Water Closet for November 11, 2016
[pullquote]”In Barkskins, Proulx 81, still brilliant and mentally lively, tries to tell too much of all she knows about the fate of the trees in North America.”[/pullquote]In grammar school our teachers passed on what they’d been taught when they were in grammar school about the history of the land we call New England, eastern Canada, and the Maritimes. Our textbooks said little that was true about the Old Worlders from France and England who claimed a vast wilderness sparsely populated by “savages.” Those well adapted natives were hardly mentioned at all. The old Closeteer at Amesbury High School was a “Pow Wow Indian” for four years. For the next 70 years he and whole generations learned that there were many people here before novel diseases to which they had little resistance struck hard. The misnamed Indians had hundreds of groups, often fluid, called nations with tribes and clans within. Charles Mann, in his controversial book 1491, writes there were far more than just tens of thousands of people as had been often estimated. His research has tens of millions in the western hemisphere before Columbus arrived. Convenient low guesses by explorers and early settlers with vested interests were sent back home to justify colonization and exploitation. Historians with the seeds of Manifest Destiny in their minds carried these implied rationalizations on. In early confrontations large percentages of native populations were laid low directly or by disease and cultural disruptions. In the northeast their lost lands became “New France” and “New England” along the coasts and up major river valleys. These so called “wildernesses” were savannah-like open lands of oaks, hickories, and chestnuts shading a rich mix of herbaceous plants and bushes, many with edible berries. Along the rivers, thus near means of log transportation were great pines much sought after by the new people. In the vast interior were dense forests pocked with clearings created by Indian and lightning fires and storms. The “New World” was not one of impenetrable lonely jungles as dramatized. To the occupiers it was a continent that needed to be domesticated according to the interpreted word of the newcomers’ god.
Throughout the open and shaded lands were footpaths never marked by the tracks of hoofed domestic animals or wheeled vehicles. Before bridges the networks of streams and rivers were crossed on fallen logs, beaver dams, and fords. These waterways for canoes transporting goods and people became the loggers’ highways for spring drives. There were no stone walls here in the north. Then, after just 200 years of colonization, thousands of miles of walls marked the bounds of mostly treeless private property. Built mainly in the 18th century most of the walls are still here. The Middleton Council on Aging /Conservation Commission Friday hikers crossed a dozen on a three mile hike through the woods last month. After 300 years, the trees are back.
And speaking of trees, the Closeteer recently borrowed Annie Proulx’s latest book, a historical novel entitled Barkskins, from the library. You may well remember her first book The Shipping News, a best seller and movie two decades ago, or have seen the film “Brokeback Mountain” based on one of her stories. In Barkskins, Proulx 81, still brilliant and mentally lively, tries to tell too much of all she knows about the fate of the trees in North America. Starting at the time the French arrived with iron axes, her reach over the next five centuries and the research behind it are astounding. But before reading more search your shed or cellar for a rusting axe your ancestors may have left behind. The Closeteer still keeps one sharp perhaps in memory of the days when he cut cordwood as a farm lad with axe and bucksaw. He, like many of Proulx’s choppers, took pride in swinging an axe. If you have a file, put the best edge on it that you can. Find a tree you’d planned to cut with a saw. With your sharpened axe try to fell the tree. Most of you won’t even get through the felling cut you’ll be so tuckered out. Now a mental task even harder. Imagine trees being cut by axes, many very large, shading millions of acres from here to the prairies and tundra. Those not cut for lumber were girdled, pulled down after their roots rotted, and burned. Smoke filled the skies over vast areas of the continent for months. Tough brained Annie doesn’t tire; she goes on for 700 pages, relieved somewhat by cross cut saws in the 19th century. Had she included a bibliography of references and interviews over her long lifetime we guess there would be another 300 pages. Fast and easy chain saws propelled by light motors didn’t come until the mid 20th century. Now there is little contest in people versus trees.
In her rambling novel covering half a millennium, Annie Proulx’s vivid descriptions are often higher in hyperbole than her trees. She has a favorite Métis hunter carrying a 400 pound bear carcass for miles. The families of hybridizing Mi-kmaks, French, and English of her exaggerated characters branch out over a score of generations around the Atlantic, up its rivers, then on west. Many in her often dysfunctional families directly and indirectly sent millions of logs down streams to ports or railroad spurs where ships and trains took them away. The other day a waggish Stream Teamer when hearing the phrase dysfunctional family asked, “Whose isn’t?” Annie would ask the same. The businessmen among them left their axes behind and became wood mongers on a devastating scale who ruled their empires out of ocean and lake ports including Boston and Chicago. Due to hybridization and the forceful imposition of new acquisitive cultures the Mi-kmak and other Indians dependent on forests disappeared within a few generations. Their members’ miseries are the sad networks that tie Proulx’s chapters together. After occupation by the tree cutters and in the first century of loss, descendents still vaguely remembered woodland ways and wished they had them back. Even after assimilation, as the percentage of Mi’kmak DNA in their genomes declined, they sensed something was missing. Proulx is not on the side of the new comers and their descendants who have long seen trees as money, not sources of life almost as important as air and water. In Steam Teamer discussions among relatively outdoor types we too often feel something is missing. Imagine what it was and still is like for the few Indians left. In South Dakota many now protest, not against tree cutting, but digging in sacred land. Forests were sacred to many long ago nations.
The importance of this spread-too-thin novel are not the sentences and paragraphs invariably good with Annie Proulx, but rather the history of cutting still largely untold or at least not studied by many. She tells of the times of her French and English ancestors going back to 1650 in her own family’s case, in a dramatic way. The newcomers were tough in different ways in business boardrooms, in filthy logging camps, and in their carelessness. Whether French, Indian or English they became American capitalists or exploited workers with a vengeance in a lumber industry that swept the trees across the continent into buildings, ships, and railroad ties. They rolled over the natives who were in the way. They intermarried which greatly accelerated the process. We recommend this monumental attempt at shady American history to you. As literature it fails. Fans of Annie Proulx like the Closeteer find this hard to say about a giant among original writers and feisty teachers. By the way, he equates her with another Annie, Annie Dillard, who pleasantly surprised with her originality in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and then much later, wrote a long historical novel that disappointed. The latter is The Living about big Washington state trees around Puget Sound and the pioneers who cut them for wood and open land, Indians be dammed. But take your time, wade on through Barkskins, endure the hardships and losses, hardly hinted at in our schools. You are in for a re-education. Take some of her wild tales with a grain of salt at the same time recognizing the author in using them gets close to the truth when describing ambitious men here and abroad who took over with the blessings of absent kings and succeeded property-wise while most of their workers simply died and were forgotten. Nothing new in that. Her book reminds us once again, perhaps in hope we might do better. Then again, she may as a good history teacher and lover of trees, just be letting the chips fall where they may.
WATER RESOURCE AND CONSERVATION INFORMATION
FOR MIDDLETON, BOXFORD AND TOPSFIELD`
|Precipitation Data* for Month of:||Aug||Sep||Oct||Nov|
|30 Year Normal (1981 – 2010) Inches||3.37||3.77||4.40||4.55|
|2016 Central Watershed Actual||2.14||1.85||6.81||0.1**as of Nov 4|
Ipswich R. Flow Rate (S. Middleton USGS Gage) in Cubic Feet/ Second (CFS):
For Nov 4, 2016 Normal . . . 24 CFS Current Rate . . .20 CFS
*Danvers Water Filtration Plant, Lake Street, Middleton is the source for actual precipitation data thru Oct.
** Middleton Stream Team is the source of actual precipitation data for Nov.
Normals data is from the National Climatic Data Center.
THE WATER CLOSET is provided by the Middleton Stream Team: www.middletonstreamteam.org or <MSTMiddletonMA@gmail.com> or (978) 777-4584