As a child, Mills felt a high level of sensitivity for the earth. He would become upset when he accidentally uprooted a living plant while working in the garden. “I don’t know how you explain it. I just loved the beauty of how things grew and I wanted to know about the bees and the butterflies,” Mills says. “My mother was so steeped in it.”
Many of the plants in Mills’s garden have come from elsewhere: French lilacs from his first grade teacher, quince from his grandmother, and a peach tree acquired from a friend in Wareham. The peonies that once flourished in the garden outside his childhood home continue to bloom just down Main Street at Mills’s current residence.
Life in Mills’s garden takes very little time off. The first forsythias come up in April and hydrangeas bloom well into autumn. Even when frost is still on the ground some plants thrive—peas, watermelons, and lettuce all do best when planted at this time, the chief explains. Seeds can be planted in pots and brought indoors for a jumpstart during the colder months and planted in the ground when the time comes.
Instead of planning the life cycle of his garden with a calendar, Mills analyzes different signs in nature to know when the right time has come. Buds on the oak tree, a shad bush in bloom, herring running, or algae growing on a pond are all season-specific indications of what to do with a particular plant. Being aware of these signs makes for a plentiful bounty come harvest. “There’s a time for planting, a time for harvesting, a time for repairing, and there’s a time for rest and getting ready,” says Mills.
Throughout the grounds, Mills strives for sustainability. A humidifier collects runoff, soapy water is used as a pesticide, and many plants and flowers come from friends—Mills admits to digging up the occasional cast-off specimen from the side of the road as well. This returns to the theme of staying within the seasons. “If you’re going to be sustainable, it’s a never-ending process,” he says. “Each season has its uniqueness. Parlay what you have into the next season by storing seeds, stocking the root cellar, and making mulch.”
Living completely off the land is impossible with a garden that only encompasses the perimeter of a house. Still, Mills squeezes every bit of sustainability out of his land, whether by growing staples for his kitchen or foraging for rosehip and beach plums around Mashpee.
Plantains are brewed into a soothing tea, tobacco is dried for smoking, and wild grapes are crushed into jam.
Mills’s five children mean more than anything else—the ups and downs of parenting have left him full of pride at what they have accomplished. All he has to do is walk through their yards to see that his love of gardening has spilled over to the next generation. His son Earl Jr., who he affectionately refers to as “Chiefie,” has carried on the tradition of raising pigs and produce. Mills’s daughters all have abundant flower gardens of their own.
As the sun cools off and leaves begin to fall, New England undergoes its annual transformation. “Autumn is my favorite time of the year,” Mills says. “It is time to harvest and gather the bounty of cultivation and Mother Earth’s bounty of creation. It is time to celebrate.” He says it is a time to offer thanksgiving to “the great mystery.”
In Wampanoag tradition, a plate of food for the ancestors is placed on a stump in the back yard during a feast. For Mills’s it is a practice “That makes you feel that you are part of this wonderful creation. It goes way back and deep because I feel very strongly about it,” he says. While many Cape Codders will be relaxing now that summer is coming to an end, Chief Flying Eagle will still be digging, pruning, and mulching—preparing his garden for another season.
For more Wampanoag wisdom and recipes that make the most of Cape Cod’s bounty, purchase Cape Cod Wampanoag Cookbook: Wampanoag Indian Recipes, Images & Lore, by Earl Mills, Sr. and Betty Breen by visiting clearlightbooks.com.
Matt Nilsson is web and special sections editor at Cape Cod Life Publications. This article is based on a story idea submitted by Lee Roscoe.
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