My son was recently assigned “This Land is Your Land” by his piano teacher. Driving home from the lesson with his brother, we sang the chorus together in the car. I delightfully twanged out my best attempt at Guthrie’s classic, 1950s, American-folk voice. “This land is your land, this land is my land, from the Redwood Forests to the New York Islands…” It’s great, isn’t it? Like all the best folks songs, it hijacks your heart making it hard to stop once you’ve started.
But I did stop. I caught myself in a moment of discomfort. What does this mean, my land, your land…made for you and me? I felt a twinge of dis-ease imagining my boys with the belief that the land across America was made for them?
To be sure, Guthrie’s creative impulse for the song rose from tiring of the self-congratulatory, all-too-familiar, “God Bless America.” It was a critique of “private property” and of the starkly apparent income disparities of the depression, (increasingly familiar to us today). Guthrie’s song, however does something else — it invokes a “God” who made the earth for us, for all us adams and eves. Aiming to provoke an appropriate gratitude for what we’ve been given, this language, nonetheless, in today’s context, stole some of my delight in belting it out. Can we really afford to say this any more?
I have no bone to pick with great Guthrie, or his wonderful song. The particular way he manifested his courage and creativity as a singer, songwriter and visionary, mark him in my book as one of the last century’s truly noble men. My reflections on his lyrics — on the then innocent suggestion that this land was made for us — represent not a critique so much as a foreboding sense of where we are now. Almost 80 years after Guthrie penned this song, “this land” is at a precipice.
As each month passes, the earth faces more and more severe climate change, extreme weather events and record extinctions. We can no longer speak of ownership, or who land was made for, without committing to a revolution in the way we think.
Let me be straight up.
The trees, the native grasses, the toyons and the old oaks, the “redwood forests” and madrones that surround the patch of California where my family lives don’t belong to us nor were they made for me and my family. That eco-system, its watershed, its vast network of un-told relationships, the insects and myriad birds — they all simply are what they are.
Including, and beyond our west coast region of the planet, this whole land called “America” does not belong to anyone as much as we belong to it, so much as we depend on it as indispensable to life.
That eco-system? We are a part of it, yet unlike many of the systems we humans have invented that tally up interest rates, currency values, profit margins and cost-benefit analyses, this land is so generous it gives us life for free!
By virtue of its telos, and like our own children, (and ourselves, as children), the complex web of relationships we call “land” simply aims to be what it is. But unlike children, in being itself, this land has no voice it can use to learn to speak our human languages. It depends entirely on us to build that connection, that relationship — to listen and learn a language so profoundly different from our own. Absorbed only in ourselves we forget that we are surrounded, all the time, by the most fascinating of strangers.
I think of this regularly in my role as a mother, just as I did while joyously belting out Guthrie’s song with my sons in the car. What does it look like to help my child learn to listen? How do I foster a recognition of the real value of land in our lives and in my children? How do I do this at a time when I’m competing against the “value” of time, space and materials defined by an unsustainable economic system? Against the “value” of returning an email in time, or juicing up a screen with adequate power so I can get back to work? How do I compete against the “value” to my children of the cartoons (or endless commercials!) that captivate their attention, (in spite of efforts to limit their exposure!), arresting their natural creativity and curiosity. After all, not too long ago, all that attention had a far easier chance of being focused on ladybugs mating or the contents of animal scat.
I ask myself, then, how to raise my children to appreciate what we have been given? How to bridge the huge gulf between the photosynthetic elegance that affords them their breath and the high-tech, fast paced world they are rapidly entering? How might I hope to help them rise to the defense of this land that, in being itself, has no human language? How might I support them to honor and protect, as noble men might, the graciousness and beauty of all the feminine immanence surrounding us?
Truth be told, as a mother, more often than not, I fear I become a preacher in the pulpit, hammering dictums home about the importance of taking care of “Mother Earth.” Wringing my hands, I then fret that my husband and I have failed our children in not providing them with a church or a synagogue to give them a sense of the holy, of reverence, of inter-dependence in a spiritual community. It is a daunting task, this raising of children in an age when old traditions have lost their foothold and so much feels in the balance, for now and in the future…
Taking a breath, I consider my own childhood, agnostic, with only the memory of a mother whom I knew, somehow, believed in something greater than herself. It wasn’t a religious idea drawn from a church experience, just something I knew she felt and that clearly impressed me into adulthood.
Without intending it, I’ve come to believe that what my mother channeled was a kind of pagan whisper. Through her Swedish roots, through the natural decorations on our Christmas tree and in an annual commitment on Christmas mornings not to rush to open presents but to take a walk in the brisk, winter air, I learned something about value. It was a whisper I inherited because, in my mother, an appreciation for this precious, natural and powerfully feminine dimension of life had survived, survived the ambitions of the Industrial Revolution and its 21st century fruitions, survived the ubiquitous diminishing of nature into something simply to own, control, manage and consume.
I grew up somehow knowing — without it ever being spoken — that the way my mother relished taking those walks outside on cold autumn days, or the way she appreciated the beauty of the natural world with such gusto, meant something.
As a mother, she spoke in this way without words. And, watching on, I listened. Perhaps this, then, this unarticulated, but unmistakable, transmission from mother to child — this is my church. And perhaps, also, it is theirs, my sons’.
As a mother, I pray they see my reverence for the sun, moon, skies and seas. Beyond my dictums, admonitions and lectures, (so frequently driven by my own need to control, born from fear), I commit to take the time to remember my connection…time to simply be, to the best of my capacity, in right relation with this earth. Time spent being aware of its grace, the dynamism and gorgeousness that created it, the recognition that this land was not made for you and me, but that it IS you and me. And I would no longer dismiss this deeply held knowing than I would eclipse my husband’s, children’s or my own heart out of existence. This land is my family. The roots, our ancestry. There is no separation.
With that fierce mother love, with that fortitude, then, I take a stand. That church I want to send my children to? It is in my heart. It is the love they will see in their mother that I have for the 110th formation of clouds that in the same afternoon display themselves, unabashedly, across a blue sky. It’s in the funny shaped sticks I pick up, the bugs I notice and inspect on a hike, the breath I take as I turn my face to the sun.
This may well be our leverage point, mothers, against the seemingly overpowering tide of speed, neglect and disregard : Our own refusal to forget where we came from. Our own commitment to remember…and from there to sing.
And lest the fathers among us feel somehow left out, your work here is indispensable right now. May I extend an invitation? Do not DO anything. Instead, question what is being asked of you to honor this church? As a man, as a father, in these times of lost connection. You matter in this story. Step back. Witness. Listen. Take time. And with your bold, abiding hearts, appreciate the beauty of that song.