We’re living in the middle of a national crisis of solidarity – rising racial bitterness, pervasive distrust, political dysfunction. So what are the resources we can use to pull ourselves together? What can we draw upon to tell a better American story than the one Donald Trump tells, one that will unite us instead of divide us, and yield hopeful answers instead of selfish ones?
One resource is the land. Throughout our history, the American identity has been shaped by nature, by how our wilderness molds, inspires and binds us. Up until now, most U.S. presidents have somehow been connected to nature. Washington surveyed, T.R. hunted, Reagan and Bush cleared brush. Trump is unusual in that he seems untouched by wilderness, by the awe and humility that comes from the encounter with nature. He only drives around golf courses, which, though sometimes lovely, are dominated, artificial forms of nature.
From the nation’s founding, Americans had a sense that their continent’s vast and beautiful abundance gave their nation a unifying destiny and mission. The land made them feel apart from Europe – their manners simpler, their admiration for practical work more fervent and their ambitions more epic:
“A European, when he first arrives, seems limited in his intentions as well as in his views,” Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur wrote, “but he very suddenly alters his scale; two hundred miles formerly appeared a very great distance, it is now but a trifle. He no sooner breathes our air than he forms schemes and embarks on designs he never would have thought of in his own country.”
The abundance mentality did not lead to decadence, but to optimism, a sense that there was room for all to spread out. It nurtured a future-minded mentality – seeing the present from the vantage point of the future.
“It requires but a small portion of the gift of discernment for anyone to foresee that providence will erect a mighty empire in America,” Samuel Adams wrote at a time when America was 13 scraggly colonies hugging one coast. This job, constructing a new order for the ages, gave generations of Americans a sense of purpose, something to devote their lives to.
The biggest thing nature did was offer ideals. Different Americans came up with different character types for how to engage with nature. Each type offered a model for how to live an admirable life.
According to one type, character was forged by tilling the land; according to another it was forged by being tested by the land; and in another it was formed by being cleansed by the land. These types wove together to form the American mythos.
The first ideal was the Steward. This is the small yeoman farmer and craftsman who lives close to the soil – self-reliant, upright, humble before creation and bonded to his local community.
“The name of our proper connection to the earth is ‘good work,’” Wendell Berry wrote, “for good work involves much giving of honor. It honors the source of its materials; it honors the place where it is done; it honors the art by which it is done; it honors the thing that it makes and the user of the made thing. Good work is always modestly scaled.”
The second ideal was the Pioneer. This is the person who pushes against the wilderness and develops skill, courage and virility. This is the daring innovator who ushers progress by venturing to the edge of the known.
“Life consists with wildness,” Thoreau decreed. “The most alive is the wildest. Not yet subdued to man, its presence refreshes him. One who pressed forward incessantly and never rested from his labors, who grew fast and made infinite demands on life, would always find himself in a new country or wilderness, and surrounded by the raw material of life. He would be climbing over the prostrate stems of primitive forest-trees.”
The third ideal was the Elevated Spirit. This is the person who slips off the conformist materialism of commercial society and is both purified and enlarged by nature’s grandeur. This is John Muir in Yosemite, Ansel Adams in the Grand Canyon.
Such an awakened soul often comes back singing with Walt Whitman, filled with electric love for the enlarged individual, celebrating the infinite variety of life, feeling part of an endless and ancient web of connections: “I will plant companionship thick as trees along all the rivers of America,/and along the shores of the great lakes, and all over the prairies,/I will make inseparable cities with their arms about each other’s necks,/By the love of comrades.”
These days I often ask people what percentage of our nation’s problems can be solved through policy and politics. Most people say that most of America’s problems are pre-political. What’s needed is a revival of values, fraternity and a binding American story.
I don’t know all the ways that revival of spirit can come about, but even in the age of the driverless car and Reddit, I suspect some of the answers are to be found in reconnecting with our ancient ideals and reconnecting with the land.