Synchronicity

Today I woke late, so I started my walk late–and just as I was coming out onto our street, I said hello to a woman who was walking with her big black dog.  Turns out, she grew up in our house–her family built it. Her dad, who passed away earlier this year, had a huge garden in the back yard. He used a rototiller, and brought in manure and loam, and involved all the neighbor children in planting vegetables.  He’d give them a stick and point to its length and say plant the seeds this far apart.

He planted a peach tree–which did very well, (sadly no longer here) and lots of raspberries and blackberries–which are still coming up behind the garage on the land just next to ours which had belonged to them.  (It still belongs to her mother who lives in a house we can see from our yard–which we already knew.)  Her dad would do the planting and her mother liked to weed.

The big spruce tree next door would be lit up like a Christmas tree every year, to the delight of all the kids.  The man who lived there was in the fire department, so when the tree got tall, he would put on the lights with a fire truck ladder.  (Sadly, that spruce, along with the others in our yard are no longer doing very well.)  At that time, all the families in the neighborhood knew each other, and the kids played together all the time.  She also spoke about the delight of wandering into the big woods behind the house.

She was thrilled about our solar panels and our rain barrels, and hoped she might do that where she now lives on an island.  She is staying with her mother a few nights a week while she takes a class in town. I invited her to come back sometime when the snow had cleared and we were able to be out in the yard.

It delights me to know that there were gardens in this place fifty years ago, and people who were tending to it with care. It delights me that a small unexpected change in my routine led to an unexpected encounter.  Meanwhile, the snow is melting, and the ground will soon be workable–maybe peas this weekend?

back yard

The Back Yard

 

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Cascoak

Our Beloved KinI was excited to hear Lisa Brooks speak at the Maine Historical Society last night.  Lisa is the author of Our Beloved Kin: A New History of King Philip’s War, which is an amazing narrative.  She goes back to original documents and source material, combined with local Indigenous knowledge to reexamine the stories of the New England colonies and the Indigenous peoples during the later 1600s, particularly the unfolding of hostilities that came to be known as King Philip’s War.  I wrote about some of my first impressions in an earlier post.

In her talk, she focused on the parts of the book that were about Wabanaki territory, what we now know as Maine.  One of the things I especially noticed was the name of this place–greater Portland–before it was occupied by settlers–Cascoak.  The Fore River used to be called the Casco River.

I learned more about Skitterygusset, the sachem who first made an agreement for a settler to live near Capisic Brook and its uplands (where Margy and I now live).  Lisa talked about how after the deaths from disease that happened during first contact, many native people were building new alliances between regions, through marriage and family relationships.  Thus, Skitterygusset cannot be understood apart from his relationship to his sister, Warrabitta, who was the leader of Owaskoag (now Scarborough).  Women were often rulers, especially in places where planting fields were located, since women were responsible for the planting fields.  Owashkoag was a sweetgrass gathering place.  Their brother, Sagawetton, lived with his wife on the Saco River.

In settler narratives, when they talk about Indian raids, they write as if the hostilities were random acts of violence.  But Lisa talked about how the raids were focused on settlers who were upsetting the balance of communal subsistence living.  One example was the settlers who had built their houses at Amancongon, which was an important planting field on the Presumpscot River (now part of Westbrook).  Another target was to burn the mills, set up at falls on multiple rivers.  By the time of the “Indian wars” there were 50 saw mills that had been built: they cut and harvested the huge white pines of the forest, processing 1000 feet a day of pine board.  Destruction of the forests meant destruction of the game that was hunted.  The mills also prevented fish from migrating upriver, thus cutting off another important source of food.

I have to stop for now, but I was newly inspired in my quest to understand the history of this place.  I can’t recommend this book highly enough!

 

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?

Paper

Innu Ally Work filesIn my sorting and packing and decluttering quest, I was all set to start tossing old file folders from the basement into the recycling bin, but it is proving harder than I first expected. I haven’t looked at these papers for at least ten years (since we moved into this house). Because of my allergies, I would have to wear a mask and gloves to go through them.  So the simplest thing would be to just toss them out.  But when I start to take a peak, they are like windows into the history of my life as an activist.  Here is a whole file cabinet about ally work that I was involved in, related to the struggles of the Innu of Nitassinan in Quebec, most of it from when I lived in Boston.

Boston Political workThen there is the box I haven’t opened in over 16 years, with this evocative label: “Boston/and Peace Camp Time: Political Groups /Resources/Issues/Conferences.” I am guessing I threw stuff in there as I was packing to leave Boston, but I don’t even know what it might include.

I also have a box from over 30 years ago, simply labeled “Politics, Etc.” from the time I lived in Grand Rapids and Chicago in 1980 to 1984.  I’ve moved it so many times.  My intention to simplify is crashing into my interest in the older stories of my life.  When I look at these artifacts, I remember activities and connections and struggles that I had almost forgotten.Grand Rapids Political work

I think about moderately famous authors and activists whose collections of papers end up in libraries and archives.  But I am not famous, and who knows whether any of this would have any value for anyone besides me.  Do I really want to carry around boxes and boxes of old paper? I want to live in a small house, and keep doing activist work in the present rather than to document the activist movements of the past.  But I just recently read about how one of my favorite authors, Octavia Butler, saved everything.  Her papers are now available for research use in a library in California, I think.

When we give ourselves to the work of social change, we are “one in the number” (as Ella Baker said) of thousands of ordinary people lending our strength to a new vision.  Are our ordinary activist stories an important part of a history that someone may want to write in a future we cannot yet imagine? Or will that future itself be the only record of our work that is needed?

I do have some boxes of paper that I have already labeled “Archives.”  I would probably sort things differently if I had time to do it today, but when we moved to Maine, I made some filing and sorting choices about what to save and what to toss.  It is just that that sorting never gets finished, and some things came along without that kind of careful attention.  The boxes I always feel absolute clarity about saving are the boxes of my journals and writings and poetry.  During our last move, I even purchased archival quality boxes in which to store my old journals.

When I go deep inside, I know it is okay to let go of some of this paper; but perhaps it is also okay to wait, to bring along some of these old boxes, stash them in another basement or attic, and revisit them in a quieter time.  I don’t know.  What do you think?

We are planning to move in two and a half weeks.