We are at this park by a lake. The pines stretch so high in waxing heat soaked with their spice. Grandma’s strong hand at the old cobalt enameled kettle, the roses of her summer dress waving, chipmunks stealing crumbs among the roots. Through a few blue windows, thin clouds slowly pass. Splashing in the lake with my feet, held aloft by my father’s ruddy arms. Weentxipahkihele, leaves are praying. A storm cloud closes overhead; Ratiwe:ras, Thunderers.*

*Weentxipahkiekele is an Unami Lenapeuw (Delaware) adverbial compound referring to the rustling leaves as the sound of a person praying and figures in the medicine name of a renowned elder. Ratiwe:ras are Kanien’kehaka (Mohawk) Thunderers, with whom the author’s clan and name are associated.

My earliest clear memory recurs as a dream across my early years, unclear, unsettling; dreams charged with memory of Lake St. Claire, Corn Island, Taghkanic. My grandma’s sister told me, “You belong to the forest,” which we understand as reciprocal.

I’m just a year old in Grandma’s snapshot in Horseheads, New York, laughing in my Grandpa’s arms, next to a row of serviceberries at the family orchards. Back home, Dad and I always got yearling whips of osiers, birches, pin oaks, dogwoods, and pinxterblooms at the Agricultural Extension Office. Mom would gently scold me when I picked wildflowers for her: “Never pick a wildflower unless you see a thousand more just like it.” Our land flourished, though our ’70s city-fled neighbors did not “dig it.” My father would never allow non-native plants around our yard, except the apple orchard, where we passed his last hours.

Belonging is found in continuity and reciprocity. Fourteen thousand years ago, the forest was not here, but we were. As the Younger Dryas world yielded semi-arid tundra, that tiny glacier-hugging flower left its pollen behind and we cached our artful chert spirit points alongside, tutoring this generation on land legacy. For centuries, our history suffered the tortures of supremacism, being told by colonizers, revised repeatedly at the whim of strangers, only to be restored and vindicated in recent decades by the crumbs of empirical evidence kicked up in the academic fray.

Soon, wet and cool conditions brought the taiga, Our Mother’s great, biomass-dense circumboreal forest. “Zombie fires” now herald the demise of this last wilderness. As disproportionate warming sharply increases thunderstorms in northern latitudes, wildfires also persist through the winter, reigniting come spring. Pikangikum Anishnabe Elders say that Peeneysee Eshkotay (guardian[-priests] of fire) send fire down with their eyes to renew the taiga, a unique superdense forest type that does not cycle well because beaver dislike conifers, while cold and lack of beetles together retard decay.

We watched the taiga retreat upslope and northward as warmth and dryness burned on the land. We bade farewell to the mastodon, cave bear, and ground sloth—remembered in Lenape narratives like “Yahquahwee” (derived from ehahwagawi, “it has curved ‘antlers’”), “Great Bear,” and “Naked Bear” (which is possibly giant ground sloth)—but only after much bloodshed and gouging of the land with Ehahwagawi’s tusks. Battle blood and the deep stomping of great beasts are remembered in cranberries and the pothole ponds around which they grow (pakwim, pacim, Lenapeuw, Nashawe). Tradition says that the tuskers took their refuge in the far Northwest, as confirmed at Wrangell Island, where a marooned population survived until about 4,000 years ago. Ehahwagawi’‘s departure ushered in the mixed, then predominantly deciduous forests that most of us know.

Belonging is found in continuity and reciprocity. Fourteen thousand years ago, the forest was not here, but we were.

Through all this transformation of the land, we relied on transmission of narrative, our library. Transformation, continuity, and reciprocity are dominant cultural elements that continue to ensure our survival. We are here still because we belong to this land. Yet, gone by the hand of Settler Colonialism are the wolf, American chestnut, slippery elm (favored wigwam covering), American elm, passenger pigeon (major food and spirit-being)—a host of species erased in mass extinction across North America. Reciprocity was broken. I and others have researched and written on colonial period extinction, a gap in our national memory.

We belong to this land because Our Mother formed us here, and our form of belonging is caring for Our Mother. Traditional Native Medicine (TNM) and traditional knowledge take shape in traditional narrative, taking two forms among Northeast Algonquians: achimewakan and athiluhakana (in various dialects). Witness testimony—whether recent or ancient—or traditional narrative without a specific witness are our forms of remembering our past, our present, and our wisdom.

In “Hobomok kah Mohgwamiskw” (Abbomoco and Giant Beaver), the ancient glacial lake, mishemachepaug, is remembered along with the suffering brought on the People by Giant Beaver. Responding to the cries of grief from the Creator’s children, Hobomok pursues Giant Beaver in a misool (mishoon, a pirogue) burned out from a giant hemlock. After pursuit three times around the great “badwaters,” Giant Beaver is cornered at Tawwat (“at narrows”), where she is fatally struck. Her body is remembered as the red arkite Sugarloaf monolith and Pocumtuck Ridge (Wequomps and Amiskwolowogoik, Deerfield and South Deerfield, Massachusetts). After throwing boulders to destroy Giant Beaver’s dams, Hobomok released the bad waters, and Wittum poured down medicine water from the falls of Kunnckwaciw (Mt. Toby massif), sacred land of Nepesuneag (“medicine hill”) with its many cascades and grottoes, the most biologically and geologically diverse place in Massachusetts. The land was thus healed, yielding the fertile planting lands called nunnabohke, on which the Creator assigned stewardship to the People, and to the now hunting-sized beavers, miskeketash (wetlands): reciprocity.

Transformations of our land and culture are housed within continuity, centered on reciprocity, and remain connected on our path. Stewardship is specific to each tribe, clan, and place, but our ways have been perversely co-opted by agencies, both red and white, to promote for-profit exploitation agendas. Their sustainability is a rumor, a ghost that steals life under the cloak of darkness.

We took from the land with incomparable frugality and true sustainability. Our northeast wigwams of sapling wood and bark or mats are carbon-neutral—where we cooked and heated efficiently with high-density occupancy under domed-roof architecture. Our total footprint is marginally visible. Today, with only 30 percent of the historic beaver population left, no ancient uncut forests, and comparatively massive logging extraction, it is science fiction for “forest management” to portray itself as preserving the native ecosystem.

Our footprint is hard to see by intention, not due to underdevelopment. While our Mississippian Algonk cousins exploited their land by building megacities, we chose differently. We successfully engaged sustainable mixed horticulture and hunter-gathering by lightly using a wide array of resources such that Europeans obtained a bloodied land still virginal in richness. What is theoretical to you is immediate to me.

Our traditions speak day-long to our frugality. In “Aniskayikuch ka Nimich” (Dancing Ants, Kawawachikamach), Quebec Elder Chwaan Piyaschichaaw tells of two old women collecting soggy, fallen wood in wet late winter. One elder rips away the top of a dryish fallen log, unwittingly exposing a colony of ants. Night after night, they all endure bitter cold and the midnight chanting march of some unknown creatures frightening and waking them. After many sleepless nights, other elders intuit the cause. They witness the march of ants chanting, “Put it back; put it back. Make it warm again.” Once restitution is made, warmer weather returns, and the midnight marches cease. It is a cautionary lesson that our every small action is to be taken with consideration, teaching that the importance of close observation, including what is unseen, remote.

By modern contrast, Mount Holly was a diversity hotspot that died due to cultural neglect. Guided by my grandma’s sister, Mount Holly instructed me on all things from botany, geology, medicine, and spirits, to history and textiles. Here, my second vision came, and I learned about intergenerational trauma, repeated removals—of people and forest both. I learned also about re-establishment, healing, and restoration. When the day I had to live far from this place came, my heart felt torn, and my bones cried out to me from among the roots. Again.

Economic, ecologic, and spirit knowledge of our trees is almost inexhaustible—and mostly unknown.

Moxomsena Pephokwus” (Our Grandfather Red Cedar) tells how seven renowned sages vanished, later to be rediscovered by some pure youths on prayer pilgrimage in the rocky ridges in the form of seven unique boulders—one of which suddenly spoke. Pursued by needy people seeking answers, the Seven retreat, transforming into beautiful evergreens, some of whom appear as red cedars. Recognized as descended of the same lineage, white pine and red cedar were differently endowed when formed by the Creator. Both are recognized as great living medicine persons. Still overburdened, the Seven vanished again, transforming into the Pleiades cluster, where our spirits go for counsel before our journey to the next world.

Each tree connects to medicine, ceremony, narrative. My personal archive counts more than 120 medicine plants, not including minerals and animals. Sipuamantikan (“creek fishing device,” creek plum, Prunus americana) is chosen for a fishing pole by the wife of Kepahwis, the Lazy Hunter. In desperation, the elder wife sends her remiss hunter fishing. Not refusing a direct request, the husband sets out on what would be an incredible adventure of chance ending in good luck. We learn from this the value of taking what is offered, not taking advantage, and doing our duty. Few now know that creek plum was chosen because it is women’s medicine—used to stun trout trapped in low summer creek pools, when the quick, clever fish are easily caught. The hook is also medicine, called mpisun (“bait,” but also “medicinal tea”). With a mother’s medicine given, we know Kepahwis will succeed.

Economic, ecologic, and spirit knowledge of trees from our cultures is almost inexhaustible—and mostly unknown. Who can tell why smooth sumac is called kelekanikwinakw (kekelekw = laughing + hikan “device” + winahkw = pith-stemmed shrubs) and shining sumac is glitskenikan (“humiliation device”), while staghorn sumac is xallamentsi (“heavenly berry/ nut tree”)? Between these three species we derive bird hunting arrows, flutes, antiseptic gargle, smoking mixture, tobacco addiction cure, immune-boosting tonic, putting accused “criminals” to the test, yellow pigment, “revenge medicine,” bleeding control, vermifuge, disinfectant, tanning, and more.

A new story is happening at Maguonket, on the Kwenitekw in Massachusetts, where two elder survivors of persecution find refuge in a place blessed by manitowak, on ancestral land. Here we are restoring heritage crops and medicines of both our Indigenous and colonial ancestors, carbon-negative, while removing introduced species and re-establishing diversity through a living plant library collected locally and carried here on our journey of refuge. Here we heal our community and ourselves, while diversity re-emerges on a slice of mountain-to-floodplain habitats, including a remnant Aeolian dune from that same glacial lake of our formative story. Here live three of the oldest trees in our town, garlanded in epiphytes, beside our new apple orchard. Despite the logging and degradation just beyond our boundaries, here is a return to belonging through the rest of our lifetimes, which we bequeath to the seven coming generations.

Nohham R. Cachat-Schilling (Kanien’keh:ka-Nashaue) of medicine person lineage, works in research and co-operates an historic farmstead demonstrating traditional sustainability on unceded ancestral land.

From “free” to “friend”…

Established in 1911 as the Bulletin of Popular Information, Arnoldia has long been a definitive forum for conversations about temperate woody plants and their landscapes. In 2022, we rolled out a new vision for the magazine as a vigorous forum for tales of plant exploration, behind-the-scenes glimpses of botanical research, and deep dives into the history of gardens, landscapes, and science. The new Arnoldia includes poetry, visual art, and literary essays, following the human imagination wherever it entangles with trees.

It takes resources to gather and nurture these new voices, and we depend on the support of our member-subscribers to make it possible. But membership means more: by becoming a member of the Arnold Arboretum, you help to keep our collection vibrant and our research and educational mission active. Through the pages of Arnoldia, you can take part in the life of this free-to-all landscape whether you live next door or an ocean away.

For more tree-entangled art, science, and writing, subscribe to Arnoldia by becoming a member of the Arnold Arboretum.