At the close of the growing season in autumn, people, like squirrels, like ants, like bees, get busy gathering the great bounty of the land. We forage and harvest, hunt and herd; industriously amassing the abundance proffered by the earth, water and sky. After the toil, the patient tending of the soil, the months of work and worry, we are ready and relieved to collect the crop and the kill.
We set about preparing it, preserving it, salting it, saving it, packing it away for future use, making feverish haste in the race against the coming cold. But, first, before we store it, horde it for the hard times ahead, we take the time to glory in its goodness. With grateful prayers of thanksgiving we acknowledge our precious fortune, and gorge ourselves with fabulous feasts of plenty.
Harvest festivals are pandemic. They represent the successful completion of another fertile cycle. Another season of life and growth come full circle. Another go-round. In agricultural societies the annual cycles are counted from sowing to scything. The cycle from birth to slaughter is followed by the keepers and stalkers of stock and game. And the season starting with the spawning and culminating in the running of the salmon, the cod, the squid, the whale, is observed by those who fish to live.
Ultimately, all harvest festivities celebrate one more season of our tenuous survival. We have managed to live through another year. Another fertile period has passed in our favor. We have been lucky. One way or another, we will have the wherewithal to sustain ourselves through another winter, another dry spell, another monsoon, yet another tricky test of time.
Our own familiar fall festival of Thanksgiving is an amalgam of Old and New World harvest celebrations. The pilgrims brought the Harvest Home Festivals of the Ingathering from England with them --and very little else. By the time the Mayflower landed in Massachusetts in December of 1620, most of their supplies had been depleted at sea. They had barely anything left with which to survive the first winter.
Indeed, by spring, only 55 of the original 102 settlers were still alive. And they had no seeds to plant. It was only through the generous sponsorship of the indigenous Wampanoag people that they were able to establish a foothold and ultimately thrive. Thrive and spread like the native vines, sending out endless shoots of sticky tendrils that overtook the native inhabitants and eventually strangled everything they touched.
The locals introduced the colonists to the domestic foods of Turtle Island (a common original name for the Western Hemisphere) and taught them cultivation techniques. By the following fall, the pilgrims' first crops of corn, squash, and pumpkins had been planted, tended and harvested successfully. A major celebration was called for. So the Indian hosts were invited as guests and ninety attended, joining the fifty-some whites.
Abundant stores of cranberries and oysters were collected, countless deer and turkey shot. Four English women and two teenage girls did all the cooking for the giant banquet. As in the Harvest Home tradition and also that of the great Autumn Green Corn Festivals celebrated by the agricultural tribes of the North, Southeast and Southwest of Turtle Island, they sat down together to eat in fellowship and true Thanksgiving.
Games were played. Corn was popped. Arms were displayed. The rest is history.
We, too, have nothing to eat. It is autumn and we haven't put anything away safe for our own survival. We hunger and thirst for the spirit of reverence and respect for the world which sustains us. But in our push for ascendancy, for power, for dominance -- over the land, over each other, over the odds, over Mother Nature Herself -- we have poisoned our providence and sullied the source of our own livelihood, our very ability to live at all.
And what of our children, our grandchildren, the great grandchildren of us all? What have we saved for them?
The recent conservative infatuation with the restoration of family values has certainly risen to reflect a profoundly felt human desire for a realigned awareness and re-connection with those things in life that really matter. This Thanksgiving let us remember that we are part of the potentially functional family of humanity -- relatives, kin, clan, mishpocheh, mitakuye oyasin, as the Sioux say, to all the inhabitants of the Universe.
For this, let us be thankful.