Little Neighbor

Skunk

Look closely. Surprised to see her in the light of day, but I think this skunk was trying to make her way home, much to the chagrin of our neighbor’s dog.  I don’t know if this is my gardening friend from last summer, but if not, I would guess it is a family member. She (or he?) is following her own corridor–how important these small stands of trees and shrubs are for our animal neighbors. But as to where she was headed–strange–under a fence or under a deck? Right into our human neighbor’s yard.

There were also some strange tracks in the snow two days ago in our yard.  Bigger than the usual squirrel tracks–now I think that maybe they were hers as well.  Margy took this photo. I read that skunks are rather inactive in winter, though not true hibernators.  But they begin to be more active, looking for a mate in spring.

tracks

Tracks by Margy Dowzer

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Portland Gardens

About a hundred years ago, in 1912, Jacob Wilbur decided to “develop” the large area of  land in which the old white pine tree lived and is living.  He purchased it from H.H. Holm. He called it “Portland Gardens,” but the first thing that happened was that he had a plan created in which the open land was divided into very small rectangles.  Over the years, some roads were created and houses built, but the area in the upper left corner of the plan–where our old pine lives–was never completed.

Plot plan Portland Gardens

In 1924 that area was sold to Amato Kataruchi, and then a couple years later the City of Portland took possession of it for taxes unpaid.  In 1969 the city sold it cheaply to the D—– family that had bought our house when it was first built in 1967. (Our house is actually in an adjacent development that was called Sunset Heights–it was “developed” by a firm called Jordan and Hammond in 1967.)

I learned all of this by searching online land records and deeds via the Cumberland County Registry of Deeds.  After thinking about the pine tree’s possible 162 year life, I was inspired to see what I could learn about the history of the land to which we now belong.  I didn’t realize how easy it was for anyone to trace one aspect of the history of their land through deeds, its so-called “ownership.” And, I didn’t realize the challenges either.  The boundaries of our yard were formed in 1969 through the combination of two lots–front (where the house is) and back–which in our deed is actually described as four small lots, and a corner of another.

So I could trace the “owners” of our yard from us back to the D—– family, with three families/individuals in between.  But prior to 1967, I had to start searching separately the front and back sections–the back section leading me to the Portland Gardens development plan in 1912.  Then the search got even more complicated because tracking how the developers acquired the land meant investigating multiple sellers, and entirely different descriptions of the land.  Still working on that.

All of this feels important to me as part of understanding our relationship to this land, and as part of a decolonization process–moving beyond the norms of our society which treats land as a possession, rather than as the place to which we might belong. And understanding the many ways that colonizers sought to acquire land–through purchase, through theft, through trickery, and through misinterpreting the early agreements made with indigenous peoples–they treated the offer to settle here in right relationship with the indigenous people as instead granting ownership of the land for whatever use they might want to make of it.

There are so many land records in the registry of deeds.  So many pieces of paper dividing the land into large and small pieces. There are whole professions built up around establishing who owns or owned what pieces of land.  Title insurance, title search companies, and all the rest.  I want to understand the history, but it is wearying to track such an ultimately destructive operation.  My ancestors were not part of this process here in Maine, but perhaps by learning more about this land right here, I can better understand the process as it happened over the whole continent.  It is a long story of the ways those of us who have European descent broke our relationship to the land and to her peoples.

The Old White Pine

White pine familyContinuing my passion of learning about the mature trees in our yard, I found myself drawn to the biggest tree here–a white pine near the southwest corner of our land.  It is among several smaller pines that extend into the undeveloped land near our yard.  I found a resource that helps estimate the age of a tree.  It goes like this:  measure the circumference of the tree at about chest height (54 inches).  Divide by 3.14 (pi) to get the diameter of the trunk.  Multiply that number by the “growth factor” of the tree, which can be found on a chart.  In the case of white pine, the growth factor is five.

So today, I measured its girth as about 102″, which gives a diameter of about 32.5″.  Multiplied by five, the estimate of the tree’s age is 162 years old.  That means it might have begun its life around the year 1856.  I was intrigued by what might have been going on during that time, and discovered some interesting historical facts about our land.  At that time, we were part of Saccarappa–in 1871 Saccarappa divided into Westbrook and Deering, and we were likely part of Deering after that, before Deering was incorporated into Portland.  In 1855, the Evergreen Cemetery was established, just several blocks around the corner from us. In 1854, S.D. Warren bought the mill in Westbrook at Amancongan, which had in ancient days been a Native farm site.

I followed my questions down the internet wormhole, and made some other discoveries. This land first came into the record of English settlers when the sagamore (leader) Skitterygussett signed a deed with the fisherman Francis Small in 1657.  In many historical accounts, they claim Small bought the land “from the marshes and uplands of Capissic” to the fishing falls at Amancongan on the south side of the Presumpscot River. But my new favorite book by Lisa Brooks, Our Beloved Kin, actually talks about this very deed on page 21.

She says that Small pledged an annual “pay” of “one trading coat,” which was a symbolic recognition of Skitterygusset’s leadership, and “one gallon of liquor.”

The exchange of wampum and tobacco, as Small later testified, in this and subsequent agreements, sealed a pledge to share space, creating a negotiated relationship as much as an economic transaction.  He later sold the rights to part of this tract, including a mill privilege at Capissic, to John Phillips, who transferred it to his son-in-law George Munjoy, both of whom had come to Casco from Boston.

Brooks explores the significance of this and other deeds from the perspective of the Indigenous people who contracted them.  In reference to a similar deed, she says:

…these leaders of Cascoak were entrusted with diplomacy. Thus, part of their role  was to create responsible relationships with the newcomers.  With [these agreements], they gave [particular families] permission to live [on these lands,] but negotiated some of the terms of sharing space and required “acknowledgement” of their continuing relationship to and leadership in this place.  As Alice Nash has observed, such “deeds should be read more like proto-treaties” or councils in which rights, land use, and jurisdiction were negotiated, rather “than as simple property transactions.”

While I was looking at a modern day map to place these descriptions, I noticed that the public housing development in our neighborhood is called Sagamore Village–most likely in a (perhaps misguided) recognition of the sagamore who negotiated that first deed about this land.

There were many more complications after that first deed–all of the settlers were gone from the area during 1690 to 1730, because of conflicts with the Indigenous inhabitants.  Later, when people came back or new settlers came, they had disputes on who actually “owned” the land, the heirs of the first deed makers, or the new settlers.  But that is a different story than today’s.

The white pine tree inspired me to explore the history it may have seen, and I found myself drawn much deeper.  I wonder now, was this pine descended from earlier pines that were cut down to send posts for ship’s masts to England?  How many other stories might be hidden in its branches and roots?

Cedar

cedar leavesI seem to have unleashed a thirst for learning the names of all the trees who live with us on this land to which Margy and I belong. Today, I am exploring the cedar tree in our southeastern boundary area. I had always wondered about the difference between cedars and arborvitaes, and now I know that they are the same, really, here where we live.  There are a lot of names for this species which is native to southeastern Canada and northeastern United States–Eastern White Cedar, Northern White Cedar, White Cedar, False Cedar (because it is not related to European cedars).  Its Latin name is Thuja occidentalis.  

Cedar trunkIt was first called Arborvitae by French explorers when Indigenous people gave them tea  made of its leaves as a treatment for scurvy.  Arborvitae means “tree of life.”  Now, arborvitae is the name used by horticulturists, and there are many cultivars of the tree that are sold for landscaping.  The Anishinaabe people called the tree Nookomis Giizhik or Grandmother Cedar, because of its importance as a sacred and medicinal tree, associated with one of the four directions.

This has been a special tree to me personally in most of the places I have lived–Michigan, Chicago, northern New York state, Massachusetts, and Maine, and I appreciate that my matrilineal ancestors also knew this tree in Quebec/Nitassinan.  The Innu word for this tree is Massishk.  The tea from its leaves contains an abundance of Vitamin C, and can be used as a medicine.  (Note–being cautious, it is recommended that pregnant women should not use cedar tea because the compound thujone within it.)

From Sean Sherman (The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen):

The tea of simmered branches is used to treat fevers and rheumatic complaints, chest colds, and flu. This brew is delicious warm or cold and is simple to make. Just simmer 2 cups of fresh cedar in 4 cups of boiling water for about 10 minutes until the water becomes a golden color. Strain off the cedar and sweeten with maple syrup, to taste.

 

The Red Bird is Singing

cardinal at dawn

On my walk this morning at sunrise, I heard the cardinal singing, and then, for the first time this season, I was able to see him up high in the trees.  There is a symphony of birds each morning, that has been going on for a couple weeks–since around Groundhog Day actually.  I read that birds have photoreceptors in the bases of their brains that record the length of the dark period each day. As the darkness shortens, and as days lengthen, birds get spring fever.  Just like us.  So their songs signal that spring is just around the corner.  Or at least that we are halfway there.  Maybe we in Maine should call Groundhog Day, “Bird Song Day” instead.

The Importance of Naming

Pitch Pine needlesIn my attempts to get closer to the pine in our yard, I made an important discovery today.  It is not a red pine, it is a pitch pine. I discovered that its needles come in groups of three–and the red pine comes in groups of two.  So then I went searching for a resource I remembered from a couple years ago–an identification guide of the pines of Maine, and confirmed everything.

It is a funny thing.  I had used that resource earlier to identify the tree as a pitch pine, especially because of its habit of small patches of needles coming out of the trunk–as in the picture above.  But then the arborist said no, it was a red pine, and so I deferred to their judgment. Perhaps that is one of the lessons for me to learn–arborists don’t necessarily have intimate knowledge of all tree species. Sometimes it takes detective work, which is easier with the many resources that are available online.

So this naming is making a big difference in my relationship with the pine.  Now I understand the prickly feeling–according the guide, “Pitch pine cones have a sharp prickle at the end of each scale.”  They are prickly!  It also says, “Branches are horizontal, rigid, contorted and form an open crown.”  That describes so perfectly the irregular beauty of its shape.  “Pitch pine attains a diameter of 1–2 feet, and a height of only 30–40 feet.”  These height numbers relieve the anxiety I had about the tree possibly growing to shade our solar panels–it is likely fully mature at its current height.

What else?  It is native to eastern North America. It can live to be 200 years old. It tends to grow in acidic, sandy, and low-nutrient soils. It is a “pioneer species” and is often the first tree to vegetate a site after it has been cleared. So perhaps it speaks to the history of this land–that this land was cleared, that it was depleted. The tree can also regenerate itself–if the main trunk is cut or damaged by fire it can re-sprout using epicormic shoots, which is unusual for a conifer.  (This might make it a candidate for coppicing or pollarding–the practice of cutting a tree to use the wood, after which the tree regrows.)

According to Wikipedia, “Pitch pine provides a habitat and offers food for many wildlife species. They are used as cover and nesting for birds such as the pine warbler, wild turkey, blue jays, black-capped chickadees, black-and-white warblers, and chestnut-sided warblers. Small mammals and birds eat the seeds.”

I feel like the tree and I are starting all over again with getting to know each other–now that I know the tree’s actual family and species–now that I know its family name.

Red Pine

Red Pine[Edited: I learned 2/12/18 that this is actually a pitch pine. See my new blog post.] There is a red pine in the middle of our back yard… the only big tree (40 plus feet) that is not at the edge of the yard. But I have been struggling to create an affectionate relationship with this tree. I have had other very special trees in my life, and I loved the many trees that surrounded our home in North Yarmouth.  So why is this one hard?

I have been reading a lovely book, The Garden Awakening by Mary Reynolds, which is focused on creating a relationship with our land. She talks about trees as the guardians of the land.  So if we want to go deeper with the land, we need to go deeper with the trees.  That got me thinking again about the challenge of the red pine.

Perhaps it started when we first moved here, and were concerned about trees possibly shading the solar panels.  Or perhaps it is tied to my grief about the maple tree that was by the side of our house which we did have to take down because of dangerous branches and solar shading.  I loved that tree, and felt the contradiction so acutely: even though the maple tree was willing, and its wood became the ground layer mulch for our future orchard.  We decided that the solar panels would be okay with the pine tree’s slight shading, but it did get us off to a wary start.

So here it is.  It was identified as a red pine by an arborist who came by.  Right now, I have an intention to go deeper with this tree.  I want to understand all the dimensions of this relationship.  Some things that feel difficult to me:  The branches are all too high to reach, so it feels rather aloof.  When the pinecones drop, and there are lots of them, the ground underneath becomes difficult to walk on.  All around the tree there are old pinecones half buried in the grass from many years past.  If I could pick one word to describe my feeling of the tree, it would be “prickly.”

What helps? Last spring, we held an introduction to permaculture design course at our house, and many of the participants commented on the loveliness of the pine tree. There is a beautiful asymmetry in its branches. Their appreciation of the tree helped me to see its beauty.  The red pine is native to North America.  They can live up to 350-500 years.  Some sources said pine trees are symbols of longevity and wisdom.

Red Pine BarkOne website mentioned that its roots “are moderately deep and wide spreading. The lateral root masses also send down “sinkers” which anchor the tree very well in the soil. Red pines are very wind firm because of this dense root system.”

Okay, deep roots and anchors in the soil. I like that. I am investigating medicinal uses: one might be pine needle tea, which is good for immune function, bronchitis, and many other ailments.  More to research here.  This morning, I took pictures of the pine, and stood next to it, leaning against the bark.  What do you have to teach me, dear red pine?