Beside hunting, fishing, and gathering, Native Americans living in eastern forests had a unique, interesting, and ingenious way of growing crops in small fields in those shaded woods. Their only tools, before the coming of European settlers, were stone axes and sharp-pointed sticks.

Many forest trees in those long-ago days were huge and impractical to cut down. But forest Indians knew that taking sheets of bark off the trees, all the way around each tree (girdling), would kill those still-standing giants, allowing sunlight to reach the ground when their dead leaves fell off their twigs.

While some Native people girdled tall, stately trees, others gathered dead limbs from the forest floor and burned them in piles under the girdled trees. The burnt ashes helped fertilize the ground.

Slabs of bark cut from those large trees were used to build longhouses. Those sheets were tied to flexible poles cut from young trees to make sides and roofs on those houses. Holes were cut in the roofs to let out smoke from house fires.

American Indians used pointed sticks to plant corn, bean, and pumpkin seeds in many clusters among the dead, but still-standing, trees. Cornstalks grew tall and supported bean vines reaching for sunlight. Bean plants took nitrogen from the air and deposited it in the soil, promoting the growth of all crops.

And pumpkin vines reached across the ground where their big leaves provided shade, retarding the growth of weeds and the evaporation of water in the soil. Seeds from those crops were stored for winter food.

Probably children chased marauding crows, rabbits, squirrels, deer, and other kinds of wildlife out of the fields. And, perhaps, freeloading deer, bears, and other creatures in those fields were killed and eaten by the Native people.

But Native Americans and wildlife generally lived in harmony. Fields were minimal because of small populations of people. Several kinds of woodland and edge birds had easy traveling from sheltering woods to those little fields to eat insects and weed seeds.

The people’s practice of killing trees to raise crops in abundant sunlight created homes for certain kinds of birds.

Woodpeckers chipped into the dead wood to make nurseries to raise young on insects. Some abandoned woodpecker cavities provided homes for other kinds of forest birds, including house wrens, titmice, chickadees, and others, all of which feed on insects.

After several years of cultivation, the soil became unproductive and was abandoned. But years of wind-blown fallen leaves and other forest debris decaying in the poor soil enriched it again.

Meantime, squirrels buried nuts in the former fields, and berry seeds in bird droppings and windblown seeds in those fields resulted in forests recovering their own where the fields once were. Forest replaced the Native American fields as if they were never there.


Clyde McMillan-Gamber is a retired Lancaster County Parks naturalist.

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