Bruce Springsteen, conservationist? That thought moves through my mind as I continue to think, and read, about the television commercial that the icon of American music made for the Superbowl. In the beginning of 2021, where are we as a nation? What defines us? Whose country is this? Is there anything we hold in common? And, oddly, does the Upper Peninsula of Michigan belong in America?
If you haven’t seen it, please watch the two-minute ad poem written and recited by Springsteen with his music in the background. It’s an art piece, and as such is open to interpretation, and controversy. It was created and paid for by an automobile company and its advertising partners, so is obviously a commercial, though there is not a new Jeep model in it.
It’s also a political piece, with the Boss asking us to overcome our differences and “meet here, in the middle.” But neither the right, who remembers Springsteen’s strong opposition to President Trump, or the left, that decries the rural image of a cross overlaid on America, seems happy with the message, at least if social media truly measures public opinion.
I was moved by the video, the man, and the words. What struck me was the sense of place, the pictures of a snowy, barren landscape in Kansas, and an overhead shot of a flowing river. The critics point out that there are no people, save Springsteen, in the video. None of the native Americans that first lived on this prairie are included, and the video depicts none of the vibrant diversity that creates our cities, including in nearby Omaha (read here some thoughtful criticism by Diana Butler Bass).
I agree with this criticism, but the central message delivered to me came from the dirt sifting through Springsteen’s hands and his reminder that “the very soil we stand on is common ground.” The land transcends our political divisions, and nature—soil—becomes the very foundation of our life together on this continent. I don’t know if Springsteen consciously chose the word, but “soil” differs from dirt because of the living things, organic matter, and complex biochemical activity that make it the substance in which we grow our food.
Soil health is the new term that conservationists are using to define the goals of agricultural practices that minimize chemical inputs, reduce the need for releasing sediments, and seek to use nature itself to turn dirt into soil. Soil health preserves and promotes the inherent sustainability of agriculture. Our use of nature to feed ourselves is another commonality we share, and that activity also occupies a place.
Places are created when humans define some relationship to the land. The natural world existed before us, and will persist after us, but while we are here living on the land we create places: farms and homes, parks and cities, burial places, places for meeting, and places for worship and remembrance, what a minister of mine called “thin places.” Some involve human constructions; with other places our interactions are more transitory.
Places not only ground us, they offer us the opportunity to house and hold our diversity. Sadly, we struggle these days to overcome our differences, and e pluribus duo threatens to replace e pluribus unum. Still, we share the natural world in common, and our affection for certain natural features knows no political party. In my part of the world, we all love the Great Lakes, and elected officials work across lines to protect them. Places can bring us together.
Maps make concrete the definition of place. A map is a flat depiction of the round planet, thus always incorporating some error or compromise. This was true in the Jeep ad, where a map of the ReUnited States of America omits the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, a mistake all too familiar to residents of the UP. I reflect that this wild land between Lake Michigan and Lake Superior was created by the last ice age, not by an advertising agency or a governmental body. Its western boundary is arbitrary and its assignment to Michigan almost an accident of history.
The mapped definition of any place determines its character much less than the behavior of its residents and how they interact with the natural world they inhabit. Politics, commerce, and social media may intrude on our sense of place, but these are only passing influences. In the end, it’s the people on the land–in all their variety–that create a place, and a nation.