There’s a sweetheart of an American tradition that has mostly vanished. It’s called “love of country.”
But “country,” here, means more than campaign talk. At one time, the word evoked a sense of actual place—in fact, many places. A sea-shore, a mountain mist, a place to belong. Such living landscapes inspired devotion.
They filled our old patriotic songs: “I love thy rocks and rills,” “the fruited plain,” “from the mountains to the prairies to the oceans white with foam,” “this land was made for you and me.”
Nobody wrote patriotic songs about market values or political rhetoric. John Burroughs said, rather, it was actual place that could “move the heart, appeal to the mind and fire the imagination.”
You can see that fire in the writings of John Muir.
“This sudden plash into pure wildness—baptism in Nature’s warm heart—how utterly happy it made us!” he wrote, remembering his boyhood among the trees, water and stars of his first U.S. home, the Wisconsin woods.
From this early rooting in the land, Muir’s life journeys ensued, protecting places across the continent that continue to inspire people from around the world.
George Washington Carver, born into slavery, likewise found the love of our actual country a gateway to wisdom and freedom. Because he loved even the smallest flower, Carver later explained, the plants could speak to him, revealing their knowledge.
This love-stirred understanding led Carver to inspire, teach and feed numerous Americans, to enrich depleted Southern soils via crop rotation and cultivate species that could nourish even the poorest sharecropper.
Biologist E. O. Wilson has called this love of the living world “biophilia.” It’s a devotion that unites people, rather than divides.
It inspired Teddy Roosevelt to protect a vast national commons, accessible to everyone. His love of these places even restrained his personal dream of shooting one of the last American buffalo for a trophy. Instead, he set out to protect that iconic species, and so it survives today.
In 1903, seeing the erosion, flooding and lifelessness that industrial logging had made of the Appalachians, Roosevelt declared it was time for all Americans to grow up into this more mature love of country.
“We have gotten past the stage, my fellow citizens, when we are to be pardoned if we treat any part of our country as something to be skinned for two or three years for the use of the present generation,” he said, “whether it is the forest, the water, the scenery.”
It was not a new ideal. For Thomas Jefferson, the lifelong forester and agrarian of a century prior, the living land was an American’s most valuable asset—an inheritance to conserve, not squander. It connected past to future.
“Too old to plant trees for my own gratification,” Jefferson wrote in later years, “I shall do it for my posterity.”
Has this land-based devotion and generosity been lost? We hear plenty of campaign talk, today, about “traditional values” and “conservatism.”
Yet any proposal to conserve America’s actual traditional valuables— her living lands, waters and wildlife heritage—tends to be derided, weirdly, as “un-American.” It seems that the “love of America” must be restricted to “market values.”
But who can love a market? Who has roots in “the economy”? These are abstractions nobody has ever seen and few would call majestic or divinely-inspired.
The heart is stirred, instead, by life. It craves beauty, inspiration, a sense of connectivity.
Sociologists have said for years that we’ve lost our sense of community, of participating in the world outside our separate walls.
Then we wonder why we are divided, polarized, drug-dependent, unhealthy. We despair that the corresponding disorders of our land, rivers and climate appear beyond us to heal.
Maybe a revival of this love for a real country could begin a restoration. It is something you yourself can start, just by pulling on a hat, walking out the door and visiting a landscape that could use a little love.
You could take along a child, an elder, even someone of “the other” political persuasion you are supposed to dislike. Maybe you will discover a little common ground—perhaps even an uncommon joy.