Song of Thanksgiving

Post-Halloween there are two groups of Americans: those who put up construction paper leaves and turkeys and dream of cranberries and gravy, and those who fast forward to Christmas. I am of the former camp. Ritual togetherness in our family happened on Thanksgiving, not Christmas. I’m also never too eager to bypass autumn for bare twigs, especially now that I live in Oregon and enjoy the lengthy, splendid maritime autumn.

Like Columbus Day, Thanksgiving has a dubious history involving white people exploiting indigenous people. In these enlightened times I suppose I shouldn’t be so surprised that in some camps it’s falling out of favor. One of the women I worked with last year was actually fasting that Thursday to commemorate the suffering we had inflicted on the people. And while I understand that sentiment and applaud her audacity, for me personally it felt a bit severe. It made me sad that she was denying herself potential fellowship. The year before — a much harder year financially — the Thanksgiving meal was about the only big meal I’d had in months, the first time I’d felt full since I couldn’t remember when. And it was certainly the only meal I’d had all year surrounded by so much laughter, so many friends and family.

There are so few holidays we Americans have left that focus not on commercialism but on simple things like making things and being together. I know there’s a huge emphasis on consumption — the feasting — but what holiday isn’t about feasting? When more people then usual come together one can expand the usual fare, one can justify killing the fattened calf (or in this case, buying a large piece of meat, or making a stunning savory pie.)

In this difficult economic period stores and economists are keener than ever to push Christmas shopping season sooner. I worked retail in college and recall decorating a Christmas tree on Halloween night, which appalled me. It’s hard to remain present and focused with so much external suggestion pushing you forward and into the future before you’re good and ready. There are no Thanksgiving songs, that I know of, no Thanksgiving stories other than the becoming-taboo pilgrim thing. We need more autumnal folklore. Stories about putting up the harvest and then celebrating with a feast. We need Ben Franklin to tell us all about turkeys and what he thought was so important about them. Stories about watching the leaves dance in the wind.

For myself, besides desperately wishing I had several months for those projects, I’ve recently turned to old radio plays broadcast around Thanksgiving. Something to keep me grounded while I clean houses and draw all day. They aren’t the greatest stories, nor the highest quality (unsurprisingly, my Christmas recordings are much cleaner sounding), but they’re a start. It’s nice to hear that even back in the 1940s Christmas was intruding on Thanksgiving’s territory. Stories about the whole family coming to the farmhouse interspersed with reminders that Elgin watches are really the best gift for any Christmas stocking. No escaping the sales people, even then. If you cook Thanksgiving will always be an important holiday, so the other item in my audio arsenal is every Splendid Table podcast I have from past Novembers. These aural suggestions, and this handsome paper turkey I whipped together last night, help the season remain, help the season be celebrated. It all helps time stop slipping so quickly out from under my feet.

Update, Nov. 2012: Doing a little more self-educating about the Thanksgiving story. I had originally assumed that Thanksgiving was chiefly about exploitation of indigenous peoples by the self-righteous white man, but may not be as simple as that.

When you look into the life of Tisquantum (“Squanto” as we call him) you do find slavery and oppression, but it happened fifteen years before the pilgrims landed on Plymouth rock. Upon returning to his homeland he found his entire village wiped out by diseases English slavers had brought with them years before, and he went to live in the neighboring village of Pokanokets. So when he and his friend Samoset found English people wandering around their former village-site, they were intrigued, and after watching them for a few days they went and introduced themselves.

Pilgrims had observed thanks-giving feasts in England as a religious obligation, and the Algonquin tribes also celebrated many thanks-giving festivals centered around food harvest (which really is not so hard to imagine, if you’ve ever grown anything yourself. It really is cause for celebration.) So after a relatively good harvest — and the glorious prospect of surviving the winter, thanks entirely to the teachings of Tisquantum, Samoset and no doubt many others — it really was the most natural thing in the world to celebrate with a feast to thank the Creator and one another.

I found this gorgeous essay on a website maintained by the Wampanoag Nation, which paints this friendlier, earthier picture of cultures coming together. And as they say at the end, “there is always more to the story, and not all of it filled with hope and friendship, but that part of the story is for another time to be told by the storytellers of our tribe.”

Of course, if your guilt is as Catholic as mine, we can balance this friendship and hope with this unblinking piece from This American Life, about how awful the white man was to our native inhabitants. Choose your own adventure.

OCF: Recycle Crew

Monday mornings are marked at Chez Kumquat by the recycling truck’s arrival. There’s a lot of truck noises as it maneuvers in between our building and the parked cars, and then a tremendous crash as the items in the blue bins get hoisted then dumped into the truck — particularly the glass, which is a bright, unmistakable sound.

It’s the same sound one hears in the early morning at the Oregon Country Fair. The recycling crew starts collecting from kiosks at six in the morning, but they usually don’t make it back to the dock until the public begins to arrive. The first trickle of people at nine increases to a steady stream by eleven, and all the while that familiar sound of glass crashing can be heard echoing through the trees.

Because it’s the same sound I think people assume that a machine is doing all the work, despite the rustic nature of the fairgrounds. It’s what that sound makes us think of. There’s nothing in that sound to suggest otherwise. I think they picture big truck lifters, conveyors, and automated sorting by weight. Neat boxes ready for the reprocessing center.

But don’t you believe it.

What sounds like objects heading to a sorting-machine on a conveyor is in fact two people dumping a barrel full of cans, glass and plastic bottles onto a slanted grid. This grid sits over a channel, designed to catch all the wet and broken debris. (That’s the idea anyway.) This great pile is then pushed with a rake towards the waiting arms of the sorters, who stand along the sides of wooden chutes. And, armed with not much else besides earplugs and eyeglasses, the sorters pick through the mess and sort everything, one by one.

It’s a lot of material to go through. Material that has been sloshing around with leftover contents and whatever else ends up in the barrels. Soon the dock itself is covered in a wet sheen of “sloosh”, and it is for this reason sorters are outfitted with aprons, to keep at least some of it at bay. (Honestly I found working in a raincoat to be the most successful.)

Each recyclable is sorted according to different rules. Cans are sorted by size, roughly, and until you memorize which cans are redeemable and which are not, you must read those little letters on the side of each and every can. Glass is sorted by size: one box for this size, one box for that, a special box for sessions and a special box for corona and other tall Mexican style bottles. These boxes, when full, are closed up and handed off to the people standing up on the dock, who load them into the great big truck bed, to be hauled away at the end of the week.

All this while the surge of cans and glass is pushed towards you. More and more all the time. If you do not help and push the pile down the line things get backed up and crash to the floor, or roll under the dock to the dark inaccessible places — later to be picked up by diligent individuals with buckets. 

Meanwhile, plastics are sorted on the other end of the dock. Plastics are the least uniform and most incomprehensible of the sorted items. Sorted mostly by size (which is difficult to judge at a glance, for all the different shapes), but always driven by whether it is redeemable or not. Just about everything aside from plastic water bottles and soda bottles are not redeemable, with a few maddening exceptions. And until you’ve a sense for it, each item must be examined. And then thrown to the appropriate bag. 

Aside from a few dedicated souls there is no specific crew for sorting. Everyone takes a turn. As each truck backs towards the dock, members of the truck’s team hop out to either dump barrels, rake things, or don glasses and earplugs and take their place in the sort line and get to work.

It is the most chaotic, effective little operation I have ever experienced. In a way it’s a nice demonstration of how the entire fair works. Very analogue. We may have several powerstrips at the dock for cell phones — and many of those are future-phones — but all the real work is done the old fashioned way. With hands and arms and good music and camaraderie.