Giving thanks when the trees are no more

This week, the United States will celebrate Thanksgiving. Turkeys will be roasted. Pies will be shared. Families will come together. And, just maybe, we will all pause for a brief moment before the meal to give thanks for our many blessings. The average North American is, after all, among the most privileged in the world.

Of course, plenty of food will be wasted, and far too many will go without. Some families will remain estranged, and the less-than-ethical turkey farming industry will be sitting pretty. Every year at this time I have a strange mix of feelings, and I reflect on what is, perhaps, the most ironic element of this holiday: the fact that the survival of European settlers in this land which prompted the first Thanksgiving meal ultimately meant the genocide of its indigenous people. Even now, native nations are continually oppressed.

A few years ago, as a member of a delegation with Christian Peacemaker Teams, I spent time with an Ojibwe community on their reservation in Ontario called Grassy Narrows, or in the Anishinaabe language, Asubpeeschoseewagong. It was a privilege to be welcomed and a privilege to learn of their history.

A leader in the community (I’ll call him Tony) took us out to the woods and told us the story of his family. He said that for as far back as anyone can remember his family was charged with caring for a particular expanse of the thick and beautiful boreal forest. Though the area was miles across his father knew where the bears made their homes and how many cubs survived each year. He knew each family of eagles, and he knew where they made their nests. The forest was this family’s home just like my neighborhood is mine. It was their grocery story, pharmacy, hospital, sanctuary, school house, and community of friends.

One day when Tony was young, his father went out to their land from the reservation and found it destroyed. A logging company had stripped the land of all its trees in order to make paper products. I remember Tony saying, “It was like if you went away for a weekend trip and came back to find that your whole town had been bombed. There was nothing left, and no one in the world to care but us.”

Logs from clearcut sites

What’s worse, there was no hope of the land healing itself over time, because the logging company had replanted the entire area with monoculture saplings doused in chemicals and genetically modified to produce wood ideal for – you guessed it – making more paper. The animals wouldn’t come back. The medicinal plants wouldn’t have a chance to grow. As soon as the trees were tall enough to turn a profit, the logging trucks would come right back in and do it all over again. In the face of such overwhelming loss, Tony’s father committed suicide.

I remember driving home through the cornfields of Indiana. For hours, the only trees were those that separated one farm from the next. Quietly, tearfully, it occurred to me that land I call home used to be a forest and that the families charged with caring for it are gone with the trees.

On Thanksgiving Day, when my house is a stereotypical holiday scene filled with laughter and delicious smells that make me hungrier than I ever thought I could be, I wonder… What does this day mean to those for whom the survival of my ancestors has brought nothing but tragedy? Is it right for me as a privileged, white person to participate, or would this day be better spent in mourning?

On the other hand, as a privileged, white person benefiting from the colonial sins of my people and immersed in a culture of rabid consumerism, how could I not take advantage of the opportunity to correct my inward disposition and focus on gratitude instead of greed? By global standards, I have everything and more – far more than a human being actually needs. It is important that those few of us who enjoy basic human rights and are lucky enough not to need to worry about running out of food or water be aware that these are precious gifts not to be taken for granted.

In that respect, one day a year set aside for giving thanks is not nearly enough. Cultivating a spirit of gratitude needs to be a daily discipline.

This year, I hope that Thanksgiving will be more than good food and a day off work. I hope it will inspire critical reflection on the dominant culture in the United States. I hope it will be an opportunity for those who have plenty to let go of desire to have more. I hope it will be a day that helps us make an ongoing and regular habit of giving thanks and living with gratitude.

Photos by Hilary J. Scarsella, Grassy Narrows, Ontario.

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One thought on “Giving thanks when the trees are no more

  1. Hilary,
    Thank you for this lovely reminder of the value of giving thanks even amidst great devastation. Will be in prayer for the people of Grassy Narrows…

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