Bearing fruit and rooted in Aquinnah history

Planners of a foraging forest, to be part of the upcoming Aquinnah Town Center, are eyeing spring for planting.

A preliminary illustration of Aquinnah Town Center from a Conway School presentation, Spring 2020. —Courtesy of the Conway School

The town of Aquinnah, the Island Grown Initiative (IGI), and other partners are developing plans for a community foraging area, on approximately three acres adjacent to the town hall. 

The project, dubbed the “food forest,” would join coming developments for the Aquinnah Town Center plan, which include the under-construction Carl Widdiss Way Apartments, and a playground slated to be built by early November.

The food forest will offer a foraging space, as well as opportunities for indigenous foraging education.

Construction for a fence surrounding the food forest site and playground is planned for winter 2024, with the goal of keeping out deer to protect plants and reduce the presence of ticks. Noli Taylor of the town’s parks and recreation committee, and the senior director of programs at IGI, says plant selection is planned for winter 2024, and planting for spring.

Plans for future heavy-machinery work in preparation for the site include cutting a swale for passage of water, as well as leveling work.

Juli Vanderhoop, member of the IGI board, and of Aquinnah’s parks and recreation and Community Preservation committees, says solidifying the forest site’s construction schedule is in progress. “We have some landscaping companies that have offered a day’s worth of work here and there,” says Vanderhoop. “It’s amazing because professionals understand how soil has to be composed, or what the overstory of [the] food forest will look like, how it will be accepted, whether [to make] a windscreen, or what we can plant underneath that overstory.”

Much of the literal groundwork for the forest site has occurred in recent years. Taylor says that a handful of community workdays on the site involved participants and landscapers clearing the land, and reducing overgrowth from invasive species. “There were wonderful workdays where townspeople of all ages came to help with some of the clearing,” says Taylor. Tree limbs from the site were also turned into biochar, a soil-enriching substance that will be used in plant installation.

The current food forest plans came into view in recent years along with Aquinnah’s town center plans, which have involved collaboration between Aquinnah housing, parks and recreation, and Community Preservation committees. The Conway School of Landscape Design, a graduate program in Conway, provided initial town center design plans in September 2020.

The food forest project is considering a wide range of plants, says Vanderhoop. “There are probably 120 different plants that the Conway School has placed in our hands to raise within [the site].”

Plants in consideration include blueberry, blackberry, elderberry, gooseberry, sour cherry, and wineberry. Other planting possibilities include asian pear, beach plums, grapes, wild strawberries, wild garlic, and lovage.

Vanderhoop imagines a range of uses for the space, including food production, but an education component is key. “Families can walk through the food forest and pick what’s available,” she said. “I’m not expecting vast production, but there is lots of educational potential to help people do this kind of food production.”

A priority of the education focus will be the site’s capacity for Wampanoag foraging practices, of which Vanderhoop has fond early memories. “I was a youth in the town of Aquinnah, and I had mostly two or three people I played with on a daily basis. But when we foraged, and our foraging capabilities took us far and wide — [with] the teachers who were my elders just making that presentation — it gave me an understanding of who they were, and instilled the knowledge of who I was yet to become. The knowledge of the ground that was around me here has rooted me in my culture and my history, and the history of my people who have been there for centuries.”

“Pathways are beautiful,” says Vanderhoop, “but being able to know where you are when just wandering through a forest, being able to face maybe where you’re going to come out, the light changes, the knowledge of getting through that, and how — these are all things that people just aren’t getting.”

Vanderhoop also hopes to impact land use perspectives, and see more open space on the Island. “Finding the special places, and having enough respect to not damage or destroy them, teaches you respect that these lands deserve,” says Vanderhoop. “Without them, we’re seeing traffic brought in by people that have culturally not been given a respect for land. How do we bring that back?”

The focus on Wampanoag foraging traditions is also reflected in the project’s partnership with Sassafras Earth Education, an Aquinnah-based summer camp directed by David Vanderhoop that hands down Wampanoag agricultural knowledge. Another project partner is Kinship Heals, an organization of Wampanoag women that uses cultural traditions to foster community protection, strength, and resilience.

As work on the project continues, Taylor and Vanderhoop state that multiple aspects are yet to fully solidify.

Taylor says that the project partly hinges on securing funding, which will depend on finalization of project plans. “Fencing is the highest-ticket item,” says Taylor. Work is currently in progress toward securing a bid for the fencing, which is expected to cost $25,000. Aquinnah’s Community Preservation committee has set aside $2,000 for the forest’s plant materials.

“We’re going to move forward with as many practices as we can, and see what will grow there freely,” says Vanderhoop of the planting. “We’re just trying to give ourselves a platform to follow what is going on, and the science will dictate how we move forward.”


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