A (long-promised) follow-up to the inaugural post “Red Pine I” of March 2015, all of 5 years ago…
Pasaakw, the red pine. At first glance, this is a very straightforward tree, a simple tree; it rises uniformly from the ground, self-pruned of its dead branches, clean-trunked, to a compact and symmetrical crown. Often in groves of its fellows, it stands very tall and perfectly straight, the ground beneath carpeted in needles and clear of understory. But “what lies beneath” can tell a much more interesting and meaningful story: in Aln8ba8dwaw8gan, the Western Abenaki language, it signifies the “swollen tree” or, more closely, “tree full of…” A closer look at this fullness – this internalized richness of self – may help us to relate to this particular one a little closer.
Red pine (referred to idiomatically as yellow pine at the time) was reported as being predominant and of exceptionally superior growth, at the meadows in Sokwakik where two colonial forts were built: Fort Dummer in the southeast corner of what became Brattleboro, and at Fort Number 2 on the Great Meadows of Putney. These fortifications on the west side of the Kwenitekw were built of the selfsame arrow-straight pine that grew on the the sandy plains where they were situated: Fort Dummer in 1724, and two successive forts on the Great Meadow, in 1740 and 1755.
Benjamin Homer Hall, in his classic 1858 work History of Eastern Vermont: From Its Earliest Settlement to the Close of the Eighteenth Century, states of Fort Dummer that “The fort was built of yellow pine timber, which then grew in great abundance on the meadow lands.” Upriver on Putney’s Great Meadow, Hall describes how, in 1755, area settlers built a fort that “…was in shape oblong, about one hundred twenty by eighty feet, and was built with yellow pine timber about six inches thick, and laid up about ten feet high.”
A relic section of timber from Fort Dummer, in the collections at The Governor [Dummer]’s Academy, Byfield, MA. The appearance of the straight, wide grain in the photograph does evoke the growth habit of red pine timber.
It was no mere coincidence that these spectacular pine groves were found in these specific places. Today, in Vermont, we tend to think of red pine as naturally occurring on dry mountaintops and ridges, and, in a more deliberate manner, found in large, regimented plantations that date from popular soil conservation efforts in the last century. But the species prevalence and distribution of today’s landscapes can be deceiving; it wasn’t always like this. Before Vermont’s vast forests were nearly completely clearcut by the rapacious demands of “civilization”, the red pine flourished along the rivers. There are reasons for this.
Abenaki people, in common with many other indigenous groups, traditionally deploy fire as a landscape management tool, primarily in the river bottomlands. Maintaining open edge habitat encourages the diverse plant and animal communities that flourish there. Controlled burning is also used to clear the fertile alluvial floodplains for agriculture, in the form of both plantings of adapted crops such as corn, beans, squash, and tobacco, as well as permaculture of naturally occurring species including groundnut, Jerusalem artichoke, and berries. These fine sandy, alluvial depositions provide a receptive, readily-worked seedbed, and a more temperate, extended, low-elevation growing season. Controlled burns help to keep the land accessible and sunny, returning minerals to the soil, and provided a level, readily-utilized settlement space adjacent to n’sibo, the home river. European settlers made ample note of this practice when they came on the scene – a quote from a narrative by the Hon. Charles K. Field:
The intervales and meadows at Fort Dummer, upon West River, and at the Asylum farm, were found entirely bare of forest trees. Such was the fact with all the meadows on the Connecticut River at the time of the first settlement of New England. The Indians burned them over every year, and used them for planting grounds.
Here’s an interesting thing about red pine: it actually likes fire. It has several adaptations that dispose it toward success with regard to surface burning. Its seeds require a mineral soil surface to germinate, that is, one in which the duff has been removed/burnt and the bare surface exposed. This also removes competing shade-cover, even if not very tall, another prerequisite for successful red pine sprouting and growth. Trees that reach seed-bearing (thus regenerative) age tend to survive fires that might damage a younger stand. The higher crowns and self-limbing trunks also lend themselves to higher fire survival rates. Finally, the thick, platy bark of red pine is one of the most fire-resistant in the northern temperate forest; it ranks third, after pitch pine and chestnut oak. The right fire at the right time is exactly what a red pine appreciates.
In general, red pine prefers the sandy, well-drained soils of outwash plains, along with a good dose of moisture. These locations also tend to be open and sunny. The raised alluvial river meadows of the mid-Kwenitekw easily meet those characteristics – at least historically; nowadays, many of them are flooded by hydroelectric impoundments, or developed, or farmed intensively. It is not a surprise, then, that the wolhanak, the intervales, sustained impressive stands of red pine, one hundred feet tall and three feet thick. No wonder the merchants of New Haven, CT sent a party all the way up to Great Meadow in 1732 to harvest that legendary grove.
Kchi Mskodak (the Great Meadow) in Putney, today.
So, what about the name pasaakw? What causes this tree to be so “swollen”… what is it “full of”, after all? The simple and obvious answer is: pitch. The binomial, Western botanical name is Pinus resinosa, in acknowledgement of that very fact. The resin can be gathered on the bark surface, where there has been an injury or a parasitic insect has drilled a hole, as is similar with many other conifers. Why would one gather resin? It is used as a waterproof sealant, for bark canoes and containers (try removing it from tools or your hands with water – it requires an alcohol solvent) or as an adhesive/glue, for adhering materials together, such as a stone point on a wooden arrow shaft. Red pine will produce copious amounts of pitch to seal and heal a wound, whether from fire or penetration.
There is good evidence that red pine groves were intentionally, culturally-modified by Algonquian peoples on a regular basis, to provide a ready source of pitch for sealing bark canoes. A stand along a regularly-travelled watercourse may have been maintained and adapted through modification (wounding the trunks to produce more pitch), in order to keep a dependable supply of this raw material handy for bark canoe construction and maintenance. It may be no coincidence that the broad meadow on the east side of the Kwenitekw (in today’s town of Westmoreland, NH) – and between both Ft. Dummer and Fort No. 2 – is called Canoe Meadow. That’s another story for another night.