Mistaken mishoonash

This article was published in the October 19, 2007 issue of the Wareham Courier. It is the first of a three-part series following the process.

ROCHESTER - It only took Darius Coombs a few moments to figure out that the 75-year-old pine wasn't going to have a second life as a boat.

"You could, if you really need a boat," Coombs, the program manager for the Wampanoag Homestead at Plimoth Plantation, said.

Coombs and Thomas Turner, a cultural educator for the homestead, headed out to Rochester Wednesday hoping to find a tree they could turn into a traditional canoe, or mishoonash.

At one time, hardwood forests were so dense in New England that a squirrel could jump from branch to branch all the way to Maine. But as forests were thinned by disease and logging, the homestead had to look further and further afield for trees to use in their educational and cultural programs.

To make a good canoe, a tree needs to be wide and straight. Knobs and knots in the grain of the wood will become trails for the fire that shapes the canoe and will leave holes and other imperfections in the finished product. Pine trees make good boats because the wood is light and rich in sap that works as a natural sealant, they also tend to grow in the right proportions.

Traditionally, the Wampanoag would have tried to locate the right kind of tree near a river, to control the fire and cut down the distance that they'd have to transport the canoe once it was ready. Once they chose a tree they would wrap a section of it about six feet off of the ground in clay to act as a kind of fire stop while they burned and shaped the tree to bring it down. Now they have chainsaws and trucks.

"We get people call us up and they say they pulled down a lot of trees and we try to take as much as we can," Coombs said.

While not all trees can become boats, the homestead needs a lot of wood to keep the four or five fires it burns each day fed. It can also use smaller pieces of wood to make other crafts, such as paddles, bowls and mortars.

"We always need firewood, at least," Coombs said.

While Coombs and Turner were out inspecting this one tree, they spotted a few others that had been felled, including a few large oak logs. But they also made a more unexpected discovery as the property owner showed them around the cleared area. Dozens and dozens of pokeberries had taken over the spots where trees had been removed.

Because the berry is toxic, the property owner saw it as more of a nuisance than anything else. The purple berries leave a big red mess when they're tracked around, but for Coombs and Turner that big red mess was what they were looking for. The berries have been used for centuries to make a natural red or purple dye or ink. In fact, the Declaration of Independence was written with pokeberry ink.

While the homestead staff can always use donations, they'd prefer the tree you offer was taken down for some other reason.

"We just don't want people cutting down their trees and calling," Coombs said.

If you're interested in donating a tree, or finding out what else you can contribute, or just learning about the educational and cultural programs at Plimoth Plantation, visit the Plantation's Web site at www.plimoth.org or call 508-746-1622.