Thanksgiving: More than a holiday

Pumpkin pie. Photo credit: Peggy Greb, USDA/ARS

Too many Americans have forgotten the real purpose of Thanksgiving. To them, it is a break in the routine, another chance to go somewhere fast.

By Sigurd F. Olson, IWLA Wilderness Ecologist
Originally published in the November 1958 issue of Outdoor America magazine

We Americans take our land for granted, take Thanksgiving Day in stride just as we take Christmas and Independence Day, the only difference being in the manner of observance. This day during the glories of late autumn is one of big dinners, turkey and dressing, sweet potatoes and cranberries, mince pie a la mode. It is a time for visiting and travel and rushing uncounted miles from town to town. A day for football games, college bands, prancing drum majorettes, and all the pageantry of fall. And in churches all over the land, we are reminded briefly of the Pilgrim Fathers, their courage and fortitude in coming to a hostile shore.

Very seldom do we stop to think of the land itself, of the beauty and great expanse of it between the Atlantic and the Pacific, of its mountains and plains, its rolling farmlands, its lakes and forests and rivers or the grand sweep of ocean beaches. In the observance of the day, this great land seems merely a backdrop to the all-important objective of reaching some particular place to eat roast turkey dinner.

After the day is over, back we go to whatever work we have to do, replete with much food and the friends and families we have seen. We tend to tuck in the back of our minds what was said in church and what we have seen – everything, perhaps, except the knowledge of a break in routine and the pleasant anticipation of a new holiday coming up, for no sooner are the turkey gobblers and yellow pumpkins stripped from windows and displays than Santa and his reindeer come into view. Barely another month and we can take to the road again. Thanksgiving too often is merely a milestone in this series of celebrations, another excuse for going somewhere fast.

Prairie photo. Credit USFWS.Ours is a big land, three thousand miles of it from coast to coast, some two billion acres all told. It is a land of far horizons, blue distances, and opportunity. There is little want and no limit to either the fulfillment of our ambitions or our pleasures. We sing the song, “Don’t Fence Me In,” thinking it is just a catchy tune, not realizing that this song expresses the American philosophy of space to roam and freedom to come and go.

Today we have more freedom than ever with our wonderful network of roads and transportation facilities that laugh at distance. We can move over the entire country with complete abandon, drive or fly to Thanksgiving dinners in a few hours that a generation or two ago might have taken several days or weeks and tremendous effort.

All this we are apt to take for granted, forgetting that many people live in tiny countries with borders that may not be crossed except with difficulty or not at all. We sing another song, “Thy rocks and rills, they woods and templed hills” [from “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee”], and for a moment our eyes may be misty with emotion, but we soon forget what those lines really mean, forget how infinitely we are blessed. Should we not be thankful for its spaciousness and beauty?

Scouting hunt location in Minnesota. Credit Tina Shaw-USFWSFall is the time of the Hunter’s Moon, when leaves are turning and skies are especially blue. We go to the fields and marshes, to the forests, the lakes and the mountains, not so much for the game we take but to recapture certain things that are close to our hearts – the smell of early morning in the lowlands, sagebrush in the foothills and pine at noon, the high whistle of wings as ducks come over the decoys, the glow of sunset and a wavering flock etched against the horizon, the whirr of a cock pheasant in the stubble or a covey of quail exploding from under foot, the twisting flight of a ruffed grouse through red and gold, the joy of watching a good dog quarter across a field, the silence of a snowy morning in the deer country, the companionship and the good warm feeling before a log fire after the day is done. All these are part of hunting and fishing, and the memories are perhaps the greatest part of the take. All year long, the very thought of them brings happiness.

When Thanksgiving comes, should we not give thanks for memories such as these, for the privilege of being able to hunt and fish and go wherever we like? For many people in other countries, free hunting and fishing does not exist. Surely to those who love the outdoors, this is a blessing we should ever remember.

From where I write, the wilderness canoe trails of the Quetico-Superior stretch endlessly into the back country. Thousands of young people and oldsters too are following the historic routes of the voyageurs, seeing this land of lakes and rivers and forests as it was seen 200 years ago, listening to the same sounds, getting the same smells, knowing the same freedoms and challenges.

Bald Eagle in Yellowstone National Park. Credit Jim Peaco.And so it is with all such natural areas – the national parks and monuments, the state and national forests with their wilderness regions – set aside for enjoyment and inspiration, not only for this but for future generations. These areas have been planned and fought for so that in an age when man is conquering nature on this planet and is on the verge of exploring space itself, there will always be places where the grand and sublime influences of the primeval, with its sense of timelessness and space, will always be a refuge when the pressures, tensions, noise, and confusion of urban areas become intolerable to moderns. In these places, solitude can still be found and the peace and tranquility of a simpler age.

So on Thanksgiving Day, when we take to the road, let us pause a while and remember. Let us say a prayer of thanksgiving first for the land itself and all its beauties, then to those who have gone before and to all of the conservation groups, including the Izaak Walton League, and the many other uncounted individuals who have worked to preserve it for us. We should take time in our travelling across the land to think of those who had the vision to conserve this precious heritage.

Without their dedication, there would be little left that was [not] despoiled. There would be no state or national parks, no national forests, no picnic places, few unpolluted waters, and little fishing or hunting anywhere. While there is still much to be done, America would be a different land today were it not for those who devoted their lives to the ideal that future generations might also enjoy the outdoors. We should see our land with reverence and loyalty knowing what has gone into its preservation. Only through much understanding – which is the background of the entire conservation concept – can true appreciation be developed. Knowing this, we can be thankful and humble in the knowledge that because of others, ours is the privilege of enjoyment. The realization is a sobering one and no conservationist should ever look at his countryside without being conscious of the debt he owes.

Thanksgiving is a time not only to remember what we owe but to pledge ourselves again to carry on the work. Only in this way can we develop a feeling of stewardship and responsibility and, in the last analysis, love of our land.

Let us therefore not be content until our rivers again run clean, until denuded hills are covered with green trees and the dustbowls with grass and all topsoil is safe from erosion. Let us pledge ourselves anew to the restoration of drained marshland so that some day they too may be full to the brim and alive with songbirds and waterfowl. Let us in the same spirit not only keep our country clean and beautiful but restore the places we have made ugly. Let us keep our wilderness areas as sanctuaries of the spirit. Thanksgiving is an empty gesture unless we realize we too must give.

Horace MacFarland said just half a century ago: “The true glory of the United States must rest on the love of country – a love that keeps glowing the holy fire of patriotism – a fire kept glowing by its beauty.”

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