K8g8gwibakw: the Wintergreen, Teaberry, or Checkerberry

wintergreen-brattleboro-vt-nov

Many are familiar with this cheerful, diminutive forest creeper (Gaultheria procumbens); it’s often one of the few wild plants the average contemporary northeasterner can identify. I grew up knowing this tiny relative, taught by my grandparents about its wonderful aroma as we picked a leaf or a berry to chew on while we walked in the pine barrens and oak scrub of eastern Long Island (NY). That it was growing under pine and oak is a good reminder of its preference for acidic soils. It is a readily encountered neighbor here in Sokwakik as well, in the hills above the Kwenitekw under similar conditions.wintergreen-hinsdale-2018

The name wintergreen is easily understood: the shiny, leathery leaves are evergreen year-round and it also holds its berries through the snow. Though a little dry, the berries have the same eponymous “oil of wintergreen” flavor as the leaves. The scent of this essential oil is primarily due to methyl salicylate, which metabolizes to salicylic acid, a common non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID). This is the same compound derived from aspirin, which is acetylsalicylic acid.  As a medicinal tea, it is best known for pain relief – an analgesic  for rheumatic symptoms, headache, fever, sore throat, and various aches and pains, along with treating kidney ailments and as a blood tonic. Otherwise, leaves are used traditionally for tea as a beverage and for flavoring in cooking. The berries are, of course, an edible nibble food much of the year.

Other common names are: teaberry, for the above reasons, and also the source of the name of Clarke’s Teaberry chewing gum – another fond childhood memory associated with my grandparents; checkerberry, for the red fruit’s fancied resemblance to that of the Old World chequer tree (Sorbus torminalis), but the resemblance ends there; partridgeberry, a common name I prefer to use for Mitchella repens, which is often found in damp sites under conifers – often hemlock; and boxberry, which seems to be provoked by another awkward fancied resemblance to the European Box tree (Buxus sempervirens), which has evergreen leaves in a somewhat similar shape, but again, the resemblance ends there.

wintergreen-chesterfield-2018

The urn-shaped, downturned flowers of waxy white (sometimes pinkish) appear pendant below the leaves in June or July and mature into bright red berries (10 mm) in late summer or autumn. Often it is the berries that catch one’s eyes first. While an extensive spread of wintergreen may appear to be a collective of happily cohabiting individuals, the colony may actually be a clonal extension of a single plant, spreading by shallow rhizomes beneath the forest duff. Also, these short (5-20 cm) clumping plants are classified as a sub-shrub similar to many other members of the heath family, and not as a tender herb, due to the woody nature of the lower stems. Not all wintergreen is found under the forest canopy; they may also be found out in the open if the soil is acidic enough, and may turn a deep wine red (pigments known as anthocyanins) as a protective measure against strong sunlight.

wintergreen-wantastiquet-early-spring-2018

The Abenaki name for wintergreen is k8g8gwibakw or k8g8gowibakw. There are a couple of ways to understand the meanings, and thus the inspiration for the naming. Gordon Day gives the translation variously (keep in mind that “k” is often interchanged with “g”, especially with Day’s orthography) in his dictionary as:

  • g8g8gowibagw – a sawtoothed leaf (the wintergreen plant)
  • g8g8gowizak – little sawtoothed ones (a variant for wintergreen)
  • g8g8gw8bagwiz- little sawtooth leaf (alternate name for wintergreen)
  • g8gowibagw – a dentate leaf (a wintergreen plant)

Here, “g8g8g-” means sawtoothed or dentate, describing the leaf margin; “-owi-” creates an adverbial form, in the sawtooth way; and “-bagw” describes a leaf, and a plant by extension. And indeed the leaf is sawtoothed, although very subtly (see photos above); each marginal tooth actually has a very small hair or spine, which may suggest the root “g8wi-” also, which signifies a thorn, or pricker, or quill (as with a porcupine).

Interestingly, the Penobscot name for wintergreen is kαkάkəwipakʷ which is raven[berry]plant, from kάkαko – the word for raven. The inspiration here is that the berries serve as food for the ravens, who are also frequenting the pine-covered mountainsides. Thus, the words for wintergreen in the two closely related languages (Western and Eastern Abenaki/Penobscot) are near-homophones, but with 2 different points of origin. It is thought the raven’s name is onomatopoetic, simulating its call. It is interesting that the raven also has a sawtoothed ruff of feathers at its throat. Other languages assign ravenberry to a different plant, red bearberry being one. There are many different trails to arrive at a destination.

 

 

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Pembroke-Grant Brook Hill, Squakheag/Northfield

pembroke-grant brook hill northfield

Mid-December, 2018. Forty seven degrees, sun is shining.

Kejegigihlasisak w’m8jalinton – chickadees singing.

Remembering again for the first time.

N’mikwalm8nowak – we remember them.

Passamaquoddy Tribe Named Project Developer of the Year

Maine North Woods Passamaquoddy

In exchange for maintaining a healthy forest, the Passamaquoddy Tribe in Maine is being rewarded by environmental polluters more than 3,000 miles away. Confused? Don’t be. The tribe earned national recognition and is developing new economic opportunities while preserving its environmental legacy by participating in an innovative carbon offset program in California.

On April 20, the Passamaquoddy Tribe received an award at the Navigating the American Carbon World Conference in San Francisco for registering the most offset credits with the Climate Action Reserve during 2016. The Project Developer of the Year award recognizes one of the largest tribally owned cap-and-trade projects in the United States. The tribe has registered the removal of 3.2 million metric tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through measured tree growth over a 98,000-acre project area on tribal land in Maine.

Read the full article at Indian Country Today.

Guided Walk in Vernon’s Black Gum Swamps

vernon vt black gum swamp

A trio of experts will lead a guided walk to visit one or more of the Black Gum Swamps in Vernon’s J. Maynard Miller Town Forest on Friday, April 28 from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.

This is an opportunity for people who may never have visited the Black Gum Swamps to see them, and for anyone interested to gain a better understanding of their ecological uniqueness and their value to the town.

Leading this excursion will be:

  • William C. “Bill” Guenther, Windham County Forester with the Vermont Department of Forests, Parks & Recreation
  • Laura Lapierre, Wetlands Program Director, Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation
  • Eric Sorenson, Natural Community Ecologist, Wildlife Division, Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department

Together, these three experts form an amazing team to tell us about this relatively unknown treasure in our town. Some of the black gum trees (Nyssa sylvatica) are more than 400 years old. This is the only place in Vermont this species of tree can be found. Typically the black gum is found south of the Mason-Dixon line, where it is known as the tupelo or black tupelo. One black gum tree in the Vernon forest was measured, some years ago, to be 435 years old. At another location in southern New Hampshire, a black gum was found to be 562 years old. These trees are not only among the oldest trees in New England, but they may be the oldest broadleaf deciduous trees in North America. Read more about the Town Forest and Black Gum Swamps here.

Because of the presence of these trees, the DEC has proposed to designate the swamps as Class I wetlands (they are now Class II) in order to provide greater protection to these natural areas. There have been some questions and concerns in the town about how this may affect the use of the town forest.

Laura Lapierre of the DEC (see above) plans to schedule a public meeting about the proposed reclassification in Vernon in early May (date, time and place to be announced), as an opportunity to learn more about what Class I status entails and to address concerns and questions the town may have.

If you are interested in the swamps, or in the reclassification process, please mark your calendar and join this tour so you can get a first-hand view, and most importantly, first-hand information from the experts who will lead the tour.

Directions: from Pond Road, turn up Huckle Hill Road, then right onto Basin Road. At the end of Basin Road, park in the roundabout; the tour will depart from there. The nearest swamp is about a quarter mile away and entails a climb of about 175 feet over that distance. The tour may proceed to other swamps but it would be possible to head back from the first one, which is known as the “High” swamp. Bring appropriate footgear and a bottle of water.

Going, or interested? Sign up on the Facebook Event page for the hike.

For additional information contact Martin Langeveld, email or 802-380-0226.

W8bimizi: The Metaphor of the Chestnut

w8bimizi-american-chestnut-sprout

American chestnut perseveres on the slopes of Wantastegok Wajo.

W8bimizi: w8bi- “white” plus -mizi “woody plant” = “white woody plant”

The metaphor of the chestnut: The tree may appear lifeless or decaying, but the roots are alive and ready to sprout. Indigenous presence here in Sokwakik may be thought of in this light. Although there may not be much that meets the (untrained) eye, it is all “still here”, awaiting only a return to reciprocity: recognition, acknowledgement, relationship.