The holiday we now celebrate by stuffing ourselves with turkey and a host of other dishes, often followed by a glut of watching football, did not begin with either turkey or sports. In fact, it didn't begin with people who we now call Pilgrims from a colony in what is now Massachusetts.
The very first Thanksgiving recorded on what is now American soil came on September 8, 1565 when Pedro Mendez de Aviles, a Spanish colonizer, landed with his party at what is now St. Augustine, Florida. Faced with an assemblage of native Timucua Indians who might or might not be friendly, Mendez de Aviles ordered the group to celebrate an impressive Mass of Thanksgiving for their successful voyage to the continent they called the New World, but which was, in fact, the old world to the many cultures who already resided there. After Mass, the Spaniards invited the natives to join them in a feast featuring bean soup made from their remaining shipboard supplies.
Thanksgiving services, with and without feasts and most often without Native participation, were common in the early years of European settlement of North America. Don Juan de Oñate and his train of followers celebrated a Mass of Thanksgiving in 1598 on the banks of the Rio Grande near what is now El Paso, Texas, as the Spaniards marched north to lay claim to the far-flung empire of New Spain. The English settlers of the Berkeley Hundred colony on the James River in Virginia celebrated a service of Thanksgiving upon their arrival in 1619, and of course, the settlers of Plymouth Plantation celebrated the Thanksgiving feast in 1622 that we commemorate today. (That theirs lasted three days and that turkey was not on any recorded menu are facts set aside in the day's evolution into a national holiday to gluttony, followed by a national day of shopping.)
Thanksgiving celebrations of yore were generally celebrations of the European effort to wrest a whole continent from its native people. That seems to me something to attone for, rather than something to feel thankful for. So on our national holiday of Thanksgiving, I make an effort to focus my day on things for which I can give thanks.
I begin with thanks to the Earth, our own green and blue planet which, despite being battered by its swelling human population, sustains the only life our species has ever known. And a rather spectacular life it is, shared with some 1.8 million other species, from microscopic creatures with shells of glass to lives the size of giant redwood trees and blue whales as long as school buses. Thank you, Earth!
I give thanks for those myriad species as well, including the ones like ravens and sagebrush and Indian paintbrush that animate my everyday landscape, and the tiny ones that live on and in me, aiding my body in its digestion and health; as well as the wilder and more distant ones like grizzly bears, eelgrass, leatherback turtles, baobab trees, sooty shearwaters, and monarch butterflies, whose stories and lives inspire my own. Thank you, Peoples of Earth, Sky, and Waters!
I give thanks for my far-flung human community of family, friends, and colleagues, all of those whose lives have touched mine over the years. Thank you!
I give thanks for the plants in my garden and those grown on area farms, and the animals that provide the food I cook lovingly to nurture friends and family. Thank you, winter squash vines for your hard and crusty fruit, maple trees for yielding sap for syrup, wheat for the seeds ground into flour, cows for the milk churned to butter and that thick whipping cream, chickens for your nutritious eggs, pecan trees for those rich nuts, grapes for the juice we ferment into wine, and barley and hops for the seeds we make into foamy beer!
This year I have some special reasons to give thanks: Our country's political winds have shifted rather dramatically from what has seemed like a culture of fear and divisiveness to one of hope and the generosity of inclusiveness.
I am thankful that my memoir, Walking Nature Home: A Life's Journey, will be published next March, with illustrations by Sherrie York, an artist whose friendship and inspiration I cherish. For the surprise award of a fellowship from a private foundation that will allow me to stay at home and work on the next book for three months beginning in mid-January. (Thanks to Grant Pound and Colorado Art Ranch for midwifing the fellowship!)
And last but certainly not least, I give thanks for my family, especially my husband Richard, who has not only survived bladder cancer, but continues to inspire me with his sculpture work.
So on this official day of giving thanks, I have much to be thankful for. And that makes this a rich Thanksgiving indeed. May yours be similarly blessed, with many reasons to give thanks!