Few of us remember our first birthday, or even our second. Those celebrations were less for us than for our parents, joined perhaps by a few siblings or other relatives. Presents mattered less than the party itself, with its cake and ice cream, memories, smiles, and photos to share.
By our third or fourth birthday, we began to participate in our own celebrations. We asked questions: “What time was I born?” “Why did you give me this name, rather than that?” “Can I have strawberry cake this year?”
Eventually, we became adults. As the years ticked by, birthdays became more than a time to look to the past or celebrate the present. Most of us began to look forward, as well, taking stock of our lives and asking a different set of questions: “Have I become person I hoped to be in my youth? How will I shape the years remaining to me? How can I preserve the heritage of my family, or pass on the values I’ve come to cherish?”
In adulthood, we recognize a truth hidden to children. Physical birth is only the beginning of a process. It takes a lifetime to become human, and throughout the years we always are at risk of having our humanity warped, stunted or degraded by forces abroad in world. It requires awareness, tenacity, wisdom, and clarity of vision to bring our potential to fruition.
The same is true for a nation. When we were children, the excitement of 4th of July flags, fireworks and parades was enough. Eventually, we began to learn about and appreciate the people, documents, and events that shaped our nation’s life and still occasion our festivities.
But now, as adults in a position to ask new and difficult questions, we’re called to ponder the processes that have brought us to this point in America’s history, even as we seek new and creative ways to contribute to her future. In his private papers, Justice William O. Douglas wrote,
As nightfall does not come at once, neither does oppression. In both instances, there is a twilight when everything remains seemingly unchanged. And it is in such twilight that we all must be most aware of change in the air – however slight – lest we become unwitting victims of the darkness.
Few contemporary poets have better sensed those “changes in the air” than Wendell Berry. As we celebrate our nation’s birth, in a time marked by anxiety and confusion, I find his words both thought-provoking and filled with a certain solace. Whatever may be happening around us, we remain free to claim our own independence. I can’t prove, but do suspect, that strong, independent citizens will help to guarantee an independent nation in the future. May it be so.
The Mad Farmer, Flying the Flag of Rough Branch, Secedes from the Union
From the union of power and money,
From the union of power and secrecy,
From the union of government and science,
From the union of government and art,
From the union of science and money,
From the union of genius and war,
From the union of outer space and inner vacuity,
The Mad Farmer walks quietly away.
There is only one of him, but he goes.
He returns to the small country he calls home,
His own nation small enough to walk across.
He goes shadowy into the local woods,
And brightly into the local meadows and croplands.
He goes to the care of neighbors,
He goes into the care of neighbors.
He goes to the potluck supper, a dish
From each house for the hunger of every house.
He goes into the quiet of early mornings
Of days when he is not going anywhere.
Calling his neighbors together into the sanctity
Of their lives separate and together,
In the one life of the commonwealth and home,
In their own nation small enough for a story
Or song to travel across in an hour, he cries:
Come all ye conservatives and liberals
Who want to conserve the good things and be free,
Come away from the merchants of big answers,
Whose hands are metalled with power;
From the union of anywhere and everywhere;
By the purchase of everything from everybody at the lowest price
And the sale of anything to anybody at the highest price;
From the union of work and debt, work and despair;
From the wage-slavery of the helplessly well-employed.
From the union of self-gratification and self-annihilation,
Secede into the care for one another
And for the good gifts of Heaven and Earth.
Come into the life of the body, the one body
Granted to you in all the history of time.
Come into the body’s economy, its daily work,
And its replenishment at mealtimes and at night.
Come into the body’s thanksgiving, when it knows
And acknowledges itself a living soul.
Come into the dance of the community, joined
In a circle, hand in hand, the dance of the eternal
Love of women and men for one another
And of neighbors and friends for one another.
Always disappearing, always returning,
Calling his neighbors to return, to think again
Of the care of flocks and herds, of gardens
And fields, of woodlots and forests and the uncut groves,
Calling them separately and together, calling and calling,
He goes forever toward the long restful evening
And the croak of the night heron over the river at dark.
~ Wendell Berry