By Michael Caduto
In Abenaki tradition the waxing of Kikas Kisos, the Planting Moon, marks the beginning of the gardening season. Photo credit: NASA Photo
The beginning of the gardening season is a good time to pause and appreciate traditional Abenaki culture and to honor their homeland, which they call Ndakinna, Our Land. Included in this vast region of the Northeast are the places we now call Vermont and New Hampshire. This beautiful environment that we all know and love is here because of the traditional wisdom and stewardship of the Abenaki and their ancestors, whose deep roots reach back more than 11,000 years.
In the seasonal Abenaki cycle, gardening commences with the waxing of Kikas Kisos, the Planting Moon. How were the early gardens of Ndakinna created? How was it possible for the Abenaki to sustain their crops year after year? Often the garden was begun during the time of Penibagos, the Leaf Falling Moon. Stone axes were used to scarify the bark at the bottom of each tree and a ring of fire was lit around the base. After the fire had burned down, the charred wood was chopped away and another fire lit.
As with the creation of dugout canoes, the cycle of burning and chopping continued until the tree was felled. Fire was used for clearing throughout much of Ndakinna. Larger trees were removed, then brush was burned along with the branches of fallen trees. Occasionally, in small gardens, trees were only girdled and they stopped leafing out in a year or two when the tree exhausted its store of food. But this practice was labor intensive and dangerous; whenever the wind blew or heavy rains soaked the dead wood, branches broke off and fell onto the garden below.
Soil was prepared by breaking up the roots of ferns, shrubs and wildflowers with axes and hoes. Sharp-edged materials were attached to wooden handles to make hoes, including axe-shaped stones, the shoulder blades of moose and deer and, along the coast, large clam shells. Tired soil was occasionally sweetened with crushed shells and sometimes, after the same soil had been planted for a few years and fertility needed to be replenished, a shad or alewife was placed in each seed hill for fertilizer. But the common, long-term management practice was to move a garden every 10 or 12 years when the fertility of the soil became depleted.
Traditionally seeds were planted when the danger of frost was past, or when the tender, emerald young leaves of the white oak were as large as a mouse’s ear. Men and boys helped around the garden but women and girls did much of the work. Horticulturalists throughout the region grew many of the same crops, including corn, beans, squash, pumpkins and gourds. Grown together, corn, beans and squash form a simple, elegant garden ecosystem. Corn stalks provide support for the beans to climb while the roots of beans, which are legumes, enrich the soil with nitrogen that fertilizes the corn. In between the corn, the broad leaves of both squash and beans shade the soil, which helps to retain moisture and control weeds. One variety called pebonki skamon or north corn, produced ears that matured in only 90 days.
Each family grew and harvested 30 to 40 bushels of corn and other crops. A delicacy that was much-anticipated in late summer, when the corn was sweet but had not gone by to the starchy stage, was a juicy ear of roasted fresh or “green” corn. Corn that was not harvested green was allowed to mature until later in the season. After the harvest, corn and beans were dried. The mandible of a white-tailed deer was commonly used to shell corn from the cob. Squash and pumpkins were cut into strips and also dried for storage. Crops were stored in pits lined with grass or bark. Great quantities of dried corn were ground into meal using a stone mortar and a pestle made from either hardwood or stone. Mortars were also fashioned from a piece of log several feet long with the center hollowed out down to within a few inches of the bottom.
Close to where the families gardened, babies swayed from blanket hammocks that were hung just above the ground from a sturdy but supple overhanging branch. These arboreal cradles were gently rocked by the passing hand of each early summer breeze.
This article is adapted with permission from the author’s book, A Time Before New Hampshire: The Story of a Land and Native Peoples (Brandeis Univ. Press/Chicago Univ. Press).