Friday, December 19, 2008

The Intervale, Intervale, NH, as it looks today, 2008

This photo shows Mt. Washington across the broad intervale in Intervale, NH, less than a half mile from the small Abenaki village, once called Pigwacket, where Stephen and Manuel Laurent lived for a time. The Intervale, when I was a child, was a broad, lush meadow where cows grazed and on summer evenings we could sneak down and watch deer grazing with their young fawns.

I moved to Intervale, NH, when I was 6 years old. The postmaster at that time was Manuel Laurent. His brother, Stephen, was the postmaster in Jackson, NH. These two brothers were Abenakis and sons of Joseph Laurent, former Chief of the Abenakis at St. Francis (Odanak). The Abenakis are also called the Wabenaki (Wobanki or Wabanki which translates to ‘people of the dawn’ or ‘people of the rising sun” meaning from the east). Stephen and Manuel lived in Intervale in a small encampment of Abenakis that included their wives, children and extended family. They were remnants of a group that had lived there for many years who were referred to as the Pigwacket band of Abenakis. Their village was named Pigwacket after the mountain of the same name (the mountain is also called Pequawket and Kearsarge). There had been Abenakis living here, I was told, for many centuries and that it was known as a warm, sheltered place with ample resources. The ‘intervale’, itself, is a beautiful, broad, flat, alluvial plain, a grassland or meadow, bordered by the Saco River and a place where the deer were plentiful. John Josselyn who visited New England from England in 1638 and again in 1663 identified Pigwacket in his book New England's Rarities Discovered as the village where Darby Field (referenced in Andrew Riely's paper) stopped in 1642 to hire guides to assist him in his ascent of Mt. Washington. Field is credited with being the first non-native to climb the peak. Josselyn quotes Field as saying there were about 200 Abenakis living at Pigwacket at that time.

Stephen often took me with him on short trips into the woods. Sometimes the Abenaki women would be my babysitters when my mother was away and I would go with them to the rocky summits of nearby mountains like Moat, Cranmore, Kearsarge (the same as Pequawket, Pigwacket), and Mt. Stanton to pick blueberries. We would spend whole days sitting right in the blueberry bushes, moving gradually across the mountainsides filling birch bark baskets and shiny galvanized pails with blueberries. The women gossiped endlessly switching to Algonquian when the gossip got particularly juicy to keep me from blushing.

Stephen told me that the Abenaki word for ‘white man’ was ‘awarnoch’, pronounced ‘awarnoots’ but that it doesn’t translate literally as ‘white man’ He explained that it is a condensation of two separate phrases: “Who is this guy?” and “Where did he come from?” Which makes total sense. You’re a person used to seeing others like you. You are living where you always lived with people you accept as being ‘the ones', those who have always been there. This is your place. Your people have lived her for thousands of years. So you’re walking along and “ka-bam” there is this really strange, ugly, pasty white, human-looking ‘thing’ walking up the trail towards you. It’s earth shaking. In your surprise you turn to your chum and exclaim ‘awarnoch’, or “Who-from?” Steven explained that a lot of Abenaki words are condensations like awarnoch and it makes sense. All languages evolve and re-evolve similarly. Language is, after all, alive.

Stephen recounted stories describing yearly summer encampments near the present day Weirs on Lake Winnpesaukee where Abenakis from near and far came and spent weeks and months socializing, catching and drying fish, collecting and processing zillions of acorns to make flour, cooking pemmican, making winter clothing and equipment, and maybe finding wives and husbands. Members of the Nausets, an Abenaki band living on and near present day Cape Cod, have also told me of large pre-contact summer gatherings on the Cape that were social and practical, where a lot of work was done including winter food and clothing preparation and where a lot of the natives came to gamble on their favorite Lacross teams. They took Lacross seriously. Games went on for days. I’m not sure if this part is true, but one source told me that the games were played on rough fields that were sometimes a mile long.

As I said it would be nice to have a time machine and have a first hand account of what the landscape really looked like 10,000 years ago and have a better idea of who lived her and how they lived. For instance, what was the landscape really like and was it so different from the landscape today? Stephen and others described a vast forest of old growth trees through parts of central New Hampshire and central and northern Vermont. On the north side of Mt. Kearsarge, behind where my family lived in Intervale, loggers went in during the winter of 1951, and cut down and hauled out white pine trees that were five feet in diameter and probably eighty feet tall. They were massive, beautiful trees. When Stephen saw them he said “that’s what all the forests used to look like.” Stephen had also heard descriptions of red and white oaks growing along the Lake Winnipesaukee shoreline that were six feet in diameter and seventy five feet tall. That had to be at least five hundred years, or more, after the Wisconsinan glacier, though, and probably closer to the time of first contact. Even in the best of conditions it would take hundreds of years for an oak to grow to those dimensions. In Vermont and upstate New York the forest were described by Champlain to be “park like’ meaning with massive, tall trees standing far apart and with an immense canopy of interlacing limbs and dense foliage overhead blocking the sunlight, like a Gothic cathedral, with the forest spreading out mile after mile. The distance between trees and the absence of underbrush made it easy to hunt there. Stephen thought the natives may have set fires to burn out the underbrush to encourage more game. For their own part the Europeans set out to completely destroy the ancient American forests immediately upon arrival .

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