Happy Independence Day! Today I honored the birth of our nation by reading Thomas Paine’s Common Sense. Reading it has brought me to reflect on some of its wisest passages. Paine’s arguments apply to today’s local, national, and international issues as well as they did in 1776. He calls out the problem of government and its connection and disconnection from the needs and demands of society. He sliced through the knotted logic that kept the American colonies attached to the rigged monarchy. He called on Americans to see themselves as citizens and not as subjects, as people rooted in America, a place where all could be together. After yesterday’s “Patriotism and Interdependence” service at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Centre County, the last point stuck with me and made me see that interdependence is common sense.
Paine discussed identity as connected to a place. But he wisely noted that people are part of something larger. He wrote,
It is pleasant to observe by what regular gradations we surmount the force of local prejudices, as we enlarge our acquaintance with the World. A man born in any town in England divided into parishes, will naturally associate most with his fellow parishioners (because their interests in many cases will be common) and distinguish him by the name of NEIGHBOR; if he meet him but a few miles from home, he drops the narrow idea of a street, and salutes him by the name of TOWNSMAN; if he travel out of the county and meet him in any other, he forgets the minor divisions of street and town, and calls him COUNTRYMAN, i.e. COUNTYMAN; but if in their foreign excursions they should associate in France, or any other part of EUROPE, their local remembrance would be enlarged into that of ENGLISHMEN. And by a just parity of reasoning, all Europeans meeting in America, or any other quarter of the globe, are COUNTRYMEN; for England, Holland, Germany, or Sweden, when compared with the whole, stand in the same places on the larger scale, which the divisions of street, town, and county do on the smaller ones; Distinctions too limited for Continental minds. Not one third of the inhabitants, even of this province, [Pennsylvania], are of English descent. Wherefore, I reprobate the phrase of Parent or Mother Country applied to England only, as being false, selfish, narrow and ungenerous.
Wherever people went, Paine saw the possibility that they could see themselves in others. He knew our moral circle needn’t be provisional or parochial. Paine identified all of the people in America with the people of Europe: all were COUNTRYMEN. Later in Common Sense, he also argues for freedom of religion, thereby ameliorating religious bigotry as well.
Today, we can and have expanded the moral circle. Obviously all are not men. We are women, men, and transgender. We are COUNTRYKIN. We are a global people from Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia, South America, island nations, including the occupied indigenous people and the displaced. As a reflection on current U.S. politics, I can’t imagine that a modern-day Paine could find Trump’s misogynistic, racist, and xenophobic rhetoric palatable. He’d probably also have choice words for the autocratic position Trump’s taken regarding the media. Thankfully, no Massanello arose on the fickleness of “popular disquietudes” to sweep away our Constitution. But I don’t doubt that Trump would do so if given the chance. His moral circle includes himself and any willing to serve him. He is a would-be sovereign who violates the Paine’s vision. Let’s go even farther in our notions of kin.
Among other things, I am a citizen of Ferguson Township and the Spring Creek Watershed. By connection, I am obliged to be a citizen of Centre County and the West Branch of the Susquehanna River which connects me to Pennsylvania and the whole of the Susquehanna River Basin and eventually the Mid-Atlantic and Chesapeake Bay and thereon to our part of the coastal Atlantic and eastern United States and out and out. Barry Commoner wrote, “Everything is connected to everything else.” How true. To say that only Pennsylvania is my Parent or Mother Land would be “false, selfish, narrow, and ungenerous.”
Today, many of us have expanded the moral circle to include the community of life that includes non-human animals, forests, fields, rivers, and oceans, and even the whole biosphere. We are nature and it us. We are the Creation and the Creation is in us. With such realizations it’s no surprise that our prejudices against other-than-humans are dissolving. Our openness to and actions for the rights and care for other-than-humans are increasing because we know and feel we are interconnected. With each passing day’s personal and scientific discoveries, we know that we are related to the other creatures of the earth through an incredible evolutionary lineage. Even if you don’t accept the science of evolution we know that our health is inextricably linked to the health of ecosystems, intricate nations of collective action where nutrients cycle, carbon sinks, and water is filtered. These discoveries make it common sense to see that, as Wendell Berry would say, we are part of an intricate pattern.
In my life, I feel this pattern in forests. Just yesterday I went mountain biking on the rocky trails of Cooper’s Gap in Rothrock State Forest. Instrumentally, the forest becomes my partner and kin in the literal biochemical transactions of our mutual respiration. My exhaled carbon dioxide feeds the plants and the plants’ oxygen fuels my ride. But it is more than respiration. It’s inspiration.
Wending our way down the root-strewn trails we passed over pale bleached leaf litter and through dappled light among swamp white oaks and other hardwoods. Here there is laurel and there are ferns. A downy woodpecker cackles. A frightened chipmunk cheeps and skitters off. Crows cry on the wind. Then, in a mere moment we passed a boundary into the rusty blanket of needles and dimmer light among the sticky-barked pines. The sound of my wheels changes from crinkle to susuruss. It’s a marvel where I see myself as being on, in, and of the trail. It generates love and affection. It is worth respect and preservation. Its forms, colors, textures, sounds, and rhythms become tapestry and symphony, sculpture and song, painting and film, and all a meditation on being in and of this world. As I am in it, I owe it dignity.
If I extend that thought beyond those square miles of Rothrock State Forest, so too can I see myself as part of many forests. My swamp white oak is to me what matapolo tree is to a Costa Rican. To say that Rothrock is my Parent or Mother Land would be “false, selfish, narrow, and ungenerous.” It is partly true, but I and we are part of something bigger than that. As we are members and kin to people of all nations we are members of and kin to the living world.
Thomas Paine could not have known that globalization and ecological consciousness would cause us to rethink our citizenship in such a way. Who knew that his notion of transnational identification would one day include people of so many races, ethnicities, or creeds? Who knew that it would include women? Who knew that it could include our fellow creatures and ecosystems? Maybe no one. But we can today because doing so is common sense. Happy Interdependence Day.