Thanksgiving Bounty

by Bill Duesing

First broadcast on WSHU/WSUF-FM, November 17, 1995

It's been a great fall in the garden. We were still harvesting tomatoes the first weekend in November. The wonderful rains have been much appreciated by gardeners and by vegetables. We had great harvests of red norland and carola potatoes that I planted after we pulled up the garlic in July. Broccoli, celery and assorted greens keep on producing their healthful and delicious bounty. We've just started eating the Brussels sprouts, made sweeter by the recent hard frosts. And, we still have Eastham turnips, mangels (those are big beets), parsnips and other roots to harvest for storage in the root cellar. The beds of garlic are just about all planted and mulched, and the winter rye cover crop already brings a bright green to the fields.

Next week on Thanksgiving, we'll celebrate the harvest in a tradition that began in 1621, the second year that the Europeans lived in the New England region. The winter before, their first here, was deadly for many of the newcomers. They didn't have enough food. Historian William Cronon writes that many of the colonists arrived on this shore believing this was a land of plenty where very little work was required in order to live. They had heard reports from early visitors (in the spring and summer) of the abundance of animals, delicious plants and wondrous large trees. Early visitors spoke of natives who seemed to lead a relaxed life -hunting, fishing, gathering and tending gardens.

Indeed, in his fascinating book, Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists and the Ecology of New England, Cronon concludes that pre-invasion New England really was a land of plenty, an abundant and rich ecosystem. Much of the area was covered with a magnificent old growth forest filled with wildlife. There really were incredible numbers of turkeys, elk, bear, deer, salmon, shad and trout. The waters off the coast were brimming with clams, oysters, cod, flounder, and many other fish. Chestnut, hickory, and oak trees dropped delicious nuts; maples provided sweet syrup. Clearings were filled with strawberries, raspberries, cranberries, shadberries, or blueberries, depending on the region and the season.

Cronon makes it clear that the paradise the Europeans found was the result of the way the natives had lived here for thousands of years. They made use of fire and selective clearing to encourage the plants which were useful to wildlife and humans. They respected the large trees. However, the natives were also aware that to every thing there is a season. Their nomadic communities of fewer than two hundred people moved around to take advantage of the running of the shad or the ripening of the berries. They preserved the surplus when it was available, to get them through lean times, all within the carrying capacity of this ecosystem. Except for those who lived in the north of Maine, the natives also grew gardens including corn, beans and squash, the three sisters. These foods could be dried and were then easily stored in order to provide concentrated energy and nourishment in the winter. Living within this bounty, it's not surprising that the natives were helpful and generous to the invaders.

The first Thanksgiving meal was probably a hybrid of American and European foods as the newcomers began to establish European agriculture in the new world. Certainly the turkey, cornbread, cranberries, and squash came from the natives.

Just 51 years after the first Thanksgiving, the wild turkey, formerly in great abundance, was described as rare in Massachusetts. Eventually, the European system prevailed, and in just over 200 years, 80 percent of the trees had been cut down, and much of the farmed land had been exhausted. Erosion, silted streams and changed weather were common.

As farmers and loggers abandoned this region for unplowed fields and uncut forests further west and around the world, the woods and its inhabitants began to return. New England is more forested now than it has been in over a century. I frequently see wild turkeys on our farm and in New Haven.

As the continuing thrust of European-style domination and exploitation of forests and farmland plays itself out with devastating results around the world, it makes more and more sense to wisely use and celebrate the bounty this region can provide.

Happy Thanksgiving.

This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth

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