While Nov. 24 was just another Thursday in most of world, many of us in the U.S. celebrated the modern incarnation of our immigrant ancestors' interpretation of the harvest festival. In my corner of the world, the weather was damp and cool and most of the day was shrouded in a gray light that was both enticingly beautiful and a reminder of the winter to come.
By its very nature a harvest feast is not sustainable, if for no other reason than, as we were repeatedly reminded by the eldest member at our gathering, who is Swiss and of the WWII generation, "There is too much food!" But it is meant to be an exception; it is a marker between the seasons and, at its best, an acknowledgment of the subsidiary relationship between human well-being and the varied environments of our planet (tip o' the hat to David Orr).
Thanksgiving is a cook's high holiday; an opportunity to pull out all the stops, to hone skills and, for me at least, to cook another turkey. I think about sourcing, but I do not really understand the Earth System complexities related to things like growing and selling celery well enough to base all of my decisions on geography. I do know that doing without celery would be a hardship for my cooking partner and her stuffing.
Travel is a common part of the holiday. We had a California contingent with us, and two of our young adults made their annual trek to Missouri to be with their father's family. My sister drove from Maine to Massachusetts to renew connections. Skype makes the world smaller, but it has its limits when it comes hugging your decades-lost cousin or passing the mashed potatoes.
As my memories of annual turkeys have accumulated, the reflective part of Thanksgiving has gained strength. Our elder said beautiful and simple words, made all the more so as this less emotive branch of my complex family spontaneously joined hands around the table. And in another role, I found myself composing reflections for undergraduates at my alma mater.
Along with slowly gained appreciation for roasting nuances, I have also gained appreciation for the role of honest critique and ongoing imagining in the development of wisdom. Wisdom of all kinds will become increasingly important as humans assume increasing influence over the course of Earth's evolution. Where natural systems have dominated the attention of my generation, the attention of future generations will shift toward human systems; where my cohort worked on environment, future cohorts will address sustainability.
Personal choices regarding things like food and travel matter as we strive to improve the aggregate quality of human life on Earth, but I believe those choices should include pragmatism with respect to the course of our individual lives. The wise application of our collective imagination, knowledge and skill to identifying places in the Earth System where leverage can be gained and applied to the greater good must accompany or even lead personal choice as we create the future.
Sustainability success will require leadership, organization and commitment across the generations, and I look forward to serving ever better turkey to future Thanksgiving gatherings and hearing yet-to-be-created tales of life in the future.
Editor's note: Lewis Gilbert is the new managing director of the University of Minnesota's Institute on the Environment. Photo courtesy of Ms Jones from California, USA CC-BY-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons