Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Hunting and Gathering Wicker's Creek

 Within view of Manhattan at a spot on the Hudson River where people gathered in disbelief, horror and tears, watching the World Trade Center buildings collapse in smoke and flames on Sept. 11 2001, lies the sacred hunting and gathering grounds of the Wickesqueek Indians.

 This was the spot where the Hudson River, before it tumbles into the ocean past Manhattan, is at its narrowest and hence easiest to cross.  The crossing is now known as Dobbs Ferry because an astute businessman named Dobbs operated a ferry service here from shore to shore, but it had been ferried by the native Americans long since, possibly as early as 12,000 years ago.

And from this vantage point they also watched the harvest of the horrors of colonialism and intolerance as their people were massacred in Manhattan in one of the worst bloodbaths of the age of exploration when the Europeans claimed the island at the entrance to the Hudson, which was even then some of the most valuable real estate in the continent, for  their own..
This land has seen plenty of horror.

 Today Manhattan is one of the financial capital's of the world, called the Big Apple, hence the location of the World Trade Center. But it was always a center of trade, the place where the tribes of the Iroquois nation traded foods and furs and building materials and stories.

And Dobbs Ferry was one of the principle cross roads and suppliers for that trade, a great launching place for canoes laden with goods and storytellers to head to the island we now call New York. They didn't have apples to bring to the Big Apple, but they did have fruits and nuts, tree products of enormous wealth, because the forests of Dobbs Ferry, particularly on the spot we now call "Mercy College", in the woods once protected by the nuns, was filled with massive old growth chestnut and acorn bearing white oak trees and hickory trees, supporting huge populations of people and wildlife -- white tailed deer, opposum, racoon, skunk, beaver...


My own ancestors on my father's side, the Robidoux traders, lived among the native Americans and intermarried with them.  Family lore tells us that they depended heavily on Chestnuts for their "daily bread" as well as Acorns and hickory.  Chestnuts, which comprised up to 25%  of the forests, however, were the staple, and unlike Oak seeds (acorns) they had no bitter tannins to be removed.

Chestnut trees in North Carolina in 1910. Produced a consistent abundant crop every year.

According to an article in Nature magazine:
"Once known as the sequoia of the east, the American chestnut was one of the tallest trees in the forest, and dominated a range of 800,000 square kilometres, from Mississippi to Maine (see 'Felled by a fungus'). It made up 25% of the forest, and its annual nut crop was a major source of food for both animals and humans. The decay-resistant wood was also used to make telephone poles, roofs, fence posts and parts of railway lines.
The first warning signs came in 1904, when rust-coloured cankers developed on chestnuts at the Bronx Zoo in New York. Zoo forester Hermann Merkel took a sample across the street to the New York Botanical Garden, where mycologist William Murrill soon identified the spores as chestnut blight. The blight probably hitched a ride on nursery imports of Japanese chestnuts beginning in 1876. Spreading through rain and air, fungal spores infected trees through bark wounds and breaks. Cankers developed, quickly encircling a branch or trunk and cutting off the supply of water and nutrients from the soil. Within 50 years, the blight had laid waste to nearly the entire population of some 4 billion trees."
Other hardwoods, mainly oak, eventually filled the void but they do not produce a consistent crop of nuts every year. “You had a really dominant species that the wildlife depended on which was then replaced with a species that then didn't produce as much,” says Douglass Jacobs, a forest ecologist at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. Reports from the period suggest that squirrel populations initially collapsed, and that five moth species dependent on chestnuts went extinct (D. A. Orwig J. Biogeogr. 29, 14711474; 2002).

Photo from http://www.nature.com/news/plant-science-the-chestnut-resurrection-1.11504

Nuts of the American chestnut, Castanea dentata. A, burr with nuts. B, chestnut trees in Fairmount Park, Philadelphia, in 1878, and people harvesting the nuts with ladders.  (A, Courtesy G.L. Schumann. B, Reprinted from "Scenes in Fairmount Park," The Art Journal, 1878, Appleton and Co.; recieved courtesy of the American Chestnut Foundation.

American Chestnuts were high in nutrition (see http://www.onlyfoods.net/american-chestnut.html, The table for European Chestnuts is here: http://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/nut-and-seed-products/3143/2)

Unfortunately a blight that started at the Bronx Zoo wiped out the so called "King of the Trees" and the effects of this loss of nutrition has gravely affected wildlife in the region.

Today the landscape retains some of the oak trees, and these produce a huge bounty of acorns that continue to nourish fragment populations of deer and other wildlife that we see around Mercy College.

Our goal is to return to the use of Acorns and other tree cereals to take pressure off of agricultural lands.

For our first class we will therefore go out and "hunt and gather" acorns in the Mercy woods, ancestral hunting and gathering grounds of the Lenape Indians, and familiarize you with this foundational aspect of the college you are attending.

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