Counting Tree Rings

Cut pine

During the construction for the new Hall School, they have cut down acres of trees.  It truly breaks my heart.  Especially when I saw a stack of huge pines from the front of the school.  This one I measured at about 33 inches in diameter–just about the same as our beloved old white pine in our yard, though I didn’t have a way to tell how high up on the trunk it would have been.  Why do people cut down the old ones?

I tried to count the rings using my photos–and determined that it was at least 120-125 years old, if not more.  That means that this tree was around back in 1897, when my grandmother Yvonne was born.  It also might mean that our white pine, if it isn’t 162 years old as we estimated by circumference is likely at least 122 years old.  I would guess that there were similar circumstances for all of these pines in the neighborhood.

IMG_5008You see, I have been walking around the neighborhood looking for any other large pines I can find, and measuring them.  I haven’t found one larger than ours yet. Yesterday near the brook and the school, I found one that measured 102″ in circumference–just like ours.  It was wrapped in caution tape–does that mean leave it alone?  It is right next to an access drive of some kind next to the school. I hope the tape means leave it alone.

There are two more white pines in yards at the crossroads of our street that I want to measure when I get a chance, plus one right next door that rises a few feet away from our garage.  I think these might be similar in age to ours.  It would be easier to measure with two people doing it, plus I feel a bit awkward about going into people’s yards without a conversation.

What the close-by pines say to me is that when someone was building houses in this neighborhood in 1967 or so, they decided not to cut down these special old trees.  I am grateful for that.  But are they the remnants of a much larger family?

 

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More White Pines

White Pine near Capisic

There is another old white pine that I see on my morning walks, next to the the Capisic Brook near my home.  Even as the old white pine at my home sent me on a search for the history of this land, so both of these pines lead me into a search for their spiritual meaning.  Maine is called the Pine Tree state, and the White Pine is the state tree.

When settlers first came to this land, they found old growth forests with white pines being the tallest of the trees in the east.  Many of them were cut down to use as masts on the English ships. In fact, any straight tree over 24 inches in diameter was marked for use by the king, but people often ignored that marking.  I read that the old-growth trees were all cut by the mid 1800s.

In the same article, they identify two old pines found in Acadia National Park as 154 and 147 years old.  That made me wonder if the method I had used to date the white pine in our back yard was accurate–if that pine was actually 162 years old, it should be on the EasternOldList.  On the other hand, if the land was undeveloped for a hundred fifty years, (just a blank space on the map) perhaps it would not be so impossible that it should be counted among these old ones.

Pine needles are full of vitamin C, and the inner bark was also edible–made into a kind of flour by the Wabanaki people here.  Among the Haudenosaunee, the white pine was the Tree of Peace–symbol of their confederation of nations, the five nations symbolized in the five needles in one packet, and the agreements they made to keep peace among their nations.

Modern science has discovered that pine trees release compounds known as phytoncides, airborne chemicals which protect the trees through anti-fungal and anti-bacterial properties.  These compounds also support the “natural killer” cells of our human immune system.  So walking in the woods has actually been proven to be good for our physical and mental health.

While searching the internet for the meaning of the white pine, I found that another blogger The Druid’s Garden posted this:

In my experience, these trees retain their roles as peacemakers for us today in order to rebuild human-land connections. Often on damaged lands, even if no other spirits or trees are open to communication, the White Pine will be the intermediary.

Since my purpose in learning about the trees on my land is to rebuild our human-land connection, I may see if our white pine is willing to offer that mediation.

Maps

1870 Nasons Corner

[1870 Westbrook & Deering Map Detail]

Old maps can be another useful tool for looking at the story of the land.  I was lucky to find a map of Westbrook & Deering from 1870, just before they were divided into those two towns in 1871.  On the detail picture above, Westbrook is pink and Deering is golden. At that time, the land where we live was a blank space on the map in Deering, underneath the Portland and Rochester Railroad (the tracks are still there, but not the trains), to the right of the road that would later be Riverside Street, and north of the road that would later be Brighton Avenue, above the designation “Nasons Corner.”

And from Wikipedia:  (italics and links added)

The area around outer Brighton Avenue is Nasons Corner. While part of the independent town of Deering in the 1890s, the area was primarily agricultural, with acres of strawberries and fields of hay. Capisic Brook runs through part of the neighborhood, and its banks were home to the Lucas and Hamblet family-run brickyards, which were sold throughout New England. In 1898, Nasons Corner and the rest of Deering was annexed by the City of Portland. The earliest housing developments in the neighborhood were built beginning around that time and were called Brighton Avenue Terrace and Portland Garden (now Holm Street and Taft Street). The Glenwood project was underway by 1900. It included affordable bungalow style homes named for English counties (Devon, Dorset, Essex and Warwick).

(The annexation of Deering, by the way, was apparently against the will of its inhabitants.)

So perhaps for a long while, the place where the white pine tree grew was a strawberry field or hay field.  Or maybe it was the place behind those fields where the people didn’t get to, just birds and other animals doing their own thing.  Learning these stories changes the way I feel as I walk around my neighborhood.  I think about a land with no concrete on it, no roads, no buildings.

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

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.