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Memorial Day: Defend the Land

Notes from Memorial Day 2019

Looking at my Grandfather Hugh Miller’s photo circa 1944. He would be killed when my dad was 6 months old, living in Seattle with his mom, my grandmother Edna “Jaybird” Rose Miller. I have been thinking today about what he fought for, how he defended the land and how we might continue to do so.

Looking at the only photograph I have of Grandpa Hugh Miller Sr. I recognize that tall and lanky build. His helmet drifts on top of his head, like a child wearing his father’s baseball cap. HIs friend’s smile seems out of place, as if brought in from a school photo or family portrait as a courtesy to the photographer. Grandpa Hugh offered no such gesture. His look is sullen, serious, dismissive--or just focused. Or perhaps a combination. I have seen that look, drawn and erased many times on his son’s face. There is a seriousness to it. "Life is a serious thing,” it seems to say, “if you get too loose with it, you’re done.”

He looks ready to fight for something. For what? Surely when he was shot by a sniper in the Philippines and took his last breath, he was defending the United States of America. But the country he defended was and is both an idea and a place. It is the idea of America that he fought to defend. And it was the land on which this idea took root.

First, when you defend the U.S., you defend the philosophy of this country: representative democracy, a government by and for the people, that all people are created equal, the Constitution. He fought for the idea of the country, a social and political experiment only 170 years old--a handful of generations--when he died.

Secondly, when you defend the U.S., you defend a geographical, geological and ecological place. A country is something you can point to on a map. It’s where you are “from”. It’s the place of one's citizenship and residence. “Country” also means an expanse of land. Think of “country music” and “country store”; these evoke images of wide open spaces, untrammeled landscapes and a kind of wildness and freedom. When you defend your country, you defend your land, your wide open spaces.


When you defend your country, you defend your land.


On this last point is where Grandpa Hugh and I might share something in common. I like to think that I—and the many working with Smeal and Penn State on the shift to sustainable business--defend our land also. We don’t do battle with another political state but more of a mental state. His time had the relative benefit of being able to point to a single enemy—you could circle your adversary on a map. You could hatch a plan to contain or to conquer. Today, enemies are dispersed and unpredictable. From IEDs to GHGs, today's “enemy” are often products of human ingenuity gone wrong. I hope in some small way to bend more of this genius toward the common good--whatever that is. We might have all the toys and distractions we need, but not enough clean water, atmosphere, and time.

Recently when listening to the news with my teenage daughter, she told me she is afraid of the weather. In that moment, I felt not only sick to my stomach but unable to do anything, at least immediately, for her. And news today on tornadoes in Ohio and Indiana will not ease her anxiety. We will hear that "no one weather event can be tied to a changing climate." I think it was last week that we reached 415 ppm. The fact that we created a world where our kids fear the weather is a clarion call for change.

In the end, Grandpa Hugh fought to “defend the land”. You can’t have a country without, well, country. Our country today continues to be threatened by external enemies, and increasingly by internal ones of our own making. Self-interest sprints ever ahead of wisdom it seems. Memorial Day remembers soldiers in the Armed Forces fighting not just for the idea of America, or our Constitution or our economy but our land. In the end, it is the land that gives rise to country. It is the land that we must defend.

And that’s a serious thing indeed.

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