Conflicting Survival Strategies in early Quebec

(More reflections on colonization in Quebec, jumping off from the book Helene’s World.)  Author Susan McNelley writes:

Summer days for the French settlers were long and filled with hard work. This was not the case for the indigenous people. Life was much less demanding in the summer. Fish, fowl, and small game were readily available in the river and nearby forest. The indigenous peoples along the St. Lawrence didn’t worry about storing food to last the winter. To the consternation of their French neighbors, the natives spent much of their time sleeping and socializing with their friends. There were games, story-telling, feasting and opportunities for young people to meet and court.  Summer was a time of replenishment and fortification for the rigors of winter.

A common factor for both Montagnais/Innu people and French settlers in early Quebec was surviving the long hard winter.  But they had quite different strategies for doing that. The French worked very hard in the summer to clear fields, and plant and harvest crops. Bread was their primary food. They were agricultural people, and in the early years were also reliant on ships arriving in summer with new supplies, to replenish their stores of wine and oil and spices and grains. They preserved food and stored it for surviving the long winter. Winter included much less activity, so in some ways it was an easier time, but they were on their own, and their strategy for survival was to carefully ration what food they had among the people in their families.

For the Montagnais, on the other hand, summer was the easy time–they camped by the river, fished & hunted, gathered fruits and nuts, feasted and celebrated with each other, and generally felt a sense of abundance in all sorts of food. As the fall came, they caught and dried eel, and then they left the summer encampment and began to hunt small game in the nearby woods. In winter, they traveled in small family groups into the interior, where they relied on heavy snow cover to slow down the big game: moose, caribou, deer, and bear. When they were successful in the hunt, they shared their feast with nearby families.

hiver_transports_11Susan McNelley describes a winter incident recounted by Champlain when some of the Montagnais/Innu came to the early French settlement, because they were starving, and asked for food.

Although the French did try to be generous, they rationed the distribution of provisions to the aborigines out of necessity. Otherwise, the food would not have lasted a month.

The French believed that the Innu were irresponsible because they didn’t store food, and because when they acquired food in the hunt, they ate all of it, or shared with their neighbors.  But if you are traveling to follow big game, it wouldn’t be practical to carry large quantities of preserved food.  It would be practical to share the abundance that came sporadically depending on who had a good hunt.  Reading between the lines of this incident, I could imagine the Innu noticing that the French had food while they had none, and expecting, according to their own values, that of course the French would be willing to share with them. Their strategy for survival was sharing what became available, as it became available. The French strategy was about storing up and rationing.

And isn’t that just like capitalism, really, and how our modern mainstream society works.  “Save what you don’t need now, to use later. Try to accumulate as much as possible. That is the definition of wealth.”  (But perhaps rampant consumerism and planned obsolescence have superseded that model too.  Some things to think about.)

I feel the pressure of this time of year to preserve what we can from our garden, small as it is–making pesto from basil and chives and parsley, freezing kale, drying herbs–in our own way getting ready for the long Maine winters. We certainly wouldn’t know how to survive on our own, without being able to go to the Food Coop or grocery store. So perhaps both the French settlers and the Innu had better survival skills than we have now.Kale

 

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Oak Leaves

In the spring, I learned that acorns of the white oak were less bitter–and were more widely used for food–than those of the red oak.  At that time, I was walking through thousands of acorns in our neighborhood, and thinking how great it would be to use them for food.  I also walked through thousands of dried-up oak leaves, but never saw any white oaks.  You can tell the difference because the leaves of the red oak are pointy and the leaves of the white oak have rounded lobes.

This fall, there were barely any acorns. Oaks do that.  They choose certain years (mast years) to collaboratively put on a full production of acorns, and others years, not so much. This may be a rough winter for the squirrels, who grew their families large on last year’s bounty.  But imagine my surprise when I saw these leaves on the pavement during my morning walk.  You might have to look closely. White Oak and Red Oak Leaves

Amidst the pointy ones are some small round-lobed leaves.  The tree is about two blocks from my house, a smaller oak right next to a big red oak, standing in someone’s front yard. I am going to guess that it might be a white oak. I look forward to the next mast year for acorns, to see if I can distinguish them from each other, and maybe try making acorn flour.

Meanwhile, this was a beautiful autumn for oak trees. Usually, it seems, the oak leaves hang on the tree and go from green to brown without much fanfare.  But two weeks ago, they were a translucent gold to rival the maples. Today, we had our first snow storm, but the snow is spotted with oak leaves everywhere, pulled from their branches by the wind to land on top of the snow.Oak Leaf Gold

Abundance

Myke with kale

[Photo by Margy Dowzer]

The kale has gone crazy this year! I eat some every day, and we’ve given a lot away, but it is still up to my waist in abundance. Not to mention the basil plants, also a few feet tall. Harvesting has always felt like the most challenging part of gardening–how to keep up with everything the earth is producing. I see posts of friends who are canning and drying and freezing–that is all still something I need to learn more about.  I search online for instructions, so information is not the main issue–just the time and energy to keep up with it and carry it out.

Most of our garden this year isn’t even to that stage yet–the fruit trees and bushes are still babies, the asparagus is in its first year.  And perennial herbs will keep coming back each year, whether I harvest them now or not.  In fact, I’ve got thyme drying in the basement, and will probably do some oregano after that is done.  I finally dug up the garlic that I had planted as companions to the fruit trees to help keep away pests.  But I especially feel a responsibility to the annuals like kale and basil.  This is it for them. And they are shining.

Last week, I experimented: I sautéed a dozen large leaves of kale, which cooked down quite a bit, and then I froze it–it only filled a small part of a plastic freezer bag.  I should be doing that with whole bunches of it, but it takes time to wash and cut and sauté and cool and bag.  We’ve been eating basil this week–especially yummy with an heirloom tomato we bought from the coop.  I learned not to put it in the refrigerator, but to keep cut stems in a vase with water.

For now, I just want to say thank you to the earth for creating such abundance!  Give me the strength to receive and cherish and preserve your gifts.  I’d better get outside and harvest some more!

Celebrating Grains (as someone who doesn’t eat grains)

Today is the celebration of Lammas, the Grain Festival–or how I often have thought of it here in North America–the Corn Festival.  This is the time when local corn on the cob is finally ready!  In its European origins, “corn” meant wheat, and it was a celebration of the wheat harvest, complete with Lammas breads eaten during the rituals.  But lately, I have been following a mostly grain-free eating plan–no wheat, no gluten, and no corn.  So how might I celebrate Lammas?

I am planning to go outside for a fire this evening.  We had our first fire in our fire circle on the new moon on July 23rd.  (the photo is from that fire)  A fire always feels like an invocation of the sacred.  Perhaps it would work also to celebrate with nuts and fruits, which are like grain in that they are the seeds of the plant.  They are freely gifted by the plants to human beings.  All cultivated plants co-evolved with human communities.  So perhaps tonight I will celebrate that partnership between human beings and plants!

First Fire

Water for Future Gardens

Garden SpigotToday a plumber installed a new outdoor spigot at our house. The old one was buried behind the steps to the deck, close to the driveway, and not at all handy for future garden watering. This one is on the other side of the deck, close to where we are imaging planting fruit trees and other food crops. It makes me happy to see it there, all ready to use.

Before we installed it the spigot, we had to research what material to use for the piping–copper, PVC or PEX.  We chose copper because the PVC varieties and PEX piping seem more hazardous with leaching that puts chemicals into the water. This article was very helpful.  Since this spigot will be watering our food, we want it to be as non-toxic as possible.

Submeter

Submeter

It is also attached to a submeter we purchased from the Portland Water District. Our sewer bills are computed based on the volume of our water usage, and with a submeter, the water that is going into the ground (rather than the sewer) won’t be used to compute the sewer bill.  So spending the money for the submeter now should eventually save us money in the long run.  Now all we have to do is contact the city for an inspection, and we’ll be good to go.

(Except we won’t be planting gardens until next year.)

Wild Blueberries

Wild Blueberry Patch

Wild Blueberry Patch

Wild blueberries plants don’t really photograph well–the plants are low to the ground and often in a large patch.  The flowers are tiny and bell shaped.  I have been trying to grow them in our yard for the last several years with minimal luck. But this May it seems they are bursting with life all along the the street we live on. They don’t really like the luscious bed I made for them… they seem to prefer the sand scrabble mess along the side of the road. There are blueberries flowers everywhere, along with wild strawberry, and I see volunteer raspberry plants greening out in many and diverse spots as well.

Blueberry flowers close DSC07502If we were gathering our food, we are living in the right place. One year I did gather a pint of wild strawberries. Most years we leave them for the chipmunks and birds to munch on…it is a lot of work to pick them and they are so tiny. Same with the wild blueberries. Now it is easier to buy the cultivated varieties at the store.

I think about how people used to give a lot of attention to finding their food, when they were gathering these little morsels in earnest.  It might take a long time to get enough for a real dish.  But here all around us is such abundance, and such a gift of nourishment, if we are willing to receive it in small bites. Could it be that life is like that in other ways? That there might be spiritual nourishment all around us, freely given, in small bites, to those who are willing to pay attention for a while?

Avoid Spiritual Theft by Doing Our Own Spiritual Work

Indigenous spiritual traditions are inextricably woven into the network of relationships within an Indigenous community and in the particular land in which that community lives. They are a fundamental element of the Native struggle against the destruction of their cultures and homes. They are not meant to be exported piecemeal for some other purpose, however earnest it may be. If we seek to avoid spiritual theft, the best tool we can use is for us to do our own spiritual work. 

If we are seeking to reconnect to the earth, we must remind ourselves that non-Indian people are no less a part of the earth than Indians, even though we are not indigenous to this place. In reality, we all live here on this land and our lives are equally enmeshed with the fate of countless other beings around us. This land, broken as she is, is our only source of food and water. And this land is full of nourishment for us, both material and spiritual. We can love the earth, and be loved by the earth, even if she keeps some secrets from us. Step by step, we must rebuild our own culture’s relationship to the earth. Even though we might learn from the wisdom and experience of Indigenous peoples, no one else can do the work for us.

Photo by Margy Dowzer

Photo by Margy Dowzer

One summer, I learned that by eating local honey, I could help the hay-fever I suffered from in summertime. By eating that local honey I could begin to make a relationship between my body and the plants which grow in that place. There has been a resurgence of interest in eating foods that are locally grown. Along with the environmental benefits, there are also these spiritual ones, this reweaving of a connection with our bodies to a place. It is our connection to a specific place, the place we live, which forms the doorway for us to hear the earth, to find her sacredness.

A sacred understanding of land is not entirely foreign to European culture. Until the advent of capitalism, land was seen in a more communal fashion. Europeans had their own indigenous traditions to connect them to their land, many of which survived even into Christian times. We see traces of this in our holidays even here in this country—the evergreen trees of the winter festival, the foods we prepare for special times of the year. Many people are seeking to relearn these old European earth traditions.

Othila DSC02547

Othila

There is a rune, part of the early Germanic ritual alphabet, called Othila, whose sacred meaning is “inherited land.” It describes the relationship between people and the land on which they live. In Germanic countries, there is still a legal right called the right of odal. It means that a person living on a particular estate has the right to stay and live on that estate after the owner has died.

In 17th century England, there was a movement of people called the Diggers, who were protesting the fencing off of common lands and believed that the land could not be owned by private individuals. A love for the earth has many roots in our European ancestors’ ways.