Notes on a Lost Flute

LIKE BEADS IN a wampum belt, writers carefully stitch together words to create images, but what is conveyed by a solitary word? To Kerry Hardy, a single word can reveal important connections between people and the landscape in which they live — more specifically between the Wabanaki and their ancestral homeland in Maine.

Hardy, whose background is more in ecology than ethnography, unexpectedly found himself delving into indigenous culture and language through a simple observation and question. Why did his road in Rockland, Maine, “wiggle” when so many of the town’s other streets ran in straight lines? That question led to his discovery of numerous old Indian paths that radiated throughout Maine from a trading post established in 1628 by Pilgrims at Cushnoc, or what became Augusta — Maine’s capital city. The realization that these ancient trading paths still exist, as do the sites where Wabanaki villages once stood to harvest the bounty of Maine’s rivers, propelled Hardy into what might be considered linguistic forensics to uncover a rich cultural history that resides in the words of place.

Notes on a Lost Flute shows how words can convey attributes of forgotten landscapes, often long after critical features are gone. Take Mount Kineo. Kineo is a slightly morphed version of the Algonkin word for golden eagle. The majestic bird once nested on the mountain’s steep cliffs, giving the mountain its name. That name still exists even though golden eagles no longer nest in Maine. As Hardy points out, “a place name doesn’t die. . . . We can be grateful for this, for in place names we can still find stories about how the ancients used and saw the landscape.”

Hardy often comes to differing interpretations of the meaning of place names than those preceding him. This is where his ecological background may help him see relationships that others might miss. Whether his suppositions are correct isn’t as important as the process of sleuthing out what a name infers. So it was with Seguin Island off of Popham Beach. For more than a year he tried to figure out the origins of the island’s name and kept coming to similar sounding Algonkin words for the tail of a horseshoe crab. He became convinced that in some way these crabs were associated with the island. During his next visit to Popham Beach he saw that the island’s profile directly resembles that of a horseshoe crab with its tail pointing straight toward the mouth of the Kennebec River.

Though not a guide to be taken into the field, this richly illustrated historical narrative can help people better understand the place in which they live. For anyone interested in the intimate relationship between nature and language, it’s a must-read.