Around Thanksgiving we get appropriately sentimental and, if we are wise, give some consideration to reasons for gratitude. I’ll leave the mush and slobber to Hallmark, the friends and family stuff to the Butterball ads and alehouse toasts. But there is something I have seen quite a lot of these last couple of weeks, something worthy of a few words of note. That would be work, done with care and skill and — if I may get a bit soft — love, by community members who labor when they are not obligated to do. We are grateful for people who do things that need doing because they care, because they get satisfaction from being able to help, because they enjoy the hard work of volunteering, or because they know that for somebody, somewhere, it will matter. 

We sometimes dismiss our own people as being awfully self-centered, weak, unskilled, maybe too wrapped up with our own toys and comforts to do a lick of work if we can get out of it. Maybe in the abstract this is true, but when you look closely at real communities, it is not entirely so. 

Last week I trained with Emergency Medical Technicians, many of whom see more pain and blood and trouble in an average work week than I’ve seen in twenty-plus years carrying the same license. Last Thursday I sat around the table with the Knox County Emergency Management directors, small-town firefighters and other neighbors who do what they can to plan for floods and hurricanes, forest fires and fuel spills, ice and snow and mayhem. These are the people who think about finding a backup for all the heat and power and drinking water and communications and plow trucks you don’t have, when the bridge is out. On Friday I met with the members of the Maine Islands Coalition, and each person around that table — island community activists from up and down the coast — has easily five or ten jobs, as they scramble between the pre-school and wharf and the State House. All of these folks are mentors — to me, to younger folks, but especially to each other, all the time, and as a matter of course. 

Not long ago I was among the volunteers on a search in central Maine. You’ll have heard of the particular missing person on the news, if you are inclined to pay attention to such, but I’ll refrain from getting “into the weeds” about the case here, which is easy because I don’t know much about it.

But the searchers did get into the weeds — and into the woods, and the swamps, and in this particular case, the prickers. Briars and brambles and blackberries filled the area. We came out of the woods a bit scraped, a little shredded, with our clothes full of thorns, but happy to make an effort even though the job was sadly not finished that day.

When it is our neighbor who is among the missing we are grateful for people who will do this work and go out. Searchers are trained citizen responders, many of them the experienced woodsmen who might otherwise carry a rifle, a bow, or a chainsaw. They are the game wardens (who do most of the lost-person finding in Maine before we ever hear about it), the hikers and climbers and other outdoor sports enthusiasts, the backcountry medical people, the pilots, the radio operators, the mounted (equestrian) searchers, and of course the dog handlers — because dogs, by the way, generally do a better job than we human searchers with our merely human senses.

In a small town north of Bangor, on the pool table in the community hall, they served us coffee and doughnuts and breakfast sandwiches, and later, roast turkey, and homemade baked beans, and fresh yeast rolls, and warm biscuits. This amazing food, prepared by strangers, was like nothing I’d had anywhere, for the feeling that went into it. This was no holiday — this was response to a tragedy — yet the people of this town, mostly the women, had in mind to feed the search volunteers and to make them welcome. 

The food they cooked for us was over the top, in that town not much bigger than Matinicus. It was so much more than quantity, and timing, and something warm at the end of a hike: it was delicious, truly delicious. Tucking into a plate of roasted turkey and a mess of homemade beans, we gave them thanks, grateful as people could be. We were warmed in more than just the physical way. The women from the little town insisted that, no, it was they who were grateful to us, for coming out to search for their neighbor. But we knew they certainly didn’t have to offer such a feast!

Let us remain grateful.