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What to Do with Thanksgiving?

By Beth Norcross & Leah Rampy

Oak leaves in autumn

Like so many of you, we have loved Thanksgiving for many years. It seemed a perfect antidote to the consumerism and materialism displayed at many other major holidays. And, it’s so important to take time out from our striving to sit in gratitude for all that we have been given.

However, it’s become increasingly clear of late that Thanksgiving is not the universally joyful celebration we’ve imagined. When we look past the mythology of happy Pilgrims supping peacefully with helpful Native Americans, we see instead the truth of American colonization that includes appropriation of land, dismantling of culture and the genocide of indigenous people.

So, what are we to do with Thanksgiving?

To reimagine a holiday that celebrates our gratitude, perhaps it would be helpful to turn back to that indigenous wisdom that colonization worked so hard to eliminate.

In the last several weeks, we have been on a journey with trees during our six-week video series -- The Spiritual Wisdom of Trees. In our last session, we focused on what the trees might teach us about gratitude, and its twin, reciprocity. We drew on the deep wisdom of Robin Wall Kimmerer -- author, scientist, professor, Member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation -- who teaches about the indigenous concepts of abundant giving and receiving as a “gift economy”; the basis of this economy is that what is needed from the land is freely given, with no payment nor proof of worthiness required. And in gratitude for what we receive, it becomes our responsibility to pass the gifts along.

Let’s look at a few examples of how the gift economy works with oak trees. With their ability to transform sunshine into food, oaks share nutrients with other species who do not photosynthesize. For example, the cancer root wildflower, devoid of chlorophyll, cannot make its own food, and so it relies on tapping into the roots of the oak tree for its sustenance.

Here’s another example from the work of scientist and professor Douglas Tallamy: There are over 900 different species of Lepidoptera – most of them moths – who feed on oak leaves. Oaks are a nearly universal caterpillar food. Without oaks, there would be few caterpillars. And without caterpillars, birds would suffer.

Of course oaks receive gifts in return. Birds and squirrels help in the propagation process by spreading acorns. Woodpeckers and other birds pick out insects and other pathogens harmful to the tree.

Consider now the gifts of the oak to the human family. We likely know that we are the beneficiaries of a wide array of paper products as well as wood for homes, furniture, and flooring - all bringing structure and natural beauty into our lives. And our very breath comes in part from trees. Even if we seldom pause to fully appreciate it, we

know that trees absorb and store carbon dioxide and emit oxygen.

Oaks and other trees also directly remove pollutants from the air, filtering sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and dangerous particulate matter through their leaves and needles. And, the expansive root systems in trees act as sponges to slow potentially damaging stormwater runoff and to purify water.

Large spreading oaks also provide shade and reduce temperatures around our buildings and homes, which in turn, reduces the need for air conditioning, and that reduces the emissions of greenhouse gases. The lower temperatures also decrease ground level ozone that usually spikes on hot days in urban areas. And on our dramatically-warming planet, fueled by carbon dioxide levels climbing more rapidly than ever recorded on Earth, trees play a significant role in capturing and storing that carbon dioxide.

There are many more examples of trees dancing in reciprocity, giving and receiving gifts from other trees and other living beings. How might we respond to these gifts? We are used to the idea of receiving gifts from family or friends, but how about from the rest of the natural world?

If our uncle or aunt makes a homemade apple pie for Thanksgiving dinner, we are sure that we will feel gratitude for their efforts and for the gift, and we will tell them so. But if we decide to pick apples, we might not consider the labor of this tree; our mindset is likely to be more akin to “taking” than “receiving,” and saying “thank you” to the tree may never cross our minds.

The culture in which many of us are steeped, where the living world is a commodity that can be sacrificed for our convenience, is destroying ecosystems and breaking our hearts.

When we allow ourselves - fully and deeply - to see and receive the gifts, we will almost certainly sense gratitude. And as gratitude wells up in us, we feel the urge to respond to this generosity with generosity. Giving back is not only an honor, it is, as Robin Wall Kimmerer notes, a responsibility. This is how we continue the cycle, and the gift economy flourishes.

There are many ways to give back: a bow, a song, a poem, a prayer, a drink of water, an honest look at how our lives might harm or help, a commitment to protect. In the case of trees, or any other element of nature, our responsibility is to listen deeply for what the trees need, listen for what they are asking from you, and then respond from our hearts.

Sometimes trees offer very tangible gifts such as the apples we mentioned, or perhaps pecans or walnuts. These gifts are not for us alone.

Kimmerer reminds us of the tenets of the honorable harvest that have been practiced for generations by indigenous people in what is now called North and Central America. First, never take the first or the last. Then, never take more than half. Ask the tree for permission to receive the fruits of their labor and abide by what they say. Remember that gifts also belong to other people, animals, insects and to the tree itself. Don’t forget to share what you receive. All flourishing is mutual, and gifts are enhanced as they travel from one to another.

Participating in the flow of reciprocity requires action on our part. It demands an ongoing attentiveness to the living world and our kin of all species. It insists on an open-hearted commitment to communion and connection.

There are many different actions we could take to heighten our awareness of the gifts being offered. We might set aside time to center ourselves before our Thanksgiving meal and then attend to the vast network that allows us to eat the food before us. As we sit at wooden tables together, feel the comfort of wood-framed houses, and enjoy the warmth of wood fires, we can stop to say a word of thanks to the trees that were felled to meet our needs and our wants.

Undertaking a life of gratitude and reciprocity might be counter-cultural and far from easy. However, we can learn from the work of Kimmerer and other indigenous wisdom teachers that the gift economy is available for us to participate in, if we choose. We can remind ourselves that the trees around us have always participated in these practices. If we can accept the gift of such wisdom, perhaps we might reclaim a time of Thanks-giving after all.

Originally published on this site November, 20, 2021

Photo of leaves by John Trevors on Unsplash

Photo of oak tree by Simon Wilkes on Unsplash

Photo of apples by Sokmean Nou on Unsplash

Photo of forest by Johannes Plenio on Unsplash

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