The Real Message of the First Thanksgiving

November 20, 2012 § Leave a comment

I can’t remember the time I first heard the story of the first Thanksgiving, but it very well may have been around kindergarten. We all know this story – the Pilgrims land on Plymouth Rock, and are helped to adapt to live off the land by helpful Native Americans – led by Squanto, of course. It was a celebration of the harvest, and only later did it become a national holiday.

As we grow older, we begin to learn a bit more about Thanksgiving and the Pilgrims. Certain details are revealed, corrected, adjusted. We learn that Pilgrims are often misrepresented as dressing like Puritans. We learn about the significance of the Mayflower contact. We learn about all those Pilgrims who died in that first winter. We learn about the massacres that occurred soon after. We learn about the way that this relationship with tribes like the Wampanoag quickly turned towards prejudice and persecution.

When we finally begin to know about something, we begin to contextualize it. You can the first Thanksgiving it as the epitome of intercultural exchange and understanding. On the contrary, you can see it as the beginning of the “white man” beginning his forceful dominance of the American continent.

I choose to see it as a parable of sustainable agriculture.

There’s an important question that kind of gets blown over in schools. Yes, the Native Americans showed the Pilgrims how to farm successfully, but why was this so?

The Pilgrims came from Europe, where farming was practiced much like it is in modern America – if perhaps, on a much smaller scale. Large, sprawling fields grew one crop at a time – usually wheat. Many, many peasants would work these fields night and day, from planting to harvest. What their field didn’t grow, they could trade or buy from others, or at least their Lords could and would.

When the Pilgrims first began to farm in New England, they more than likely attempted to model their efforts on those of their former homeland. This wouldn’t work here, however, and here’s why:

The crops grown in the Americas – in particular, corn – requires quite a lot of nutrition from the soil, and often removes most of the nitrates – one of the most important nutrient groups – within a few plantings. In Europe, similar problems were taken care of by a simple cycle of crop rotations. In Plymouth, however, there was neither the manpower nor the available farmland to do this. Thus, the information imparted by Squanto and his people was invaluable.

How was it that the Wampanoag taught the Pilgrims to farm? The method by which Native Americans had been planting and farming for countless centuries prior: Using the Three Sisters.

The Three Sisters is perhaps the most ingenious yet simple agricultural method ever devised. A few corn stalks – maize, as they would call it – are planted, surrounded by squash plants, and covered by climbing beans. The three work together, benefiting each other, creating ideal environments for each plant.

The maize, which is the largest grain provider of the three, provides a structure on which the climbing beans can grow. The beans in turn puts nitrogen back into the ground, while the squash works to prevent weeds and pests.

If modern farms took a note from the Native Americans, we’d be in much better shape agriculturally. Today, we are the Pilgrims of the modern era, and boy are we screwing up. We, just like our forefathers, are trying to farm in large monocultures – huge, one crop farms, that grow anything from corn to chickens to beef – and only that. There’s plenty wrong with this system of farming, and rather than listing them, I’ll just explain the solutions.

Polycultures. Polycultures are the solution. The Three Sisters are a perfect example of polyculture, and are exactly why and how the first Thanksgiving needs to become a something that teaches us more than history. In his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan presents the working of a “grass farm,” a pristine example of polyculture at work. On this farm, grass feeds the pigs and cows, who help the grass and other crops grow better via their manure. Pigs work hand in hand with the compost to create better crop outputs and to renitrogenate the soil. Without use of pesticides, antibiotics, or most industrial feed supplies, this farm, and those like it, produce unbelievable quantity at a fairly sizable quantity.

The other reason why this polyculture is to be preferred as the premeir method of farming is the low use of fossil fuels. The problem that the Pilgrims faced early on was, as I mentioned, the need for a large labor force to work their giant monocultures. In modern society, we have replaced the slaves and peasants of our past with tractors and plows, reapers and combines, all of which are making us slaves to big oil instead. A polyculture, since everything is produced on-farm, can be run with little manpower and little machinery – an incredible bonus for our nation and our planet.

On a final note, let me wish a happy Thanksgiving to all. I hope you are all safe and healthy, and lastly, I hope that we all learn from our past this Thanksgiving.

 

 

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