inherit: to come into possession of
maintain: to preserve or retain, to carry on, to sustain
bestow: to present as a gift or honor

As humans, we have an inherent connection to the natural world. The heritage of the land we conserve includes the forces that have shaped it, as well as the organisms that live there. For a land trust, accepting conservation easements and purchasing land can seem like a cut and dried business transaction. We make decisions by examining the present ecological and community values of these lands. But ecological preservation does not represent the whole picture. History and culture also inform our sense of and connection to place.

When we complete a land deal, we inherit the history and culture of the humans who have interacted and lived on the landscape. Their land-use practices may go back thousands of years. Stewardship, caring for the land, involves paying attention to what came before. My experience as a Maine Coast Heritage Trust land steward in Washington County has taught me that when you inherit something as abstract and slippery as culture, it is not always apparent. Learning to read this landscape takes an observant eye and a curiosity that goes beyond science.

When I first visited Treat Island, a Maine Coast Heritage Trust preserve, I found a “moonscape” on the southern tip of the island. The land was barren, mostly rock rubble. Something major had happened here! Research at local libraries and historical societies told a story going back to the travels of the Passamaquoddy and early Euro-American settlement of the region. Treat Island had known the Passamaquoddy, and seen French Acadians, and Revolutionary War patriots and smugglers.   

The island supported a community who caught and smoked herring and built a school for their children. An attempt to harness Cobscook Bay for electricity brought dynamite and bulldozers, which destroyed many of the signs of previous inhabitants. Still, village sites, burials, and military earthworks—these events are all etched upon the island we acquired.

At Sipp Bay, another MCHT preserve, naming and language are clues. Scipeo Dalton, a freed slave, lived here in the late 1700s. The inner bay is named for him. The Passamaquoddy call this place Kci-puna-muhtakik, “big frost-fish (tomcod) spawning place.” This name describes a place where winter food was available, and where Passamaquoddy feasted and preserved food for the winter. It is not surprising to find middens and artifacts on this property. Archaeology can inform us about the past and also provide assurance that it is safe to dig for a kiosk or to construct steps to the shore.

To recognize the presence of those who came before can lead us to respect and reverence for the land, its history and changes, and its well-being and its future. This connection can change our perspective toward the land, regardless of politics, and allow us to understand how deeply dependent and connected we are.

I’m in my sixties. Oftentimes, I think about passing on the cultural information that I have gathered during my time as a land steward. Living in Washington County allows me special privilege… Here, progress and development lay lightly on the land. It is easy to stand on a bluff overlooking Machias Bay and imagine scores of birch bark canoes landing on a beach.

My stewardship relationships include intimacy with the stories and language of those who came before. I want to bestow this heritage to the next generations. Who knows how many generations it takes to forget?

Deirdre Whitehead has worked for Maine Coast Heritage Trust as a Downeast steward since 2009. She came to Washington County from Midcoast Maine to work for the Passamaquoddy Tribe and fell in love with the area. In her spare time, she gardens and plays music.

This piece is part of Voices from the Coast, a collection of writing, art, stories, and images offered in celebration of the Maine coast and launched in 2020, Maine Coast Heritage Trust’s 50th year.