Essays > Can We Slake Our Hungers Without Destroying the Earth?

Let us begin, in this brown month of November, with that most sensuous word, cornucopia.

As RJ the Raccoon explained to his forest buddies in Over the Hedge, “For humans, enough is never enough.”

The cornucopia, that enticing curved basket so full that its colorful contents spill out onto “the groaning board,” is a symbol of the abundance most of us have come to expect at our Thanksgiving feast.

November is a month of desire — and desire’s flip side, with winter approaching, is an ancient itch of fear.

If you pinch the inch of fat of even those most secure in their material lives, I contend you’ll hit on a nerve of angst — what if it all runs dry? What if I can’t get pineapple? Avocados? Asparagus? Oil? What if the water runs out, as it did in some of the California fires? What if all the “stuff” I have is gone in an instant?

Even before the frights of 9/11, when the planes stopped flying, and Katrina, when the container ships stopped docking, our fear of the long winters is atavistic and increasingly hard to ignore.

It’s very old programming, the blood of our ancestors remembering, the DNA of our bones urging that we get ready. Get those tomatoes canned, slap fresh burlap over the potatoes, fix the chinks in the walls, seal the windows and weatherproof the roof.

Of course, hardly anyone does that anymore. I’m going on old memories, of shelves in my mother’s basement — not my own — stocked with stewed tomatoes, canned peaches and raspberry jam. My basement is bare, save for a couple of bottles of merlot almost forgotten in a cool dark corner. I can always run out to Oliver T’s if I run out, right?

So, back to that horn of plenty. The original cornucopia, explains, was the horn of a goat that suckled Zeus, chief of the Olympian gods. At some point, the horn broke off and began to “spill forth fruit.”

I like the idea of a goat feeding a god. We all gotta eat. Even gods need suckling to survive, and can’t be too picky where it comes from.

I like that the outcome of that goat-god arrangement was a superabundance of food. Maybe even gods have inadequate mothering and are grateful for their surrogates, somebody to celebrate if Mom’s not around at Thanksgiving dinner.

But wait, Mom is always around at Thanksgiving — she has to be. Right? She was the first one to feed us, and if she hadn’t, barring the help of a friendly goat, we’d have died. Think of it as Mother Earth – the start of everything.   Maybe that’s why Thanksgiving is always, and foremost, a family day.

But even at its best, Thanksgiving is a complicated moment for families. Everything is put to the test. Are we normal? Do we have enough love?

Can we sit down together and enjoy ourselves, despite the fact that Uncle Joe dumped Aunt Ellen, who’s run back to her old boyfriend in the UP? Or despite our nephew’s girlfriend, with her bleached blonde hair and anorexic horror at the platter of stuffing, who is not who we want to add to the gene pool?

Will there be a mutiny when people realize Cousin Jimmy’s new fiancée Missy, who we all want him to marry so he’ll stop smoking pot all day and go to work instead, innocently brought oyster stuffing, a dish our family considers heretic?

Will Grandpa drink too much sweet wine waiting for the turkey to get done and fall asleep at the table like he did last year, his head plopping into the candied yams?

It’s hard not to caricature our anxieties, but who hasn’t been there in the ruins of the family feast, asking, as the tryptophan mercifully kicks in, are we all nuts?

That first Thanksgiving, for what it’s worth, must not have been a picnic either. In the myth, of course, there was peace around that table, but I imagine it was an immensely tense and strained affair — the Indians in full regalia, the colonists gaunt from a summer of backbreaking and unfamiliar work. How did they talk to each other?

How did they get through it?

The settlers of the Plymouth colony, the story goes, had been saved by the food donated to them by the Native Americans, and thus their ritual of gratitude.

There must have been a vein of humiliation in accepting charity. The colonists had failed. Many had died of starvation. The Indians, in contrast, were at home in the New World, which was their Old World. But they also must have had dreadful intimations. What they knew and what they had was soon to be obliterated, as they were violently pushed aside by the Europeans’ hunger — for land, for domination, for lumber, for more. More. More.

There it is again, that hunger — what makes us so fascinating, and what makes us so troublesome and dangerous to ourselves and to our planet.

Is there any way to slake our hungers without being destroyers? Is there a way to figure out how to have enough? Dear friends and neighbors, in this brown month, the month of our desire, here’s to being satisfied.

Happy Thanksgiving.