Ancestor Yearnings

My great grandmother Claudia Tremblay

Today, September 29, is my great grandmother Claudia’s birthday–she was born in 1865. I never got to meet her, but I was named for her (my middle name) and so I have felt a connection to her for quite a while. This week I was once again caught in the throes of this strange yearning obsession to try to understand the lives of my matrilineal forbears. I happened to be looking at a document about Claudia that I compiled a few years ago, and it mentioned a resource–the “General Catalogue of the Entire Montagnais Nation.” [Except the title was in Latin and the book was in French. Denis Brassard, Catalogus generalis totius Montanensium Gentis of Father Jean-Joseph Roy, 1785-1795 ]

It was a record of baptisms and other religious rites at the King’s Posts (Postes du Roi) in the Saguenay River area and North Shore of the St. Lawrence River of Quebec, in the 18th century. The Postes du Roi were the site of trading between the Innu/Montagnais and the French/British. They were also the site of missionary priests coming round to offer religious instruction and ceremonies to the Innu people. (The French called the Indigenous people of this region Montagnais, but since then, the people have reclaimed their own word, Innu.)

Claudia’s mother was Angele McLeod, and her mother was Marie-Madeleine, who was identified as “Montagnaise” in any records I had been able to find. But I had been unable to go any further back in her family, and only had estimates of her birth to be about 1789, perhaps linked to a Post du Roi. So I went looking for that book, which was available in a digital format for not so much expense. And it had a built-in translation function, which helped a lot since my French is shaky. The first half of the book was a description of how things were at the Postes du Roi. The Innu generally spent fall/winter/spring in the inland forests, hunting and gathering, and then came to the shores of the Saguenay or St. Lawrence in the summer, to fish and gather with each other. The Posts were built at these established summer gathering places to foster the fur trade, and the conversion of Innu people to Catholicism by the priests.

By searching record by record through the hundreds in the chart, I was able to find two Marie-Madeleines (Maria Magdalena) whose births were within 10 years of 1789: 1795, 1797. The Innu people did not use surnames, but rather single descriptive names, so each record included a Christian name (in Latin) and a personal name for the child in the Innu language. I found Marie Madeleine Katshisheiskueit (record #1065), and Marie Madeleine Manitukueu (record #1079). I don’t know that I will ever be able to establish a definite link between one of them and my Marie Madeleine, but one of them could be related to me. My Marie Madeleine eventually was married to Peter McLeod who worked for the King’s Posts in many places. And she was identified as Catholic, so it would be likely for her to be in these records.

Finding these names is touching a deep place in my spirit. I can’t even describe it. And deeper still, was searching out the meanings of the Innu names in the language. I was able to determine that Katshisheiskueit likely means “Hard-working/female” and her parents’ names were Antonius/ Tshinusheu which means “Northern Pike”, and Anna/ Kukuminau, which means “old woman” or “wife.” (Now the parents were only about 16 then, so likely it was an endearment, or Tshinusheu just said–“that’s my wife.”)

Manitukueu has something to do with Spirit–Manitu is the Innu word for Spirit. But I couldn’t find an exact reference. Manitushiu means someone who uses spiritual or mental power. “kueu” seems to be a common verb ending signifying something being or having. It is like detective work–and I wouldn’t be able to do any of it if I hadn’t been studying Passamaquoddy, which is related to the Innu language. Words are formed polysynthetically, with smaller parts joined together to create long descriptive concepts in one word. So I search the online Innu dictionary, with my framework of Passamaquoddy, and try to recreate what they might mean.

Manitukueu’s parent’s names were also challenging. Her father was Simeon Tshinapesuan, and the closest word I could find was something meaning “slips on a rock”, or “slippery.” Her mother was Marie Madeleine Tshuamiskuskueu, part of which meant “finding it by detecting it with body or feet.” But then I lucked out because her own birth record called it Iskamiskuskueu–which means “from Jeremy Islets,” and she was from Jeremy Islets. According to another source, this Innu name of that place meant “where you can see polar bears.” (Where you can find polar bears?) I guess I was rather far off.

So, it’s hard to trace “family trees” without surnames, but each child was listed with their parents, and by going through again searching for the parents’ names, I could find their parents too. And in fact, there were a few generations in each of their families to be found in the charts, with a lot of holding a magnifying glass over my computer screen so I could read the small letters in the charts. Much more still to do.

It is a whole world uncovered to me. And whether or not one of these women is my actual relation, this is the world she lived in, the world she came out from to enter a path that eventually would lead her daughters and granddaughters into other worlds. I never imagined that I might learn the Innu name of my great, great, great grandmother… and now there are all these names dancing in my mind, trying to form in my mouth, bringing much depth to my heart. I feel such gratitude and curiosity.

Yellow sunflower planted by squirrels, with a bee inside.

Beauty and Trauma

Juvenile female cardinal near Joe Pye Weed and flea-bane

I have been at a loss for words these past few weeks. But sitting quietly in the back yard–often next to the frog pond–has enabled me to see some beautiful birds. I’ll start with this cardinal, cardinals being for a long time my favorite bird. I saw this rather scraggly (like all juveniles) female while I was lying in the hammock reading. I love their little chirps.

I saw the cardinal just as I started reading a new book, Carnival Lights, by Chris Stark. It has taken me several weeks to finish because it was so painful. I had to stop and start, stop and start. This novel should have all the trigger warnings. It brings to life the theme of missing and murdered Indigenous women, and it also weaves the past into the near present (1969) with the long history of land theft, murder, and oppression. I grew to love cousins Sher and Kris, two teenage Ojibwe girls, running away in Minnesota. But I am not even sure to whom I might recommend the book? I felt like I was plunged into vicarious trauma as a reader, and I wouldn’t want to re-trigger that kind of trauma for my Native friends, one of whom already mentioned that, yeah, she’d never be able to read it.

Yet there were also threads of beauty and resilience interwoven into the tapestry of the story that fed my spirit too. Such powerful gorgeous writing, such depth of expression, such love. It is a brilliant book. I first found it because it was recommended by a Native author I love–Mona Susan Power. So perhaps for some Native women, the trauma is well known and understood, and the beauty and love in this story is a healing balm.

For me, in between reading, I had to go to my own backyard to find the grounding and fortitude to be able to continue. I was sitting near the pond watching the frogs when two yellow warblers (I think that’s who they are) started flitting about in the bushes, trying to attract my attention–perhaps away from something else? It seems too late for there to be a nest, but who knows? It must be almost time for their migration south. They were definitely letting me see them, and then flying to another bush close by. I saw them on two or three separate days, and caught these photos.

I think this is a yellow warbler in the nine-bark bush near the pond.
I think this is a yellow warbler female, seen on a different day in the same nine-bark bush, with a summer sweet bush in the background.

What do we do with the obscene brutality and violence that our whole society is built upon? What do we do with the exquisite beauty of a bird on a summer day?

A hummingbird hovering while drinking at the feeder

Pond Flowers and more

The cardinal flower is starting to bloom, bright red against the dark of the water.

Two of the pond plants are starting to flower: the cardinal flower, and the arrowhead plant. The cardinal flower is supposed to be a favorite for hummingbirds. I hope they find it. The frogs continue to bring delight by their patient sitting poses, or quick jumping into the depths when startled. One day I counted a total of 13 frogs–usually I can find 3 big ones, and from 5 to 10 small ones, depending on the day and time of day. My little Zoom camera stopped working, so I am using the iPhone camera, which doesn’t work well for close-ups. But check out the flowers on the arrowhead plant. And, can you find the hidden frog in this photo?

Arrowhead plant with tiny white and yellow flowers.

If you are still looking for the frog, here is a clue: her eyes and head are hidden by green plant leaves, and only her legs and body are barely visible against the stones. At first I thought her legs were dead plant leaves. With all of the pain and sorrow in the world, these simple beauties bring nurture to my spirit.

Margy and I were delighted to be part of the Resilience Hub‘s Permaculture Open House last Saturday, and welcomed about a dozen people to our yard to share the highs and lows of permaculture gardening. Including, of course, sitting by the pond and talking about pond building. Everyone was careful about our COVID protocols, and we met some really great people.

Since then we have harvested our elderberries–Margy cut the berry clusters one evening, and then the next morning I read online that they should be processed or frozen within twelve hours. So my morning was spent gently separating the berries from of their clusters, rinsing them in a big pot, and then freezing them until I had time to make elderberry syrup. This was our first harvest from the bush, which grew huge this season.

Elderberry clusters in a brown bag
Separating the berries from the cluster branches.

My other big harvesting job this week has been processing more kale. Because of the netting I put over the raised bed, I am cutting the lower leaves of all the plants at once, rather than bit by bit as I have done in prior years. I put them into this blue plastic bushel basket. Then, one by one, I cut them up, rinse a batch in a salad spinner, and then sauté them batch by batch before freezing in quart freezer bags. I’ve only finished about half this bunch–and there will of course be more to harvest later.

A huge plastic bushel basket filled with kale, on the floor next to the stove.

Finally, I will say that our zucchini harvests have been just the right amount so far for us to be eating as we go, but our cucumbers are going wild! We don’t pickle them, but just eat them raw–if you live nearby, please come and get some from us! They are really delicious, but we’ll never keep up. The photo below is only some of them!

Cucumbers and zucchini in a wooden bowl.

Still, Abundance

Zucchini plants tied to stakes and pruned

After grieving for the lost peaches, I wanted to remember that many other harvests are doing abundantly well. I am trying a new method with my zucchini plants: tie the stems to stakes, and prune the leaves below the active flowers and fruits. So yesterday, I pruned out many lower leaves, and finally tried the staking idea–the zucchinis seem to grow with a mind of their own, rather than with anything like straight stems, but I was able to do a bit of it. The method is supposed to reduce powdery mildew and maybe other issues. As I write, I am trying out a recipe for zucchini/cheddar/chive bread. Our zucchinis have been abundant.

Raised bed with kale and carrots, under a staked and supported netting.

After putting a netting over the raised bed when the ground hog came by, we haven’t seen her again. The kale is doing fine–since it takes a bit of work to undo the netting, I have only harvested in big batches. I’ve sauteed some batches to freeze. There is more in the fridge waiting for me to do another batch.

Cucumber plant on the hugelkultur mound, with wood chip paths on every side.

We’ve already harvested several cucumbers from this lovely set of vines growing on the south end of the hugelkultur mound. We have just been eating them raw–so much sweeter than the ones we can buy at the store. And a few weeks ago, I put down cardboard and old grocery bags to lay out paths all around the mound, and from the garage door to the patio and the paths, then covered them with a thick layer of wood chips. These wood chips were from the invasive Norway maples we took down earlier.

The raspberries are finished bearing fruit. Finally, I just want to mention the chives, parsley, thyme and oregano, which continue to yield throughout the summer. I truly am grateful for these gifts from the plant world, that bring us such tasty and healthy food.

Can I Forgive the Squirrels?

Squirrel relaxed and resting on the railing of our deck

This morning, I watched out my window as a squirrel climbed into the branches of the peach tree, going up and down several branches until she or he stopped at a bagged peach. She nibbled through the small branch it hung from, cutting the branch right off. I could see the leaves and twigs fall to the ground, even though the squirrel was hidden by other branches. Then, she took the unripe peach in her mouth–still in the bag–and carried it down and away from the orchard to some other roosting post in another tree. I didn’t yell or bang on the screen or try to stop her, as I have done on other mornings, because all the peaches have already been destroyed.

Over the last couple weeks, I had to remove over twenty of the bagged peaches after birds or squirrels left bite marks and the fruit had dropped off its stem, to the bottom of the bag. Some of the peaches had only a c-shaped mark that made me wonder about curculio. A couple seemed untouched. But I had seen the squirrels in the trees going after them. Then, a couple days ago I discovered that virtually every peach in a little protective bag had dropped to the bottom of the bag, and all of the peaches that I hadn’t bagged had disappeared completely. The peaches were all still green and hard, nowhere near ripe. I had just read about people using a spray made with peppermint oil and cinnamon sticks to deter squirrels, and was about to try it, when I discovered there were no peaches left to save.

Green peach with a bite missing, dropped to the bottom of a mesh bag, with another nearby.

I’ve been grieving the last few days. I put so much effort into this peach tree all through the spring and summer. Pruning it carefully. Six holistic sprays with beneficial nutrients. Three “Surround” kaolin clay sprays. Picking off leaves with peach-leaf-curl one by one. I was so hopeful when hundreds of little peach-lets started growing! I thinned the peaches so that none was too close to another. I put 80 little protective mesh bags on individual peaches. I even bought toy snakes and an owl to try to scare off the birds and squirrels. None of it stopped them. I had gotten only 3 cherries from the cherry trees, but the peaches seemed to be the saving grace for the little orchard I have been tending so carefully. Last year Margy and I had been able to eat only one ripe peach–and it tasted so good. So this year, I tried all the things to care for and protect them, imagining that taste in my mouth. And now they are gone.

I’ve also felt deeply shaken in my capacity as a permaculture gardener. Here is this little food forest with 2 cherry trees, one peach tree, and two baby apples. And no food. (Well–the raspberries did fine–but I already knew how to tend raspberries. And there were a few blueberries on our young plants. We thought we might get some hazelnuts but the squirrels also grabbed those before they were even close to ripe.) I do come away with a deep respect for organic gardeners and farmers.

But I have been harboring much anger and hate in my soul for these squirrels, and I feel very troubled about that. The original purpose of tending this land–this small place on the earth–was about finding our way home to earth community. Putting into practice the desire for healing the broken relationship between our society and the natural world. But when I try to grow food, so many critters become my enemies. Well, they probably don’t share the enmity–they probably think I run a fabulous restaurant. But meanwhile, I am watching them and hating them.

This morning, after the squirrel ran away with the bagged peach, another squirrel started playing with a stick on the path in the orchard. Literally playing–rolling over and over, turning the stick this way and that, chewing on it, then rolling over again. In a very cute way.

There is a lesson in this, I am sure. So I am trying to grieve, to let go, to open my heart. But I am still not sure I know how to forgive the squirrels. I am trying to listen to the deeper lessons.

Frogs and More Frogs!

Today I saw four frogs in the pond! When I went outside before breakfast, there was plenty of weeding to do in the orchard, but I was drawn instead to bring my camera and just sit by the pond. When I first walk back to the pond, the frogs often jump from where they’ve been sitting, and swim down into the deeper water. Two of them went under with a little squeak. But there were three plops both yesterday and today, so I knew there were at least three frogs.

Tiny frog #1 floating under reflected ferns yesterday
Tiny frog #1 sitting on a stone at the edge of the pond yesterday.

If I sit quietly next to the pond, eventually they come back to a sitting spot. So I wait. Today I was able to take pictures of three of them while I sat. But I find myself favoring the tiny little frog that was the first to come to the pond. Soon I imagine we will give them names, but for now, I am identifying them by number. This one is so very tiny. At most an inch and a half head to backside, and skinny. Also very friendly. She often perches near where I sit.

Tiny frog #1 swimming closer to where I sit today. You can see her feet clearly against the white of the rocks below.
Tiny frog #1 looks like she is watching me over the edge today.

Yesterday, I was also able to take photos of frog #2, who was a little bigger than frog #1. But today, I saw both #2 and #3 after they re-emerged, and came to sit/float near each other by the little beach. #3 looked so much fatter/bigger than the other two, but then I realized depending on the angle, frog #2 could also be somewhat fat. I think they were about 2 1/2 inches long.

Frogs #2 and #3 on the rocks near the beach.
Close up of Frog #2 from yesterday
Close up from behind of Frog #2 yesterday

So Frog #3 is the largest, and seemingly the shyest. Quickest to jump back into the water, so far. But I got several shots of #3 today. And then, just as I was about to leave, I saw another tiny little frog floating nearby, between me and the beach. So Frog #4. More like #1 in size.

Frog #4 floating near the pickerel weed.

It is just so amazing to watch the wildlife in the pond. I can sit and sit. I also saw dragonfly nymphs again. But eventually I got hungry so I came inside for breakfast. I feel so grateful.

Pond Frog Sitting

Photo: Tiny frog sitting on a large stone at the edge of the pond

Today the frog in the pond let me take its picture! I came outside this morning and just sat for a while at the edge of the pond, writing in my journal and being quiet under a cloudy sky. It felt a little bit peculiar to be done with the work of building the pond. To let go of the strange obsession for finding stones that has filled the last several weeks. I have been working on the pond since April! I didn’t see the frog at first. I was glancing around at the yard, and all the ways that Margy and I get overwhelmed trying to care for the land. We are old, we are disabled, we are ignorant of the many needs of plants, just beginners. It is hard to be good stewards of the land. There is always more to do than we can do. So I make a decision to let go: let go of the burden of it, let go of the overwhelm, let go of trying to do more than we can. Here I am, it’s a new day: be amazed at life!

At some point, I decided to walk around the edge of the pond to look at how the plants are doing. And then I suddenly saw the frog, sitting quietly. No plops into the water, no jumping away. Just sitting quietly, paying no mind to me while I was also sitting quietly, and now walking quietly. (Perhaps it has figured out that we people who come to this pond are no threat–we can share the pond?) It was on a big stone at the bottom of the beach, with its eyes out of the water and its very tiny body in the water. Its head maybe a half inch long, its body another inch, long folded legs. It let me take its picture many times. When I walked back to my chair, this is how it looked from over there, almost invisible, but now visible to me:

Photo: Can you see the tiny frog on the mottled stone near the deeper water, five stones to the right of the red stone?

When I came back inside, I did more research, and this frog seems to be of the species called the green frog–the most common frog in our region-it can be green, olive, brown. (One site joked–close your eyes and think of a frog–that is the green frog.) It is likely a female, because the tympanum–the round “ear” circles behind its eyes–are the same size as its eyes. In males, they are larger.

UPDATE: I’VE GONE ROUND AND ROUND ON THE IDENTIFICATION OF THIS FROG. I WONDERED IF IT COULD BE A FEMALE BULLFROG, BECAUSE THE DORSAL-LATERAL RIDGES GO BEHIND THE EARS, RATHER THAN DOWN THE BACK. BUT THEN I REALIZED IT WAS MUCH TOO SMALL FOR A BULLFROG. I AM BACK TO THINKING IT IS A GREEN FROG. SEE THIS CAN YOU ID THE FROG SITE.

I sat with the frog for quite a bit longer, until some raindrops started falling on the water, on me, on the frog. I stood and looked away for a moment, and when I looked back she was gone without a sound. What a lovely teacher she was for the practice of sitting quietly, for letting go, and being amazed by life.

Pond: a little frog

Photo: The pond sides are now covered with stones.

This morning, when I approached the pond, I heard a distinctive plop! And later, approaching again, I saw a tiny frog leap quickly from the beach rocks into the water. Another plop! It is our first frog. (Or maybe it is a toad–still not sure). No chance to catch it in a photo. But I am sure it was the best sound all day! And in more good news, most other pond projects are now complete.

The other day I used up the rest of the half-yard of stones I had gotten delivered early in the process–I added more to the planting ledge so that the plants were better anchored, and then I planned to use the rest of the stones in an upgraded overflow channel spill hole.

We had two inches of rain from tropical storm Elsa, and I was out there in my raincoat in the rain with a shovel, digging the spill hole bigger so muddy water wouldn’t flow back into the pond. Yesterday, I took a leaky five gallon bucket and drilled lots of holes all over it, so water would flow through it easily, but it could hold stones. Then I dug the spill hole deep enough to put the bucket down below the level of the spillway. I filled the bucket with small stones, and also put stones underneath and around the outside of it, finishing up with it today. Another rain is coming tomorrow so I will see if it works.

Photo: white plastic bucket, after drilling holes in the sides and bottom
It is hard to show the slope, which goes down from the spillway on the right gently down to the hole on the left. The bucket is completely buried with more stones on top. I also repurposed some painted shells that had been made for me by the kids in my old church when I retired.

I have gone on many adventures looking for stones on the side of country roads, but I finally succumbed to the temptation to buy a few more bags of stones at the big box store. (I had tried that once before but the quality was terrible.) I needed more small stones to fill up the spill hole, and I needed larger ones for one small section of pond siding under the little deck. The small ones enabled me to complete the spill hole. The larger ones were a weird cream color, that left a creamy residue when washed. I don’t know what they do to them. But I put them in place, along with a few bricks, under the little deck, and now it is complete.

Since my last posting, I was also delighted to receive some blue flag iris from our friend Lisa Fernandes, who gleaned it from her pond. They are already growing new shoots! You can see them in the upper photo, the largest plants on the other side of the pond. I also transplanted my little pond lily tubers into a larger basket filled with stones, and placed them on the lower shelf.

It is so lovely to sit by the side of the pond and watch the reflections on the water… may you have such loveliness in your life.

Early Harvesting

Photo: two cherries and a bowl of raspberries

Well, after all my efforts with the sweet cherry trees, I harvested a total of three cherries. Very sad. That is all for the season. I had given them foliar sprays, compost and seaweed on the ground, and companion plants. I sprayed them with kaolin clay to guard against pests, put out yellow sticky paper for black cherry aphids, and hung about 50 red wooden fake cherries to deter birds coming round. I watered them when we were having this drought. We didn’t start out with a lot of blossoms, and I think there were only 10-20 cherries that started forming this season–not very many. But by the time they ripened, I could only find three. I ate one, and the other two are in the photo next to the raspberries.

The raspberries, on the other hand, I do hardly anything for–I pruned out the old canes in the fall, and they got a couple foliar sprays when there was some left from the trees. I watered them a couple times during the drought. But now they are producing abundant berries, and this harvest was just the one day’s worth. So frustrating. Especially since I like cherries more than raspberries. I’ve grown raspberries before, but cherries are still new. I do not seem to know the secret. If anyone can tell me, please comment!

I also harvested a big bunch of kale today. After the groundhog sighting, I covered that raised bed with netting and stakes. And a good thing I did! The next day, I caught sight of the groundhog standing up against the framing looking through the netting at the kale. I chased him off, and I haven’t seen him the last few days. I’ve also put urine liquid around the area. So far it seems to be working.

Today, I took off the netting, harvested a bunch of the lower leaves of the kale, did a bit of weeding, and finished thinning the carrots that are also growing there. With kale, I will sauté a bunch of it, and then immediately freeze, for use in winter. I eat kale almost every day! I’m so happy it is doing well. But if you know the secret for sweet cherries, please tell me!

Photo: kale harvest from today

Munimqehs! Groundhog!

Margy and I were chatting in the coolness of our kitchen, when suddenly I thought I saw a squirrel on our back deck, running right under the plastic “owl” that I had bought, supposedly to scare squirrels away from the orchard. That’s what caught my attention. But looking closer, we realized it wasn’t a squirrel, it was a groundhog! I ran outside onto the deck, and it ran too, but I managed to catch this slightly blurry picture to confirm our suspicions. It ran across the patio, through the back yard and over to the trees on the edge.

Photo: Groundhog running across the patio, in the shadow of the bird bath, near a chair.

Margy and I are often torn between totally loving the critters that come into the yard, but also wanting to eat the food we are growing. Munimqehs is the Passamaquoddy word for groundhog, which I learned in the fall of 2018. In Wabanaki stories, Munimqehs is the wise grandmother who has many lessons to teach us about how to be good human beings. How desolate we would be without our animal neighbors!

We haven’t had any groundhogs in the yard for the last few summers. The last one disappeared, we believe due to the intervention of a neighbor. With a groundhog in the yard, however, it is a whole new ballgame for gardening. I immediately went out in the heat, and put together a netting contraption to try to protect our bed of kale, from which I had harvested the first leaves earlier this morning. I happened to have these metal arches and nylon netting, and fastened the netting to the ground with metal stakes. There is already a wire mesh under the raised bed, so no animals should be able to dig up from underneath. We’ll see if this deters our little friend. I might have to also go back to the pee protection scheme that I used to partial success a few years ago.

Raised bed with kale, covered by metal arches and nylon netting

Meanwhile, today I am grateful for the excitement of a critter on the deck, a young one it seems. Let’s see what lessons she/he will have to teach us. We have lots of clover that we’re happy to put on her table. Let’s see if we can be good neighbors.