Have you ever tried to forage for food in a winter forest? It’s not an ideal time for “living off the land.”
Yet the history of Thanksgiving in the New World starts with a winter forest in the Cape Cod area of Massachusetts. The Mayflower dropped anchor on November 21, 1620, having left England more than two months before. It was not a good trip across the North Atlantic. On December 26, 1620, after exploring the area, the boat was moved to the site that would be New Plymouth.
The winter of 1620-1621 was mild for the area. Half the people died by April, the rough boat crossing and a new land in winter taking a heavy toll. Keeping warm and having something to eat were the prime concerns for surviving.
The ship’s stores, decreased by the two-month ocean voyage, provided some calories. Walking into the woods provided a few more. The first meals from the New World forests included acorns, chestnuts, hazelnuts, hickories, beechnuts and other assorted fruits and nuts.
Chestnut trees grew in scattered areas on the land side of Cape Cod at that time. They also made up a large share of the forests that grew in the upland areas about 20 miles back from the main coast. Chestnuts are one of the world’s perfect foods. All the essential elements needed for human life are contained inside the nuts within the spiny husk. Chestnuts and water could keep you alive.
There were many competitors for food in the winter forests of Massachusetts. Even today a person must be quick and lucky to beat squirrels, turkeys, deer and other animals to fruit and nuts. In the dead of winter, in a strange forest around New Plymouth, the competition was severe.
The people of the Mayflower weren’t botanists, either, and didn’t know what to expect. Poison ivy and poison sumac, two species with wintertime white berries, did not grow in Europe. These woodland plants were a nasty surprise.
The harshness of winter in a Massachusetts forest is hard to comprehend today. With the technology of the 1620s, it’s surprising that anyone survived. But the bleakness of the land at first sight was soon replaced by an understanding of the richness of the woods and the land.
The holiday of Thanksgiving is about the tenacity of the human spirit and a bountiful forested landscape.
Happy Thanksgiving to you and your family from Polk County Extension Office and Ricky, Cathy, Nolan, and Callie Ensley!