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  • For ten thousand years and more the early people wandered the open lands and fast running, twined streams left by the glaciers. They watched the thickets grow to forest and the sea rise up to fill low lying meadows that once stretched out in green waves to the where the outer fishing grounds are now.

    The early accounts of the islands talk of mixed forests and stands of tall trees. The practical and commercially minded explorers wondered at the timber and counted it in tall pine masts and curved oak barrel staves.

    In the old photographs the houses in the village stand alone on a wide grassy hill above the sea. From their dooryards the old-timers could watch the ships running with the wind across Blue Hill Bay or home from the wave swept ledges to the south, even bucking the tide making along the length of Long Ledge to the east. Generations of clearing for pasture and field, long winter hours cutting firewood, had beaten back the forest until their rambling homes and barns faced the winds exposed and alone.

    In the last days they hauled out coal to burn. Digging beside the old foundations I turn up long middens of coal ash. The biggest and last of all the wooden coast wise schooners, six masts and over 400 feet from bowsprit to stern hauled coal from the pits up and down the coast. In the last years their stoves glowed from the heat of forests that grew and fell long ages ago.

    When people left the island villages and slipped away to cities and towns on the mainland, a slow tide of dark green spruce rolled over the islands. When I was a kid only pockets of the old fields remained thick with thistles and bramble as the spiked vanguards of the spruce forest reached to claim the sunshine.

    The first thing I did when I got the land on the top of the hill was to start cutting back the spruce. Some for firewood and burn the rest in towering bonfires when the snow covered the bare ground. When my daughter, Carly was a baby the land was bare and brown with only a few pockets of weeds around the stumps.

    When she tottered her first steps in the island spring I began pulling out the tens of thousands of spruce seedlings that sought to reclaim their hold and thinned the birch that sprouted up.

    When Carly was in sixth grade I collected acorns from the gnarled and wide spreading oaks along the shore on another island and started them in pots in the cold frame along with tomatoes and beets and lettuce seedlings. That summer I planted them in a wide ring on the land I had cleared the year before.

    We dug out sugar maple, black locusts and horse chestnuts and hauled them out.
    When I walk back to cut firewood now I walk through the forest I planted and tended and hear the wind rush through the branches. The white trunks of the paper birch sway graceful and light, oaks rise above me, the black locusts flower now in June and fill the air with sweetness and the hum of bees. Below, the grasses and ferns fill in the dips and hollows where the old stumps have rotted away. In the fall, while the spruce darken and hunker down for another winter, they will brighten and flame for a season all yellow and orange and red.

    They are young and will be young still when I am gone. And others will walk, as I walked through lost pasture and field, and wonder about the circle of oak and about the hand that set them so.
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