Tuesday, October 13, 2009
Missing the Underbrush
If any of you have been following Ian's blog you'll know that we drove the Kancamagus highway this past weekend--30-odd miles of winding highway through the White "Mountains." I am still trying to find the mountains for which these teensy lumps of land act as foothills. I think it's the Rockies, but that seems a bit far off...
The Kanc, as locals call it, is named after a Native American Chief, and means "The Fearless One." And old wooden sign with carved yellow letters proclaimed his story. In the late 17th century, after many bloody battles and unsightly skirmishes with the English settlers, Kancamagus led his Pennacook tribe north into Canada, leaving no more indigenous people in the entire state of New Hampshire. That's over four-hundred years without native people.
The forests in New England, I believe I have mentioned, are deciduous. Deciduous! The leaves change colors, and it looks like the roadsides and hills are on fire, and it's beautiful and majestic and far greater writers than I have expounded upon this subject. What I am interested in, however, is not the falling leaves (although I do have quite the collection in the works for an art project of mine), but what lies beneath the trees, beneath those branches that periodically shrug off leaves of brown and green and red and yellow.
These forests have no underbrush. There is no tangle of brambles--I realize now that of course there are no blackberries here; there are no vines for them to grow--no piles of dropped evergreen boughs, no dead trees stumps thick with moss and sprouting ferns from knots in the wood. I'm no ecologist, no sir, but I am not quite sure where the dead limbs and vegetation that make up this underbrush are, and I was almost certain of their necessity to a proper forest. When the trees finally do drop all of their leaves in the next month or so, the forests in New Hampshire will be stretches of solitary trunks, bare and spindly, standing straight and tall. I am accustomed to forests that are dense and dark, ones where you can't see the trees for the forest, because they are close together, and there is foot after tangled foot of underbrush obstructing your view.
The underbrush here has been scooped out. Scooped out, pushed away. Bare tree trunks remain. I imagine these forests in winter, stark stilts with empty branches--nothing for the hunter or the hunted to hide behind.
Perhaps I was feeling pseudo-academic, or perhaps wandering in the woods leads to searching for connections that may not be explicitly there. But I found it easy to connect this scooped out underbrush to the story of Kancamagus. For an area of the country that seems so rife with history, I find New Hampshire to be void. Yes, Dover was settled in 1623. But the last Native American called this place home in 1691. There are no recognized Native American tribes in the entire state today. No reservations. No cultural centers or vestiges of these people's homes. It feels awkward and shameful to read a sign advertising a pow-wow in a state where the last real, celebratory pow-wow was held over four hundred years before. The underbrush is missing in this state--that specific thing that grounds the trees and forests, the specific feeling that Americans have when passing through Lummi Island or reading Sherman Alexie's shorts. There is a connection here that Washingtonians cannot boast of, a connection begun in 1623 or thereabouts. But New Hampshire is lacking a certain connection to a timeless past, a past rooted around tree trunks and fallen leaves, a past tangled up deep in the underbrush.