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The Naturalist will celebrate ‘Thanksgivukkah’

December 3, 2013

In a rare convergence of holidays, the Naturalist and the assembled multitudes—this is also a rare convergence of families for Turkey Day at the ridge—will, along with many other folks, sit down at the festive table on the 28th to celebrate what’s being called “Thanksgivukkah.” Because of quirks in the Gregorian calendar, set to solar time, and the Jewish calendar, which measures the lunar and solar cycles, the Feast of Lights and Thanksgiving have not come together since 1888, and if a Sandia National Laboratories quantum physicist named Jonathan Mizrahi is correct, it won’t happen again for more than 75,000 years—77,798, to be exact.

(Here’s Dr. Mizrahi’s logic: )
There are, I should point out, dissenters, whose math suggests a convergence as soon as 2070. But regardless of who’s correct, suffice it to say that Thanksgivukkah doesn’t happen often, so certainly a multicultural and interfaith celebration is in order.
Light the menurky, a turkey-shaped menorah invented by Asher Weintraub, a 9-year-old from Brooklyn with an entrepreneurial spirit. Break out those once in a lifetime holiday-inspired foods, such as pumpkin latkes and turkey “brined” in Manischewitz wine. And if you want to try crafting a dreidl resembling the festive bird that Benjamin Franklin regarded as a more fitting national emblem than the Bald Eagle, it’s probably now or never. (Younger readers may still be around to celebrate if the earlier convergence date proves correct, but the Naturalist doesn’t honestly expect to be sitting down at the table the year he would have turned 120. If, however, members of my clan are available to celebrate by tossing around the football or, even nicer, reading one of my date-appropriate columns aloud, well, I’d be honored and flattered.)
So, dear readers, happy Thanksgivukkah, however you choose to acknowledge that most rare of converged holidays. But given the purview of this Journal, it’s worth noting that the natural world will pay the event no notice whatsoever. To be sure, the huge increases in traffic bound early and all day and night for the malls will probably result in a concomitant increase in road kill, so keep your eyes open, your speed down, your road rage suppressed—oh, you just missed that doorbuster special on the 70-inch HDTV... where would you have put it anyway?—and your foot near the brake. Avoid tragic intersections whenever possible.
Nature, it’s fair to say, isn’t geared to once-in-a-lifetime—or numerous lifetimes—events. Evolution, that great and fundamental shaper of an organism’s fitness, only deals with likely challenges. The morning of the 21st when I wrote this, for example, was quite cold, with the temperature bottoming out at 25 and some significant silvering on the tree leaves now littering the ground and the grass blades bent over from their frost burden. But this is to be expected. It’s New England in late November, after all, and in the thousands of years that natural selection has been honing the tool kits of native plants, below freezing temperatures are what you have to endure. It’s why many deciduous plants shed their leaves, which would otherwise succumb to ice-crystal damage and wither, and why pines and other conifers, along with hollies, laurels, and rhododendrons, have figured out how to prevent such catastrophe. If you’re going to live here year-round, you have to know how to do this.
The same could be said of any organism, plant or animal, that calls the ridge and the surrounding areas home. Some critters, birds and a few insects most notably, opt for avoidance, migrating south in advance of untoward weather. Others, such as groundhogs, salamanders, snakes, and turtles, go either underground or underwater to avoid frostbite and hunger, since most of their food sources are gone by now. Mammals and birds active through the winter have other coping strategies: increased fur or feathers to trap warmth, the development of what are called countercurrent blood flow patterns that minimize heat loss, and behavioral adaptations that keep the worst of the cold at bay. There are insects like the famous Wooly Bear caterpillar, that russet and black sage adept at predicting the severity of winter, which flood their tissues with a kind of natural antifreeze. And, perhaps most remarkable, there’s the Wood Frog, the master of suspended animation and resurrection. (In response to sustained below-freezing temperatures, it floods its important tissues with cryoprotectant compounds; stops its breathing, heartbeat, and brain activity; allows much of its body to fill with ice—think “frogsicle”—and, essentially, dies, until it magically comes back to life in late winter and early spring.)
All of these ways of dealing with winter’s inconvenient truths have been able to evolve because our climate is relatively predictable. The seasons, with their temperature ranges and timing, are more or less the same, year-in, year-out. We don’t have killing frosts in July. Until recently, we’ve typically had snow on the ground and ice covering the lakes in January—but not 90 degree weather. Spring and the growing season arrive, however grudgingly, in April, and things start shutting down in October. You can bank on these and bet the house that it won’t drop to 60 below in mid-winter or 120 in mid-summer. You don’t have to plan, in a practical or evolutionary sense, for these rarer than rare happenings.
The thousand-year storm? Don’t worry about it. The sudden rending of continents and rafting of our area to a new climate regime? Not a concern. The asteroid bound for our area? Evolution doesn’t care.
These off-the-charts extremes are Thanksgivukkah events: so unusual that, however disastrous they would be, evolution doesn’t bother with inventing coping mechanisms. Who carries on is more a matter of luck than time-tested survival strategies.
For our species, of course, a rare convergence like Thanskgivukkah is special—and we know, even though we’ve never done this before, precisely what to do: mash up the old traditions into a new celebration. But please, let’s keep the apple, pumpkin, buttermilk, and apricot pies in the mix. Let’s keep the turkey. And let’s, of course, play some football.


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