Oct/Nov 2004 Salon

America the Beautiful

by C.E. Chaffin

"America, love it or leave it."

I don't understand this bumper-sticker, as I don't know which America it implies. The "democratic" system? The land? The people? Our neighbors?

I can't love America in the abstract. Loving an ideal soon leads to fanaticism—witness ideologues such as Hitler—for, "Whatever becomes a god becomes a demon" (C. S. Lewis).

I unabashedly love the land and people of America, but this sentiment is more a pastiche of personal attachments stitched into a quilt of memory, not to be reduced to an aphorism. The above slogan, most often seen on large pick-up trucks, reduces any discussion of America to us vs. them. America should always and only be us: those who despise this slogan, those who find it a patriotic tonic, and those who couldn't care less.


The Land

Alaska is Yosemite with the ends kicked out, a panorama for the senses, a reminder that "America the Wilderness" lives.

Ever seen a moose? Impressive creatures; one forgets they are the size of horses. How about a grizzly? I saw one chase a wolf away from a deer kill in Denali National Park. Ever seen Denali (Mt. McKinley)? It's the highest mountain in the world from base to summit, rising 17,000 feet by its lonesome. Like the Grand Canyon it beggars the imagination. Here's a poem I wrote about it:


Like a white fist
clenched against a blue arctic sky
Denali rises insuperably high.

Beside it I am no taller
than the blueberries woven
through ochre tundra at my feet.

Through a break
in the invading clouds
Valhalla beckons
where no slope should be:
Proportion withers
like a December sun.

From now on mankind
will be for me divided
into those who have
and have not seen
The Great One.

(World Poetry 1998)

Exploring Alaska immediately restores one's idea of unspoiled wilderness. The idea of a wilderness, or barrier, remains a linchpin in our self-view as Americans, who, like Davy Crockett, conceive of ourselves (in our souls' junkyard beneath the rusting Winnebagos) as "King(s) of the wild frontier."

But for all the griping that goes on about our environmental stupidities, look at the record: Theodore Roosevelt was more far-sighted than his myopia could imagine when he established our first national parks, setting an example for other nations. There is more wild beauty in America than any pair of eyes could sup in several lifetimes. I've visited a number of national parks and monuments, from Glacier in Montana to Volcano on Hawaii's big island. In all such miraculous havens, the option of complete solitude was always open (though some parks require a little more hiking than others to achieve it).

Being alone among the god-faced rocks, shaded by Joshua trees or Sequoias, I find salubriously humbling. It puts me in my place, the American dream as well. Geologic time is not our time, and earth's beauties will outlast us. Not to devalue soldiers' sacrifices, but Iraq strikes me as irrelevant when I watch the Grand Canyon change hues at sunset. Observing the strata of eons, filled with strange fossils that have never known man as they morph into bands of turquoise, rust and gold, goes a long way toward restoring my sanity vis à vis urban or suburban America. Here's the last stanza from another poem of mine, "On the Anthropic Principle":

When light illuminates the Grand Canyon
in winter's slant at sundown,
the stripes of ages burn
with every visible color.
What is the color of a radio wave?
Only a man asks that.

(Poetry Now, Vol. II, 1)

Not all of us have the wilderness appreciation gene, as I like to call it. There are those who find exile from their cell phones and televisions (not to mention the annoyance of invasive insects) anything but a spiritual comfort. Yet the effect of "the end of the frontier," i.e., the final boundary of the Pacific Ocean halting our westward expansion, is a favorite topic of sociologists. For some, it explains America's violence. In folklore it's the reason so many crazy people end up in my home state, California.

In speaking of America's wilderness, or land, I mentioned Denali and the Grand Canyon because they are the most sublime visions of nature I have seen in any country. They rendered me a verbal eunuch.

When such grandeur whelms a soul, a wordless communion arrives as the necessary myth of individuality recedes into being.



Ayn Rand put John Gault's hideaway in the Rocky Mountains but said little about the beauty of those mountains. Some see mountains as ski surfaces, others as new peaks to conquer. For me it's about spiritual proportion. But all these approaches are good, because America is a land that permits inner and outer preferences, a land of choices—perhaps too many, as in:

"Short de-caf latte with crème de menthe and a Guatemalan espresso chaser—on ice."

I don't think it presumptuous of me to assume that you have access to more cable channels than a North Korean, even if you don't like television, which is your right, just as it is your right to be a couch potato. In America it's even within your right to march against couch potatoes and try to enact laws to make them read and exercise more, but I don't recommend it. I don't think it's very neighborly (an adjective I prefer to that watered-down shibboleth, "tolerant").

America is still the land of opportunity, where anyone can be president. Neither Nixon nor Ford nor Carter nor Reagan nor Clinton grew up in anything but humble circumstances, and that's thirty years of presidency since 1968.

So when a rare son of privilege gets elected, like a Bush or a Kennedy, I don't think it neighborly to whine about silver spoons. The politics of envy is not America. We are the most classless society in the world (and I don't mean just our manners). I have lived in Europe and Mexico where a peasant class still exists, where divisions between the middle class bourgeoisie and the upper class aristocracy still obtains—beyond anything an American farmer's son could fathom. Peasants don't grow up thinking they can be president. In Germany, for example, only ten percent of students have a chance to attend a university.

Here the penniless drunk feels the equal of anyone, with the right to loudly, even rudely, hustle them for change. And if you look in his eyes you will see no sign he thinks himself fundamentally less than you; and that's how it should be in America.

Oh, we're not a pure meritocracy, but after hard work and perseverance, luck has as much to do with success as anything. America provides both the means for opportunity and the luxury of luck, as we are not as hamstrung by social expectations as many other countries, including western democracies.


The People

Here I have a prejudice. The small town communities in the heartland of our nation, which can loosely be defined as anything that does not abut an ocean or orbit around a major city, is where I've met the best, or at least quintessential, Americans. Rather than paint my example large, I'll speak of my mother's home town, Moorhead, Minnesota (don't you love how many state's names, not to mention geological features, are derived from Indian tongues?).

Though my mother, a California transplant, has passed, three of her siblings remain in Moorhead (as do most of their extended families): Uncle Ed, Aunt Pearl, and Uncle Art. Like my mother, they are first-generation Americans, as my maternal grandmother was an indentured servant from Norway and my maternal grandfather an immigrant Swedish blacksmith.

Aunt Pearl attends church regularly, bakes pies for friends and family, goes to a quilting circle and still drives (in her 80s) with a bad ticker. She has kept a diary of local and personal events for over 50 years, and her basement bookshelves are filled with volumes documenting the quotidian: weather, bake sales, illnesses, anniversaries, weddings, what fish her late husband caught, how the wheat crop was doing, and so on. If a discussion of the past comes up she can always check the facts. She doesn't do this to lord her knowledge over anyone, but because her life, so woven into the lives of others, is important, especially since she's a do-gooding Energizer Bunny who still wears me out when I visit.

In her former neighborhood of modest two-bedroom houses, from which she recently moved to a senior apartment, you couldn't find a cigarette in the gutter or a dying tree in a yard. One night I sat on her porch smoking when two perfectly strange men walked by and stopped. "You must be Pearl's nephew," they said. "Yup," I said. Theirs was not a question but a statement. Satisfied, they ambled on. In Aunt Pearl's old neighborhood people know their neighbors and instantly recognize strangers. That's better Homeland Security than money can buy.

In addition, the cheerful stoicism of Midwesterners, satirized to a degree in the movie Fargo (which the locals despised), is no chimera. It is real. Whether from harsh winters or harsh times, it is hard to communicate this quality to any who have not spent time in the heartland. I'll try to give a flavor of it in reproducing a phone conversation I had with Aunt Pearl:

"And how is Uncle Art?"

"Oh, just fine. Ya know he had a bypass."

"Really? We just hiked up the headwaters of the Mississippi a month ago."

"Ya, he said he had a little chest pain back then but wasn't worried about it. Then he went for the bypass, ya know, and it was a quintuple they say. But he was out in three days, started mowing the lawn. And Doris says the pike are really biting at the lake now."

(Art underwent the procedure at a spry 82.)

Stereotypically, New Yorkers are known for bitching and arguing, while Angelenos are known for sliming—trying to charm and lie their way through life. What my Minnesota relatives exhibit, and I find it typical of many semi-rural towns, is a realistic acceptance of life and its expected tragedies combined with an optimistic and practical turn for the future. They don't ask Job's question very often: "Why me, O Lord?" They're more interested in getting on with the business of life. Such an attitude reminds me of a quote by Mickey Rivers, former second baseman of the New York Yankees:

"Ain't no use worrying about things you got control over 'cause you got control over 'em. Ain't no use in worrying about things you don't have control over 'cause you don't have control over 'em."

I doubt Aunt Pearl could have said it better.

In lauding the heartland through the example I know best, I do not mean to dismiss the good done elsewhere. Yet everyone knows the more dense the population, the greater the interpersonal alienation. Anyone who sits in a toll booth in New Jersey and sees 1000 strangers a day has a greater need for therapeutic isolation than my Uncle Clarence, Pearl's late husband, who was a "sod-a-farmer." But who is poorer than he that loses community?

Paradoxically the goal of the rich, with their increasingly gated communities, seems to be maximum isolation from neighbors. In a word, success has more and more come to mean not to need one's neighbors. (This is a tragedy I have written about at length in other columns) Isn't it hard to imagine one mansion-dweller knocking on his neighbor's door to offer advice about a suspicious noise in the other's Mercedes?

Where community still exists (and by that I do not mean the community of convenient freeway access and business associates), I find Americans by in large generous, good and trustworthy. And though I have less experience with recent immigrant enclaves, I suspect one's life is richer in an ethnic neighborhood of Thai or Korean immigrants than was mine in my former Long Beach home, high in a condominium tower.



America is still beautiful and largely uninhabited, as one can readily see when flying coast-to-coast. And the opportunities our land affords, however much maligned by special interest groups, live on. And where community continues, the best of our frontier ethos still obtains, an ethos that once required participation in community not only for the betterment of all but for sheer survival. In the wilderness that remains, as in deep Alaska, this ethos, as it was for our forefathers, is not merely an option: one needs one's neighbors to survive.

As a last aside, I appeal to that book which has shaped our nation more than any other, though it has also been employed, sadly, for exploiting divisions. In the parable of the Good Samaritan Jesus does not directly answer the question, "Who is my neighbor?" Instead he turns the question on its head and tells us, "You be a good neighbor—like this Samaritan."

Wherever you live, whatever your status, whatever your gifts or deficits, especially in this time of discord (which reminds this writer too much of the Vietnam years), I submit it still pays to be neighborly, like my Aunt Pearl, that indefatigable do-gooder—not merely "tolerant."

By the way, you won't read much about the America I love from the bi-coastal media.

It's old news.


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