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Photo: Arthur Dutil
Dan Valenti, left with Patriots baseball cap and green-and-white rugby shirt, approaches his ride erect and not stooping. Marians' maintenance man Jim Dolson can be seen getting in the chopper, front left. Out of the back door comes Marian grounds and maintenance supervisor, Fr. Richard. The flight was in connection with a ceremony honoring the Marians for 25 years of environmental stewardship of Kampoosa Bog.
Dignitaries, environmentalists, and Marian priests and brothers gather at the rededication ceremony June 6, which began with a prayer led by Fr. Anthony Gramlich, MIC, right, the rector of the National Shrine of The Divine Mercy.
By Dan Valenti (Jun 9, 2009)
I got to cross one off of my checklist of things to do before I meet St. Pete, an occurrence that doesn't happen every day.
Fly in a helicopter. Check.
The technical description in my logbook would read: "Fly in a helicopter on assignment. Check.
Why, in the name of the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception, would your fearless correspondent be flying 500 feet above Eden Hill?
In a word: stewardship.
Before Green Became Cool
The Marians were green before green became cool. Twenty-five years ago, the congregation placed 115 acres of property they owned on Eden Hill, Stockbridge, Mass., in a conservation restriction. These weren't any old 115 acres but a parcel of land that contains the largest, most unspoiled, and environmentally significant bog in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. For ages to come, the action protected the priceless land from development or any harmful man-made action (ditch digging, drainage, damming) that would compromise the pristine wetland.
That action defines "stewardship." The Marians have long understood that in addition to being pastors for people's spiritual needs, they must be responsible and trusted keepers of the resources that bless their mission in service to God's mercy.
The Marian monastery, the National Shrine of The Divine Mercy, and the buildings that house the work of the Association of Marian Helpers sit on Eden Hill, site of perhaps the most beautiful acres in the Berkshires. The Berkshires, world famous for their natural beauty, are marketed as "America's Premier Cultural Resort." The chi-chi, La-Dee-Da set, however, isn't why the Marians treat the land in a fashion that would make St. Francis smile. They do it because that, too, is an act of mercy.
On June 5, The Marian Fathers, along with the Stockbridge Land Trust, local dignitaries, state officials, and representatives from Tennessee Gas Pipeline, took part in a ceremony celebrating a quarter century of Marian stewardship.
Why a pipeline company? That's where the chopper comes in.
A Partner in Preservation
Tennessee Gas Pipeline, a division of El Paso Gas, maintains the line for natural gas that originates from the Gulf of Mexico, piping energy to the Northeast in a path that takes it close to the bog. The company monitors the safety and security of the long pipeline by helicopter, including a twice-a-month inspection 500 feet above the ground near Eden Hill. Rick Sawyer, helicopter pilot for the company, says he looks for any trouble spots, which might include unauthorized development, breaches, and gas leaks.
According to Arthur Dutil, long-time (and legendary) director of maintenance and grounds for the Marians, the company has over the years provided the Marians with resources and assistance in protecting the bog. Ironically, the Massachusetts Turnpike, which crosses the state east-to-west, ribbons the Kampoosa Bog along its northern border. The turnpike was opened in 1958 and built in a time that did not take into account the importance of environmental protection.
The word Kampoosa is an old Indian word meaning "dangerous place." According to Stephen Morawski, principal environmental scientist for Tennessee Gas, the bog (technically it's a "fen") has about seven feet of water floored by approximately 80 to 85 feet of soft, silty mud, which Art Dutil likens to quicksand. If you were kayaking or canoeing the fen and you tipped, you wouldn't want to get tangled in the mush, for you probably wouldn't be heard from again. Dangerous place: The tribe got that right.
Nonetheless, the bog possesses a spectacular, mysterious beauty. It is home to dozens of rare plant and animal species, and at dusk, the view from the small knoll overlooking the waterway conjures Indian legends, muses, ancient history, and a silent reverence that cuts short all talking.
The local tribes that inhabited Stockbridge hundreds of years ago regarded what is now Eden Hill as a sacred place inhabited by the Great Spirit. Much did they know: The Marian Fathers realize as well that Eden Hill exudes an aura that is unmistakably sacred and spiritual. God lives here, and He sends forth his mellow songs to coax love — that purest ray of blessing — into the hearts of those open to it. This certainly includes those who live here, work here, and visit here.
Dan, Doug, and Jim Get the Bird
When I was a kid, a syndicated TV show called "Whirlybirds" aired in the U.S. from 1957 to 1960. "Whirlybirds" followed the weekly adventures of Chuck Martin and P.T. Moore, ace pilots who owned Whirlybird Air Service. They ran their fictitious company from a California airfield called Longwood Field, hiring out to clients and inevitably stumbling into daring rescues, smuggling, and other tight spots, all nearly resolved in 30 minutes, counting commercials.
This 6-year-old fell in love with the star of the show — the two copters, a Bell 47G and a 47J Ranger. I yearned to fly one or in one, and though my writing career has taken me all over the world and into all sorts of interesting situations, I never got the chance.
At the Kampoosa ceremony, though, my big opportunity showed up.
Tennessee Gas and its pilot Rick Sawyer had flown it with regional executives from Enfield, Conn., to be on hand. After the speeches and presentation of a beautiful, permanent plaque overlooking the fens, the company treated guests to free helicopter rides.
I hitched a ride on the last flight courtesy of John Koldys, manager of human resources for the Marians, who gave up his spot for me. I told John I owed him one and to prove my gratitude, I promised that if we "went down," I would ask St. Peter to keep the backdoor unlocked so he could sneak in. Also aboard were tireless Jim Dolson and the redoubtable Doug McClay of the Marian maintenance department.
When our time came, I felt the excitement a kid feels the first time he goes to an amusement park or stands on the Empire State Building. I had long vowed that if I climbed aboard a helicopter, I wouldn't approach it hunching down under the spinning blades. This struck me as an unnecessary affectation, given that it would take an NBA center standing on the shoulders of the Jolly Green Giant to come near the blades. I stood tall as I took my seat — port side, rear — buckled in, and put my headset on. All of a sudden, I was "Chuck Martin."
The View from Above
We sat strapped in as pilot Rick revved up. Slowly we ascended, gained altitude, and then felt the thrust of the machine whirling viscerally forward in what I can only liken to a cross between a slide and a glide. What a ride: It felt like skating on air. I now know why birds bank on the winds: because they can.
Rick turned sharply left to head directly over the bog, and I found out that the banking moves were my favorite. From my seat, a tilting left turn put me against the large window. For a moment, it felt like the exhilarating sensation you get when you dream you are flying.
We toured above the bog, Eden Hill, downtown Stockbridge, and environs, and the late-spring beauty of the Berkshires popped from the undulations of the landscape. Words are paltry tools with which to describe the magnificent presentations things like spirituality and nature present to us. I constantly face this problem in writing about God. How does one do it in a way that gives justice to the subject? How does one convey omniscience and omnipresence?
I felt like a bird flying on the edge of a rainbow or maybe like a hungry mortal blessed to sit in at one of God's feast, a Eucharist-type feeling you get when you are in the Holy Presence. Everything about our 15 minutes in the air was spectacular. The large patches of emerald woods blazed with vividness. The hills were alive not with the sound of music but with Life Itself. I had a fleeting thought that elevation's charm lies in the fact that hilltops and mountaintops are the first to come alive with morning's light. As an added bonus, Rick flew over my house on Pine Street and Jim's on Ice Glen Road. We both are blessed to live year-round in this perfect village.
Our headsets enabled us to converse, and Rick provided an excellent running commentary. The journalist in me came out, and I began pumping Rick with questions. How long have you been a flying a copter ("since 1967")? How can one spot a leak of natural gas from 500 feet ("in winter, look for ice caps on the pipe. In summer, look for piles of sand that mound when gas escapes")? Did you watch "Whirlybirds" as a kid ("oh, yeah")? We also learned that Rick learned to fly choppers for the military.
"I figured that would be better than ending up as an infantryman."
"Good man," I saluted, praising his service to country.
Doug got off the line of the day when I asked Rick how long he had been flying.
"Two days," he cracked, privately. I shared his remark, and we all had a good laugh. I found it interesting that Rick laughed the hardest. He's a good man who can laugh at himself.
The landing was as perfect as Don Larsen on Oct. 8, 1956(*) and as soft as a baby's behind.
We disembarked on terra firma, safe, sound, and smiling. The ground appeared so "earthy." I felt a twinge of chagrin that the flight had ended, a farewell to a last love rescued by happiness.
The Marians have been wise and careful stewards of this enchanted place they call home. I'm proud of their work these past 25 years. I also have great love for Kampoosa Bog, the fens in the backyard of where I work and live.
What is the old Indian word for "Rapturous place"?
(*) On Oct. 8, 1956, Don Larsen of the New York Yankees pitched the only perfect game in World Series history, defeating the Brooklyn Dodgers, 2-0.
Dan Valenti writes for numerous publications of the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception, both in print and online. He is the author of Dan Valenti's Mercy Journal.