Thursday, November 25, 2004

Mixed blessings

It's almost the end of the semester for me and the Chinese law student I'm tutoring. On Thanksging Day, she is hard at work. Unlike other immigrants, she can't bring herself to care about Thanksgiving. She isn't even sure what it is for. Is it religious? she asks. She didn't think so, but she remembers a Muslim friend who wouldn't go to celebrate Thanksgiving with an American family because he thought it was Christian.

What Thanksgiving is is a hodgepodge, a cornucopia of ritual and myth. Texans near El Paso claim that their ancestors beat the Pilgrims by many years with a celebratory feast of fish, "many cranes, ducks and geese." The "first Thanksgiving" story and other claims about the Pilgrims (and what they ate) are debunked regularly by serious historians.

Charles E. Mann writes that it was a 1914 painting, "The First Thanksgiving," by Jennie Augusta Brownscombe, that fixed in childhood our images of the historical event. Not only is the presence of turkey on the table wrong, he suggests: the painting masks the real picture of what European colonization was already doing to the North American ecology.

Until the arrival of the Mayflower, continental drift had kept apart North America and Europe for hundreds of millions of years. Plymouth Colony (and its less successful predecessor in Jamestown) reunited the continents. Ecosystems that had evolved separately for millennia collided. The ensuing biological tumult--plants exploding over the landscape, animal species spiking in population or going extinct--had consequences as profound as those from the cultural encounter at the center of Brownscombe's painting.

In a phenomenon known as "ecological release," imported species can run wild because their natural predators have not come along with them. Clover and bluegrass, tame as accountants at home, transformed themselves into biological Attilas in the Americas, sweeping through vast areas so fast that the first English colonists who pushed into Kentucky found both species waiting for them. The peach proliferated in the Southeast with such fervor that by the 18th century, the historian Alfred Crosby writes, farmers feared that the Carolinas would become a wilderness of peach trees.

South America was just as badly hit. Endive and spinach escaped from colonial gardens and grew into impassable, six-foot thickets on the Peruvian coast; thousands of feet higher, mint overwhelmed Andean valleys. In the pampas of Argentina and Uruguay, the voyaging Charles Darwin discovered hundreds of square miles strangled by feral artichoke. "Over the undulating plains, where these great beds occur, nothing else can live," he observed.

Today in these parts it is English ivy, microstegium, kudzu, multiflora rose.

Intercontinental cross-fertilization of law students and other human types is a wonderful thing. But it's no secret that our European ancestors badly mismanaged their new environment. For one thing, they failed to use the Indians' primary land-management technique: controlled burning. "When disease carried away native societies," Mann observes,

the torches went out. Trees and underbrush erupted in ways that had not been seen for millennia, filling in areas kept open by Indian axes and Indian fire. "Almost wherever the European went, forests followed," wrote the ecological historian Stephen Pyne. Far from destroying wilderness, in other words, European settlers created it--only it was a peculiar, unprecedented kind of wilderness, shot through with European invaders and characterized by population outbreaks from species that had formerly been uncommon.

"What was being created that first Thanksgiving," he concludes, "was nothing less than the American landscape itself."

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