What accounts for the amplified patriotism that I feel? This American ardor is not specific to my time in Nebraska City. Over the course of the last year, my national pride has swelled, even as I'm daily disappointed by the reactionary ignorance of so many fellow citizens. Still, in this smallish, midwestern town, I am acutely aware of my American identity.
Perhaps Nebraska City's abundant reminders of our nation's meteoric, messy, and astonishing history forefront my appreciation for my peoples' achievements? Or perhaps it is the love of place reflected in the town's twelve museums, each one a heartfelt labor?
Consider, for example, Joe Voges' River Country Nature Center. Voges, born 96 years ago in Nebraska City, began learning the craft of taxidermy in 1933, at 20 years of age. 47 years later, in 1975, he opened the Nature Center, a collection of mounted wildlife - 90 percent of the taxidermy on display is his handiwork - grouped into natural history dioramas and educational exhibits. In 2005, the museum expanded and moved from Nebraska City's old fire hall to a spacious, street level location nearby.
The taxidermy is by turns amateurish and professional, but the information presented is up-to-date and effectively communicated. The best of the Nature Center exhibits are of American Museum of Natural History quality, and, throughout, one senses Voges' driving desire to educate subsequent generations about the importance of preserving biodiversity and conserving natural resources.
Perhaps Voges' tellurian impetus is part of the reason I feel a particularly "American" pride in Nebraska City? Like our national history, we're a contradictory, complicated lot, but we fundamentally remain a people that identify the "great outdoors" as a reflection of our values and beliefs, and vice versa. Certainly, there is myth involved in that association, but there is some truth, too.
The contemporary character of this American identification with the land is both Romantic and Utilitarian; it incorporates a self-conscious brand of rugged individualism that, on the one hand, allows for George W. Bush's popular appeal, and, on the other, has made the United States an international wellspring of conservation efforts and environmental philosophy. Despite the previous presidential administration's willingness to bend to the will of extractive industry, the United States remains uniquely positioned to foster among the international community a conservation ethic. Indeed, an overwhelming number of internationally active organizations working for preservationist and conservationist causes are American in origin or base; we are yet the vanguard in the environmental arena.
But even - nay, especially - on the streets of Nebraska City, on the banks of the great Missouri River, at the head of the Oregon Trail, I must inoculate my healthy patriotism against the virus of nationalism. I sometimes wish that "America the Beautiful," Katherine Lee Bates' celebratory hymn, were our country's national anthem, instead of Francis Scott Key's "Star Spangled Banner."
Whereas the "Star Spangled Banner," set to the tune of a popular British drinking song, extols military valor and revolution in the name of freedom, Bates' "America" is both a celebration of our vast American landscape and a plea for social justice, pragmatic politics, and humility. Hers is the United States of America that fills my breast with pride; hers is the clay that I am made of.
"O beautiful for patriot dreamIn 1930, then Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace stated, "There is as much need today for a Declaration of Interdependence as there was for a Declaration of Independence in 1776." I agree, and we're overdue, but I'm starting with the anthem. The Brits can take back their drinking and fighting tune.
That sees beyond the years [...]
God mend thine every flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law!"
Photo credits: all photos, Hungry Hyaena, 2009