- Platitudes this week are as numerous as leaves on our front lawn. Lists of what to be thankful for are as long as they are meaningless. Others lament “thankful for what?” still bitter at the election or some personal hurt. Mostly, I must admit, I find our tiny corner of the world to be filled with cold ingrates, who have almost no appreciation of how lucky we are to be alive in this time and place.
- When Lincoln declared the first of these November Thanksgivings back in 1863, few from today’s world would have had much idea what he was talking about. From over a century on, it very much seems a plea as desperate as any offered by some refugee trapped in the current Mideast violent madness.
- A war was raging, bloodshed was immense, vast numbers of men in their prime had died, and in spite of Vicksburg and Gettysburg, the Union appeared lost. Hordes of Irish refugees had arrived in the previous decades, fleeing the potato famine, and although they were now eating, they had made some of the slums in cities almost uninhabitable. Millions were enslaved under the lash. Corruption ruled politics. Most children died before they were ten, mothers often died in childbirth, common diseases were fatal. Life anywhere, except for a fortunate few, was harsh, filled with hunger and cold and uncertainty. There was no electricity, not much indoor plumbing, barely heated homes, poor food storage and distribution.
- And yet, in the midst of all that, Lincoln put together an inspiring declaration. Not surprising, maybe he was thinking of the next election. But astonishingly a lot of people said, “Yep, fine, ok, let’s give thanks for all we have.” And the tradition carried on from there until now.
- I will not repeat all those platitudes you are reading, I will not compose some longer list than those you are finding everywhere. I will simply encourage you to reflect a moment on whether you would really, truly, trade for anyone else anywhere else in history _ not for their great deeds or immortal works _ but for their daily lives. I would not. I suspect almost anyone would be a fool to do so.
- In North American deciduous forests, leaf-fall recycles organic materials to the benefit of the entire ecology. Trees are better prepared to bear the weight of snow and ice, small rodents and other animals burrow into the soft thick quilt covering the ground, nutrients seep into the soil as decay sets in. The true owners of the planet _ bacteria and fungi _ feast and thrive. Probably only humans enjoy the spectacle as an aesthetic masterwork.
- Suburban dwellers are perverse. Maintaining green lawns where there ought to be woodland is a constant chore, not least when they are covered with dried foliage. In spite of the recycling, in spite of the spectacle, I admit that I do not jump up on November mornings happily shouting “golly gee, I get to rake and bag today!” Once outside, I am content enough at my labor until some jet pack roar of a whining leaf blower interrupts my quiet meditations.
- At least, I tell myself, it gets the blood moving, and it is, after all, an outdoor activity. Often mild enough not to need gloves. Eventually, I reconcile myself with farewells to such rituals until spring arrives, and go about my day watching the hazed sky, facing the constant wind, and listening to the scrunch of organic detritus as I complete my chores.
- Americans seem to be raised grasping and envious. Most ignore Thoreau, who wrote that “a man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone.”
- Own all that you can own, wish for more than you can imagine. An exacting recipe for perfect perpetual misery.
- Darwinistic evolution is often presented as “nature red in tooth and claw,” where the survival of the fittest means the losers are always being consumed, one way or another, by the winners. The slowest zebra falls to the fastest lion every day, for eons, and pretty soon there are very few slow zebras. In such a view, nature is a bloody mess, a paranoid world of constant death.
- Nevertheless, I look out my window at the bird feeder and rarely see blood. Squirrels and birds peacefully coexist. The trees are certainly not dripping with the ichor of ongoing conflict. At any given moment, nature is just as peaceful and calm and serene as any Romantic poet could wish. I have yet to see much of natural evolution, although birds are occasionally killed by the neighborhood cat, and I often see ospreys carrying a dripping fish in their talons.
- Which brings us to terror and events like the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
- All my life, there have been some terrible events around me and in the world. I was born shortly after World War II, when Hiroshima victims were still dying of radiation, populations in Europe were starving, and Stalin was enforcing the gulag. Closer to home, friends died of leukemia or were affected by polio or simply were involved in childhood accidents. In maturity I have been extremely fortunate personally, but could not ignore conflicts, wars, famines and other nasty fatal events in the world. Age inevitably carried some close relatives and friends off, cancer struck others, and at slight remove car accidents always harvest more than a few.
- Why, then, does being injured or killed at a parade become such a fear? I would be far more likely to be killed trying to get there _ there are worries enough about drunken drivers on the highways, crumbling infrastructure on the trains, homicidal lunatics in the subways _ than I would be even were some explosion to happen. Logically, there are so few terror attacks in this country _ so few airplane incidents for that matter
_ that this should be at the very bottom of our concerns list. But it is not.
- I think it is because of manipulation. The government, the police, the elite always want the masses to think they are doing something important, and that life would be awful without them or if they scaled back their activities. It is in the interest of the military and the police to have us believe we are in constant danger and only live because we pay an awful lot for protection. It is in the interest of politicians to claim that by doing nothing at all they have actually kept us safe from certain tragedy. It is in the interest of media to fan our fears, to keep us addicted to the latest shot of fright, like teenagers flocking to midnight horror movies.
- I know that mankind red in tooth and claw can sometimes be true, as it is right now in the Mideast. I do not pretend there is nothing to fear but fear itself. I sympathize with victims of attacks, as I do with victims of automobile accidents or disease. But, as in real nature out by the bird feeder, I also think that for most of us most of the time most of our moments our world are quite safe and always wonderful.
- During my daily walk, I was observing the first bufflehead duck to arrive when an osprey swooped so low overhead that I could feel its passage. As soon gone mysteriously out of sight as the buffleheads, which vanish all summer long. Raptors and ducks have made a nice comeback since the banning of DDT, and I am grateful for hawks circling overhead, ospreys on their massive twig nests, and reports of eagles’ return.
- In other times I would have rushed to learn the winter habits of ospreys, the summer dwellings of buffleheads, but no more. I am content with mystery. I do not seek to know everything about everything, but to fully appreciate what I find each moment. I wish to locate balance in our real world, for those of us who do not have time, desire, nor resources to concentrate on one tiny aspect of something.
- Trying to know more than everyone else is a form of ownership, a kind of attempt to create envy in others. It is perhaps less destructive than accumulating goods, but chasing knowledge like some modern Faust will lead to the same damnation that he endured _ a life badly spent, the eternity of moments we possess regretfully wasted. Better to just smile as the osprey passes, grateful that we can still share our worlds.
- Blustery winds sweep down the harbor from dark purple-streamed clouds off to the north. Larry seagull poises happily over a fat dead fish washed up by the receding tide on the shell-strewn sand. Good day for a feast, he thinks.
- A shriek overhead startles him a moment until he realizes it’s just Moe, as usual, arriving late and noisy. He waddles away calmly away from the dive bomber who is now squawking “mine mine mine” at the top of his lungs. Of course, that display has caught the attention of Curly, circling over the far bank, and he is soon on his way getting ready to rumble.
- Moe struts around his prize, taking a peck here or there, tasting and hardly getting much because he is keeping a wary eye out for competitors. Curly swoops in out of the sun with a ferocious display of huge wings, claws outstretched aimed directly at Moe, who angrily hops out of the way.
- The two circle each other, hurling insults and challenges. “I got it first!” shouts Moe “wait your turn!”
- “Out of my way, you fat moron!” cries Curly, shoving his wide open yellow beak menacingly.
- “Guys, guys,” says Larry calmly. “There’s enough for everybody. Calm down …” Of course he is ignored completely, and backs off to meditate on the day and the season. What the hell, there will be lots of leftovers.
- “Stop now!” shouts Curly. “Idiot son of a scavenger go home!” shrieks Moe. They circle like ancient Greek wrestlers seeking the first fall, but never actually touch each other. Running, quick winged hops, occasional near misses. This goes on for almost five minutes, as they each jealously keep the other from getting too much, which means that by far the largest portion of the menhaden remains untouched. Finally, breathing heavily, too tired to stand, they float warily offshore, circling. “I’ll get you someday, you crook!” taunts Moe. “You and what army?” mumbles Curly, but his heart is no longer in it.
- Larry, the largest brown gull around, realizes that it is his turn, and slowly wanders down and prepares to take his fill. Moe and Curly remain too involved with each other to notice.
- Sometimes, he realizes, when there is too much at the feast, it is best to wait until the crazies are out of the way.
More days, more joy, more sun, more hope
More things, more stuff, more life itself
And while we’re at it
More needs, more wants,