OXBOW, Maine — In Aroostook County, many of the products that you find at craft fairs include products made by County people, including herbal and medicinal products, wooden baskets, wreaths and more.
Making a living off the land is the heart of the Aroostook County culture, and three researchers from New England have collected lessons and observations from 30 foragers in northern Aroostook County to feature on a new website focusing on Maine’s culturally and economically important wild plants and mushrooms.
The site in managed by the United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service’s Northern Research Station, which has locations throughout the northern U.S. Dr. Marla Emery from the USDA Forest Service’s Northern Research Station, Dr. Clare Ginger from the University of Vermont and Dr. David Putnam from the University of Maine at Presque Isle spent almost two years studying how people in Aroostook County and neighboring New Brunswick use wild plants and mushrooms.
Emery said Wednesday that the researchers spoke with 30 people who gather nontimber forest products in the St. John Watershed, on both sides of the U.S.-Canada border. They also spent time with gatherers as they collected, processed and used wild plants and mushrooms.
She said that researchers focused on Maine for a number of reasons.
“Maine is a great example of something happening in the northern forest regions, which include parts of Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont,” said Emery. “Changes in land ownership mean changes to land access, so we wanted to know how plants and mushrooms, which are important to a number of people in these areas are affected by changes in land access and ownership. We also wanted to highlight people who use the land for foraging, and what an important aspect of the lifestyle it is.”
Emery said that researchers conducted interviews with foragers in Houlton, Allagash, Fort Kent, Presque Isle and other places.
This shared knowledge is now collected on the new website, which features profiles of the people who use wild plants and mushrooms for food, medicine, crafts and more, detailed descriptions of 30 plants including traditional and modern uses, and a searchable database of more than 120 plants and mushrooms gathered in northern Maine today. The website and a comprehensive handbook, which is available by free download, also explore the intimate linkages that develop between people and the land through foraging and how changes in land ownership are making it more difficult to engage in foraging — especially for Maine’s Native peoples.
“There is a great deal of cultural diversity in northern Maine,” said Emery. “We spoke with the elders from the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians about basket making and how they used to go out into the forest to forage material to make ash baskets. It is still a practice, and it was great to document that tradition and the closeness and respect that these foragers feel with and have for the land.”
Some of the gatherers featured on the site include Judy Sherman, a wreath maker who owns Oxbow Wreaths in Oxbow. Sherman and her four seasonal employees make about 1,500 balsam fir wreaths each fall, shipping them from Oxbow to as far away as Texas and California, as well as selling them locally in her craft shop. Sherman and her husband, Steven, keep business cots down by gathering materials themselves from their “tip orchard” or in forests owned by local landowners.
Mary Anne Sanipass of Chapman and Richard Silliboy of Littleton, both of whom are members of the Micmac tribe and brown ash basket makers, also are featured on the new site. Both spoke about carrying out family traditions of relying on the land to help them make their living and combing the forests for material to work with. Silliboy also has dug flag root for medicine, which is used to treat colds, sore throats and other ailments.
Medicinal plants and herbs are also emphasized on the site through its feature on Natalia Bragg of Wade. The herbalist has gathered, occasionally cultivated, and prepared dozens of plants for medicine for more than 40 years. The owner of Knott II Bragg farm has about 600 regular customers who depend on her for herbal preparations. In addition, she teaches more than 200 people per year.
Emery said that it became evident during research that a lot of people in northern Maine use plants and mushrooms for food, medicine and crafts.
“They are passionate about it as a way of maintaining culture and community,” she said. “It feeds them, body and soul.”
As another aspect of this study, Allaire Diamond, a consulting ecologist and nature writer, developed curriculum material for grades K-12 in subject areas including biology, economics, geography, health and home economics, local and regional history, and social studies. The materials have been designed to meet Maine’s educational standards, including recent guidelines for teaching about Maine’s Native cultures. Curriculum materials can be downloaded from the website.
Emery noted that many of the foragers interviewed for the site foraged on land they owned or land that was owned by family and friends.
“Access to land is a very important to preserve the work of these foragers,” said Emery. “When the lands change hands, what is on them may not be available.
Emery said Wednesday that there are many things that she and her fellow researchers want people to learn from this website, including that gathering wild plants and mushrooms are “an important part of life in northern Maine.”
“The ability to continue to do it is vitally important,” she said.
For more information visit the USDA’s website at http://nrs.fs.fed.us/sustaining_forests/conserve_enhance/special_products/maine_ntfp/