I worry about the future of our country, and our continent. I have been spending a fair amount of time in northeast Michigan this spring and its rural, wild landscape, and the human decorations on it, remind me of the two great threads of American history that come into conflict in too many of our elections. On the one hand, we celebrate the individual, the homesteader, the back woodsman who has claimed a piece of property and found there success. On the other hand, we cherish the village, the church, the school, and the other expressions of community cooperation. Both are part of our character, both have shaped our politics, but in 2020 I worry that the differences between the two have become insurmountable.
One can look to the success of the individual as the thread that accounts for the wealth and accomplishment of America. Not only those who made a success at farming or logging in the first two centuries of our country, but also the modern day entrepreneur, inventor, and venture capitalist have all created the goods we use to sustain and enrich our lives and power our economy.
One cannot, however, overlook the communitarianism that built America. The farmer travelled to town to trade goods, vote, worship, and work together to build the institutions that continue to be a foundation of our economy and society. It’s only a matter of scale from the blacksmith shop to the manufacturing plant, the one-room school to the research university, the volunteer fire department to the US military. Individual initiative may be the spark, but it is collective action that drives the engine.
The greatness of America, at least in the 21st century, does not find an apparent home in northeast Michigan. It’s largest city, Alpena, occupies a county with only 30,000 residents. Several of the 11 counties in northeast Michigan are among the poorest, most disadvantaged of any in the State by any number of statistical measures. The farms are few, and focus on hay and potatoes; the environment is not conducive to corn, the current king of American agriculture. Several of the villages have dried up into a frayed collection of abandoned and underused buildings. You can drive for long stretches of two-lane road and see more deer than people.
Recently, I have been struck by the significant number of flags in rural Michigan that tout the current President. Their appearance in the fall of 2016 was my first indication that Donald Trump, and individualism, would be the victor in that race. I think the outcome demonstrated the electorate’s opposition to bureaucratic government and a fear of the worst of collective power: the imposition of state control and an over-reliance on regulations to achieve public policy outcomes.
Of course, in preventing a swing towards the left, we have been exposed to the dangers of the right: authoritarianism, the suppression of minority rights, and the impacts of unchecked greed. The success of America has been to strike a balance and build a government that protects personal freedoms while at the same time promoting the common good. Getting the details right has been a constant work in progress.
Now, I worry that the divisions in our country have become so profound that we can no longer find the right compromises to maintain a functioning society. We seem increasingly divided by race and religion, by geography and place, by class and income, and by political party and preferred news sources. Each new challenge, rather than bringing us together to achieve victory against a common foe, forces us to choose sides.
In northeast Michigan, many of the residents are choosing to fly a Trump flag. But another flag increasingly has become apparent, and rainbows are no longer just the passing appearance that follows a thunderstorm. The Pride flag may be more common among summer residents, but there is a recognition of the forces that seek to build a more inclusive society.
“This sure is beautiful country” my traveling partner exhaled as we came up over a rise in the road and a patterned landscape appeared with Lake Huron in the background. And that’s when it struck me that the comment could, and would, be said by any resident or visitor, regardless of political party, who took in the view. Nature does not discriminate, and the wonders of the Great Lakes bioregion are enjoyable in such a wide variety as to meet the interests of anyone and everyone.
Conservation, the environment, the out-of-doors, the appreciation of wildlife, may be one common interest that can bring us back together as a nation. The individual can find both solace and challenge in outdoor recreation, but I observe that neither the fisherman or the birdwatcher passes up the chance to gather with others. Perhaps ironically, the parking lot at the government funded boat launch is full of pick-ups with Trump stickers, while the liberal with binoculars sneaks onto private property to take in a rare bird. The enjoyment of nature is not defined by political ideology, and the history of environmental laws is a bi-partisan one.
Just recently, the US Congress, still scarred from an impeachment process and other partisan and personal fights, came together to pass the Great American Outdoors Act. “It is the most important U.S. conservation bill in a generation, creating a lasting path for the future of our public lands while supporting jobs and our well-being,” said Jennifer Morris, the head of The Nature Conservancy. The legislation, which directs oil and gas revenues to repair parks and protect natural areas, had bi-partisan support and the President has promised to sign it into law. Rather than creating divisions, we all need to find more opportunities to bring us together. I would prefer to see more American flags on my travels through northeast Michigan.
They call the Lake Huron shoreline in Michigan the “Sunrise Coast” because the views are to the east, and one needs to get up early to appreciate the view of the sun over water. I favor Presque Isle County, one of the state’s smallest in both population and area. It is named for the “almost island” that the French explorers discovered centuries ago, and it has a unique feature. In the evening, one can drive to the “new” Presque Isle Lighthouse built in 1870 to empower a lighthouse keeper, the epitome of independence, to serve the common good and promote public safety. There, at the tip of the land extended out into Lake Huron one can look west to watch the sunset. Beauty, and our future, can be seen if we recognize that there is more than one perspective. Can nature heal our divisions?