Little brother gray fox, found on the snow-bound Wantastekw in his last hours after a sad encounter with an automobile on the nearby highway. In Western Abenaki (WA), a fox is known as w8kwses. I have found the specific name péquawus for the gray fox in the Wampanoag language (source: Eliot); in Aln8ba8dwaw8gan (WA) perhaps this transcribes to pokwses -“small fox or small four-legged animal?”
A mature grove of red pine, pasaakw, thriving atop Black Mountain in Dummerston, Vermont.
Written history tells us that when the British first ventured up the Kwanitekw in the early 1700s, they found a glorious stand of yellow pine covering K’tsi Mskodak, the Great Meadows of Putney, Vermont. George Sheldon’s History of Northfield (MA) recounts “The Indians had not burnt over the country above West River; and the meadows in Putney and vicinity were covered with a magnificent growth of yellow pines.” This fertile floodplain, encompassing 500 acres of well-drained sandy loam, projects eastward toward New Hampshire nearly a mile, with the Connecticut River sweeping in a broad arc around its fertile expanse. Today, we think of yellow pine as a group of North American species found from the mid-Atlantic states southward. Consequently, this description seems completely incongruous – until we recognize the intricate and evolving bond between a language and a people.
Red pine derives its common name from the more or less reddish cast to its loose, flaky bark, often with more color toward the top or crown.
It turns out that “yellow pine” was the eighteenth-century British settler’s vernacular for the red pine, Pinus resinosa; a web search turns up the fact that Northern Yellow Pine is, in fact, a term still used for salvaged, antique red pine which had been harvested back in those days. Red pine is notably denser and thus harder than its more common cousin white pine, and was used for flooring and shipbuilding extensively; early on, it was eagerly sought out by the white settlers and then, in keeping with colonial attitudes, clearcut. The stand at K’tsi Mskodak certainly caught the attention of the merchants in New London, Connecticut, already a well-established center for shipbuilding. In 1732, a party of seventy men was sent upriver to cut the tall, arrow-straight pines for the use of the King’s Navy – it was British law that all such trees were Royal property. Accounts indicate that the trees were cut and floated down the river continuing into the following year. Save for Massachusetts’ frontier outpost 16 miles downriver at Fort Dummer (at the south edge of what is now Brattleboro, Vermont), this was an exceedingly rare venture into the northern unknown by the English interlopers.
As one digs deeper into the national character of the Americans, one sees that they have sought the value of everything in this world only in the answer to this single question: how much money will it bring in?
Alexis de Tocqueville 1831
On the other hand, the native people, the Abenakiak, knew this place and its grove of trees well. In the Western Abenaki language, this stalwart of the forest was called “pasaakw” – pah-sah-ah-kwah – with two morphemes, pasa + akw combining in prototypical Algonquian polysynthetic style. The suffix -akw is seen often in the naming of trees, meaning a rigid object, or perhaps more specifically in this instance, a “woody stem.” The prefix pasa- is a bit trickier: it seems to translate loosely as “swollen.” To bolster that approximation, the more common descriptive prefix psa- means “to be full of.” This generates a compounded word that means “swollen tree” or “tree full of” and conjures the meaning behind the naming. My thanks – wlioni! – to Jesse Bruchac for his help in extracting the origins of this word; I will be citing his insight often.
In Red Pine II, we will look at the relationship between these two original inhabitants of N’dakinna, the land of the Sokwaki, the southernmost band of Abenakiak. Whence the name pasaakw? How did these two relate to one another? How did the coming of the new people impact this affinity? What was the nature of this divide?
Twilight over the Kwanitekw below Wantastegok Wajo: looking north in the Moose Hunting month, Mozokas.
The February sun sets over the low terrace where Fort Hinsdale once stood, on the north point above the meeting of the Connecticut and Ash Swamp Brook.
Confluence means ‘a flowing together.’ In a literal sense, it is about rivers. But it’s often used to talk about the coming together of ideas or cultures as well. Swirls, eddies, currents, cycles, transitions… Nothing changes, yet everything changes. It is said one can never step in the same river twice. Perhaps the message is not that all things are changing so that we cannot encounter them twice, but something much more subtle and profound: it is that some things stay the same only by changing. A river is a river because it is moving and shifting. Here constancy and change are not opposed but inextricably connected.
On seeing: The boundaries and labels we encounter on our modern-day maps are relatively recent political and historical constructs springing from a Western worldview. It can be difficult to view the land clearly with this tangled overlay of demarcations, polities, and hierarchies. If one can see beyond the arbitrary notions that this is Vermont, and that is New Hampshire, for example, and begin to think in terms of watersheds, and in terms of hundreds, if not thousands of years, then the true face of the country begins to appear. This is the Dawnland: N’dakinna. A land from before time, a land that begins anew each day. The same water that flows here now has coursed down the valley of the Kwanitekw for thousands of years, to the ocean and back, in towering clouds with crashing thunder and twisting, silvery rivulets wending down the mountainsides to return to the gathering valley below.