Written by Joseph R. Urgo, President, St. Mary's College of MarylandThanksgiving, that uniquely American holiday, is considered so sacred it is one of the few holidays not shifted to a Monday, but keeps its place on an inconvenient November Thursday (signed into law by Franklin Roosevelt in 1941). We trace it back to a group of 17th-century English colonists who settled in what is now the area of Plymouth, Massachusetts. As the story goes, a Wampanoag tribe assisted the Pilgrims in their first winter in the New World, providing food and also teaching the colonists to plant corn. I recall a rendering, in my elementary school textbook, of a Wampanoag man showing an English planter how to put fish in the hole with the corn seed, so that the fish would serve as fertilizer. The fish was smiling, but the Indian and the Pilgrim looked serious.
Some four hundred years later, Americans pause at this time of the year, taking leave from their activities to contemplate that for which they are thankful. Most all of us have memories of families gathered around the table, around the turkey, accented by their own ethnically inspired side dishes, to offer thanks.
It probably does not require psychoanalysis to find a link between my early childhood memory of that Plymouth encounter and my eventual profession. A good psychiatrist would likely doubt the literal existence of the picture I recall so vividly. But there is it, Pilgrim with the buckle in his hat, Indian looking more like a John Ford creation than a man native to New England winters. Nonetheless, from the romanticized rendering of history I can determine what it is I am most thankful for, aside from family and friends. That’s easy. I am thankful for education, and for the role it plays in human survival and in the quality of lives.
I am aware, thanks to my history teachers, of the problematic relationship between the Puritans and the Indian tribes in New England, particularly the Pequods, who didn’t survive the encounter. And I know that Herman Melville, in Moby-Dick, named Ahab’s ship The Pequod in ironic recognition that the American multicultural voyage is haunted in a sense by such tribal encounters, and that for every corn seed planted, guns roared. And that seed, in biological terms, has a history of its own. Corn is not a wild plant, and it can’t exist without human cultivation. Its origins are in Mexico, thousands of years ago, long before English Puritans or even Christians existed. That friendly Indian man in my schoolbook learned about corn from his ancestors, who learned it from theirs, as corn knowledge traveled across the continent in time from Mexico to Massachusetts, lesson plan in place for the English Pilgrim. The Americans, in their turn, would do more with corn than either the English settler or his Wampanoag host could imagine. It now occupies thousands upon thousands of acres in every region of the United States, as it feeds and fuels our destiny.
Not to forget that fish, which has a lineage from the corn planting lesson through the disastrous encounter between man and fish in Moby Dick to this summer’s fish and crude encounter in the Gulf of Mexico. Here in St. Mary’s City, fish and corn are abundant, and I sense the descendant symbolism of the Thanksgiving fish lesson in the oyster cages Lesley and I have placed in the river off our pier. Do we see the romanticized ghost of that Wampanoag man on the pier, teaching us to clean the waters, and to be thankful for what the river can teach us about a sustainable future?
It is so easy to destroy, to disparage, and to find fault. With more difficulty we human beings create, contribute to, and support our shared efforts to sustain a good life on a generous planet. At the College, our purpose is to broaden our students’ sense of thankfulness, which is inextricably tied to their sense of purpose. We do this through the liberal arts, approaching our existence from the perspective of the sciences, the arts, and the humanities, to continue the eternal human quest to ask why, and for what purpose. To sweeten this quest Americans have added a sense of thankfulness. So, this week we pause in whatever quest occupies us, we look out over the cornfields and we remember our origins; we look out onto the river and we are filled with gratitude.
Originally published in The River Gazette, November 2010.