Worm poop and alewives

By Marion Tucker-Honeycutt | Apr 17, 2019

In the farmhouse, heated with wood stoves, up on the ridge those many years ago, we kids would explode out of our quilted cocoons in the frigid bedrooms to the sittin’ room and scoot in behind the parlor stove to get warmed up before we got dressed.

This time of year, however, we had to share the space with Grampa’s trays of seedlings, kept warm overnight until they could be set back in the sunny windows for the day.

The shelves and cupboards that had been lined with shiny jars full of colored vegetables were getting empty and the apple barrels, potato barrels and barrels of salt-brined pork down cellar were half empty.

The snow and ice were disappearing from the garden plots and the first robins were bob-bob-bobbing. May’s sun would soon be warming up the soil and once again would start the cycle of producing food for another year. Back then when we went to the store it wasn’t to buy food, but to trade things grown or made on the farm for "dry goods" like flour, sugar and molasses, things we couldn’t provide ourselves. Depending on the season, Grammie Tucker’s egg business, a small market garden and her butter, along with Grampa Roy's strawberries and boysenberries, were the main trading items.

Soon, Grampa Roy would be turning over the garden soil, rich with cow manure from the barn last fall, getting ready for transplanting the seedlings and getting new seeds in the ground. With the manure and a goodly population of rich castings and aeration provided by the worms, along with a bit of lime to help neutralize Maine’s acidic soil to alkaline, it wouldn’t be long before the corn was over our heads.

As the sun got up earlier and set later everyday, the workload on the farm ramped up and the race was on. In Maine, come spring, time for things to get growing waits for no man. Each days tasks need to be attended too or you could fall behind real fast. Maine’s short seasons wait for no man.

New England’s mostly acidic ground was a problem that almost spelled disaster for the Mayflower Pilgrims the very first year on these shores. Those who had survived the many dire setbacks since they left the shores of England, including a full half of their numbers dying that first winter from the riggers of trying to survive a winter with precious little shelter and less-than-adequate food, especially fresh foods, were anxious to get seeds in the ground to provide food before they also starved.

However, disaster once again stared them in the face as they watched their English garden seeds begin to fail in New England soil. Had it not been for their Indian friend, Tisquantum, called Squanto, that first summer may well have been the end of Plymouth Plantation and the end to the beginning of this free nation.

The land they were settling on had once been the village of Squanto’s people. The land had long ago been cleared for gardens to feed the now-gone tribe. The Mayflower’s captain, Christopher Jones Jr., was familiar with the place and the fate of the Indians who had lived there and who had all died from illness, probably smallpox, some five or so years previously. So Jones brought the beleaguered passengers there with the hope it would prove a great aid to them, as they wouldn’t need to first clear land for planting.

Squanto had escaped the illness that took his people, as he had been in Europe those years. (That’s another whole story.) Coming back and finding them all gone, he went to live with a neighboring tribe. But he had come to greet the newcomers on the land and told them they were welcome to live there. Indeed, he moved back to set his wickiup beside the village, becoming a fast and invaluable friend to the colonists. He had learned English while in Europe, which was also a boon.

Squanto saw the plight of the Pilgrims' failed seeds and taught them what foods grew well in the area and how to fertilize them. Chief among those foods were the Indians' “Three Sisters,” corn, green beans and squash. They were grown in 3-foot mounds in which three alewives were buried. Planted on the top was the corn. Around the corn, they planted a ring of beans. Around the outer ring, they planted the squash. The bean stalks would grow and provide the nitrogen the corn needed, the squash would grow and provide the large leaves that would provide shade to help keep moisture in and the fish fed them all.

And so, the little colony of families that had braved the seas and years of hardship to live and worship freely, were able to survive and, that first fall, enjoy three days of games and feasting with the Indians to celebrate and give thanks.

And thus the seeds of our free nation were sown and grew to fulfill the prayer expressed by Governor Bradford in his family journal about their sojourn, in print even today as “Of Plymouth Plantation.”

“Thus out of small beginnings greater things have been produced by His hand that made all things of nothing, and gives being to all things that are; and, as one small candle may light a thousand, so the light here kindled hath shone unto many...” — Bradford.

Marion Tucker-Honeycutt, an award-winning columnist, is a Maine native and graduate of Belfast schools. She now lives in Morrill.

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