Boundaries

Boundary

[The side boundary two weeks ago.]

Boundaries in land are something of a legal fiction.  The land can’t really be owned by anyone.  But they do matter, because we can only protect the land that is within the boundaries identified as “ours” by pieces of paper.

The other day, a neighbor who lives to the side of the back of our yard mentioned that they might want to put in a fence.  We were alarmed that they might cut some trees, but then they said they were not planning to do that.  But they got a little riled by our asking about the trees.

The thing is, we didn’t get a chance to say this, but we had thought that the trees between our properties were on water district land, because our deed identifies our boundary as bordering on water district land.  [You can see the line of trees and bushes behind our compost bins in this photo from two weeks ago.]  But today I did some research and discovered that their deed in fact includes at least some of the water district land, and perhaps might come right up to ours.

It is all both explicit and very vague on our deed, especially in reference to the back half–because it refers to the old Portland Gardens plan.  For example, where that part of our land begins is stated to be about 99 feet across, while the back line of our property is stated to be 161 feet across.  But it is unclear exactly how and where it is anchored or where it expands–it doesn’t correspond to what was mowed as lawn.  (And it would cost thousands to get a survey, we were told.)  And if you look on the current tax map, the water district land seems to be 53 feet across between the properties.  But I don’t see how there are that many feet between us, even if all the “hedge row” is included.

However, the deed for the neighbor’s yard cites an iron pipe at the corner boundary next to their road, and then “83.31 feet to an iron pipe and land now or formerly of the Portland Water District.”  The wording is odd–but I found an earlier deed that ceded some 56 feet of PWD land (on that side) to that parcel–and it makes sense, they couldn’t have built a house on the land without it.  Then it angles back to a narrow point further back.  Sometimes I wonder if it is all something of a fiction–maybe the plan for Portland Gardens didn’t really match the actual land, and nobody actually has the number of feet listed.

But all day today I have been worried about the trees.  The black cherry and the cedar.  The ones I haven’t learned the names of yet.  We love the trees for themselves, and also for the privacy they create in this place during the summer.  Margy has spent a lot of time cutting down bittersweet from these trees.  And I’ve been wondering where the boundary really is.  There is too much snow right now to hunt for that iron pipe.  But I surely will as soon as enough has melted.  It all feels so vulnerable.

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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.

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.

My Dad and the Land

Johnsons 1936.jpg

[1936, his brother, sister, & my dad in back.]

My dad was born in 1930 in Gillette Wyoming, where his parents were homesteading.  Some stories I remember from his childhood there.  My grandmother made cinnamon rolls. They had a fire that burned down their house.  His mother grabbed the laundry, and all the family got out safely, but they lost their other possessions.  One time, maybe 3 years old, my dad went into town, with his dad perhaps, and when he came home he proudly announced “I buyed me this!” He had spent a coin to purchase some candy or some small toy.

The family left their homestead in 1938, when my dad was eight years old, and they ended up in Detroit Michigan.  For the rest of his life, in many ways, he was trying to get back to Wyoming.  He went there at 16 to work on the ranch of a family friend.  Back in Detroit, he met my mom at a riding stable, and we lived in Michigan when I was young.  We moved to Texas when I was 7, but after six months returned to Michigan.  When I was 12 we moved to Sheridan, Wyoming, and my dad worked on a ranch in Montana. There were six children then. I was the oldest, and my sister Mary was the baby.  We went to the Catholic grade school in Sheridan.  We stayed there for one school year.

We could walk to school–I think it may have been about 8 blocks.  One time the weather reported it was 17 below zero.  My mom called another mother to ask whether she should send us to school.  Just bundle them up! she said.  I was in seventh grade that year, and was amazed that the popular kids were also those who got good grades.  I was in a drama club and a science club.  But it took a while to make friends.  By the end of that year, I had gotten close to a girl in my class whose name was Patricia Ann Rhodes.  The drama club put on Thornton Wilder’s Our Town.  I shared the role of Mrs. Gibbs with another student.

My dad stayed up in Montana during the week.  Actually, I don’t remember the exact schedule of him coming home.  He did go back and forth.  That year we spent Christmas week at a one-room cabin in Montana, which was a lot of fun.  Shortly after that, he stopped working at the ranch, and went back to Michigan to work again in drafting.  I didn’t know the full story until years later.  I had always thought he left the ranch because you couldn’t support of family with six children on a cowboy salary.  But really what happened was that he hurt his back in a fall from a horse.  Someone unexpectedly tossed him a bag of feed, and the horse startled and jumped away.  That was how he fell.  It was very physical work, and he was in too much pain to continue.

He told me later how devastating that fall had been for him.  He went back to his old job–but felt a deep sense of failure.  The year before, this company had held a going away party for him, and gave him a gift, a rifle I think, with many good wishes on this new adventure he was looking forward to.  So coming back was to admit the defeat of his dream.  Back in Michigan, he found a house for us to live in, and the family moved back to Michigan after the school year ended.  I cried when we had to go back.

I am thinking about how much he loved the open range, and longed for the land in Wyoming.  He found God in that land.  He said once that “people called it a ‘God-forsaken land’ yet even in that naming they were reminded of God.”  His longing for this faraway land was a part of my growing up years, one root of my own sense of disconnection and longing for the land.

I have been thinking a lot about my dad these last few weeks because he had a fall at home in West Virginia a few weeks ago and hurt his back.  He is now in a nursing home, theoretically to get some rehab and pain management, but he is feeling very discouraged, and not really participating in therapy.  He had a stroke in September of 2014, and recovered well at first, but it has been a hard two years. I am thinking about how much I love him, even though my own journey took me so far away from his world. Cowboy, mystic, dreamer… I send you blessings on this difficult chapter.  And gratitude to my sister Julie who has been caring for him and my mom close up these last eleven years.

Summer Lessons to Remember

Screen TentMaybe this land on which we newly live can become a sacred center of learning earth spirituality, with a fire circle, a water pond, bird songs in the air.

Your journey on this small piece of land is valuable, not for some other purpose, but for this purpose–to restore your broken off heart to the land.

You have all the time you need.

This spiritual work is your work–writing about it, yes, teaching it, yes, but doing it, most important of all. Even if you do nothing else in your life, do this work.

Each step of the journey is holy. Remember the deer who appeared in the yard. Come outside. Dawn is the best time. “Vacation” really means “spiritual restoration” time.

Your calling now is to do the spiritual journey into Earth Community. That partially corresponds to your ministry at your congregation, and partially lies outside of that. (All congregations must go through transitions in this time.)  

Teach a class this year on the Spiritual Journey Into Earth Community, based on the latest version of the book (Finding Our Way Home: A Spiritual Journey Into Earth Community).

Begin to explore self-publishing the book.

For health–rest, dance, walk, water, herbs, be outside.

Come outside, come outside, come outside.

There is no rush at all, just love, follow your deep passions.

The spirits are with you. Brokenness hurts–turn to the cardinals, the sun, weeping, diving into water.

Enjoy the beauty of each day. It is not all about goals and purpose and accomplishments–even green ones. See the beauty now. Feel the connections now. Be still.

Listen to your body.

You can find your joy and beauty when you sit outside in the morning and write–you know how to move into Presence. Write this down.

There is still more transformation that is possible. Your heart is in the universe and the universe is in your heart. I put my hand on your heart.

Think of how you get up each day in a world that is broken and anguished and live in a society that is divided and hurting. Think of how you feel the new sun and the songs of the birds.  You are learning to feel the land slowly, so the grief doesn’t overwhelm you, so you can find the source of strength, the many ancestors.

Keep dancing.

Today is a day, not a preparation for something else–a beautiful, painful, blessing-laden day. Let your heart’s pain be awash in this day.  

You are not an orphan. You are in the land where ancestor relatives were buried, the dawn places. Don’t panic. Don’t try to take the pain to someone else. Everyone is broken. Remember gratitude. Remember to honor the pain. Remember to see with new eyes.

Remember the magic. Breathe. Remember that a day may bring a beautiful surprise. Follow the Spirits’ lead. Flow with the River of Life.

Life and Death in the Back Yard

Yesterday I was sitting in a recliner in our back yard, just soaking up the sun, and listening to the birds and other critters. Suddenly, a hawk flew to the ground about 20 feet away from me and landed awkwardly. Its wings seemed to be splayed over the ground, and it was facing away from me. I didn’t have a chance to get a good enough look to identify it, but got an impression of a light color. I was surprised it was so close to me. Then it flew away toward the back of the yard, and I saw it was carrying a chipmunk in its talons.

I was astonished and humbled to witness this moment of life and death in the world of nature.  Perhaps the hawk was taking food to its young.  Perhaps the chipmunk was the one who, earlier in the day, had been startled to see me in the screen tent, when it poked its head under the fabric at the bottom.  I thought it would run off, but then it scampered right under my foot on its way to the other side of the tent.

Two years ago, just a little later in May, I had seen four baby chipmunks in the yard, in about the same place.  I went outside and sat down near them and watched them play.  They were completely unafraid of me and didn’t mind my presence close by.  At one point, they heard an alarm call from their mother, and ran to the hole to their underground homes, and sat right nearby looking around and waiting to hear if they must go back inside.  But mother must have given the all clear, because they resumed their play.

I wonder if today there are babies underground waiting for a parent to return. The yard became utterly quiet after the hawk attack, except for an alarm cry from a bird or another chipmunk–I wasn’t sure. No birds at the feeder, so squirrels chasing each other up the trees, no chipmunks emerging from the rain spout. But later in the evening, life went on.  At least two other chipmunks were dashing back and forth, and gold finches lined up to get their turn at the feeder.

What a gift to sit outside each day, learning what the land wants to reveal of her secrets.  What secrets have you discovered, just sitting outside being quiet?

Chipmunk babies

Chipmunk babies