included only two towns; Hadley and Springfield); Franklin on June 24, 1811, and Hampden on February 20, 1812.

The map below is from 1796, after Berkshire County was created, but before Hampshire County was split into the three counties that now exist.
Berkshire Natural Resources Council

The Turnpike Era and the Hoosac Tunnel

One aspect of the Trial we did not discuss yet was the development of the Mohawk Trail as a colonial transportation route in the interim between the original Indian Trail (prior to 1600) and the paved auto route (1914).

The English colonists established Fort Massachusetts in 1745 in East Hoosac (now North Adams) to help fend off encroachment by the French from the north. Prior to that, in the 1720s, the area had served as the staging area for a series of attacks by a band of Abenaki Indians on the English settlements along the Connecticut River, from Northfield and Rutland in Vermont, down to Deerfield, Northampton, and Westfield. These raids were organized and led by a guerrilla leader of Waranoak/Woronoco birth. He was known to the English as Gray Lock, and he eluded capture for over two decades, conducting raids even after people treaties had been signed by the Abenaki. He died around 1750 without ever having been captured, hiding out on or near the mountain that now bears his name (or so it is said, though there seems to be no documentary evidence of the origin of the name Mount Greylock). Gray Lock was legendary among the Indians, and was known as Wawanolet (or Wawanolewat, or Wawanotewat), which means roughly “he who fools the others, or puts someone off the track.”

In any case, a road was needed to provision Fort Massachusetts, and, later, for commerce with the new towns of East and West Hoosac. In addition, this road opened up a route to northern New York state and Canada for trading, and military expeditions. After the Fort was closed, around 1754, some of the soldiers were given, in lieu of back pay, large plots of farming land in the township of West Hoosac, which would later come to be known as Williamstown.

What had been a footpath, suitable for the single-file travel of the Indians, became a road for the English wheeled vehicles. The English military also required wide roads, since their style of warfare involved, among other things, a marching formation of four soldiers abreast. Fortunately for our enjoyment, some of the most beautiful segments of the original trail could not be adapted for these requirements, so the English instead followed the river beds, which were not as direct but were less steep.

Eventually, the Turnpike Era, as it is known, came to western Massachusetts. In the early 1800s, dozens of privately-financed turnpikes were built in the state (which then included Maine). As mentioned in this article, some 50 years or so later, a railroad tunnel was begun, to bypass the need to go over the high peaks of the Hoosac range. That tunnel has a storied history, which will not be recounted here, and took 25 years to complete. Although it certainly was an eventual success by many standards, it did not have nearly the impact on Berkshire County that was effected by the completion of the Railway to the Moon (on which, more to come).

A Coda to Our Discussion(s): My Perceptions of Injustices Done to the Native People

I wish to avoid moralizing and hand-wringing. In preparing my lectures, and in thinking about readings to recommend, I have encountered many causes for sadness. I do not expect my sorrows to be your sorrows, or my family pride to be shared by you.

As I said earlier, this is my story. I am trying to share with you information that I have found useful in trying to understand and picture the people who came before us. Some of these people I feel a direct connection with; others, I have only read or heard about. I want to understand how my ancestors fit in (or didn’t) with the dominant culture, and how they perceived the landscapes, both literal and figurative, which they encountered. As we go farther back in time, details and individual actors become fuzzier, and we begin to make generalizations about groups of people.

With perfect hindsight, it seems to me that during the process of melding two very different cultures, many mistakes were made and opportunities were missed. The devastation of European diseases was perhaps beyond anyone’s control, but other things were not. The Native Peoples were unceremoniously escorted off the land that had been their home for thousands of years. The colonists, as a whole, failed to appreciate and learn the land management system that the Indians had successfully used to preserve an ecological equilibrium in their sustainable and renewable cycles of forest burning and succession agriculture.

In my present state of awareness, it is easy for me to become maudlin over what I perceive to be past tragedies, but I don’t want to stop there. I am not responsible for the actions of my ancestors, and I cannot undo the damage they did. My job, and yours, too, if we choose to take it on, is to do good here and now. We can reach out to our Mohican brothers and sisters, and tell them they are not forgotten. We can invite them to help us appreciate the sacredness of their homeland, and we can work to preserve it in ways that meet their approval. We can learn much from them if we have the patience to listen.

The evil deeds of the past will not live on if we counter them with proper actions. Indians were enslaved by the colonists before the native population plummeted from disease and other causes. The colonists then turned to Africa for a larger supply of slave labor. Eventually, slowly, painfully, slavery was ended in this country. In an essay in The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik, talking about the failure of Reconstruction to bestow full citizenship on former black slaves, says

When the right side loses, it does not always mean that the truth has not been heard.

In another example, we have to remember that it was only about one hundred years ago that war was outlawed, by the Treaty of Paris. The cynics among you, if there are any, are probably looking around the world and thinking, “Yeah, and look what that has done for us.” But it has, in fact, changed the conversation. We now talk about War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity. These concepts didn’t exist in the period we are discussing in this survey of early history. In most, if not all of the world, might made right. To the victor go the spoils, and all that.

My ancestor, the Reverend Adonijah Bidwell, about whom you will be hearing much more when we get to our session on The Bidwell House, served as chaplain in the English colonial expedition that captured the French fortress at Louisbourg in 1745. Part of his compensation was £39 of “prize money” which he called “plunder.” Yes, wars still happen, but our view of their morality has shifted enormously since those days.

The point of all of this is that speaking up for justice, and taking loving actions, all of the ways we can think to do good — none of that is a waste of time and energy. The truth may not set us free, but it will be heard, and it will last.

But, as I say, I don’t mean to moralize. I’m just sharing my thoughts, and telling you how I feel.

OLLI Nomination for Least Qualified Speaker

OLLI Spring 2019 Course TH104: A Walk Through Berkshire History

Michael Forbes Wilcox is a Berkshire native, having been born in the House of Mercy in Pittsfield.

His parents lived in Stockbridge, where he spent the first 17 years of his life. He currently resides in Alford, where he is the Town Moderator.

Wilcox is a 1963 graduate of Williams High School, and has never lived more than a few hours’ drive from Stockbridge. He did, however, travel the world on business and for pleasure, during his career in Finance and Investments. Never did he encounter a place more beautiful than the Berkshires.

Mr. Wilcox has a long history of teaching subjects about which he has little or no knowledge. He has, for example, lectured at the Columbia Business School, and given commencement talks for programs at Boston University and UMass Medical School. He has also taught graduate-level courses, as adjunct faculty, in the Autism Program at The Elms College in Chicopee. Last year, Michael brought his lack of expertise to OLLI and conducted a course on autism, despite having no training in the field.

Today, Mr. Wilcox continues the tradition of orchestrating a course on a topic in which he has no credentials. His academic training was in Economics, Philosophy, and Political Science, none of which has any bearing on the study of history. To his credit, however, or so he claims, he has history in his genes. He says he inherited a love of history from his younger brother.

We will leave it to the students to judge whether OLLI has made a colossal mistake in giving this knight errant a windmill to tilt.

Refunds will be available at the end of the 7th class.

An OLLI Walk Through Berkshire History: Overview

Overview of the Course

  • First, a little bit about myself, and what I hope to accomplish in this course
    • my introduction, as given in the first class
    • my email: mfw {at} mfw(.)us
    • my blog:
  • Then, a tribute to my Grandmother Wilcox, who instilled in me a love of history and its lore
  • Next, a tribute to the People who were on this Berkshire land before my ancestors invaded their world and changed it forever. Throughout these six weeks, I will try to convey to you some of my understanding of how the Natives had carefully cultivated this Berkshire landscape for countless generations. As the course progresses, I hope that we can all contemplate the opportunity to maintain a connection with the Original People, who retain an active interest in their Homeland. We will also discuss aspects of their language and culture. We call them the Mohicans, but that is not what they originally called themselves. And they did not have a written language, so you may see various spellings, all echoing what was heard by European ears.
    • MoHeConNuck
    • Mo-hea-con-nuck
    • Muh-he-con-neok [I’m told this — with long “e”s — is probably closest to the actual pronunciation]
    • All of these mean “People of the Waters that are Never Still” and are related to the name of the River, Mohicannituck
  • Session One will be about the Mahican-Mohawk Trail, in northern Berkshire County. It will also be an opportunity to discuss the culture that was here before the Europeans arrived, and what we can take away from that knowledge that might benefit us. During this session (and later in the course) I will share some observations about Mohican ways, as I understand them. I will also refer to customs and practices of the English and Dutch colonists. Mostly, I will try to confine my remarks on these topics to what is relevant to our understanding of the places I’m describing.
  • Sessions Two through Six will include discussion of the following places, which I will give here in more or less the order I’d like to cover them; the amount of time to be spent on each may depend on my mood at the time, as well as interest and feedback from the students. That would be you.
    • Stockbridge: Ice Glen & Laura’s Tower
    • Monterey: The Bidwell House
    • Becket/Chester/Middlefield: The Keystone Arch Bridges and the Railway to the Moon
    • Alford Springs
    • Lenox: Parsons Marsh
  • An expanded explanation of what will be discussed about these properties is available here.

What I hope to accomplish in this course

Through the use of these six specific examples, I hope to convey my sense of wonder and excitement about the area in which we live. I know that there are people here in this room who will have more information than I do about any particular subject. One thing you need to know about me, if you don’t already, is that I am autistic. You will hear me mention this several dozen times before all is said and done. The reason I bring it up so early is to emphasize a stereotypical characteristic of autistic people. Facts Matter. Recently, I was awarded a certificate in story-telling. There was another person (not present today) who was awarded a similar certificate that read “Facts Don’t Matter”…

There is a common story, told with some amusement by many autistic people (funny only because it is recalled many years after the fact) that as youngsters in school they often got into trouble for interrupting and correcting their teachers. I want you to know that this works both ways. I don’t mind being corrected. So, at any time, please interrupt me if you wish to express your opinion about some statement or pronunciation I may have made that doesn’t square with your take on things. Or, for that matter, stop me to ask a question about something that I’ve not been clear about. What I won’t tolerate is having people do their own monologuing. I reserve the exclusive right to do that. One autistic at a time is enough.

Speaking of facts; let me emphasize my view of History as an area of study. It is what I would call a soft science, and that means there are no facts; only opinions. I don’t mean this with disrespect. I’m an amateur historian; professionally, I come from another of the soft sciences — Economics. Although we have a lot of fancy equations in Economics and Finance, they are all based on sometimes questionable (and often controversial) assumptions about how people will behave.

I never fully trust anything I read or hear about things that happened in the past. I advise you to take the same attitude, and that includes information spewed forth by me in this course, under the guise of knowledge. Reality is a tricky thing. I never appreciated that until recent years. For most of my life, my autistic insistence that I had a monopoly on reality interfered with my ability to sustain friendships and other relationships. Now, I understand that there are multiple realities. Two people can be present for the same event and come away from it with completely different understandings and memories. I’ll have other examples later in the course, but here is one that is pertinent to our early discussion of first contact between the Natives and the English colonists. That is the concept of usufruct rights. For details, consult my blog post on the subject.

These three concepts of property rights come down to us from Roman Law.

  1. usus = simple use
  2. usufruct = rights to the product of the property
  3. abusus = right to destroy or convey ownership

The word usufruct comes from the Latin and means, essentially “use of the fruit” — think of a fruit tree or an orchard. If you have the right to take the fruit produced by an orchard and do with it as you will — eat it, sell it, ferment it, and so on; then you have usufruct rights. It is only one aspect of ownership. It does not mean that you have the right to destroy the trees or sell them to someone else — that would be the right of abusus (meaning abuse). A milder form of property rights, btw, would be usus, or simple use. You might have the right to use to orchard for your enjoyment — walking through it, for example, or picnicking there, but not to pick the fruit.

When the English came to the Berkshires (and, of course, to other places in the New World), they brought these concepts with them. But the indigenous culture did not have the same understanding. They did not have a concept of private land ownership. For them, the land used for agriculture or hunting and fishing was under the care of the entire community. All of this led to serious misunderstandings and some very negative consequences for the Natives. I’ll get into specific examples and more detail when we discuss land usage and differing concepts of wilderness.

For now, let me return to my more general introduction. So far, we have established that facts do matter, but so-called historical facts are very subjective in nature, and it might be beneficial to think of them as opinions. Of course, some opinions are based on more knowledge than are others, though it’s not always possible to judge which stories are more accurate.

Let me switch gears here. Please indulge me as I give you some personal perspective on what led me to be standing here before you today. This is, after all, my story. I want you to appreciate why the places we will explore are special to me. I may throw in a few facts along the way, but don’t pay too much attention to those — they will not be on the final exam.

I was born and raised in Stockbridge. I grew up, living in poverty, as a member of a loving and highly literate family, an incubator that instilled in me a love of arts and letters, as well as an appreciation for diversity and inclusion. These values, as well as others I acquired in my youth, were to be my guiding lights through good times and bad, and continue to be the core of who I am today. I’m grateful that I had such a well-rounded upbringing.

Along the way here, I will share some of my childhood stories, for I have many fond memories of those early days. In many ways, Stockbridge was the town that Norman Rockwell portrayed. Norman and I were friends, btw (and, yes, some of my stories involve him).

Still, I had a troubled childhood, for reasons that are not important here. I left the Berkshires when I was 17. I wish I could say that it was to seek my fame and fortune, but I did not want to leave. I felt I was being run out of town on a rail. I had little choice, though, but to obey the wishes of the adults in my life. I had recently been released from jail, and placed on probation. My prospects must have seemed very dim at that point, but I never lost faith in myself.

31 students in my graduating class
Notice that I am the only nerd with a girlfriend.

By the time I moved back to the Berkshires, 30 years later, I had acquired an impressive résumé, if I do say so myself. I graduated Williams High School in 1963, and, although it was 13 difficult years later, I managed to earn a graduate degree in Economics from an Ivy League college. I went on to become an officer of an Insurance company in Hartford by the time I was 30, and I earned many professional designations, including Chartered Financial Analyst. I relocated to New York City in 1980, as a Vice President of a major Money Center Bank, and later I became a Principal at a major Investment Bank.

April 17, 1972

In my heyday, I was a world-renowned quantitative financial analyst, traveling the globe to share my insights, visiting all the financial centers of the world. I was, for one thing, the only American asked to join the Board of an organization of European money managers and pension funds known as INQUIRE Europe. My clients in those days included the governments of Hong Kong, Lichtenstein, Singapore, and South Dakota. Toward the end of my career, I managed billions of dollars of assets for foundations, pension funds, and others in Japan, Canada, Australia, and the United States.

Along the way, I started a drinking society named QWAFAFEW, that had its origins as a fun networking group with a serious purpose. Its first meeting was in my Manhattan apartment, and today QWAFAFEW has thousands of members in chapters all across the globe, presenting and discussing the work of leading academics and practitioners.

Hidden behind this glorious résumé lay a wasteland of personal problems. I had also gone through three divorces and many periods of acute depression and liberal use of alcohol. It wasn’t until about 15 years ago that I figured out that I’m autistic, and I began to piece together an understanding that helped me get my emotional life under control.

Despite having been banished, I never lost my love for the Berkshires. I remember coming back one time, from the Hartford area, to visit my mother, who at that time was still living in the house on South Lee Road where I had spent my teenage years. As I drove along route 102, I looked south in the direction of Beartown Mountain, viewing from a distance another one of the properties we’ll be exploring in this course, and I was struck with how beautiful the scene was.

When I saw my mother, I almost scolded her, by saying, “Mom, you probably don’t appreciate how beautiful it is around here!” She smiled at me and said, “No, you’re wrong. Every day, I think about how grateful I am to be here.”

My Dedication

I dedicate my efforts in this OLLI endeavor to my paternal grandmother, Grace Josephine Bidwell Wilcox. When I was a child, I spend countless hours with her, hearing her stories about Stockbridge, and watching her quiet excitement at sharing her knowledge with me and her many visitors to the Historical Room in the Stockbridge Library and her long list of correspondents from around the world.

Additional Thanks

I also want to acknowledge the assistance I received from many sources. Chief among them are the folks at BNRC, who are the caretakers of three of the six properties we will be discussing. Also, many thanks to Rob Hoogs, who is here with us for this course, and is the President of the Board of the Bidwell House. Another member of that Board who has provided me with lots of material on Stockbridge is Richard Bidwell Wilcox, aka my brother Rick.

Paying Tribute

Let us all acknowledge the indigenous people, the MoHeConNeuck, on whose land we now live and enjoy. Let us hold them in our hearts, with gratitude for their long stewardship of this land that we also hold dear. Let us offer our respect for these people, now known as the Stockbridge-Munsee Community, and let us welcome them in our midst whenever they have the opportunity to visit their beloved Homeland.

So, to the Muh-he-conneok, who for countless generations cared for this land; on behalf of my generation, and from my heart, I say “anushiik”!

There! I’ve taught you a Mohican word. [Correction: I later learned that anushiik is a Munsee word. The equivalent Mahican word is “oneewe” — pronounced own-ay-wah]

Can we all say that together, in appreciation of our shared love of their Homeland that is now also our home:



Come With Me to the Pre-Contact Berkshires

Let us now begin our exploration together of a sampling of what makes The Berkshires the most special place on this planet.

There’s a Word for This

… and when I find it, I’ll put it here. [see the comments]

Tom Waters, chairman of the Missouri Levee and Drainage District Association

in a Washington Post article on Midwest flooding

When a person’s last name lines up with their vocation or avocation.

Word of the Day: Usufruct

Caveat: I’m not an attorney.

My interest in this legal term derives from research I’ve been conducting relating to my upcoming (April/May 2019) OLLI course on Berkshire history. Specifically, I’ve been reading a wonderful 1983 book, recommended to me by two different people; Changes in the Land, by William Cronon, who is now at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

This book is now out of print, but I found that many used copies are on offer. There is a 2nd edition, and from what I can tell, the only change was the addition of an introduction.

A recent (2018) review, written by a grad student at the University of Texas in Austin, does a good job of summarizing the main themes of Cronon’s book, although I’m not in complete agreement with his analysis. He states, for example, when (correctly) pointing out Cronon’s different treatment of northern and southern New England, that “the lack of agriculture” in the north created different forest types. (“As a result, the makeup of the forests was different.”) I’m not sure that’s what Cronon said, and in thinking about it, I’ve wondered whether we have a chicken-and-egg problem here.

Cronon points out the common practice in the south of burning the detritus and new growth on the forest floors, as often as twice a year, to preserve the “park-like” appearance commented on by many of the early English colonists. The Indians (presumably) did not do this for aesthetic reasons, but to give themselves easy access to tracts of land that they traversed (usually in the winter) in search of game. There were also other benefits that Cronon explains.

All of this worked well in the south, but not so well in the north, because the tree types were different. In the south, hardwoods prevailed (chestnut, oak, maple, cherry, and so on), whereas in the north, coniferous trees were more common. In a pine forest, burning the forest floor would often end up consuming the entire forest in flames, making this practice ill-advised. Now, was the forest of the north different because no burning had been done, or was it different because of other natural reasons, such as a colder climate (and shorter growing season), or different soil types?

Whatever the cause, there was indeed much less agriculture in the north, and the common means of transport was the canoe rather than the footpath. Indian populations tended to be concentrated along the coast or alongside rivers. Being dependent on fish and game for food required larger areas to support a given population than in the south, where the majority of caloric requirements came from agriculture. Cronon estimated that the population density in the northern half of New England was but a fraction (one seventh) of that in the southern half.

Usufruct is a word (and concept) utilized often in Cronon’s book, so I wanted to be sure I understood what is meant by it (although his exposition on its consequences is quite clear). In addition to my opening disclaimer that I have no legal training, please be clear that I am also not an historian. My background is in economics and finance, so these comments are those of an amateur researcher, and my terminology may not be technically correct.

My understanding is that English law with respect to property rights derived from the Roman system, and usufruct is a combination of two Roman (Latin) words that describe two of the three aspects of ownership.

  1. usus (use) is the right to use something without altering it
  2. frutus (fruit) is the right to profit from something, such as by growing and selling (or keeping) crops, renting buildings, or charging a toll for passage
  3. abusus (abuse) is the right to consume property, destroy it, or transfer it to someone else

A person who has all three of these rights is considered to have full ownership.

Related to this concept of property rights is that of sovereignty. In the English system, the Monarch (King or Queen) had sovereign power over the entire country, but did not own it all. After First Contact, when the English colonists became familiar with the existence of sachems, they assumed an equivalence to their Monarch, which was really not the case. The Indian system of government was much more communal than that.

Much of the conflict between the colonists and the original inhabitants of New England arose from their different conceptions of property rights. The English evidently did not understand the Indian system very well, or perhaps chose to disregard it. Similarly, the Indians did not, at first, comprehend the English idea of individual property ownership. When they “sold” land, they were often selling (they thought) usufruct rights. Even in cases, however, when these rights were explicitly stated (either as being given, or, more often, retained) by the Indians, the English disregarded this aspect of the transaction, and claimed full ownership.

One early example, as given by Cronon, is the “sale” of Agawam to the fur trader William Pynchon. This transaction involved a tract of land along about 4 or 5 miles of the Connecticut River. There were no fewer than 13 Indian men and women signing the deed (an English concept), two of whom were evidently sachems speaking for a larger kin group. Again, the sovereignty over this land, to the Indians, was a communal affair, and they did not have a concept of individual land ownership. Cronon quotes from the deed:

they [the Indians] shal have and enjoy all that cottinackeesh, or ground now planted; And have liberty to take Fish and Deer, ground nuts, walnuts akornes and sasachiminesh or a kind of pease.

Cronon explains that his interpretation of what the Indians were doing was selling the right to jointly use the land much as they did, and they did not consider land to be a tradeable commodity. Thus, what the Indians were selling and what the English were buying were two different things.

The story is more complex than this, of course, because the English did not inherently recognize the Indians’ sovereignty over this land. After all, the English King had granted that to the Massachusetts Bay Colony. But that’s enough of the story, I hope, to show that I understand some of the underlying mutual misunderstandings between the two different cultures.

As Cronon goes on to point out, there was probably very little the Indians could have done to prevent the imposition of the English property system. Although that foreign mode of allocating rights was disruptive, the Indian way of life was likely destroyed more by European diseases and the ecological changes that came about as a result of the colonists’ use of the land. Or misuse, from the Indians’ perspective.

A Walk Through Berkshire History

A Walk Through Berkshire History

An OLLI Course, Spring 2019

Kimball Farms, Lenox

April 18 and 25, May 2, 9, 16, and 23
 3:00 to 4:30 PM

Here is a preliminary description of a lecture course I will give this Spring in Lenox. You can find registration information on my OLLI page.

I’ll also be providing links to other blog posts I have already written, as well as more to come. I realize that my lectures can only be brief introductions to the rich history of our area, and I’ll be sure to direct people to other resources if they wish to visit these places in person, or to do more reading on their own.

For example,

This OLLI course is about Berkshire History. Not all of Berkshire history, of course. Many volumes have been written about that. We can only focus on a few things.

So this is my story. I have chosen six places that are special to me. The thing that they all have in common is that they are all beautiful places to visit, and they all have trails where you can walk and enjoy the sights. There are dozens of places like that in Berkshire County. Here is why these six places are special to me:

  1. Alford Springs is a BNRC property in the town where I now live.

    • A branch of the Wilcox family, separating from mine, moved into Alford in 1838. The property that I now own is a small corner lot, carved out of the Wilcox farm that has been passed down through the generations, today owned by my cousin Ray, from whom I buy the hay to feed my horses.

    • I’ve been riding horses in Alford for many years, all over the town. When I wasn’t riding, I was walking, exploring the forests and looking for new places to ride, or just admiring the views and observing old roads, cellar holes, charcoal pits, and other signs of long-ago occupation.

  2. The Bidwell House is a museum in Monterey that is much more than a house or even a museum. The inside of the house is fascinating, and well worth a visit and a tour. Outside, the grounds offer many opportunities for learning about the history of the area.

    • I’m a Bidwell, by way of my father’s mother. You’ll be hearing a lot about my grandmother, who was the family historian. It is also because of her that I became a stamp collector. The first United States postage stamps were issued in 1847. Monterey became a town in 1847. Coincidence? I think not!

  3. Keystone Arch Bridges are located on the eastern periphery of Berkshire County, spanning three counties, along the West Branch of the Westfield River between the towns of Chester, Middlefield, and Becket.

    • My personal connection here is tenuous, but as a stereotypical autistic, I have a fascination with all forms of transportation. We’ll talk about horseback, railroads, canals, turnpikes, bridges, and footpaths.

  4. Laurel Hill/Laura’s Tower/Ice Glen Hiking trails in Stockbridge, maintained by the Laurel Hill Association, which was founded in 1853 and bills itself as “The oldest existing village improvement society in the United States.

    • I lived on Park Street in Stockbridge in my early years, in the shadow of Laurel Hill, and led my first hike to Laura’s Tower when I was in kindergarten. That was also the first time my mother called out the police and fire departments to search for me. Laura’s father-in-law was David Dudley Field, and she lived in Laurel Cottage, which later came into the Bidwell family.

    • Ice Glen was given to the Town of Stockbridge by David Dudley Field. The rumor in my neighborhood was that the bank robbers had hidden their stolen money in Ice Glen. We looked for it in the caves, and dug holes. My grandfather was at work in the bank the day it was robbed.

    • David Dudley Field also donated the Children’s Chime Tower to the town in 1878. Ernest Gray rang the bells for 45 years, each day from the time of the first apple blossom until the first frost. He taught me how to ring the bells and let me help him play some of the songs.

    • David’s brother Stephen was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1863 by President Lincoln, and he served until 1897. David successfully argued some important cases before that Court. In 1890, their nephew and a relative of mine, David Brewer, joined the Supreme Court.

    • Another of David’s brothers, Cyrus, devised the scheme that led to the first Transatlantic Cable, in 1859. The first transatlantic cable was received in Stockbridge in Cyrus’s workshop, which had once been the home of Barnabas Bidwell, another relative of mine. John L.E. Pell befriended my grandmother to aid him in his advocacy for the Postal Service to issue a stamp to honor the 100th anniversary. I will share a picture he sent me.

    • As you can imagine, the potential list of stories is legion.

  1. Mahican-Mohawk Trail is an imagined re-creation of the original “Indian Trail” (as the English called it) that was a trading route between the Connecticut River (near Deerfield) and the Albany area.

    • When I was a kid, we all knew that “Indian file” referred to walking through the woods in single file. Based on my hiking experience in general, and after seeing the section of this trail that is known to have been in existence since before the English arrived, I’d say that was the easiest way to walk through difficult places.

    • I have long wondered why the auto route that goes from Greenfield to North Adams is called the “Mohawk Trail.” I knew from the stories my grandmother told me that the Mohawks did not live around here, but were over on the other side (to the west) of Albany.

  1. Parsons Marsh is another beautiful BNRC property. It has a fully accessible trail that goes through a wetlands area to a large platform at the edge of the open water, which will delight birders, and provides panoramic views.

    • I did some research at the behest of BNRC into early uses of this land, because they wanted to be sure their trail would not disturb areas that might contain indigenous artifacts.

The Only Thing Difficult to Predict

Jill Lapore does a brilliant take-down of a flurry of recent literature themed “The Robots are Coming!” in her recent (March 4, 2019) New Yorker piece The Robot Caravan. Lapore’s acerbic and erudite wit skewers the doomsayers and technophobes who see the apocalypse coming.

Her argument could be summed up in one paragraph from the middle of her essay.

Fear of a robot invasion is the obverse of fear of an immigrant invasion, a partisan coin: heads, you’re worried about robots; tails, you’re worried about immigrants. There’s just the one coin. Both fears have to do with jobs, whose loss produces suffering, want, and despair, and whose future scarcity represents a terrifying prospect. Misery likes a scapegoat: heads, blame machines; tails, foreigners. But is the present alarm warranted? Panic is not evidence of danger; it’s evidence of panic. Stoking fear of invading robots and of invading immigrants has been going on for a long time, and the predictions of disaster have, generally, been bananas. Oh, but this time it’s different, the robotomizers insist.

As she says, such worries and fears are far from new. A little over 200 years ago, the Luddites came to prominence, by smashing looms and setting fires to factories.

Despite their modern reputation, the original Luddites were neither opposed to technology nor inept at using it. Many were highly skilled machine operators in the textile industry. Nor was the technology they attacked particularly new. Moreover, the idea of smashing machines as a form of industrial protest did not begin or end with them. In truth, the secret of their enduring reputation depends less on what they did than on the name under which they did it. You could say they were good at branding.

One of the subtexts Lapore mentions is that of outsourcing. The upshot is the same; American jobs are being taken away by foreigners. It strikes me as odd that this drumbeat continues even in times like the present, in which the American job market is so tight that employers are complaining about not being able to find enough workers. I guess it’s not the only the present that people are worried about — it’s the future as well.

[Author Martin] Ford, an advocate of universal basic income, is neither a historian nor an economist. He is a futurist, a modern-day shaman, with an M.B.A. Everybody thinks about the future; futurists do it for a living. Policymakers make plans; futurists read omens. The robots-are-coming omen-reading borrows as much from the conventions of science fiction as from those of historical analysis.

There was even a small blurb within Lapore’s essay that made me smile for personal reasons.

In 1983, [a Mexican woman] crossed into the United States, illegally, to work at Kaypro, the maker of the Kaypro II, a personal computer that briefly rivalled the Apple II.

Just this past weekend, my friend Brooke (who now lives on the West Coast) and I were in a New York City taxicab discussing our days of using the Kaypro II.

My own take on the jobs discussion, as an erstwhile economist and as an amateur historian and all-around dilettante, is that it’s all a bunch of nonsense. In some circle, wealthy business-owners are touted as “job creators” as though they are performing some sort of grand philanthropic gesture to the poor unfortunate slobs who would otherwise not be able to work for a living. Of course they are doing no such thing, but are employing people when it is to their financial advantage.

There is also the argument that government stimulates (or should stimulate) the economy through its fiscal and monetary policies to create demand for goods and services, thus allowing businesses to hire more workers. There is undoubtedly some truth to this argument, to the extent that our collective action (also know as government) creates or subsidizes the infrastructure necessary for businesses to form and perform their job-creating miracle.

But in the end, my vote goes to the workers themselves. Jobs exist because people want them and are willing to work. Take, for example, the millions of people in this country who slipped across the border or who overstayed their tourist visas to find work. They may have started out by picking apples or mowing lawns or changing sheets in a motel, because they could find someone willing to pay them for things they were willing and able to do. Many of these people have gone on to higher-skilled jobs, and they are here because we need them; they are now an integral part of our economy.

Over tens or hundreds of thousands of years (or longer) of evolution, homo sapiens have risen to world dominance by being a cooperative species. In pre-agricultural times, human society probably consisted of bands of 100 to 150 individuals. Although there was probably some tolerance for non-working adults who were disabled or had special powers, for the most part each member of the clan had to pitch in if the group were to survive.

I suspect idleness has been bred out of our gene pool. Work, in our modern world, does not necessarily mean paid employment; it can be volunteer work, or hobbies, or helping out with the family. But I know very few people who just sit around and do nothing. And if people need money, they will find a way to earn it. When a worker accepts a job, who has “created” that job? My vote, as I’ve said, goes to the worker.

Yes, yes, I know this is all a great oversimplification. What about the Great Depression? Why didn’t all those people go out and create jobs? My argument is a philosophical one, and an appeal to look at cause and effect a bit differently. Robots are not to be feared. In aggregate, if people are replaced by technology, they will find other things to do that they can get paid for. Always have. Always will.

That said, I’m very well aware of the folk saying, “The only thing difficult to predict is the future!”

The Four Kingdoms of Autism

I attended a lecture at Simon’s Rock College at which the presenter mentioned a 2013 post by former NIMH Director Thomas Insel, entitled The Four Kingdoms of Autism.

I was not familiar with this description, and it seemed to me to be a useful way to think about how autism is viewed. Dr. Insel offers four different perspectives of autism, dividing his world into four kingdoms, of which he is perhaps the Emperor, since each Kingdom’s name begins with “I”…

  1. Illness
  2. Identity
  3. Injury
  4. Insight

Illness: This is the classic model of autism as a medical condition requiring treatment. Autism was defined as an innate condition in the first two classic papers that identified autism as a separate identifiable condition. Leo Kanner (1943) termed the condition inborn autistic disturbance of affective contact. Hans Asperger (published in 1944, although probably written before Kanner’s paper) called it “autistic psychopathy.”

Asperger explicitly stated that he believed autism was genetic in origin, based on his observation of familial similarities. Kanner was more equivocal, and later changed his view to be more in line with the then-prevailing psychiatric thinking that many deviant behaviors, such as homosexuality and autism, were caused by trauma.

The clinician who made the presentation at Simon’s Rock was clearly in this school, although she did give a nod to the Injury Kingdom.

Identity: This is where I live. Autism is a different way of being, not a disorder. Neurodiversity is to be praised, not shunned. Autism is also a disability in a society that is not accommodating. As Insel states, the “focus is on community supports, educational and occupational services, and civil rights.” The core example of this kind of advocacy is ASAN.

Injury: People in the Injury Kingdom are searching for the “cause” of autism, so that it can be prevented or cured. There is a close alliance here with the Illness Kingdom, though the way Insel describes “injury” he seems to be talking mostly about vaccines. For those of us in the Identity Kingdom, there is very little functional difference between illness and injury; they both smack of eugenics, and they both suggest that autism is a defect, not just a natural variation in the human genome.

Insight: The residents of this Kingdom sound like anthropologists, studying a strange culture. This, too, seems to be based on a deficit model, which is an approach rejected by those of us in the Identity Kingdom. I’ve participated in many brain studies, thereby learning much about how different my circuitry is from that of neurotypicals. But different does not equate with inferior, and if research starts with that premise (as most autism research seems to do), the results will likely be distorted and uninformative.

Observations About the Presentation

Given that the speaker and I seem to live in different Kingdoms, it is not surprising that I found things in the presentation that were disturbing or that I disagreed with. There were also excellent points made about aspects of autism, such as the idea that “repetitive behaviors” can be adaptive. This made me think of Ted Williams as an example of obsessive repetition. There are also many autistic people who are (or historically have been) very talented in music and mathematics, disciplines that are highly structured.

One of the odd things mentioned in the talk was the definition of biomarkers. It was the first time I’d ever heard of “behavior” called a biomarker. In fact, that seems to me to be self-contradictory. The reason biomarkers (such as a blood test or brain scan) are sought out is to avoid having the subjective judgment required to classify behaviors, which is currently the only accepted way to diagnose autism.

Having a reliable biomarker, it was said, would increase the chances of identifying autism early in life, thus being able to begin interventions sooner. I wish more had been said about what those interventions are, since I’ve learned about a wide variety of “treatments” — ranging from harmful to ineffective. I’m not at all sure why being “social” is such a desirable outcome, given the strange behaviors of most neurotypicals.

Sensory issues were hardly mentioned at all, although they are central to the experience of being autistic. When I arrived at the lecture hall, the lights were so bright that I felt a need to request they be dimmed (an accommodation the organizers were happy to make). At one point, a video was played, describing the default mode network (DMN). I could not understand what was being said because there was music playing at the same time that someone was speaking. I suppose for neurotypicals, it is “background” music, but since it was louder than the voice, it was all I could hear. These are some of the amusing things that autistics encounter in this neurotypical-dominated world. I say amusing because, even though they can be annoying or even painful, it continues to amaze me that many programs or meetings I attend that are about autism are given in environments that are hostile to my kind.

The Language of Autism

Language cues reveal much about social attitudes toward autism. “On the spectrum” has become a universal euphemism for “autistic” to the point that no one really knows what the “spectrum” is. Or, more to the point, the word is used in so many different ways that it has no real meaning. Originally, it referred to IQ range, but that seems to have fallen by the wayside. There was a graph in this presentation showing “severity” levels of autism. The implication here, of course, is that autism is a negative thing. One doesn’t talk about the “severity” of eye color.

In the Injury Kingdom, it is often said that various things increase the “risk” of autism, implying, again, that autism is a bad thing. This has spawned many spoofs in the Identity Kingdom, declaring that “autism is caused by being born” or the classic “Studies Prove It: Autism is Linked to Being a Carbon-Based Life Form.” The rise in diagnostic rates in recent years has sent people scurrying to find these “causes” when, in fact, the increase in entirely a function of increased awareness and changes in diagnostic criteria. An authoritative view of these trends is provided in the wonderful book NeuroTribes, by Steve Silberman.

Those in the Illness Kingdom often talk about how the autistic brain has “too little” or “too much” connectivity in various regions, which is a value judgment, not a scientific fact. Despite years of academic research that shows there is no connection between autism and intellectual capacity, the myth persists that a high number of autistic people are intellectually impaired. It just ain’t so. I’ve recently heard numbers such as 50% or 38% or you-name-it. The truth is closer to 2% or 3%, the same as in the general population.

More on the Origins of the Illness Kingdom

My brief remarks in the paragraph above do not do justice to the early works of Asperger and Kanner, and the debate that ensued (and still continues) over the source of autism and how to deal with the condition. There is a good discussion in a book by Chloe Silverman, Understanding Autism: Parents, Doctors, and the History of a Disorder (pp. 36+37 and elsewhere).

All of this deserves much more extensive treatment than I can give it in this short post. Stay tuned! Meanwhile, my friend John Robison has shared his thoughts on part of the debate in his award-winning post for Psychology Today, “Is the Definition of Autism Too Broad?” Well worth a read.

Kudos to Simon’s Rock

I’m delighted that the college sponsored this lecture and discussion, which they made open to the public. Although I (obviously) did not agree with everything the speaker presented, it was good to see the keen interest in autism among the students and the guests. I hope the college will follow up with more talks on this important subject.



This past winter, I taught a course on autism for OLLI, our local (Berkshire) adult education outfit. Along the way, I discussed the theme of friendships.

One of the overriding messages I was attempting to convey in the 6-lecture course was that autism is not a deficiency, but a difference. To illustrate this, I shared examples of my collection of friends.

Although, as a youngster, I always felt left out of the inner circle of my classmates, I had plenty of friends. In recent years, I have asked some of those former classmates whether I seemed odd to them, and maybe that’s why they left me out. No, I was told, they never consciously excluded me, they just figured I was shy and I didn’t want to play with them.

This is a very common experience, I’ve come to learn, among autistic people. We long for inclusion, but never quite seem to find it, always looking in from the outside because we just don’t “get it” when it comes to social bonding. That stereotype, although accurate, should perhaps be revised to include the recognition that our desire for sociability and friendship is no less than in our neurotypical counterparts. We simply, for whatever reason, don’t pick up on the behaviors that lead to social integration in that dominant neurotypical culture.

Instead, we are steered by a different set of rules, and we make our own friends, in our own way. I’ll have more to say on the friendship theme in future posts, and I’ll share more of the examples I gave in my lectures. For now, I thought I’d post this one, since I came across a related document.

In my OLLI course, I flashed a picture on the screen and described it this way:

And these were my nerdy friends from high school. My 1963 graduation took place at Tanglewood. Notice that I am the only one with a girlfriend.

By coincidence, the four friends here were all on the same page of my high school yearbook.

Notice a common theme here? Lots of mentions of poker and gambling, money and odds. All part of my early life. I think I placed my first bet on a horse at the Barrington Fair when I was 14. I liked to think that I looked older than my age, but I wasn’t sure I could pass for 18. I put $2 down at the window and the teller looked me over. “How old are you?” he wanted to know. “18,” I lied. “Go away!” he waved me off. “Why?” I wanted to know. “You have to be 21!” So I went down the row a bit and tried again at another window. That guy never asked me my age.

I started investing in the stock market when I was in sixth grade. My uncle Paul, married to my father’s sister Jo, was a stockbroker at Goodbody and Company in Pittsfield. He told me to call him anytime for information or to place an order. He told me I could call collect. In those days, Stockbridge didn’t have dial phones, and a call to Pittsfield (two towns away) was a long-distance call, requiring the use of a long distance operator. It also happened that I was in school at the times when the stock market was in session, so I had to ask permission from my teacher, Fritz Brown (probably my least favorite teacher from grade school years).

Mr. Brown would escort me around the corner to the Superintendent’s office, and tell the secretary of my request. She would point to either the conference room or the inner office, whichever one was vacant at the time, and tell me I could go in there. I later figured out that they were listening in on my conversation from the phones in the outer office. I thought that was rather weird, because why would they care about what I was talking to my uncle about? Unless, of course, they didn’t believe me, and thought I was making contact with a Russian spy or something.

They would have heard some pretty boring conversations, although my uncle Paul was a loquacious guy. After I gave the operator my instructions, I would hear the phone ring and be answered. “I have a collect call from Michael, will you accept the charges?” Uncle Paul’s hearty voice would say, “Put him on!” and we would be off to the races, so to speak. After pleasantries, I would ask, “How’s Radio International doing today?” and he would tell me, “I’ll have to send a wire to New York to get a quotation — call me back in an hour and I should know then.” The stocks I was interested in generally didn’t appear on the ticker-tape very often.

So I would have to repeat the drill, and when he gave me the bid-ask spread, I might place an order to buy one or two shares at, say, $13. All of this was a whole lot more exciting to me than listening to Mr. Brown drone on about diagramming sentences, or whatever it was we were supposed to be learning that day. I hope he got a thrill out of listening in on my conversations. How I figured out he was doing that is asfad* and it involves the dog eating my homework, or something like that.

My cousin Bruce, along with Pete and Bill, were the core of my circle of nerdy friends. I don’t remember ever discussing our social situation with them at the time; I guess we all just accepted our lot in life, not being part of the “in crowd” (or at least that’s how I think of it now, looking back). We all went on to have high-powered careers, and it would seem that our social awkwardness in high school was not a precursor of a less-than-satisfying life.

Nadia Tao Wend was the only girlfriend I had in high school, and that for only one year. I think she identified with my friends, as a bit of a misfit in her own right, having moved into town just before our senior year. Or maybe there was more to it than that. After not seeing her for more than forty years, we reconnected when she came to Stockbridge, with her sister Darcy, for one of our high school reunions.

As you can see from her yearbook entry, she was known as Wendy at school. Her family called her Tao, and I called her Nadia. She pronounced it nahdja, and I thought it was a beautiful name, though I think I called her that because she asked me to. In between those high school days and our reunion, I had written a story about another love affair. It was published under the name Running in the Dark, and was based on a true incident. I asked my love interest at the time if I could use her real name, and she insisted that I not do so. We had both been married (to other people) for much of the time we were involved, although I was divorced by the time the story was written. So I proposed to use Nadia as the name in the story, and my friend expressed surprise, “Did you know that is the name of my sister?” I did not.

The original Nadia and I stayed in touch for a while after that reunion, and I shared with her my then-recent revelation that I had identified as Asperger’s. After hearing my story, she did a little research. We had lunch one day in New York City, where she was then living (I’ve lost track of her again), and she shared with me, “You know that Asperger’s thing? I think I might have a touch of that!” I didn’t ask her why she thought that, because it didn’t seem odd to me at all. Her father was an incredibly erudite and creative man, and would probably fit to a T the stereotype of the absent-minded professor. He was the one who inspired me, at age 16, to become a vegetarian. But, again, asfad*…

*a story for another day

It Runs in the Family

Here’s a great picture of me with my Georging friend Ed, photobombed by his daughter Eve.

Actually, as you can probably tell, this was a selfie by Eve, with Ed and me in the background. Very clever!

The setting here is a classroom at CIP in Lee, very generously made available to us twice a year for Northeast Gatherings. Georgers come from all over New England, as well as New York, New Jersey, and (in Eve’s case) Maryland.

Ed is a very talented and articulate guy — he serves as our unofficial scribe and always writes up a description of the action at Gatherings he attends, with a playful account of all the personalities involved.

Ed also is a weekend musician, performing with a group that plays mostly classic rock and roll. In “real life” he has a career involving computers. All of these things: Georging, music, and engineering, have a lot in common, it seems to me, and require the same kind of thought processes that involve attention to detail and a flair for mathematics.

His offspring seem to share these traits, and although his son is not involved in Georging, both he and Eve have recently started careers in technical fields.

It’s quite a delight to have them participate in our geeky social circle. Gatherings are full of laughter and fun, and when we meet in public places, we often get curious looks and even outright questions, such as, “What the hell are you guys doing?” which of course only adds to the solidarity of the group.