Jack looked back at the work he had accomplished this morning. A little weary, he leaned on his hoe. His hands had formed a new blister or two from the repetitive act of chopping at the dirt while preparing the soil for this year’s crop. He saw a series of small garden hills, each about 4 feet wide and three feet apart. Each hill was surrounded by the natural plant community. Only the exact area to be planted had been prepared.
The work that morning had been hard. Jack was attempting to plant a traditional Abenaki garden. Jack had been using this area of several years. It was near the edge of a stream in an old pasture owned by one of his neighbors. The area received pretty good sunlight and had reasonably rich soil from sediments placed from the overflowing waters every couple of years. Each mound of earth was formed out of the native soils by chopping the native vegetation by hand, removing the desiccated plants and roots, and shaping the topsoil into a small, round hill. The perimeter of each hill had a shallow trench around it to gather and hold water.
Jack had done a lot of ice fishing this past winter and saved many of the fish that were undesirable for eating. The fish had been saved whole in his freezer and on this day three of those frozen fish had been placed under each mound. Jack wondered if the raccoons known to inhabit the area would try to dig these dead fish up, destroying his love of labor in the process.
About three years ago Jack’s nephew Adam had kindled his interest in their Native American ancestry. Their family had long ignored many of the Abenaki customs while embracing the European customs from some of his other ancestors. Jack’s aunt, which was Adam’s grandmother, still practiced many of the traditional native ways. She loved to tell Abenaki legends bringing new life to simple, everyday concepts. For years Jack rejected this Abenaki lore. He thought it was time to move on. It was less difficult to be the same and more difficult to be different.
All of this rejection of Native American culture changed one day while watching Adam play lacrosse. Adam had a real affinity for the game and would play without abandon. He was incredibly graceful as he ran down the field with the lacrosse stick, volleying the ball back and forth with a team mate. As Jack watched Adam he realized at that moment Adam was as free as a deer in the forest.
After the game, while driving home, Jack mentioned to Adam that he looked like a natural at the sport. Adam, without a moment of reflection, replied that it was “in his blood”. Somehow this resonated with Jack and he began to look at things differently. Perhaps it was easier to swim upstream if that is what you were meant to do.
That winter Jack approached his aunt about how to get back in touch with his Abenaki roots. She said nothing but went out back to the shed. She came back with a hoe and handed it to Jack.
“Now, you do the rest”, she said.
Jack was puzzled by her response and for a few weeks thought about her response. What did he know about gardening, particularly Abenaki gardening? With no where else to turn Jack went to the local library. There he found quite a bit of information about Native American agriculture. He learned about planting corn. He learned about the importance of corn to the tribes in the northeast. He learned how it was planted and prepared. With this information Jack set out that spring to create a traditional Abenaki garden.
This was Jack’s third year of this endeavor. Jack had learned to look forward to the spring planting. There was something comforting, even meditative about establishing a food supply with the beginning of each new year.
As was the tradition, each hill received a circle of corn seeds. The corn seeds were not all the same variety. Jack preferred to plant traditional corn; some were yellow, some were blue, some were red, and some were mixed colors. Western culture had changed corn tremendously. While corn was hybridized to become sweeter and sweeter it lost much of its real nutritional value. For instance, corn that was blue and red has much greater nutritional value. Colored corn contains anthocyanins. These flavonoids are antioxidants which help our bodies remove free radicals; those elements that are known to cause cancer in humans. Further, blue and red corn had starches that broke down into sugars much more slowly than sweet, yellow corns. This is valuable for sustained energy. Red and blue corns can sustain a person’s energy for a prolonged period. Sweet corn provides a quick blush of energy and then a crash.
As Jack planted the corn he liked to think about what he had learned in the library. The origin of corn was a complete mystery. There is no wild corn. Corn only exists as a cultivated crop. Paleobotanists believe that corn may have been hybridized by an original corn plant and another grass known as teosinate in Central America. Archaeologists have found evidence of the use of corn by natives as far back as 9000 years ago. Corn was a dominant food supply in the middle Americas for centuries. Eventually with the advent of cross cultural contact the seed spread both northward and southward. In North America corn spread to what is now known as the southwest U.S. by 1500 B.C. It took another thousand years to reach the Southeast U.S. and still another 500 years to become a staple in northeast Native American cultures.
Corn was a commodity in early American cultures. The seed could be dried and therefore it travelled well. It could be stored, creating a viable food source in the cold, winter months. And, most important, it could be traded as a valuable commodity. Corn actually became a common trade item, almost a form of money. It was traded for pelts and other necessities from tribe to tribe, and even from nation to nation. Along with beans, another important food commodity that could be dried and stored, it changed Native American culture.
Jack planted squash and beans in each earthen mound, as well. The squash was planted at the same time as the corn. The beans where planted about two weeks later when the corn was thinned. The beans would eventually climb on the corn and the squash would act as a ground cover keeping weeds out of the small agricultural hills and preserving the soil nutrients for the vegetable crop.
As Jack looked over his Native American garden he saw irregular mounds of exposed earth. The mounds were not placed in neat rows but rather they were randomly positioned in a somewhat alternate pattern. Jack imagined what they would look like near the end of the growing season. The mounds would not be visible buried under the tall corn plants that had beans climbing on the stalks and underneath trailing runners of the large leaved squash plants. From one such garden plot he would receive sustenance for much of the winter. So much that he would share it with his aunt and Adam’s family.
From where Jack was standing he could see just a little bit of himself and his native ancestry. He could see the history of things, not as they actually occurred, but as they actually are.
Written for www.wildramblings.com in June 2009