Friday, December 19, 2008

Pemigewasset Wilderness, 2008

I took this photo bushwhacking across the 'Pemi' last summer (2008), across the middle of the broadest part where it's pretty flat with a lot of muskeag and took the picture because I thought that this scene represents the boreal forest that has been here for long time. This area was logged, rather, stripped of all trees 112 years ago, then burned extensively by forest fires in 1894 and 1903, so this is still an early-to-middle succession forest.

(Natives cont.)
By the beginning of the Christian era, roughly 2000 years ago, there were Algonquian-speaking peoples living from the Maritimes (Newfoundland, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia) across what is now New England south to Cape Cod and west to the Hudson River Valley and the Adirondack Mountains. They lived and still live as far north as Hudson Bay (Wampagusti Cree) and, by at least 600 years ago, around the northern shores of the Great Lakes (Anishinabeg ). and as far west as the Rocky Mountains by some accounts. Corn was being grown in the St. John’s River Valley in Maine and in Western Vermont more than 1000 years ago. This is a hard, white flint corn used for hominy that was brought north from Central America along with beans and squash, obsidian, turquoise and “cutting edge” technological information thousands of years ago. Native bands were active traders throughout the Americas. The Iroquois have stories of sending groups of ‘braves’ out to the four directions every decade or so to see what was going on in other locations on the continent and to bring back trade items. When the French arrived in Canada and northern New England their passion for converting the natives to Catholicism was largely a scheme to make them strong allies and lucrative trading partners.

When Jacque Cartier sailed up the St. Lawrence, the first time, in 1534, looking for China he was astounded the natives he met had an enormous knowledge of medicinal botany that was more sophisticated than anything in Europe. Their herbology included hundreds of plants the natives used for food, medicine, fiber and dyes. The natives wove ropes that were stronger than any the Europeans had seen. The natives were healthy and peaceful. They had an established form of government.

The Iroquois Confederation, or Haudenosaunee (People of the Long House), established a government with a constitution dating back, by some accounts, to 500 years before Cartier sailed up the St. Lawrence. The Abenaki, too, had an established government and, similar to the Iroquois, had a balanced system of ‘power’ distributed between chiefs and clan mothers. The political seat of the Abenakis was at Odanak, or St. Francis Village, in Quebec. Cartier and Champlain reported that there were many bands of Abenaki in eastern Quebec and what is now Vermont and New Hampshire. The estimates of the Abenaki population living in New England in 1600 range from 40,000 to close to 100,000. There is no explanation for the wide difference in population estimates. The bands were identified by geographical names only based on the location of their villages. Champlain reported that in all but a few months of the years the natives moved constantly across what is now Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine traveling as families. All records were kept orally. These features may have made it difficult to make an accurate population count.

Until the Europeans arrived the Abenakis were relatively disease-free. They hadn’t known diseases like small pox, measles, typhus, influenza, tuberculosis, syphilis, and peumonia that between the mid- 1400s (when coastal bands had contact with Portugese fisherman) and the mid-1700 caused the deaths of roughly 80 percent of all Abenakis. That’s an enormous figure. The survivors of these plagues reorganized and regrouped as best they could but their way of life as it had existed prior to “contact” was shattered.

A second factor regarding contact with Europeans that destroyed native culture less dramatically but just as effectively was that the natives had no such notion as a Protestant (or Puritan) Work Ethic. This idea of work, materialism, and “progress” would be forced upon them and used as a terse, discriminatory judgment against almost all native peoples by the various churches and would eventually marginalize the natives into a twilight of non-existence.

The Pemigewasset Wilderness (the Pemi) makes me think of moose (Alces alces) and the fact that for several decades, the 1960s, 70's and even the 1980s, there were no moose, or maybe safer to say hardly any moose, in the Pemi. During those years every time I traversed the Pemi I looked for signs of moose but found none. Then in the mid 1970's they appeared in the northern areas of the WMNF and now, of course, there's a large, healthy population of moose in every corner of the forest. So that's another mystery. Why did they disappear for all those decades and what brought them back? What changed? The population itself? It's size? The number of males to females? A lessening of fear of humans? None of the above and other factors?

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