If the Pilgrims hadn't come up with the idea for Thanksgiving, we would have had to invent it for them. This time of year, as autumn slams the door on shirtsleeve weather as abruptly and inexplicably as the end of a teenage romance, we need a reminder of all the things we have to be thankful for—many of them already melting in our memories like a Fourth of July ice cream cone.
The open window in whose breezy embrace we slept all summer and through September now sits shut and locked, a vault against the cold nights that would steal the house's day-saved heat. And the days themselves have been licked away by ever-earlier tongues of nightfall. Sitting outside after supper, watching the convocations of quail and the stealthy raids of rabbits—no more. It seems like one October evening I was still wearing shorts, half-drowsing in the twilight to the quail cacophony, and the next night I was inside, firing up the pellet stove.
The sudden onslaught of cold and darkness, moderated only by autumn's brief, spectacular apology of color in the trees (before it takes the leaves, too, just as it did the warmth and light), could make us cranky were we not forced by the calendar to recall all that we're thankful for. In heartless Massachusetts, where winter lashes with a sternness we in balmy New Mexico can only have nightmares about, the Pilgrims must have had to stock up on thankfulness as they did cornmeal and salted meat, to get them through until spring without cursing the God they'd come here to worship freely. Around about mid-February, as the wind off the North Atlantic hits Plymouth Rock like Satan's snowcone in your face, you'd need a long litany of things you'd been thankful for, back before the air became inhaled icicles.
So each November—which, T.S. Eliot notwithstanding, can be the cruelest month in much of the country, as leaden as a grave and only half as comfortable—we give thanks. We throw parades, officially launch the Christmas shopping season that began promptly after Labor Day at all Target stores, and battle crowds and the Transportation Security Administration's strip-searches in order to spend a couple of days arguing in person with loved ones. We eat too much, then fall into a carbohydrate-induced trance to watch the Dallas Cowboys. (Don't blame the tryptophan in the turkey for making you sleep through Drew Bledsoe's fourth-quarter comeback, by the way; science has shown that tryptophan encourages sleep only on an empty stomach, in the absence of protein—not exactly your tummy's typical post-Thanksgiving-feast condition.)
Did I mention that we also give thanks? At least, we're supposed to, before tucking into the turkey, sweet potatoes and cranberries.
And certainly we have much to be thankful for these days, marvels that would have set the Pilgrims' stereotypical black, buckled hats spinning on their holy heads—goodies and blessings of modern technocivilization far beyond the Pilgrims' wildest dreams of avarice, if they had any. We enjoy satellite radio, camera phones, 24-hour home shopping channels, the Hummer H3, the Apple iPod Nano with its capacity to hold, what, 400 kazillion tunes. . . and don't forget podcasting, whatever that is. I'm pretty sure the technology exists to snap a picture of yourself buying Hummel figurines from QVC and beam it to your sister in Tulsa, interrupting her podcast of today's Rush Limbaugh rant as she cuts off some puny hybrid vehicle with the merest glance from her new Humvee Behemoth. Just try doing that in 17th century colonial Massachusetts.
Still, as much of a technophile as I can be sometimes (OK, most times), the things I find myself being thankful for, on these days when the sunlight flees ever earlier and the pellet stove begins its gritty whining, don't come with batteries or electrical cords. I mentioned the rabbits and the quail: I'm thankful for the small pleasures of watching the rabbits frantically munch our windfallen, wormy apples, their small mouths like motors crunching into the sweet flesh for as many bites as possible before some stray shadow makes the bunnies bolt for safety. I love the comedy of the quail, their goofy topknots and chaotic, Keystone Cops parades to and from food. But I love the care they take for their chicks, too, the shepherding of feathery fuzzballs who become preening teenagers able to take care of themselves, mostly. I'm thankful for those crepuscular post-supper glimpses into these fragile little lives.
But I'm thankful for the coyotes' wild nightsong, too, when something stirs me awake in the dark and their disparate barks suddenly rise and come together in a crude, howling chorus. (Remember that open window for sleeping when the weather's warm? It enhances the effect.) The coyotes remind me of the wild hearts out in the darkness, not so far away, that can never be tamed.
I'm thankful, likewise, that the coyotes don't come any closer. At least not yet.
I'm thankful for the purple sheets of rain that envelop the mountains, and the late-afternoon glow on the Kneeling Nun when storm clouds have passed. For the lightning, a white forking flash upon the retina in the shape of a chicken wishbone, that you can see when the road runs along a high ridge, putting you level with part of the sky. For the rainbows, even the blunt gashes of color that hang inelegantly over town as though God got called away in mid-painting. (Perhaps to fix that whole hurricane thing, which seems a tad on the fritz these days.) And of course for the sunsets, when the clouds are just so to scatter the sinking sunlight into a science spectrum experiment, or a child's Crayola box.
I'm thankful that when the October breeze rattles the leaves, I think immediately of my dad quoting Shelley: "O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn's being, thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing. . . ."
It seems almost superfluous to add that I'm thankful for the wildflowers, the ever-changing seasonal swatch that's so much less trouble than a needy, must-be-manicured lawn. But I appreciate the cacti, too, the yucca with their papery white blossoms and even the prickly pear, whose ripening fruit seem daily to discover new shades of purple. I admire their needling defenses as much as their floral moments. (As my visiting sister-in-law once put it, exasperated, "Don't you have any plants here that won't hurt you?")
I haven't even mentioned the hummingbirds, the curve-billed thrashers and the raucous, slate-blue jays. I'm of two minds about the squirrels, I confess, especially when one sits on the woodpile and scolds us, endlessly chirping like a hinge in need of oiling. And I've written here before about the roadrunners and the amazing jackrabbits. (We awoke the other morning to two Godzilla-scale jackrabbits in the backyard, accompanied—like medieval pages—by three ordinary bunnies.) Even the ravens—I've learned that they're not mere common crows—can confer a certain joy on a morning as they etch a black line onto the blue.
Every now and then there's a hawk, or even an owl, which I imagine the rabbits and squirrels are none too thankful for, but which I appreciate nonetheless. When the turkey vultures cut effortless circles in the sky, I guess I can be thankful for them, too, the way you're glad the garbage man has remembered to come this week.
But it's not just the natural world I'm thankful for. I'm thankful for the woman, a stranger, who caught at my arm the other night during Weekend at the Galleries, to stop us and say how much she enjoys Desert Exposure. For another woman, at the Laundromat, who rushed out to grab a copy as I was delivering, exclaiming how much she looks forward to each month's new issue. For people who've said they've read even the longest stories I've written.
And I'm thankful for all the obvious things, the graces of home and family and loved ones. But you knew that.
I'm thankful that shirtsleeve weather will come around again eventually, and that in the meantime at least we no longer need to own a snowblower. I'm thankful for the seductive flicker of the season's first blaze in the fireplace, even though I know that by March the routine of emptying out the resulting ash and toting the logs will have grown stale.
But I'll enjoy the dancing firelight anyway, and the warmth that keeps the winter at bay—much as it did for the Pilgrims in the long months that followed their first Thanksgiving. I'll think of the many things I have to be thankful for, toss another log on the fire, and dream of spring.
David A. Fryxell is editor of Desert Exposure.