Plum Pickings: a discussion of prized harvests –
All of us do not have equal talent, but all of us
should have an equal opportunity to develop our talents.
– John Fitzgerald Kennedy
Freedom is the recognition that no single person,
no single authority or government has a monopoly on the truth,
but that every individual life is infinitely precious,
that every one of us put in this world has been put there for a reason
and has something to offer.
– Ronald Reagan
O Beautiful – Growing up in Washington, D.C., it was not all that uncommon to meet foreign tourists and engage them in conversation. In the summer between my freshman and sophomore years of college, I got a job working at the annual Folk Festival downtown on the national mall. Since it was the nation’s bicentennial celebration, the Folk Festival, usually a two-week event, was extended to last the whole summer long, and brought tourists not just from all fifty states, but from around the world.
Spacious Skies – It always came as kind of a surprise, however, to discover some commonly held misconceptions about American culture. For example, a couple of European tourists, young men confident in their understanding (as they’d studied up) were much chagrined to learn that I’d never been to a rodeo, and that the closest thing I’d ever come to being on horseback was a childhood pony ride at a birthday party in suburban Maryland. What also surprised me was the unbridled enthusiasm with which they told me all about the Wild West show that had visited their town. The wistful tenor of their voices, the mist in their eyes as they spoke: a visceral demonstration of the sway the romantic idea of the American West (a long forgotten chapter, as far as I was concerned) still held in their collective imagination.
Mountain Majesties — Nonetheless, it did occur to me at the time that, as a city kid, especially one with a shuttered, East-coast centric (i.e. provincial) worldview, perhaps they had seen an America that I hadn’t. After all, they had been out west, and made the nation’s capital the last stop on their tour, and although I’d been from Maine to Florida, I’d never ventured farther west than Gaithersburg, MD.
Fruited Plain — It also occurred to me at the time that few tourists from abroad, in fact, few citizens, have truly come to grips with how vast this country really is. And although I eventually moved all the way out to California, there is much of America in between coasts that I’ve yet to set foot on. Deciding that it was time to do a little “sight seeing” of my own, I set out to discover America, even if vicariously, through poems like “So This Is Nebraska,” by 2004-2006 Poet Laureate, Ted Kooser:
On the surface, this poem presents us with an unsophisticated portrait of a pastoral scene from a forgotten rural past. It may even conjure up images such as Grant Woods’ “American Gothic.” We may be tempted to dismiss the work as “folk art,” as the words and images are plain and easily accessible, like Woods’ painting; but that would be a mistake, however, because like most poems, (or, for that matter, any work of art) there is more going on here than immediately meets the eye. And if we dig beneath the surface a bit in an attempt to derive meaning, we begin to see the words as a carefully crafted façade, an artifice which articulates an underlying idea at the poem’s core.
Crown Thy Good – For me, this poem evokes a sense of how tied we are to place – rooted, it seems, to the land. For example, the lines: “you feel like letting your tires go flat, like letting the mice/ build a nest in your muffler, like being/ no more than a truck in the weeds,” suggest that it is comfortable in this landscape, and that we intend to stay on a while. But Kooser takes us even beyond that idea, to disclose an ideal that I think defines most Americans: “You feel like// waving. You feel like stopping the car/ and dancing around on the road. You wave/ instead and leave your hand out gliding/ larklike over the wheat, over the houses.”
With Brotherhood – If we look only at the surface, we see another type of façade in the diversity of race, ethnicity, gender, economic strata of our citizenry. If we dig beneath the surface a bit, we’re likely to arrive at divisions we don’t see: religion, political party, level of education, or opinions about any myriad of topics we can’t seem to agree on. What is it, then, that makes us one nation, indivisible? Kooser’s poem hints at one possibility.
From Sea to Shining Sea — What makes America unique among nations is what we hold in common despite our differences. Underlying the fabric of our nation, and enshrined in our Constitution, we share the same ideal: the brotherhood of mankind. Kooser’s rendering of this ideal, “You feel like waving,” suggests a spirit of kinship and neighborliness that I think most Americans inhabit, especially when confronted with difficulty. Therefore, on this anniversary of our nation’s birth, rather than re-hashing our differences, perhaps we should celebrate what we share: the ideal that unites us as a single people in the face of our diversity, and makes us, in the words of the motto of these United States:
E pluribus unum, “out of many, one.”
Happy Birthday, America!