In early April, Shiwa Noh was hard at work making face masks. She was struggling to sell the masks, but she planned to use the proceeds and other donations to buy fruit trees for Nibezun, a non-profit that focuses on preserving and revitalizing Wabanaki culture and heritage through various projects and events. Noh is one of Nibezun’s board members and now lives on the organization’s 85-acre property with her husband and fellow board member, Tim Shay.

Then, “out of nowhere,” Noh said, she received an email from Fedco Trees. Fedco had worked with Nibezun before — their seed catalogs give customers the choice of whether to donate refunds to Nibezun, and the company pays royalties to Nibezun for seeds with native names or stories — but this donation was much more substantial: more than 1,000 trees, bushes and perennials, including plums, cherries, apricots, raspberries, chokecherries, black walnuts, chestnuts and hundreds of apple and pear trees in over a dozen varieties.

Noh said that Nibezun was grateful for the donation, but they knew they couldn’t keep all of the trees for themselves.

“Before we could plant any of the trees, we wanted to share [with] the community first, which was very important in our minds,” Noh said.

Thus began Nibezun’s pandemic-era project: aside from planting an orchard on their land, Noh said that about half of the thousand trees were distributed to organizations, community gardens and individual homes of the various tribes throughout the state, including the Houlton Band of Maliseets, the Aroostook Band of Micmacs and the Passamaquoddy Tribe.

Free the trees

Lauren Cormier, a purchaser at Fedco Trees, said it became evident around March that they would not be able to hold its annual spring tree sale at their Clinton warehouse. The sale, which normally has thousands of customers, usually provides a substantial amount of their annual income. Fedco Trees didn’t want the ready-to-plant trees taking up precious real estate where they planned to grow trees, perennials and bushes for next year’s sale, but they also didn’t want them to go to waste.

When they donated the trees to Nibezun, though, Fedco had no idea how far they would reach.

“It was really great news for us,” Corimer said. “We put so much work into our trees. It made us happy to know that they would be going out into the community and feeding them for many years to come.”

Shiwa Noh holds up a leaf that can remedy the itch from bug bites while in Passadumkeag on June 12. Credit: Natalie Williams / BDN

Noh and her volunteers reached out to different Indigenous leaders across the state, loaded up trees into their red dump truck and ferried them to their new homes.

“Due to COVID, our outreach, and meeting and everything had to be brief, for everyone’s comfort and safety,” Noh said. “We believe we have done a pretty good job. And we believe that these trees have their ways of moving us around, and finding their home where they want to be.”

The Aroostook Band of Micmacs and Boys and Girls Club of Presque Isle received several types of trees and fruit plants in early May, which they planted in a shared community garden.

Waiting for fruit

After the trees were distributed, it was time to plant the orchard at Nibezun. With the help of the organization’s volunteers, Noh and Shay used a portion of the donated trees to establish a new orchard on Nibezun’s land.

“The process was really healing for all of us,” Noh said. “It was really physical and challenging. At the same time it really connected us to the hard work, and getting bitten by all these black flies together.”

The organization plans to use the new orchard not only for food for the community, but for events once gatherings are advisable again.

“One of the ideas is to have a Celebration with Trees Dance, and possibly a fundraiser to raise awareness and funds to support Black Lives Matter and welcome more multicultural communities here in Maine,” Noh said.

It will be some time before Nibezun and other tree recipients will be able to enjoy the literal fruits (and nuts) of their labor. Cormier said the trees can take between three and five years before they start bearing fruit.

“It’s a long-term project and it’s also a lot of work to dig the holes and to plant them, but the ongoing maintenance — if it’s spread out through different communities and everyone’s working on it, then it’s not too much for any one person,” Cormier said.

Noh and the other recipients of the trees are not intimidated by the time commitment, though.

Shiwa Noh, left, and her husband, Tim Shay, walk past the newly planted trees on their property in Passadumkeag on June 12. Credit: Natalie Williams / BDN

“We might not receive those nuts in our lifetime, but our children and the next generations will have that accessibility,” Noh said.

The trees will also continue to be planted next season. Even between planting the orchard and distributing the trees, Nibezun still had about 170 apple and pear trees to spare. They created a nursery on the land so they can care for the trees until planting season next May, when Noh said they will “figure out finding good homes for these trees.”

“If we move more to share in a good way to the native communities and underprivileged communities it’s really going to make our lives, everybody’s lives better,” Noh said. “It’s hard work, but I really feel it’s worth it. ”

Correction: An earlier version of this report incorrectly listed Wabanaki as a tribe.