Every September around my birthday, my friends J. and J. bring me a big box of perfectly ripe peaches of a particular variety from a particular orchard in Northern Utah. They do it because they love me and because I share their conviction that eating fine peaches — and these are really fine peaches — is one of life’s great pleasures. I always thank them for the peaches and for remembering me.
And with each bite and accompanying slurp, I thank God for somehow creating and ordering the essential elements, natural processes, and human-plant interactions that culminated in this luscious fruit.
Recently I’ve come to realize that I should also be thanking a whole lot of others. That obviously includes the farm family for continuing to nurture and grow this delicate variety, but also the early settlers for digging the irrigation ditches that are still being used to carry water to the orchard, and the construction workers for building and maintaining the several miles of roads between there and here. And when I include the local bees and other pollinators, the rain and sun and soil, the earthworms and microbes and so on, my thank-you list for the peaches soon becomes as long and diverse as the list of credits at the end of a summer blockbuster movie.
The same thing happens as I pay attention to giving thanks for almost anything, from other food (one cannot live by peaches alone) to books and music. And if I’m going to thank God for any of them, I should also make an effort to recognize and thank the others who provide them. And, as I do, the seemingly straightforward act of expressing thanks becomes much richer and more expansive.
It also becomes more complicated. Take my cell phone: I’m undeniably thankful for it, mostly because I have limited mobility, but also, particularly now, because it lets me stay in touch with (and get pictures from) my son as he wanders around Europe. So I try to thank the people who developed, built, and maintain the larger cellular system as well as those who manufactured and distributed my particular phone.
But I’m also aware that my handy phone was probably assembled by low-wage workers in a factory in China and it might contain minerals mined by slave-laborers and sold through warlords in the eastern Congo. And unless I’m willing to acknowledge, and perhaps do something about, the ways my phone (or food or clothes or any number of other things) might be having a negative impact on others, not just the ways it (and they) benefit me, I would be willfully oblivious and self-centered.
Sometimes when giving thanks I get on a good roll and start to understand what John Muir, the great and hirsute naturalist, meant by saying: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find that it is hitched to everything else in the universe."
He came to this realization by wandering the back trails of the High Sierras and paying attention to everything around him. I’m coming to it by giving thanks for peaches and a cell phone and following where that leads.
My approach isn’t so grand and romantic, but it seems to be pointing to the same big truth: Every thing and every body is connected to everything and everybody. And I don’t mean that in a spiritually abstract sense, but in a thoroughly practical sense with all sorts of implications for the way we live and treat others.
Jim Smithson was a social science researcher. He and his wife, Merrie, live in Salt Lake City.