I have some friends for whom the 4th of July is their favorite holiday of the year. Other are more middle of the road about it. Me? I’m not into huge groups of people waiting for things to go BOOM over their heads or the tourists that flood the city decking themselves out in flag clothes and leaving their trash everywhere. I grew up and now live in the two cities largely responsible for the birth of this nation. As a result I’m over the Liberty Bell and the Pops on the Esplanade.
All of this is not to say that I’m not patriotic. I am, but I am more interested in things like how the government works, who is running for office, and who I can support who will do what is best for us as a whole, not just the people who can pay for votes. That being said, I received this email today from the always awesome and on topic Amanda. I think that, as it is the eve of the 4th, it is appropriate to share.
July 3, 2012
DOUGLAS, Mass. — I still know how the wind sounds here. I still know the difference between how it sounds as it shakes the birches and how it sounds as it ripples through the top branches in a stand of great oak trees. I still know the differences between the birds, calling in the underbrush, and I can still hear on the edges of everything the gentle lapping of the water down on the rocks at the edges of the lake. I still know where all the shadows fall at the height of midday. I still know how the wind sounds here.
For three summers in the 1970’s, I was a public employee in this place, Douglas State Forest, in the southern middle of Massachusetts, its lake half in the Commonwealth (God save it!) and half in Rhode Island. I worked for tax dollars. I patched roads and cut trails. I took tickets and raked leaves and cleaned out fireplaces at the height of black-fly season, generally wearing a fencing mask, which made me look like Great Grandpappy Mayfly to many of the preseason early arrivals. I pulled disposable diapers out of trees so the raccoons wouldn’t get into them and choke. (Don’t ask.) I learned to drive stick on a state-owned dump truck. I tried to maintain order among the various taxpayers who would come to the forest and gradually learned an essential lesson about life — that human beings no more become more civil when you put them in the woods than bears become domesticated if you put them in your parlor. (Henry David Thoreau, that fathead, was so very wrong about this.) Still, we were firm, but polite. These people did, in fact, pay our salaries. This morning, I came down the long walk that leads from the parking lot to the picnic area and, thence, to the beach, and I remembered how the wind in the trees and all the birdsong gradually gave way to laughter and shouts on a hot summer’s morning right before a holiday.
It was here that I learned the value of our political commonwealth, of the things we own as a self-governing people, of the things of which we are merely caretakers. Of course, back then, we relentlessly teased ourselves as to how we managed to get these jobs. The ex-brother-in-law of one of my best friends accounted for two of us. An uncle who was a state representative was responsible for two more. Every time we screwed up, which was less often than you’d think, one of us would look invariably at the other and say, “State worker.” But we were proud of the roads we patched, and the trails we cut, and how the park looked every morning before we’d open the gates. This was our place, but it was their place, too — the people who would line up in their cars hours before opening, especially on the big holidays, the people from the tenements in Pawtucket and Woonsocket, and from the farms along Route 16 heading east toward Boston, and from the suburbs lining the feeder roads off Route 146, running north toward Worcester. They would come and spend a few hours in the breezy, shadowed woods. Their kids would get to spend a few hours tossing themselves around in water that wasn’t bounded by cement, and that had real sand and gravel at its bottom, and minnows to nibble at their toes. And we would all come back the next morning, and get the place ready for them all to do it all again.
There are things we all own together. That’s what the park taught me, although I was too busy pulling Pampers out of trees to notice it at the time. I came out here again today because I needed to be reminded of that because it’s almost the Fourth of July, and there is a great building conversation about what kind of a country this is going to be, going forward. Louisiana, under rising Republican star Bobby Jindal, has decided that there is money a’plenty for charter schools that teach the fallacy of evolution, but no money at all to keep open the public libraries. When did we decide as a nation that we didn’t need public libraries any more? We are deciding, in 100 different ways, whether or not a political commonwealth is actually something we can afford any more. The conversation is going on out of earshot, but it is the low murmur behind dozens of different decisions being made as regards budgets and spending and, of course, The Deficit, which is many things, but most egregiously, it is an alibi for selling off our national birthright piecemeal, like one of the yard sales along Wallum Lake Road, as the pavement surrenders to gravel. There in the gentle woods, I learned something about keeping a public trust, something that too many people in our politics have decided is a sucker’s game.
It was a good place to be on the day before the Fourth. (The Fourth itself, I admit, always was something of a circus. People would park their cars and send their kids sneaking through the woods to put in a claim on the best beachside tables. Keeping order was like pursuing the Viet Cong.) A camp group from the inner city in Worcester was having an outing in the pavilion in the middle of the picnic area. The beach resounded with laughter, which all sounded the same, and with a number of different languages, which didn’t. I walked down to a quiet spot by the lake and thought about what I had been, forty years ago this summer. Yeah, I was a state worker, a public employee. You paid my salary. If I’d stayed with it, I could have retired in 2002 with full benefits. But the work we did abides. Some of the bushes I planted are still there. Some of the roads I patched are still intact. Most of the fireplaces are still where I left them. Some of the trails that I cut still bring the children of the tenements and the farms and the suburbs deep into the places of the long shadows and the birdsong.
Deep in the forest, there’s an old abandoned railroad bridge, a relic of the days of the WPA, a monument to the dead triumph of public purpose in a country that has surrendered its soul to a cramped sort of accountancy. There is a sense of political commonwealth, of public spaces that belong to all of us, that we need desperately to revive, and not merely in cyberspace. Being American — truly, fully, deeply American — has always required physical space. It was the country’s original promise, the basis for the American dream. There is something in my old forest now that feels very much like an ancient, weathered shrine, the songs of the birds like mournful monks at a kind of vespers. I have hope, though, because I still know how the wind sounds here.