Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Acorns: How to trap a governor

I'm reading Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War by Nathaniel Philbrick - just in time for Thanksgiving (although the book is, of course, a complete debunking of the Thanksgiving story that was drilled into our heads as grade schoolers).

Me being me, I read any history of early settlement looking for references to reliance on acorns as a food source.  In Mayflower acorns are conspicuous mostly by their absence (about which more below).  The only reference to acorns so far is actually pretty hilarious.  Shortly after landing at Plymouth Harbor a scouting parting is walking through the woods.  They come across an ingenious snare set by the Indians. A sapling is bent over, and tied to the sapling is a rope lasso, the loop of which lays flat on the ground and encircles a pile of acorns - bait for deer.  While those at the head of the column of Pilgrims are marveling at the ingenuity of the deer trap, William Bradford - soon to be named governor of Plymouth Plantation, a position he would hold for 35 years - blunders up, steps in the trap, and is promptly hoisted off the ground by his ankle... and earns the respect of the others (and of me) by good naturedly commenting on both the skill with which the trap was made and his own clumsiness in getting trapped.

The religious separatists who landed in Plymouth were by no means entering a untouched wilderness.  The area had been, until very recently, home to thousands of people. The Pilgrims walked into the equivalent of an outdoor morgue; a plague, probably Bubonic Plague spread southward from European fishing settlements in Maine, had decimated the population in the years prior to the Pilgrim's arrival.

As a practical matter this meant that the Pilgrims were able to simply take over and plant fields that had been cleared by others.  But what interested me was this:  those fields, in which Native Americans had grown corn, squash and beans, were almost completely depleted of their nutrients and could only produce a decent crop with the addition of copious amounts of fertilizer - in this case fish.

I found it interesting that there, in the shadows of towering oaks and chestnut trees which rained down nutrition in the billions of tons, the indigenous people had over the course of centuries become more and more reliant upon crops that damage and deplete the land... land which once depleted would need to be replaced with other land cleared for the purpose of farming, a process which would inevitably create conflict between adjacent tribes or groups.

And so history repeats itself.

No comments:

Post a Comment