It's been another great fall in the garden. We're still harvesting
parsley, 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, potatoes and leeks 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 will soon bring a bright green to
Next week on Thanksgiving, we'll celebrate the harvest in a tradition that
began in 1621, the second year that the Europeans lived in New England.
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 before the invasion,
this region truly 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 in the New
World 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 as necessary to take advantage of running shad or
ripening berries. They preserved the surplus (when it was available) to
get them through lean times. All this was accomplished within their
ecosystem's carrying capacity. 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 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
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
on the outskirts of New Haven and Bridgeport.
As the continuing thrust of European-style domination and exploitation of
forests and farmland plays itself out with devastating results globally, it
makes more and more sense to respect and celebrate the bounty this region
This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth
(C) 1998, Bill Duesing, Solar Farm Education, Box 135, Stevenson, CT 06491
Bill and Suzanne Duesing operate the Old Solar Farm (raising NOFA/CT
certified organic vegetables) and Solar Farm Education (working on urban
agriculture projects in southern Connecticut and producing "Living on the
Earth" radio programs). Their collection of essays Living on the Earth:
Eclectic Essays for a Sustainable and Joyful Future is available from Bill
Duesing, Box 135, Stevenson, CT 06491 for $14 postpaid. These essays first
appeared on WSHU, public radio from Fairfield, CT. New essays are posted
weekly at http://www.wshu.org/duesing and those since November 1995 are
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