Shirly Hook's new book, My Bring Up, delves into her Abenaki heritage and recalls a childhood that was spent largely outdoors—she grew up in Chelsea, Vermont, in the 1950s and ’60s. Several stories begin with her and her brothers and sisters just mucking about, looking for something interesting to do. In one, she is riding a bicycle through the woods when she gets between a cat and its dinner. Shirly and I chatted in mid September, just before her book came out. One of the things we talked about was that cat.
So there's a panther in your book—at least that's what you call it, a "panther." Can you be more specific? What did it look like? Was it native, or an escaped zoo animal, or what? Patrick wants to know. He's a fan of big cats.
The panthers that were seen when we were kids were the black ones and the regular light brown mountain lion. We usually heard them first, a bloodcurdling sound like a woman screaming. That would bring you to attention. Our family had a small sugarhouse, a tin shelter of sorts, and Dad would call us to come and look at the panther tracks. They would come through the area every spring and fall, like clockwork. The lion would kill its prey by biting into the back of the victim's neck. There are stories that the Abenaki people crafted a wooden neck protector that would have sharp sticks sticking out of it, and when the cat leaped on them, it would kill or hurt the animal.
The black panthers we used to see were thought to be pets that were let loose, for they were probably getting out of control for the so-called owner. They were seen many times. Game wardens were called—they would say they didn't know what it was, no panthers or mountain lions in Vermont.
Which is untrue.
The last ones I saw were in West Braintree. I was doing a walkabout when I looked up the winding road, and there was a big, beautiful panther. So large . . . and the long tail . . . and black. I didn't say anything to anyone for a few days, and then I told what I saw. Too funny: a logger that was in the woods the same day I saw it, he witnessed the same one.
Another regular tawny one was spotted a couple miles from that. I was riding in the old truck when I saw a big panther, yawning and stretching to get the kinks out. A rather large one. We went past, and I say, “Doug, just saw a big cat.” Thought I was seeing things. We backed up, but it was gone. We found out later it was in someone's garden the same day. Yes, Mr. Game Warden, there are cougars in Vermont.
What about bears? Seen any around your house this summer? It's pretty backwoodsy where you are. What kinds of visitors do you have?
Bear have been seen off and on. They make their rounds to see if there is anything in the compost. They have a lot of corn at the farmer's cornfields. Coyotes howling at night and wandering around seeing if they can locate some mice or other small animals. The deer, a few bucks. Funny to watch the deer and the turkeys in the same area. The deer will herd them up into a tight circle, and then the turkeys will fly and chase after the deer. There are a lot of different birds about: eagles, herons, bitterns, and bluebirds.
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Shirly Hook is a citizen of the Koasek Traditional Band of the Koas Abenaki Nation and serves on the Council of Chiefs. My Bring Up is available in a pocket-size paperback edition, a large-print edition, and as a Kindle ebook. She and I will be at Chandler Arts Center in Randolph on October 20 (2 p.m.) for an author talk co-sponsored by Chandler, Kimball Public Library, and Korongo Books.