Hardy Keynote

Winter 2010-2011
Keynote speaker Kerry Hardy talked about “The Dawn Diet” of the Native people of what is now Maine. Hardy noted that 400 or 500 years ago, everyone here was on the hundred-mile diet “and living quite nicely.” English photos.

Common Ground Country Fair Keynote Speech

Kerry Hardy grew up in Lincolnville, Maine, exploring the outdoors extensively and eventually writing about traditional foodways of Maine in his book Notes on a Lost Flute. He now lives on a Hopi reservation in Arizona. He was the keynote speaker at the Common Ground Country Fair on Sept. 24, 2010. This article is based on his talk.

I want start talking today by thanking MOFGA for hosting me, and in turn thanking the Penobscot Nation for hosting MOFGA on this piece of real estate that’s kind of theirs.

In a lot of ways I’m not as interested in the past as I am in the future. I don’t want to think of it as Red Maine and White Maine; I want to work towards a nice, pink Maine, where we don’t care about stuff like that. Though I acknowledge that my family and a lot of others wound up here as uninvited guests of the native people, that’s behind us. I can’t control that, but I can control what I do with my life, and I think we all can, to a greater or lesser degree, so that’s what I’m interested in working on.

I wanted to start by giving a few of the reasons why I like digging around in the past.

A few years ago it dawned on me slowly that you can grow up in this state and go to good schools and reach adulthood without having hardly heard anything about the people who lived here before Euro-American people lived here. There’s that little bit about the first Thanksgiving and all of that propaganda that we get, but really it was possible when I came through school to be very insulated from anything like a real telling of the story.

And I found myself, because I spend a lot of time outdoors, because I’m always interested in the way that people relate to their landscape, I just found myself needing to know more about what this place that we call Maine now looked like 500 years ago, and how the people related to it, and that really started me on a fascinating path of study, exploration and meeting new people, and sharing ideas with them.

When I’m on one of those learning paths, you can tell pretty easily because books like this, which are just books full of blank pages, start accumulating on my shelf as I fill them up with tidbits of information and start looking for the patterns. So by the time I had five or six of these books full of stuff that I thought was interesting, I started thinking maybe other people would find this interesting, too. And that culminated with a book that came out about a year ago called Notes on a Lost Flute, which the folks at Down East Publishing were kind enough to publish for me.

Russell Libby and Kerry Hardy. English photo.

And that book coming out has, in turn, opened a lot of interesting doors and allowed me to meet new people and be exposed to new ideas.

But here are some of the reasons why I found it interesting learning, trying to educate myself about Maine’s native past. One thing that needs to happen is that we need to correct some of the European mindsets or conceits or preconceptions that we’ve kind of inherited from the first European ancestors who came here.

One of the common things is new arrivals in this country thought the people were inferior in some way, whether because of their religious practices or the things that they knew or didn’t know, versus what Europeans knew or didn’t know. But that’s common enough when you meet a new culture, to think them inferior to you.

All of the Wabanaki folks thought that, too, when the European folks started showing up on the shore – You can read some fun things where each side is kind of pitying of the other, because a lot of the natives were very convinced that the Europeans must be here because they’d run out of firewood where they lived. That was a good reason to move. And it wasn’t far from the truth, if you think about what the British Isles were like in the year 1500.

So this idea, that somehow culture here was inferior, is a European conceit that we can’t help but have inherited to a small degree. Everything I’ve found out seemed to be pointing quite the opposite direction.

Another European misconception, I think, is, well, there aren’t very many of them there. And of course that plus the thought that they were “godless” people, that combined with the low population, was a good reason to sort of appropriate this place.

Of course the reason that the population was low was because the people living on this continent had no resistance to Eurasian diseases, which were showing up on our shores regularly from 1500 on. So most of the reading I’ve done indicates that the population along the Maine and Massachusetts coasts took about a 90 percent hit just from the epidemic of 1617 to 1619, which dovetailed quite nicely with a certain boat rolling ashore in 1620 and finding all sorts of empty corn fields just waiting to be planted or grazed.

So the whole question of how many people were here, even today in anthropological literature, I feel that the number is underrepresented routinely. Anthropologists talk about human densities in Maine of one to two people per square mile. If you’ve ever gone anyplace along the coast and tried feeding yourself, tried finding food, you very quickly learned that you could support 25 to 50 people per square mile quite easily. So that’s just another idea that kind of needled at me, and I wanted to learn my way past that.

Another European mindset that went along with the idea of thinking this culture inferior was that – and sadly you still see this word today – they are nomadic. They have no fixed abodes. It’s as though they wander around the landscape hoping to stumble over food. And that idea just has to be stomped on every time you ever encounter it.

What they did was selectively move over the landscape to get what they needed, but they had multiple fixed abodes.

Nowadays if you live most of the time in Bangor and summer on Vinalhaven and happen to have a hunting or fishing camp up on Moosehead, we would call you a doctor or a lawyer. But in the 1600s you just would have been one of the people, because that’s how people kind of lived. There was a time of year to be at one place, and a time of year to be in another. Getting past this idea that people were somehow inferior because they didn’t have rectangular, two-story buildings with concrete foundations was something I spent a lot of time on.

Often my goal in digging this stuff up is to know these people better, to know their past better, to know the state’s natural history past better, and to help us move towards an understanding and an open acknowledgement of about four centuries of injustice, both to the people and the landscape here, because it does feel good once you kind of come to grips with that and acknowledge what has gone on in Maine and New England over the last 400 years.

But I also am very interested in the fact they had more sustainable lifeways in a lot of ways than the way we live now, and I want to examine those and see which of those we can use to help us move forward.

As I hinted earlier, my final interest is in having a more integrated society in this state, where we have common goals like sustainability and education and equal opportunity, and that’s a whole lot more [important] than the color of your skin or who your ancestors were.

I’m going to dive in now and talk about some nuts and bolts of the way the food year went.

The basic premise of what I’m looking at is this: There’s been a lot of fanfare in the last decade or so about the hundred-mile diet. It’s kind of a trendy thing to say, “I’m going on the hundred-mile diet.” And it is a good thing. I’m not mocking it.

But it’s worth pointing out that 400 or 500 years ago, everybody in this state was on that hundred-mile diet and living quite nicely. Nobody was starving. You will only rarely find occasions where, during the time of year when people were the farthest out in the woods, during the January-February-March moose hunting phase of the year, if the weather didn’t cooperate and if the snow wasn’t deep enough for you to run moose down on your snowshoes or for your dogs to run on top of it, then you could get hungry and there was very occasional starvation, but in general they had all the food they wanted and needed, from what I’ve learned.

So given that the hundred-mile diet worked great 400 or 500 years ago, what exactly did they eat, and how is that knowledge useful to us going forward? How can we apply it today and in the future?

So that’s what I’m going to be talking about specifically today. When I talk about these old foodways, my goal is never to just slavishly recreate the past; it’s to say, “Let’s borrow some of these ideas as our European ancestors did and really make them part of our foodways and add them to some of the other wonderful, sustainable food things that we can do.”

As I get older, the concept that I keep coming back to as a useful one in life is evolution, not revolution, and so I’m not looking to turn the clock back to that point in time; I’m looking to kind of drift towards a bit more sensible approach to our food.

In doing my research and writing my book, my educational background was a big part of it. I was saying to Russ before the talk, somebody was asking me to give a little speaker bio at another conference I did recently, and I said it’s hard to do because I spend most of my life walking the ridgelines that separate different bodies of knowledge. I haven’t really camped out in any one for too long, because when you do get up on the cusp between two areas, or a ridge, the view is pretty good. You can see things either way.

And I guess that gets us towards something that you might call cross-disciplinary learning or study, and I’ve talked about this quite a bit with Bernd Heinrich. We get together for a fair amount of deer hunting and just hanging out at his camp every year, and we were talking about this at one point, and he just kind of tipped back and smiled and he said, “Yeah, there’s a lot of low-hanging fruit when you’re walking a path 90 degrees to the way everyone else is traveling.”

And that’s quite true. You see things that are missed.

I like to think of it as a lattice of knowledge. We have our different disciplines: archeology, ethnography, biology, ecology, whatever you want. But the pressure academically these days is for vertical learning. You stay in your field and you climb up that ladder as far as you can. And if you don’t have, every so often, some dub like me walking across at 90 degrees to these tall vertical pillars and doing some stitching, you can get in a very precarious position.

So that’s the way I like to think of it. Vertical knowledge is good to go very deep on a subject and learn all you can; horizontal knowledge is good because … well, here’s a good example:

The people who lived in northwestern Maine, they called them the Loup People, “loup” being the French word for wolf. They were close kin to the Mohicans out of the Hudson.

They had a word for peregrine falcon – it looked to me like it translated to be “widow bird.” And after thinking about it for a while, it finally made sense to me, because the peregrine falcon has dark stripes on its cheeks, and if you study Wabanaki culture, you learn that widows, after their husband died, would take soot and blacken their cheeks for a period of about a year, and then after the official mourning was over, they would take the red paint and paint their cheeks red, which symbolized probably that they were back in the market; I don’t know exactly what it symbolized.

So anyway, I got thinking, we don’t teach our biologists anything about the Wabanaki languages, so generally the biologists wouldn’t be the ones to solve this riddle. But we don’t teach ethnographers what peregrine falcons look like either, so the whole question of the significance of that translation – why is this hawk called the widow bird? – it only comes if you’re combining disciplines, and that’s a lot of the stuff that I try to do. It seems to be leading me across disciplines rather than up and down them.

So here’s what everything that I’ve been able to find about where people lived, and everything I’ve heard talking to as many people as I can about it, suggests: that there were at least three main places you would find yourself in the year here.

I’ll call one of them main village, which is usually some point on the main stem of a river where there’s very good fishing both during the spring run of anadromous fish and during the fall run of eels, which is going on right now. The ability to trap a whole bunch of protein with very little effort and then preserve it by air drying, sun drying, smoke drying, whatever, made these very attractive locations, in addition to which, if you felt the urge to travel, if you’re on the main stem of a river and you have a birch canoe, you can do a lot of traveling.

So both in the May-to-June portion of the year and then again at harvest time – right now we’re getting towards the peak of the eel run – these are both good times to be in what I’ll call main village locations.

I’m having a lot of fun right now working with a guy named Doug Watts, who, some of you may know, lives in Augusta and has probably done more to restore the rights of anadromous fish in Maine to actually get upriver and spawn than anyone else I know. Doug and I have been going around the central part of the state looking for the remnants of stone fish weirs, because if you can find the remnants of stone fish weirs, you can pretty much put a dot on the map and say, “This was the place where a lot of people came together.” And as you start doing that and getting dots around the state, you start to have a map of 1,500 or 3,000 or 4,000 years ago.

I like the way Doug put it at a conference we spoke at last week. He said – because you want to get people enthused about it, and he showed them a slide of a pile of rocks in the river – but, if instead of calling them a pile of rocks, you describe them as the oldest existing manmade structures in New England, older than the pyramids in Egypt by the way, then you start seeing them in a different light.

And when you realize that for decades, centuries, millennia, these weirs marked important places of human habitation, you start getting excited about, “Oh, we should know where these are; we should take care of them. Maybe we should even keep archeologists from pulling them apart and digging there, but we should definitely find out where they are.”

You can do this by combining a lot of disciplines, or sometimes you can do something as easy as talking to a Penobscot, because when I was telling Butch Phillips about some of our “discoveries,” he was like, “Yeah, there’s one of them on Seboies, there’s one of them at Mattamiscontis, there’s one at Passadumkeag.” So that, if anything, makes it even more interesting to me.

I think it’s even cooler that these oldest structures in New England, some of them probably have been continuously maintained and are still in use today. That’s 4 or 5, 6,000 years of human history at a spot that’s still going on. So that’s been a fun project that Doug and I have been working on.

Besides these main village sites where you would come in spring and do your planting and then in the fall for harvest and for all the fish you could get, there would be a period spent at the seashore in the summer. And if you’ve ever been fortunate enough to just kind of hang out at the seashore in Maine in the summer, it’s kind of a no-brainer: The breeze keeps the bugs away; there’s all the seafood you can eat; and the weather’s pretty nice; and there’s no reason not to be there, for heaven sake.

So moving to the seashore, no I don’t believe it was a wholesale thing, because as my friend Albie Barden told me, you cannot plant corn or plants in general and then pick up and move away from them. They resent it. They won’t grow as well for you. This isn’t just about weeds. It’s about the contract between a human being and the plant he’s growing. And so I don’t think these main village planting sites were ever really abandoned, but you could keep a few people there, some of the older people who travel was a hardship for, and still keep the pests out of the corn and sing to it every day or whatever it needed.

But a lot of folks would find their way to the seashore. And there’s plenty of archeological evidence of people spending time along the coast in the summer, and at various times of year, depending on how far back you go, because wherever you have clams and mussels, you can always find a meal, right? You may get sick to death of them, but you won’t go hungry. So the seashore was very important. And I’ll talk more about that when I talk about specific foods.

I’ve already mentioned the third place to be, that is the interior hunting camp. Basically when the snow would get deep enough towards the end of January, start of February, there were two things you were interested in. One was going where the snow was deep enough so you could run down a moose – and moose were usually killed by a hand-held spear. There was no need to waste an arrow. After you had run a moose to exhaustion in deep snow and your dogs were holding it at bay, or even if there weren’t dogs, it was fairly easy to finish it off with a spear. And ironically, for the moose anyway, the business end of the spear was very often made from the shoulder blade of a moose. It happens to be a pretty good thing to make a spearhead with. And it’s just a fairly easy thing to do – if you found the track and the snow was deep enough, you could eat moose.

But the other reason you went to the interior was for sugar maples. Once the sap started flowing, March, mid-March, there’s no question in my mind … Occasionally you will see somebody having the nerve to suggest that Europeans taught Native Americans to make sugar from maple trees. I have read these things, and I have never seen anything that convinced me that it wasn’t the other way around.

There are oral histories among many different Native American groups about red squirrel teaching them about making maple syrup. Has anyone heard that story? If you watch red squirrels in March, they will nip the branches off sugar maples, and then they’ll come back the following morning and eat the icicles.

I’ve talked to Bernd about that. He actually told me he had once submitted a piece to Nature magazine, because he just thought it was such a cool squirrel behavior, the way they would make these sap icicles and come harvest them the next day. The editors disagreed, and that one never got published, he said. But it is cool, and it’s utterly believable to me just how, through nature observation, the first people here who started sugaring learned to do it. Wound the tree, the sap comes out, and it tastes good. So that was another reason you wanted to be in the interior as winter reached its peak and started changing to spring.

If you hunt and fish, you know how to read the time for these different seasons, too. And if your life depended on it, as it did for these people, you probably got a lot better at reading it. So I suspect that within a day or two of the peak of the alewife run, as soon as the snow was right for moose hunting, within a day or two of the eel run getting significant, people would show up at the right place, at the right time. It’s just outdoor learning that comes to you if you live this way.

So the movement around the landscape, I’m going to talk now about what you were looking for.

It can be incredibly complicated if you make a big deal about every food that people ate. A study of Canadian indigenous people showed 550 different plant species that were utilized as food one way or another, and of those 550 species, they identified 680 different food products. And that was showing up in everything from teas that you made of different plants to actual consumption of fruits, berries, nuts or the green parts of plants. But the diversity implicit in that statement suggests that we’ll have our hands full recreating all the different ways and learning about all the different ways people utilized plants.

But even more important than plants, I suspect, were three things, that being protein, fats and complex carbohydrates. And that’s kind of the meat and potatoes of the whole thing, and so I’ll look at that a little bit.

When you look at different protein sources, Maine’s pretty blessed. Basically anything that runs, swims or flies is a pretty good source of protein. And when you actually start cutting it up, lean meat from a variety of wild creatures will have about 20 grams per hundred of protein, and the fat will vary widely.

So, for instance, I started looking at foods from a protein point of view. The low end of the scale, coming in at 17 grams per hundred, are herring; and mackerel are 19 grams per hundred; salmon are a little better: 20 per hundred; sturgeon are 21 grams per hundred; venison – white-tailed deer, moose meat – is about 22 grams per hundred; tuna is 25 grams per hundred of protein; lobster and wild turkey come in at 27 grams per hundred.

And I bet there would be some guessing before people got the number one on the top 10 protein list, but it’s something that’s trying to find its way to the Sargasso Sea right now in this state, and instead of finding its way, it’s running through dam turbines, unfortunately. American eel came in at 29 grams per hundred of protein. And I truly believe eel was the most important single food. The reason why is this: not just because it was a protein bomb [i.e. a sudden burst of available protein in the food-year], but also because of its configuration – long and skinny – very easy to dry it and preserve it.

On top of that all, the skin made great rope. A piece of eel skin 3 feet long – perfect little twist tie to have around the camp. It was just a very useful creature. Delicious to eat fresh.

But here’s the real kicker with eel. It runs just as winter is coming on, when you need to fortify yourself if you’re living in the ambient temperatures that we have in this state. Eel supplied fat. Not only was it the richest in protein, it was the richest in fat. You would get 18 grams per hundred of fat from eels, versus that lobster, which is almost as good a protein source, was only 1.3 grams of fat per hundred. Tuna was a good fat source. That was 8 grams per hundred. Salmon was 12 grams per hundred. Herring were 13 grams per hundred. And these things all are way richer in oil than things like venison or land-based protein.

So the importance of fish and particularly the importance of eels coming in at the top of both the fat and the protein list, swarming down the rivers in just uncountable numbers at a time of year when you needed to be putting on fat, and in a form that you could keep and eat until the end of January, when the snow was deep enough that you could go moose hunting, made eel pretty much the perfect food and the most important food, I believe.

In terms of where carbohydrates came from, one very important source – you know when you’re a kid the joke about wild food is always eating roots and berries, and when you’re a kid and you hear about eating roots, you picture holding up a piece of wood like an ear of corn and gnawing on it. But the roots we’re interested in are the way a lot of plants in this part of the world grow; it’s how they live. They’re a food factory all summer, and by this time of year, all the good stuff, all the surplus that they’ve been able to generate, gets stored in the fleshy root.

So whether you’re talking about groundnut, which is a delicious wild food, or the bulb of Canada lily, which grows about yea tall and has a baseball-size bulb at the bottom of it that’s full of sugar and carbohydrates, whether it’s an aquatic root like arrowhead – all of these, and even tiny little edible roots like you get from the wildflowers like trout lily or the one called Indian cucumber – all of these are where your carbohydrates and sugars are going to come from, and it was important to know where they grew.

I remember that scene in Scarface where Al Pacino says, “Say hello to my little friend.” I brought a little friend with me [points to an 8-foot-tall yellow flowered perennial in a bucket beside him]. For the few people who maybe don’t know the plant or have seen it along the roadside and wondered, it’s Jerusalem artichoke. This is the variety that Fedco sells. It’s a really good, tall, robust variety, and the carbohydrate storage on Jerusalem artichoke is in a little bulb. You can come up afterwards and see them. They’re floating around in the bottom of the bucket.

When Father Rasle was living with the Norridgewock people back around 1720, their word for it was panak. The ‘ak’ means a plural; that’s just how you made something plural. And the ‘pan’ means edible root of any kind.

So some sources will say no, no, no, panak is what they called groundnut. And others will say, no it’s Jerusalem artichoke or lilies. But it was all of those. And panak in general were known to be good food sources.

So you had to know where wood lily grew, like in old blueberry fields, burned land, that’s where you’d find wood lily. Canada lily you found along streams. And it’s a plant we don’t see now, but 500 years ago it was seen, probably transported, probably cultivated.

One last source of protein, fat and carbohydrates that I’ll mention are nut trees. A lot of people in recent years, thanks to the work of people like Wells Thurber and the American Chestnut Foundation’s Maine Chapter, have actually been able to eat American chestnut again. And that’s quite a thrill for me to be able to do that. That was the king of nuts if you had it, but I don’t think it ranged much farther north than the middle of the state.

But we had a lot of other good, edible nuts, too. Most of us when we’re kids have tried eating red oak acorns, and that’s something that’s worth trying once, but if you really want them to be palatable, there’s a fair amount of tannin that you have to leach out of them. I understand there’s a talk at the fair this year about making acorn flour, and I want to go to that.

But even though red oak is the commonest oak and has probably the bitterest acorns, there were other oaks – white oak and bur oak – that had really quite palatable acorns. If you live between Waterville and Newport, you’re in a part of the state along the Sebasticook River Valley where, far north of its normal range in this country, there is a ton of bur oak, and I’m utterly convinced that human transport is the reason that we have so much bur oak in the central part of the state.

It’s also where the best alewife runs were in the state, along the Sebasticook River, and I really think it was a seat of a lot of people. So bur oak has traveled all up and down the Sebasticook River. Shouldn’t be there, but there it is.

Same thing they found looking at groundnut on the St. John River. Someone actually did a chromosome count on it, and lo and behold, the version of groundnut that grows along the St. John River is triploid, it’s not the normal. And the nearest population like that was in Pennsylvania – so here again we have a real good case for human transport being involved.

I think that’s all I’ll say about the specific foods. Almost anything was food, but if you want to reconstruct the map of ancient Maine, you sort of have to study which ones were the ones that really counted, and that’s where you can put the dots and start connecting where people lived.

What I think it’s incumbent on us to do now, in terms of what we can take from this diet, and move forward with, if you think of the old rule of thumb that everything we do should be for the benefit of seven generations down, that’s kind of a convenient number, because, let’s start with American eel. They’re on something called the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) red list. American eels and eels in general, European too, are rated as critically endangered. The next class beyond that is extinct in the wild. And they’re edging their way towards it. Anyway, the IUCN estimates that it will take between 60 and 200 years to restore eels to healthy populations in their native range – so there’s your seven generations, if we start on it today.

We have not taken care of eels in this state. Neither have we taken care of things like alewives and shad. And this is just an example why I think, as with so many things in this day and age, it’s kind of up to us at the grassroots level to start taking these things back.

Since 1735 all through New England, there have been laws requiring any dam that is built have safe and effective passage for anadromous fish. Since 1735, corporate interests and the governors they’ve owned and the commissioners that those governors have owned have failed to enforce the law. Every dam that’s built where anadromous fish once lived in this state that doesn’t have a working fishway is an illegal dam, and since 1820 – so we’re coming up on 190 years now – we have not had an executive branch in this state that has seen fit to enforce the laws already on the books protecting these fish that are the common property.

There are people working to try and get fish passage, but the help is not coming from our legislature, and it’s not coming from our executive branch. And if you want to know where to lay the blame for the disappearance not just of these river fish, but the fish in the Gulf of Maine, like cod and haddock, that feed on these fish, the front doormat at the Blaine House would be a good place to start, and I would include our current administration as equally culpable with all of the ones that have preceded it. But I really think it’s up to us to start making a lot of noise about getting these fish back in our rivers and getting fish back in the Gulf of Maine, and alewives and eels are the two most important pieces of that puzzle.

Another thing I would like to see us do is to work so that native food species, whether they be plant, animal – and maybe even something in between if there is such a thing! – are identified and receive enough oversight and recognition as being common property that we pass laws to take care of them. They aren’t all in danger, but some of them are, and I think that would be a good litmus test: If this is a native food species, several things should happen. It should be free from genetic contamination. And surprise, corn is a native food species! So that would be a good place to start, saying “native food species: we should not be able to grow genetically modified versions of them in this state for fear of contamination.”

We should encourage our universities, even though there’s no money in it coming from big corporations, we should encourage them to keep developing cultivars of native species. This Jerusalem artichoke is a great example of that. Just a little bit of selective breeding and you can come up with – I don’t care if it’s a shagbark hickory tree, which is a great food plant, Jerusalem artichoke – a little bit of selective breeding you can come up with good, disease-free cultivars, and I would like to see our universities focus on native food species like this.

The last thing I would close with is to remind people that we only protect that which we cherish, so if you want to see change, it starts here [Hardy pointed to his head] and it starts here [Hardy pointed to his heart], right? So you have to find a way to connect yourself to these native foods. And I don’t care if you go out and hunt a deer, or plant some old varieties of corn, go to Damariscotta and watch the alewives run, go collect some hickory nuts in Woolwich, go pick some wild blueberries and take people with you, but however you do it, get in the habit of trying native foods and increasing them in your diet; get in the habit of thanking the foods for giving themselves to you and thanking the earth for growing them for you; and really work on cultivating the way that you personally shepherd and cherish these foods.

If enough of us do that, we will quickly reach a tipping point where it just becomes the way the others in society do it as well. Tipping points don’t come at 51 percent of the population, right? They come at about 10, 11, 12 percent of the population doing things in new ways. So if everybody listening today just cultivates this in themselves and in their circle of relations and friends, I think we will reach some fun tipping points and start taking care of this food.

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