Ancestors & Colonization: Quebec

When I was exploring my German immigrant ancestors in the context of decolonization, I was struck by the feeling that they arrived after the major struggles of colonization in their part of the country.  For my dad’s family who arrived in the mid-1800s, it was a generation earlier that treaties were pressed upon the Indigenous peoples of those lands, who were forced to move further west or to Oklahoma.  In another branch of my family, my mom’s father was from Austria, and immigrated even later, via Canada, to Detroit in late 1915.

I wonder if these Germanic immigrants even thought about it, or if so, maybe it was like, “We just got here, we don’t have anything to do with those struggles you all had before.” Though, of course, the German farmers benefitted from those earlier actions, because now land was available for low prices. But it can leave a feeling of distant non-involvement, a sense that colonization wasn’t very much about my family.  My mom’s mother was also an immigrant to the United States, but her background is more complex, because she came from Quebec.

When I was younger, the very first ancestors I was curious about were those of my grandmother, born Yvonne Tremblay.  That intensified when I became a feminist, and wanted to learn about my motherline.  Plus, as I have written about elsewhere, she was “part Indian,” and I was curious about that. It turned out that Quebec province kept very good records, and I was able to learn a lot, even before the age of the internet.  But I wasn’t asking questions then about colonization or decolonization.  So this week, I decided to reopen that window of exploration, to see what I could find.

While the information available about my Scottish and Innu ancestors stops with Peter Macleod and Marie Madeleine Montagnaise, (my great-great-great-grandparents), the information about my French ancestors in Quebec goes back to some of the original colonizers.  Yesterday, I learned that one ancestor, Jean Guyon, my 11th great-grandfather, arrived in 1634. But not to get egotistical about it, they say three out of four Quebecois descend from him. And in fact, I am descended from him via four separate lines of ancestry. I am including this monument to the first Tremblays in Quebec, Pierre Tremblay and Ozanne Achon, who arrived in 1657.

Pierre Trembly Ozanne Achon

Today, in my family tree, I accidentally came upon the name Helene Desportes, my 9th great-grandmother. Her birth was listed as 1620 in Quebec, and it turns out she is said to be the first white child born in Canada, though she might have been born on the ship just before arrival. One of my methods is to do an internet search for any of these early names, and I learned there is a recent biography about her, Helene’s World: Helene Desportes of Seventeenth-Century Quebec, by Susan McNelley.

Suddenly, there is a whole new world to explore–okay that was the wrong phrase to use–in my decolonization understanding.

 

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The Flowing

Orchard August 2019

The other morning I woke from a dream, in which I was thinking about Wabanaki languages. Wabanaki languages are a flowing. Everything is moving. Verbs are central. Verbs change shape to fit who is acting, who is moving, how many, and who or what their object might be. For example, Wiku is a verb for identifying where someone dwells. (The k is pronounced like g.) As in, Wiku Portland, meaning, “He/or/she lives in Portland.” But to say, “I live in Portland,” would be Nwik Portland.  “Where do you live?”  Tama kwik?

Even many nouns are flowing, changing, shapeshifting. Like the word for home. The noun, Wik, means a home. But “my home” is nik. “At our home” is nikonuk. “At your home” is kikonuk. The words flow depending on who lives there, or if you are going there. And the words for “mother” are related to the words for home. Wikuwossol, nikuwoss, kikuwoss. “His/or/her mother, my mother, your mother.” Flowing. Shapeshifting. Full of relationship.

English, on the other hand, is filled with many more nouns than verbs. Since contact with the colonizers, Wabanaki languages have had to add more nouns to the lexicon, to translate from English or French. Some of these nouns were created from verbs by adding an ending that, by itself, means “bait.” For example, koselomol, means “I love you.”  But to turn the verb “love” into a noun, you must say kseltomuwakon. Wakon means “bait.” So perhaps to make these nouns we must capture the verb, trap it with our bait, to stop its movement for a moment.

We colonizers live in solid houses with lots of things/nouns in them. The Indigenous peoples of northern places used to live in easily movable homes, with fewer things, to follow the hunt in winter, to fish the shores in summer. Everything was a movement, a dance, a shape-shifting. (Of course, many southern Indigenous peoples were/are farmers, stayed in one place. I don’t have any exposure to how their languages work.) But I notice the tendency in me to look for solid things, to struggle with the endless flow.  To try to put things in their places, get organized.  Make vocabulary flash cards to capture the words into my brain. (Even though the Wabanaki Languages class I am taking is on summer break, I have been listening to the recordings from the class, and continuing to study.)

Still, the garden in this place, at our home, nikonuk, also tries to teach me about flow, if I can be open to it. Every week is filled with different patterns and growing and shapeshifting. This week, no more snap peas or raspberries. But the basil has come back again after I harvested most of its leaves a while ago. The young fruit trees are wild and leafy. The bee balm is dying, and prone to powdery mildew. My nephew and his girlfriend helped me put wood chips on the paths during their visit a couple weeks ago. It rained during the night last night. Every day is different. There is no way to get the garden in shape, in form, once and for all. It demands relationship, interaction, flowing, it demands the verb “gardening.”

In Passamaquoddy, kihke means “He/she gardens or plants,” and kihkan is a garden. It is also another form of the verb.

 

 

Gifts

During the spring, Margy was talking about wanting to plant sunflowers this year. But as it happened, she was busy with too many other garden projects to actually do it.  So imagine our delight when the garden planted its own sunflowers! They came up under the bird feeder, now sitting empty for the summer, but where sunflower seeds were the food we offered to the birds (and squirrels) all winter.

Gift sunflowers

Lately, the garden plants have felt mostly like children who need our care and attention. With the dry hot weather, they’ve needed a lot of watering. Yesterday, I did another foliar spray for the fruit trees, to help them ward off Japanese beetles, which I also have been picking off every day and dropping in soapy water. And there have also been lovely raspberries to harvest each day, and snap peas (almost gone now) and kale and basil to gather and preserve.

So this gift of flowers emerging without any effort on our part–perhaps the land is reminding us that she loves us as we love her?

It has been one year since my retirement began. One of its themes has been to find connection with this small portion of the Mother Earth, this land we are so lucky to call our home. As non-Indigenous people, we are trying to heal a long wounded history of our people’s disconnection from land.  Our ancestors left their home places generations ago.  If our society had an understanding of earth connection, it could not destroy earth life as it destroys, with such thoughtlessness–pollution, clearcutting of forests, poisoning of soil with pesticides, trash dumping, mining, fracking… the long list of ecological destructions that are endangering us all.

So in our small corner of the world, we are trying to reweave those threads of interconnection, reawaken the truth–long dormant in our bodies–that we are not separate from the earth–we are the earth.  As we tend the land, as we care for the plants, as we pay attention each day, we hope that a shifting occurs–that we move from domination patterns to partnership patterns in our relationship to Earth. We know how small we are–yet hope that if we can shift our own patterns, it might in some way ripple out to the larger patterns. Because we are interconnected. Because that is the magic.

The gift sunflowers remind me that the land herself is eager to be in partnership with her human children. She loves us and wants wholeness for all.

sunflower with bees

Every sunflower has its bees.

 

Deer Neighbors

Deer near our yard

The phone rang this morning about 8 a.m., and it was our neighbor Mary, calling my attention to a deer in the wild brush behind her yard. I came outside and walked behind our garage, to the edge of our yard, near where Margy had cleared bittersweet from all over the crabapple trees in the wild area. Mary had said it was a small deer, so I was surprised to see what seemed to me a rather large animal with antlers. He didn’t startle, but calmly looked at me, as I took photos from several yards away.  After a few minutes,  he slowly turned and disappeared into the bushes.

So beautiful! I had once seen a deer the first year we moved here, and that winter we also noticed some tracks in the snow, but we hadn’t seen any in our yard since then.  (However, Margy mentioned she has seen some deep in the undeveloped wild areas.) Of course, it has stirred up mixed feelings to see or not see them. We love our wildlife neighbors, but have also been concerned about our fruit trees.  The year we planted our first trees, I put up a fine fishing line thread between metal poles, at the back and side of the orchard, because I read that deer don’t like barriers that they can’t see clearly. So it was meant to be a gentle deterrent, and I haven’t taken it down, though this summer the line had sagged to about a foot above the ground.

And perhaps, this clears up a mystery that developed several days ago.  Earlier last week, I noticed that the ends of some branches on one of our cherry trees seemed to have been bitten off–just four branches in one area of one tree with their tips clean gone.  You might notice it in the center of the photo below. I also noticed the top bitten off of a raspberry shoot that had sprouted near our wood chip pile. I’ve been trying to figure out what might have done it, and I think maybe we have our culprit. Thankfully, he didn’t eat any more of anything. I’ve re-stretched the fishing line “fence” to see if that helps.

Cherry branches bitten off

We never know what adventures we’ll find in our backyard.  The other evening, during dusk, Margy saw a beautiful skunk wandering across the back of the yard.  I’ve seen a few holes in the garden where it came digging for grubs in the night.  Mostly, these days, we have scores of small birds who love to perch on branches and even tall flower stalks in the orchard, and peck for bugs in the mulch.

And can I say, finally, that I love that we have a dear neighbor who calls us to report a deer sighting!

Plants are amazing

Comfrey

Comfrey Plant in our Orchard

Last night, I watched (again) the documentary, What Plants Talk About. Did you know that plants change their chemistry based on the environmental stressors they experience? So, for example, if a certain caterpillar is munching on their leaves, they can release chemicals into the air, scents, that attract the insect predator of that caterpillar.  Or they might offer nectars that shift the scent of the bug itself, and that scent attracts predators. They also share nutrients with their child plants and other tree species in a forest.

This got me thinking about our human use of plants for healing. We benefit from their chemical wizardry and can use their medicines for our own challenges. Over thousands of years of human “prehistory” and “history,” we learned the benefits of so many various plants in our environment. A body of knowledge has accumulated for the medicinal use of herbs.

Plant medicines can also be used to help other plants. Michael Phillips, in the book Holistic Orchard, recommends making fermented teas of comfrey, horsetail, stinging nettles, and/or garlic scapes to use as a foliar spray to help orchard trees during the summer.  Comfrey provides large amounts of calcium. Horsetail has natural silica which helps the plant cuticle defense against certain summer fungi.  Nettles are a tonic of overall nutrition with trace minerals, vitamins, nitrogen, calcium, and potassium. They also have silica, with levels skyrocketing when seeds formation is just beginning, so that is a great time to use it. Garlic helps to carry other nutrients.

It just so happens that I was in the orchard last week, thinking I needed to trim back the comfrey because it was getting too big.  Then I noticed that the nettles in Sylvia’s herb garden were flowering, maybe starting to form seeds. (We’d rather that they didn’t spread nettles everywhere.) And lo and behold, the garlic plants had formed scapes. So maybe it was time to make some herbal tea. (We don’t have any horsetail, sadly.)

Comfrey Nettles Garlic brewTo make the fermented tea, you use a five-gallon bucket.  Cut plant leaves into the bucket and loosely pack them in.  Then, pour a kettle of boiling water over the leaves to get things started, and add unchlorinated water to fill it to the top. I used water from our rain barrels. Then “let sit for seven to ten days somewhere outside, loosely covered to prevent significant evaporation. This fermentation period makes the constituents that much more bioavailable for foliar absorption.” It gets pretty smelly with sulfur compounds–that’s how it is supposed to smell. You strain it when you use it. Once brewed, you dilute it, using about a cup of the tea per gallon of spray.

So I made the tea on July 6. It is likely ready to use about now, though I went ahead and added two cups to the spray formula I did on July 9th.  Having such a small orchard, I might not be able to use all of the tea in a timely way, so I figured that partially brewed tea would add something beneficial in any case. I will add whatever I don’t use to the compost pile.

A few other thoughts were brewing in my mind after watching What Plants Talk About. If you think about how plants change their chemicals to fit their environmental stressors, you have to conclude that the medicines in the plants might be changing day by day, hour by hour. So when you harvest that plant, and in what condition you harvest it, might make all the difference in the world about whether that plant has the medicine you need. And perhaps that is the source of the “old wives’ tales” about when and how to pick various medicinal herbs. When the moon is full, or first thing in the morning? (By the way, I think that old wives’ tales are often the source of much hidden wisdom.)

If I were a young person just starting out as a scientist herbalist, I would want to ponder how we might experiment and cooperate with plants to create particular medicines that we need. We’d have to start by understanding and measuring the differences in their chemical composition under various conditions. Try to better understand why the old herbalists knew the best times for picking. That might take a while. But then, once we better understood these marvelous beings, maybe we could learn to communicate back and forth with them, and then, perhaps we could invite them to create new medicines for the diseases we face in these times. What a line of research that would be!

Stinging Nettles

Stinging Nettles 

A Little Beauty

EsplanadeThe esplanade, the former hell strip, is now a thing of beauty, and this small beauty is good for my soul. I finally finished mulching between all of these hardy perennial plants with cardboard and wood chips. The plants are thriving. The tall Heliopsis is in bright yellow full bloom right now, and the purple hued Spiderwort flowers open each morning. (The Siberian Irises have already completed their flowering.)Esplanada flowers

Thursday, our first daylily blossomed, and there are more to come. In these days of cruelty to children and destruction of so much that we hold dear, I believe it helps to refresh our spirits with the beauty of the earth. Beauty is strength for the struggle.Daylily #1

Decolonization Lessons from Plants

Bittersweet around a tree trunk

 Bittersweet vining around a tree trunk.

After spending a week going through soil to remove bittersweet roots, I have been thinking about invasive bittersweet as a visceral metaphor for colonization. Bittersweet comes into an area by seeds or roots, and then reaches for the sky. It vines around any support, living or dead, to keep climbing higher and higher. When its vines first wrap around a tree trunk, like in this photo, it may look green and healthy and beautiful. It may even seem to appreciate the tree on which is grows. But eventually, it can kill the tree, either by suffocating its trunk, or by the sheer weight of its leaves and branches.

Below is a photo, taken by my partner Margy Dowzer, of a huge bittersweet vine, 4-5 inches in diameter, tightly wrapped around the trunk of this tree.  It has been cut near the bottom, which is the way to stop it growing. But you can see how it has warped the trunk and become embedded in its flesh. A huge maple tree next door came crashing down after it was covered in bittersweet vines and flowers. Bittersweet will spread to a whole area, and kill other plants that are trying to grow. Bittersweet embedded in tree trunk

And this is like colonization. When Europeans first came to this land, they planted themselves in several locations and tried to grow as much as possible. They wiped out many Indigenous communities through disease and warfare. They used the lands cleared in this way to grow crops and build towns. They kept spreading out across the whole continent, bringing destruction to Native peoples and ecosystems as they took over. They imagined that their own growth and reaching for the sun was the only thing necessary and valuable, and took no notice of the harm they were causing.  And of course, it isn’t just past history, it keeps happening today. Our whole economic system is based on continual growth. “More and more and more!” might be the mantra of the colonizers and the bittersweet.

Might there be another option? There is a different sort of plant that was brought to this continent by colonizers. In fact, it was called “English-man’s foot” or “white-man’s footprint” by Indigenous peoples because it appeared wherever the settlers showed up. Its familiar name is broadleaf plantain (plantago major). It too spreads all over, and especially in disturbed soils. However, it is a humble plant, and a useful medicinal herb. Indigenous peoples soon discovered its healing properties and added it to their herbal pharmacies.

I was reminded of this a couple weeks ago when I had a bite from a black fly appear on my hand, itching like crazy. My friend Sylvia (who is an herbalist) suggested plantain. I made a poultice by chewing up some leaves and then putting that mash on the bite, letting it remain until it dried. It helped to ease the itching right away. Plantain is also good for all sorts of wound healing, stomach troubles, fevers, and is anti-inflammatory. You can eat young leaves in salads, and cook older leaves in stews. It is also useful for breaking up compacted soil, and combatting erosion.

So perhaps we who are not Indigenous to this land might learn from the plantain a new model of how to be here, in this place we now find ourselves. Perhaps we too might become humble and useful, growing only close to the ground, paying attention to healing and the easing of pain.

Plantain

Plantain