Today two Miꞌkmaq porcupine quill artists, Kayla and Noella, harvested white birch bark from the trees in the forest where I live. Kayla is one of the Epekwitk Quill Sisters, with Cheryl Simon, and I’ve been listening to their podcast since it started in May. It was wonderful to meet Kayla and see Noella again, as I took a quilling workshop with her on Lennox Island First Nation a few years ago.
They have mentioned in the podcast that it can feel unsafe to harvest birch bark in public places, that non-indigenous people can harass birch bark harvesters, so I told Cheryl and Kayla about the birch trees around our house. I was happy they could get some big, beautiful pieces of bark, which is used as the base of their artwork. They may return to harvest cedar and spruce roots, too, and will be back for more bark in future years. The trees will heal over the next few years, and then can be harvested again in 15-20 years, perhaps by Kayla and Noella’s children or grandchildren.
Bark harvesting can only be done for a few weeks in the summer, after the trees have drawn up nutrients from the ground in the spring. Harvesters know the bark is ready when fireflies appear, though this is starting to be a less reliable indicator than it once was due to climate change. I got to pull a piece of bark off the tree, and it felt like damp leather. The tree didn’t bleed because the cuts don’t go deep enough to hit the tree’s vascular system. The cracking sound was unlike anything else I’ve ever heard.
While I was watching them harvest, I picked wild strawberries, wild raspberries and the first blueberries I’ve seen this season. The forest is full of traditional foods and medicine.
Some of the birch trees in the forest now look a little different, but this is Miꞌkmaꞌki, and this is what the landscape should look like. Now if you see a tree that has been properly harvested in a public place, you will know it is not vandalism – it is anti-colonialism, it is culture, it is resilience .