It’s for the Birds

It’s for the Birds

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Throughout our 100+ years of history on this saltwater peninsula, everyone from the youngest camper to the loftiest scholar in our ranks has offered an explanation for the name “Chewonki,” (the Anglicized form of a Penobscot word).

One vocal faction often explains the word “Chewonki” to mean “the place of the turning,” perhaps because when the incoming tide in Montsweag Bay reverses, it flows north and south around neighboring Westport Island to return to the sea.

Another passionate group claims “Chewonki” means “where the moose lies down,” a reference to the shape of the stony ridges that run down the length of the peninsula.  Yet a third group insists the name imitates the call of the Canada geese who frequent these tidal waters during migration. (Che-WONK che-WONK che-WONK!)

Cullen McGough, Chewonki’s director of communications (and a man who enjoys digging into Chewonki history the way pigs love rooting for savory truffles), has uncovered a more convincing interpretation. McGough recently came across an old edition of The Waterville Mail (in Colby College’s digital archive) featuring the work of Maine poet Hannah Augusta Moore (b. 1827 or 1828; nom-de-plume: “Wanona Wandering”).

Moore was born near or on Chewonki Neck in Wiscasset, her mother’s hometown, and spent her early childhood and many later summers here. Her poetry is full of nature imagery and sometimes includes references to specific Wiscasset landmarks.

In her poem “Spinning and Weaving in the Birds’ Home,” Moore describes creating metaphorical cloth from her happy memories. She put a note at the bottom of the poem to explain that the poem’s title refers to the name of the place she loved best: “Jewankee, which is an Indian name, meaning ‘The birds’ home.’ (“Jewankee” has appeared on several other surviving documents from the 19th and early 20th-century documents.)

Moore’s translation would delight both Chewonki founder Clarence Allen and renowned ornithologist and artist Roger Tory Peterson, an old-time Camp Chewonki nature counselor, not to mention the many other bird lovers who have passed through Chewonki on their own life journeys.

We may never be 100 percent certain of the name the Penobscot people gave to this place, but Moore has given us an excellent addition to our origin story.

Below is an excerpt from another Moore poem. Although the language is cloying to 21st-century sensibilities, the poem expresses the joy we feel as another Chewonki summer rises.

June in Maine

by Hannah Augusta Moore

Beautiful, beautiful summer!
Odorous, exquisite June!
All the sweet roses in blossom,
All the sweet birdies in tune.

All the dim aisles of the forest
Ringing and thrilling with song:
Music—a flood-tide of music—
Poured the green valleys along.

Birds and the gales[?] and the flowers
Call us from study away,
Out to the fields where the mowers
Soon will be making the hay.