Thanksgiving Bounty

by Bill Duesing

First broadcast on WSHU/WSUF-FM, November 22, 1996

It's been another great fall in the garden. We are still harvesting lettuce, greens and broccoli in the middle of November! We had fantastic harvests of red norland and fingerling potatoes that I planted after we pulled up the garlic in mid-July. We've just started eating delicious Brussels sprouts, made even sweeter by the recent hard frosts. And, we still have Eastham turnips, carrots, and parsnips 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 just 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 stories from early visitors (in the spring and summer) of the abundance of animals, delicious plants and wondrous large trees. First reports spoke of natives who seemed to lead a rather relaxed life -hunting, fishing, gathering and tending their 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 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 deliberate 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 shad or the ripening of berries. They preserved the surplus (when it was available) to get them through lean times, all within the carrying capacity of this ecosystem. With the exception of those who lived in the northern areas of Maine, the natives grew gardens which included 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 throughout 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 pilgrims 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 thickly forested now than it has been in over a century. We frequently hear and 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 respect and celebrate the bounty this region can provide.

Happy Thanksgiving!

This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth

This page and its contents are copyright © 1996-1997 by WSHU-FM, Fairfield, CT, and by Bill Duesing.