In Colrain, Forest Finds Protector in Self-Styled Naturalist

Muriel Russell would prefer this story not be told. It's about the Catamount State Forest, a rocky post-Revolutionary War homestead long abandoned by settlers for more farmable land.

COLRAIN, Mass. — Muriel Russell would prefer this story not be told.

It's about the Catamount State Forest, a rocky post-Revolutionary War homestead long abandoned by settlers for more farmable land. Their houses are gone, but miles of stone walls and overgrown roads lead hikers past cellar holes that leave enough evidence of the lives once lived in the sprawling woods near the Vermont border.

The tranquility of the place was upset in the 1990s, Russell says, by the sounds and tire treads of Jeeps parading along the forest trails.

After years of public wrangling with off-road enthusiasts at town meetings, Russell finally prevailed. Although a few four-wheelers occasionally make their way through the woods, the town (pop. 1,813) agreed to close some access points and organized Jeep clubs said they would stay out of Catamount.

Her worry now is that widespread publicity about the place she loves will attract a new round of unwanted visitors.

"I don't want more four-wheelers mucking around up here," said Russell, a slight 60-year-old who navigates the forest's hilly terrain as easily as someone walking along a flat city block.

But the woods hold a history that would be a shame not to share.

And, ironically, the legends are best told by Russell, the self-styled historian, naturalist and tour guide of Catamount.

"She knows Catamount in her bones," said Susan Todd, principal of the elementary school in nearby Heath. When she was a sixth-grade teacher in Colrain, Todd would have Russell lead her students along field trips through Catamount. "The place for Muriel is like a poem that you read over and over again. She just knows every nuance of that place."

She knows, in a sense, where all the bodies are buried.

"Everybody walks right by this spot," Russell said, taking a break during a hike through the forest. She takes a few steps off the trail and clears some leaves and pine needles from a boulder. A marker on the hunk of quartz pays tribute to Earl McLeod, who lived most of his life in the area before moving to Florida, where he died in 1953.

"Rumor has it that he's buried under this rock," Russell said.

Her tour continues past a hilltop pond where she's spotted otters, and along vernal pools that spawn salamanders and frogs. She points out the witch hazel, rush and button bush plants before taking a rest at the mouth of a 30-foot cave known by locals as the Devil's Oven.

And throughout the trek, it's impossible to escape the reminders of the families that began calling Catamount home in the late 1700s.

Russell has mapped out dozens of cellar holes around the property and, by her own guess, has another 10 to pinpoint before she's found them all.

The early settlers were mostly veterans from the Revolutionary War who were too poor to afford land anywhere else. Catamount's ground is filled with rocks, making it almost impossible to farm. Beyond the potato fields that sometimes doubled as baseball diamonds, there wasn't much food to come from the stoney earth.

But what the first families of Catamount lacked in wealth, they made up with patriotism. In 1812, Catamount resident Amasa Shippee decided the community should have a U.S. flag on public display, and prompted his wife and some other relatives to stitch one together.

With a pine tree fashioned into a flagpole, Shippee hoisted Old Glory over the schoolhouse, marking the first time an American flag was flown above a school.

The school building and the original flag have disappeared, but a stone memorial and an American flag raised by Russell about 10 years ago mark the site of the school.

"The place has all this history to go along with the beauty," Russell said.

It was the beauty that first lured Russell to Catamount about 30 years ago. She grew up in Montague, another rural Franklin County town, by the east bank of the Connecticut River. By the age of 11, Russell says she could identify just about every plant in the woods near her home.

She received a history degree from the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, and decided to move to Colrain after hiking through the Catamount forest a few times. Figuring there were few professional opportunities for a historian in the area, Russell started taking odd jobs like cleaning people's homes and tending to their gardens to pay for a simple life that keeps her close to the woods.

But her research skills and curiosity about the past were put to good use. She began going through probate records and property deeds, compiling facts about which Catamount families owned what tracts of land and how bloodlines crossed from one clan to the next.

A few months ago, she came across an 1828 newspaper clipping citing the "Christian steadfastness" of a woman who died, leaving behind 10 children.

"It was about the death of my great-, great-, great-something grandmother," said Carol Purington, a 55-year-old seventh-generation Colrain resident. "Muriel has given this community so much information that's just been buried in old records and newspapers. She's gone to amazing lengths to learn about this town and about Catamount."

Russel began volunteering her time for state agencies and environmental groups, keeping inventories of different types of mushrooms sprouting from the forest floor and documenting what butterflies flutter through the area.

She learned to tell one frog call from another by studying tape recordings of different croakings, and chronicled the various species of frogs living around the Catamount pond for the Deerfield River Watershed Association.

"I'd come right here at sunset, wait a half-hour, and start listening," Russell said while standing by her frog-listening station overlooking the water. "You had to rely on your ears for that one. It was all about what you heard."

And when she heard Jeeps starting to explore the forest, she set out to put a stop to it. She organized other Colrain residents against the Jeepers and railed against them at town meetings.

"She is dead-set against change," said Keith Gammell Jr., one of the off-roaders who did battle with Russell in the 1990s. "Her idea of preservation is to lock everything away and show it to only the people she wants to show it to. She doesn't want anybody to go up there unless she takes them up there."

His criticism may not be entirely off base. When Russell learned a reporter was writing about Catamount, she tried to discourage the story. Unable to do so, she agreed to pitch in.

"If I can't stop you, I may as well go with you," she said.

The forest -- which came under state management in the 1960s -- is open to the public, she knows. But her sense of ownership of the place is obvious.

Toward the end of her walk through the forest with a first-time visitor, she stops for a rest on a flat, moss-covered rock.

"You can't claim too much up here," she says, patting her hand on the makeshift bench. "But I've claimed this."

She named the perch Russell's Seat.

Source: Associated Press

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