Archive by Author | Colin Novick


Coyotes live among us. Some of us hear their howls. Some see their scat. Some see their prints. And from time to time some are lucky enough to actually see them.

On a warm morning following a recent snow my daughter and I were out waiting for the bus on our quiet street. And then we saw him! A full grown coyote popped up from the brook, crossed the street in broad daylight, right in front of us, and then headed upstream and out of sight!

I followed his tracks backwards down the brook, out onto the frozen pond, around a few minor islands, and to a tight, round hole in the snow on a small island, fur still clinging where he had bedded down.

Backtracking further, across ice and forest, I lost his tracks among a mess of different animal prints beside the street.

I returned to where I’d seen him and followed his tracks forward. It was clear he followed other tracks whenever possible, whether tire tracks, foot prints, or dog prints. Sometimes he followed the brook, sometimes a hiking trail. He headed along a cart path, then hopped up a steep slope onto a stone wall with a grand view. I looked at the landscape with new eyes.

Compared to a dog’s, a coyote’s prints have tighter pads, more of a cluster. The Nipmuc might have called him alum-mhkwasin, “wolf-dog.” In the woods, his tracks were a straight line, but approaching a street he zigged, popped up to a high spot, then ducked down low before crossing.

When the slope got steep, he followed the switchbacks just like a hiker. We shared the tedium and the benefit! He took off through the woods, across a frozen stream, along a dike, and headed over to the forgotten brush of back yards, the neglected space between houses where he wove his way, with more of that careful zig and pop when nearing an exposed place.

I lost the tracks at the corner. I walked up and down the slush lined pavement, but saw nothing.

The coyote does not grant more than a glimpse. He leaves a partial track. That is his way. (Colin Novick)

From the January 2012 issue of Happiness Pony. [PDF]

Worcester is an ancient place.

Not just in some textbook, geologic sense of glaciers, fossils, & continental drift. It is an ancient place of generation after generation of people & their intimate relationship with the place we all live out our daily lives.

Long before the small village was re-named after an English city, before Amerigo Vespucci’s name was attached to any map giving name to these continents, where we live was home, both shelter & provider of sustenance, to the Algonquian Nipmuc.

What is most incredible is that the names that the land gave to them are still here all around us and we use them every day, but usually without thinking about the old relationships they describe between them and their home.

Quinsigamond is the name of a lake, a river, & a village for us today. For the Nipmuc it was the location of a village, or sachem. More importantly it was a place of fishing for pickerel as food. The Nipmuc word for pickerel is bound up in the lake’s very name!

Asnebumskit today is a road & a major hill in central Massachusetts, with radio towers for WTAG & WSRS, as well as incredible views of Mount Wachusett, Mount Monadnock, & Mount Watatick (all Algonquian place names as well!). The hill is so large that it comprises portions of Holden, Paxton, & Worcester. For the Nipmuc it was a source of “small stones” & the second of the three sachems of what is today’s Worcester. They lived on its south-eastern flank in Tatnuck, & the area indeed is full of small stones.

The village of Tatnuck & the brook that runs through it in north-west Worcester is also a Nipmuc place name. Lincoln Kinnicutt, in his Indian Names of Places in Worcester County Massachusetts, has Tatnuck as “at the place of the great hill,” with that hill being the largest in these parts, Asnebumskit. Even today we gather around the base of Asnebumskit and live along the waters flowing off of that hill.

Packachoag is home to Holy Cross College, the playing field for the Tornadoes, & a major curve in Interstate 290. For the Nipmuc it was a “turning place” as well, but for the river at its base. Today’s Middle River & the hill it curves around were both called Packachoag. This was the third, and the largest, of the three sachems of Nipmuc in today’s Worcester.

These are some of the names we use day in & day out for where we live, & they still describe those places in surprisingly useful ways. If we think about them & reflect on them, our relationship with the land around us is richer & more makes more sense.

There are more Nipmuc place names for where we live, ones that aren’t used as much, & we might be better served to bring them back into common usage. Our Blackstone River was once called the Kattatuck, or “great river” of these parts. It still is our great river.

Broad Meadow Brook Wildlife Sanctuary, Holy Name High School, & the wind turbine are all up on a ridge and that ridge’s name is Sagatabscot. Sagatabscot is “the place of the hard rock” and we still heartily agree as we have named the street that runs its length Granite Street!

There are more of these place names, and if you get the chance stop by the library and look for Mr. Kinnicutt’s book! But more than that, use the old names knowing that they are more than randomly assigned labels. These places are where we live & speak to how the land impacts us & our lives every day.