Just before Thanksgiving at IPR, we hear the story of a family in difficult or unusual circumstances. This year, we meet a group of people who you might not think of as a family – but they do. They’ve lost a lot of members in the last year, people who might have been forgotten but are not thanks to a little house in Traverse City.
When I was growing up, our family went to visit Grampa Anderson every Sunday afternoon. He lived alone in a fusty old house on the other side of town and didn’t have much to entertain young children—so my brother and I played outdoors.
There was a horse chestnut tree in Grampa’s backyard and in the fall we could find dozens of chestnuts buried in the grass. Bob and I collected them like treasures—so smooth and glossy, shining red and gold and brown.
With Thanksgiving happening across the country this week, it’s time to consider one of our most pervasive cultural myths: Benjamin Franklin’s preference for the turkey as the national emblem of the United States.
This cultural myth is based on a letter Franklin wrote in 1782 to his daughter Sarah about the eagle as the national emblem. In the letter, Franklin wrote: “For my own part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen the Representative of our Country. He is a Bird of bad moral Character. …while the Turkey is in Comparison, a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America…”
Unfortunately for the turkey, it has become much preferred as table-fare rather than as enduring emblem, which might be due to the fact that there are no turkeys represented in the star patterns overhead.
What we do have overhead is the star pattern of the eagle, recognized throughout history and across cultures as the constellation Aquila. And despite Franklin’s opinion of the eagle as a bird of bad moral character, many cultures, from the Ancient Greek to the Native American and even to the International Astronomers Union, have all recognized Aquila as the eagle constellation. Sometimes, different cultures see different creatures in the star patterns, but the fact that so many see the eagle in the constellation Aquila lends itself to the fact that the eagle is regarded as one of the most sacred creatures in the world, perhaps even making it too sacred to eat.
So as you’re settling in for traditional fare this Thanksgiving, look to the West, where you can find Aquila the eagle setting into the horizon, its star Altair the brightest object in that region of the sky this Thanksgiving week.