It’s important to remember to be grateful
When you take something for granted, you often lose it.
History and personal experience have shown this to be true of much, if not all, that is important. It is true not only of our possessions, but also of our relationships; health; traditions (including hunting, fishing and other outdoor traditions); clean soil, water, and air; wilderness (and more broadly the beauty and availability of those spaces where we engage in our most cherished outdoor activities); freedom (of all types); and the very food that will tastefully (and abundantly) adorn our tables this Thursday.
And perhaps the best way to not take something for granted is to be consciously and explicitly thankful for it. Which is why thanksgiving is so important. And I’m not talking about the holiday of Thanksgiving. I’m talking about the act of thanksgiving. Which is to say, I’m thinking about the holiday of Thanksgiving only insomuch as it remains for us a reminder to engage in the act of thanksgiving.
Thanksgiving reminds us to be thankful for our food, and — I hope — the land on which it grows and the people who grow it. It reminds us of what a miracle it is that such delicious, sustaining nutrition comes out of soil, with the help of rain and sun. Thanksgiving reminds us of what the great agrarian writer Wendell Berry so often points out, which is that food is not produced by money. It comes from the earth, and not a grocery store. Hunting also reminds us of where food comes from, which is perhaps why Aldo Leopold, another of the great agrarian writers of the past century, was also an avid hunter and defender of hunting, and saw hunting as a great expression of love for nature. And why it is appropriate that Thanksgiving coincides with the peak of the biggest hunting season of the year.
One of my favorite books, J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings,” illustrates this point about thankfulness very beautifully. Indeed, it does so in so many ways, that I can’t help but think it was intentional on the part of the author. The most significant illustration comes toward the end of the story (in an important scene completely left out by Peter Jackson’s film adaptation).
The hobbits’ homeland, The Shire, is in many ways an admirable model of a healthy agrarian society. Their farms are family-oriented, and not big industrialized mono-crop agribusinesses. Farmers are held in high esteem, and pass on knowledge from generation to generation. They take good care of their soil, practicing a form of agriculture that is indefinitely sustainable.
But the hobbit culture of the Shire does have two flaws, of which the narrator reminds us. One is a provincial distrust of outsiders. The other is that they have begun to take their land for granted. They take for granted the health of their soil and water, and the food that appears on their table each day. The narrator mentions this in the prologue, but readers may forget the point (or not bother to read the prologue).
Later on, however, the idea comes back home. Just before the hero Frodo enters the most dangerous part of his quest, he is given a respite and a meal with the wise Faramir. Before the meal, Faramir and his men pause for what is essentially a thanksgiving prayer. In modern parlance, they “say grace.” Listening to the beauty of this prayer, Frodo feels as though something were profoundly missing in his own customs; hobbits have no such practice.
Again, readers might be tempted to miss the importance of this scene. We should not. At the end of the tale, the hobbits return home and find that everything they have taken for granted for so long has been lost. The river has been fouled. The air is full of smoke. Trees have been cut down. And the small family farms have been taken over by a big industrial agribusiness. Where there had been abundance, now there is hunger and lack.
And it has been lost precisely because it has been taken for granted. A great struggle is necessary to restore the Shire, and some of what has been lost is irrecoverable. The starting point of this struggle is simply the recognition it had been taken for granted, and that something needs to be done. And in illustrating this, Tolkien seems to be reminding his readers not to make the same mistake.
As you enjoy a holiday meal this week, and perhaps a slice of pie (or four), think of hobbits (who loved to eat and drink) and take a moment to be thankful. Remember that neither meat nor vegetables grow in grocery stores or meat markets. Most Vermonters don’t hunt anymore, but more of us need to appreciate just how important that tradition is, and what it tells us about our relationship to food. Most of us are not farmers, though perhaps more of us are gardeners. Yet all of us need to appreciate just how important is the soil around us, and the way we take care of it. The best way to start is to be thankful for it, and in being thankful to be just a little bit more aware of just what it is you’re being thankful for, and how it ended up on your plate.
Matthew Dickerson, in addition to his bi-weekly outdoor columns, has also written “Ents, Elves, and Eriador: the Environmental Vision of J.R.R. Tolkien,” a book exploring aspects of Tolkien’s writings that reflect and uphold agrarian and wilderness ideals.
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