Garden Notes: The harvest holiday

And three thankful cheers for our oaks.


Island gardens for the most part have finally succumbed to frost. (Thanksgiving, when we had pond skating here when I was a little kid in West Tisbury!) Ursa Major, the Big Dipper, has assumed its winter position. Please turn off your outside lighting, or downlight it, so that we may all enjoy starry nighttime skies.

We know that predictability and a steady sense of weather are very much critical to hunting and harvesting, since these and a dependable food supply result when our climate behaves in certain predictable ways.


When we celebrate Thanksgiving, our national harvest festival, the idea is experiencing gratitude to our creators for our food on the table, our abundance, even our lives. It is many Americans’ favorite holiday.

In this part of the U.S., the story of the first Thanksgiving, in its mythic as well as historical aspects, is inextricably connected with the native peoples of our region, the Wampanoag (Wôpanâak) and associated Eastern tribal nations.

We have trodden a long road since the first Thanksgiving. Here on the Island, near the epicenter of the tradition, we mostly, but not all, have food on our tables. We mostly live decent lives. And there certainly is abundance, for some, if not all.

Awareness of all beings

Thanksgiving Day causes many of us to turn in our imaginations to the Island that existed in that era of early contact. Indigenous knowledge is the subject of a piece in Knowable magazine: It touches upon many different aspects of indigenous wisdom and climate instability, from which I took some threads vis à vis Thanksgiving.

A perspective, articulated by native people and academic anthropologists who work with them, is that there is a tension between the Western view of the natural world as a resource to be exploited and the indigenous view of a world where humans and nature are part of one single whole.

One such spokesperson, Frank Ettawageshik, a First Nations elder of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians, puts it this way: “We’re but one spot in that web of life,” he says. “We knew that in that web of life, we could not survive without the other beings, and those other beings, they agreed to take care of us. And we agreed to take care of them.”

Traditional knowledge is not just collections of data. What matters are the ongoing relationships with beings — plants, animals, and natural places — as admired goals. However, it has been a long way down the road here since that was the prevailing wisdom. It seems impossible to establish the views that Frank Ettawageshik articulates within and alongside the booming exploitation that envelops the Island today.

‘The Nature of Oaks’

I recommend Doug Tallamy’s very engagingly written book of that name, “The Nature of Oaks.” It provides one of the most accessible views into the workings of Island ecology we could ever wish for, because this is oak country.

In the book, when Tallamy writes of the life that these trees and woodlands support, he does so with the eye of both the ecologist and the entomologist, but also with that of the backyard gardener. He follows through the calendar the life of an oak he and his wife planted in early years at their house, and much else besides.

Keystone species 

Oaks can be called keystone species because their existence is key to that of everything else that has emerged and grown alongside them. Oaks (and all the other native Island plant life that support us) are a system of life that has emerged and grown over thousands of years, since the end of the last glaciation.

Oaks are critical. When it comes to evaluating the importance of trees in ecological terms, the numbers of life forms that feed on them, depend on them in some way, or are adapted to their influence are what matters.

The vertebrates, the invertebrates, the mammals, the birds, the fungal realm, the arthropods and microscopic soil life — even the organisms that live in streams and ponds, the pH of which is influenced by tree debris and biomass — co-ordinate their existence to foundational trees.

Much as planting milkweed supplies what monarch butterflies need, utilizing native trees and plants in gardenmaking and landscaping supports the local ecological system.

Island woodlands are heavily composed of oak species, majestic white oaks being the champion for supporting the most life forms of all North American trees.

A Eurasian or European specimen tree, even one such as the revered Edgartown Pagoda Tree, lacks that aspect due to the specialization of the above-mentioned life forms. The runner-up to oaks for supporting most life is wild cherry.

Some have implied that focus on native plants makes one a “plant Nazi.” Not so. It is much more like designing and planting to support all “the other beings.”

In the garden

Leaf harvest is ongoing. As Tallamy explains, however, in “The Nature of Oaks,” oak leaf litter — “priceless litter” -— is one of the richest, most bioactive places that exist in your garden and landscape.

Leaf litter is the habitat of the decomposers that make soil, and of those that prey upon them, including beetles, termites, and ants. (Ants spread the cyclamen pictured, which sprang up distant from its parent plants.)

The decomposers are the essential agents of recycling the nutrients needed directly by plants and indirectly by nearly all animals. They create the thin layer, whether measured in inches or feet, that supports all terrestrial life. “The importance of the contribution these unobtrusive animals make to the greater web of life is unappreciated by most, but hard to overstate.”

Hard also to comprehend: Why someone would hire people with leaf blowers, or even rakes, to remove this substance from their land and destroy it. Make leaf piles and store leaves for returning to the soil after they have broken down.

Gratitude: Thanks for what is here, not for what you will receive.