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Thursday, June 17, 2010

Patriotism of the soil

Tamie and I have been watching the most recent Ken Burns documentary series on the National Parks of the United States. It's been quite amazing to realize just how beautiful the United States is. It is also humbling to realize that many of our most scenic locations were almost raped and ruined. If brave and steadfast souls had not stood up to some of the corporate powers-that-be, then the Grand Canyon might be invested with mines and hotels, under the control of entities trying to extract a profit from her; the grand sequoias, thousands of years old, might have been leveled; the buffalo might be completely extinct....etc.

There is a fantastic quote that I came across. It connects patriotism with the soil.

"What is it that inspires love of the flag, that tunes the ear of America to sing 'My Country 'Tis of Thee'? Is it industrial efficiency, irrigation statistics or trade output? Is it the hideous ore dumps of the sordid mining camp? Is it the blackened waste that follows the devastation of much of our forest wealth? Is it the smoking factory of the grimy mill town? Is it even the lofty metropolitan skyscraper that shuts out the sun and throws its shadow over all below? No, our devotion to the flag is inspired by love of country. Patriotism is the religion of the soil, and the national parks are our richest patrimony."

Patriotism if often cited these days. Patriotism is often placed alongside abstract ideas, like "democracy" or "equality." It is used to advance ideologies. Or it is justification for war. In extreme cases, patriotism is a reason to revoke civil liberties. But what about a patriotism of the soil? What about being patriotic to the land? "Sweet land of liberty"?

I sent the DVD back to Netflix, so I am uncertain who to attribute this quotation to. I had thought it was Stephen Mathers, but surfing the net I also see that someone credits John Wesley Hill. No matter. What I appreciate about this idea is that it questions whether patriotism can be sustained if there isn't an organic source of inspiration. Perhaps so many of the other reasons for our patriotism wind up dividing us because they are ideologically driven, they don't grow out of the earth.

Along with this is a quote (that I did not write down) regarding legislation something to the tune of: every legislator and government official in the U.S. should ask themselves if their bill or plan is worthy of the Grand Canyon. In other words, is the direction of our nation worthy of our greatest and most inspirational natural wonders? There's a certain perspective that one gets, I think, from the natural world; it's something that kind of reorients us back to what is truly important.


Kellsotr said...

Excellent post! I feel a physical aching in my soul for being in nature. For me, there is not a more spiritual experience than standing in the presence of something so vast as a canyon or mountain or river and feeling your smallness, and breath of life. Moving to Texas, land of the ever patriotic oil tycoon, has been soul sucking to me. I agree that this country has a lot of places to be loyal to, to pledge allegiance. The really sad thing is that so many people want to backpack Europe without realizing what is right here.

Jonathan Erdman said...

I feel the same ach, Kelly.

I'm wondering...what is your favorite natural environment. Like, would you take a deep forest over an ocean coast? Do you prefer the desert? Or is it a mountain top? If you could live anywhere, where would it be?

Kellsotr said...

The most spiritual experience I have had in nature was the time I spent in Canyon Lands National Park in Utah, but I do not think I would want to live there. Through the last two years I have really deepened my understanding of what it means to live where I am, in my skin, in my family setting, in my town, and that has been a really transforming experience. I do not know, now, if I could/would isolate a specific place as 'the place' I want to live. I loved living in the mountains, and we are planning to head for the beach in the next move, but I (finally) think all places have their own transforming ability, even Texas. The most important thing to me, is being able to appreciate the nature that is around me, even if it is not awe-inspiring beauty. My garden has been that for me here, where in Tahoe it was the lakes and mountains. Because we have moved so many times I am having a hard time wrapping my mind around the idea that we are going to be in one place for several years. Both Matt and I like the idea of being transient, the ability to pick up and go somewhere because the place calls to us. Right now, because of where we are in our path with having VERY young kids, we are less able to pick up and go, but I am confident I will not feel that way for very long.

evan said...

I really enjoyed the quotes and thoughts, especially even the phrase, "patriotism of the soil," a singular style of patriotism I can relate to.

I watched the first video you posted, and a big blaring red alert presented itself in just the first few words spoken:
"The heart of this park idea is that by virtue of being an American, whether your ancestors came over on the Mayflower or whether they just arrived... [the national parks] belong to you."
What about Native Americans?

A lot of the parks or nat'l monuments will make great detail of the area's "previous inhabitants" or the land's "rich cultural legacy," but from there immediately jump to the bleeding heart white settlers that "saved the land." The part they skip, in the case of Grand Canyon, is the forced relocation of the Havasupai tribe, from the land they'd lived on for 800 years, in order to make a park for white settlers and their kids and dogs. Like when Teddy Roosevelt met 3 Havasupai natives on his trail and personally told them to get out!

I am glad that at least some chunks (and beautiful chunks at that) have been saved from the industrialist motherfuckers grip, but, these national parks are state enterprises... a state run by, well, more industrialist motherfuckers... and that's where NP revenues funnel back to.

Jonathan Erdman said...


Good thoughts. It is absolutely true that we need to appreciate the beauty of simplicity and to be complete present and grateful for every element of our environment. Thanks for the reminder.

And ya' know...we are heading toward the ocean....just saying...

Jonathan Erdman said...


Good catch. I've caught a few of those things from watching the Ken Burns films. By and large, I go away from his documentaries with a sense that he is trying to present history as it was, the good, the bad, and the ugly. He does over-romanticize Roosevelt, though. And personally, I do wish that he would have spent a bit more time discussing the native peoples, particularly the impact that driving them off of these beautiful lands has meant to them, to all of us.

The reason for this post is the phrase "patriotism of the soil." The term "patriotism" has been co-opted by the industrial motherfuckers and by political groups and politicians to the point where it is a word I almost feel uncomfortable using. And yet the term itself seems important, because I do feel patriotic. Not to the political machines, not to the whites who displaced the natives and committed genocide. I feel a patriotism to the soil, and in this spirit I am grateful to those who have preserved it and cared for it over the years, most particularly the native peoples.

So, there is a part of me that wants to take back the phrase "patriotism" and direct it to the land itself, to our natural environment. I am patriotic to "freedom," of course (who isn't?); but I also want my patriotism to take on an organic and environmental sense.

Those are a few of my thoughts by way of response. Again, good points you raise, my friend. Thank you.

P.S. The wildfires in Flagstaff combined with the disaster in the Gulf really are cause for sadness right now. Very tragic. I am hoping this will serve to rally us as a collective toward a patriotism of the soil.