Blogs by Hilary Hopkins

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The 1651 Forest

September 24, 2013 / The 1651 Forest

The moon rose.  The Nauset Indian man looked at it for a few moments.  Its brilliance filtered through the leaves of a young oak, just at the edge of the forest.  Then he entered his home and lay down to sleep, musing for a time about the hunt he and his son would undertake the next morning in the woods, and the fish they expected to catch later in the day.  He worried a bit about the reports he’d heard of yet more strangers landing some distance up the coast, and he hoped they would leave him and his settlement alone.   He fell asleep, sheltered by beeches, oaks and pines.

In the European calendar, it was December 6, 1620.  Up the coast a ways, a group of about 34 of those strangers, a kind of search party, took shelter near the shore.   They’d sailed in a small open boat from the tip of Cape Cod, where their mother ship, the Mayflower, had landed a couple of weeks earlier.   They too slept, although not as comfortably as the Nauset man and his people.
Read the words of William Bradford, one of those search party strangers, describing how the two groups met:

“The weather was very cold and it froze so hard as the spray of the sea lighting on their coats, they were as if they had been glazed…that night…they landed about a league or two from them [some Indians]... they made themselves a barricado with logs and thick pine boughs…and betook them to rest…when morning was come [December 7] they…marched through the woods to see the land, if any fit place might be for their dwelling…when the sun grew low...being very weary, they betook them to rest…so they rested till about five of the clock in the morning [December 8]…but presently, all on the sudden, one of the company… came running in and cried, "Men, Indians! Indians!" And withal, their arrows came flying amongst them…the men ran with all speed to recover their arms..they…let fly amongst them [the Indians] and quickly stopped their violence...afterwards they gave God solemn thanks…for their deliverance… and called that place the FIRST ENCOUNTER."

That Pilgrim search party then went on along the coast, and finally determined that nearby land (what is now called Plymouth) was a good place for their settlement.  The beach of that morning’s meeting, though, is still called First Encounter Beach.

A scant 24 years later, attracted by the abundant forests and good fishing, a small group from Plymouth returned to the First Encounter area, and established a town, which they called Nauset.  In 1651, this town was incorporated, and now called Eastham.   There were few Nauset Indians in the woods by then.

So what do Europeans make their cooking and heating fires with, their boats and tables and chairs and fences and bedsteads and carts and bowls and cabins, their walls and roofs and floors and doors?  Why, wood of course, and there was plenty of it in the forests of 1651.  Easy to cut down, too, since the Indians had been in the habit of clearing the underbrush by fire most years, so as to make the hunting easier.

There were more “settlers” than Indians, and they needed a lot more wood.   And they cleared away forests entirely, to build their villages, and pasture their animals, and grow things.  As time went on, it turned out too that the pitch pines in the forests made dandy fuel for the new railroads, not to mention the fine tall and straight white pine trunks that were perfect for ships’ masts—and a wooden ship only lasts about twenty years, so you need a lot of those masts.

You can see where this is going.  By mid-19th century much of the forest that had surrounded the Nausets was gone.  Non-native species invaded.  The 1651 forest was a landscape of the past.

But now let’s jump to the year 2001, to the 350th anniversary of the town of Eastham, and to the deeply imaginative folks on the celebration committee.  Hmm, they thought, in 1951, the 300th anniversary committee left us some things from that time, kind of a “leave behind” idea but for the future.  Let’s do them one better.  Perhaps we might try to reconstruct a portion of the forest of 1651, the one our founding parents first encountered.   We could think of it as a hundred-year project—for a forest is not made in a few years.  Something wonderful to leave for the people in 2101, something for them to think about and to enjoy and ponder. 

Well and so they did.  A committee of dedicated volunteers grappled with the ever-challenging “mission statement” and “goals”.  They decided that the 1651 Forest should have only indigenous species and should be, as far as possible, historically accurate; that it should pay forward to future generations; and should serve the present: living history, botany, habitat and ecology for all to see.

And they’ve been planting trees and shrubs ever since!  Now in its tenth active year, the 1651 Arboretum in Wiley Park, Eastham, Massachusetts has been planted with 235 trees--beeches and elms, hickories and sassafras, tupelo and white pine and red maple with its red stems, as well as about 75 shrubs—blueberry, shadbush and holly and spicebush.  

Oh, there have been some problems—dry years, resistant invasive species and so on—but the 1651 Arboretum Committee are fiercely dedicated.  Some nurseries give a break on prices.  School children are brought out to plant.  Careful records of plantings are kept, using GPS technology.  Funds are short but are fairly steady. 

The forest is beautiful.  Trailside you can see young trees recently planted alongside older ones.   You imagine these trees ninety or so years from now.  Perhaps the Nauset Indian man might recognize some of the trees and their companion species—the aptly-named ghostly white Indian Pipe, for example.  I suppose he did not call it Indian Pipe though—I wonder how he would name it now?


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