AMERICA IS A COMPELLING PLACE TO BEHOLD, in both the literal and more figurative uses of that word “behold.”
Sometimes I love America as a child loves a father. This kind of love is the very etymology of the term “patriotism,” from patris, “father(land).”
I’ve travelled extensively in the interior West, and every time I do the beauty of the landscape takes my breath away. The beauty is not mannered and settled in the way that other continents are — the quaintness of rural England, for example. The American West has by contrast a wild, elemental, almost careless loveliness, and traveling through it I always get the humbling sense that it doesn’t care whether there are any witnesses to gasp in awe. John Ford, the great director of American Westerns, loved shooting long shots of his characters making their way through Monument Valley or the Canyonlands of southern Utah, and once remarked that he used the scenery as a sort of silent character in his films.
Sometimes I love America like a lover loves his beloved.
I’ve always loved New England, in part because I’ve loved Robert Frost’s poetry since I was a child. The first time I went to New England was in October 1993. I stayed at the summer cabin of a friend deep in the Vermont woods, in the middle of a clearing of about 2 acres. I flew into Boston’s Logan Airport just as the sun was setting, rented a car and drove the six hours through a very black night to the cabin, the headlights catching an occasional flash of leaf colors of an enticing vividness. I woke up before first light the next morning, made myself a mug of black coffee, bundled up in woolens — it was about 20 degrees out — grabbed an old lawn chair and walked out into the middle of the meadow. The sun was just throwing a pale glow in the eastern sky as I sat down, my heart racing as I waited for the sun to fully reveal the leaves I had only glimpsed the night before.
The light grew into a gray dimness, and then a frosty blue just before sunrise and the edge of the surrounding woods began to glow with an odd fire as the maples, beeches and oaks revealed a dim but growing riot of shades I hadn’t known occurred in nature.
By the time the sun peeked over the horizon and shone directly on the treetops, I was surrounded by colors so vivid I wondered whether I might be hallucinating — brilliant scarlet, fiery orange, vivid violet and golden yellow, all mixed together. I walked into the woods as a slight breeze made the leaves tremble, stirring like quivering psychedelic stained glass in God’s own cathedral, and I savored every moment, knowing I would only see these woods for the first time once.And sometimes I love America like a parent loves a child.
When I listen to jazz — whether Duke Ellington’s regal compositions, Miles Davis’s almost impossibly erudite modal experiments, John Coltrane’s soulful expressiveness or Ornette Coleman’s fearless odysseys — I am proud that only America’s unique mix of tragedy, defiant hope and restless inventiveness could have produced such amazing music.
We are still the only nation that has ever landed men on the moon — we are, perhaps, the only nation in history with the mix of technical competence and almost foolhardy daring required for that particular feat. When John F. Kennedy proposed that endeavor, he said he thought we should make the attempt “not because it is easy, but because it is hard.” Not despite its difficulty, but precisely because of it.
America in December 1941 looked across the oceans to a pair of continents well on their way to compete conquest by two of the most ruthless powers that have ever existed, a significant portion of its Navy sunk in Pearl Harbor, and while it would have been understandable if the American people had pressed their government to sue for peace and let the oppressed peoples in Europe and Asia fend for themselves, instead we came together and defeated two powerful foes within 3 ½ years, burying our enemies under a tsunami of materiel produced by American workers in seemingly limitless amounts. In 1944, American workers manufactured the number of planes in the entire current U.S. Air Force — every five weeks.
If I criticize my country as I often do, it is because I love her enough to be disappointed when she falls short of her best, as she too often does. I see her dissipate herself in senseless wars, besmirch her reputation with torture programs and rendition and so on, and feel bad not because I think she is evil, but because I know she is better, far better than that.
As we watch the fireworks tomorrow, let’s reflect on the remarkable achievements of our ancestors, and let’s be inspired not just to add to their successes but to correct their failures, too. Let us forge a more perfect union.