This Land is your land, this land is my land, from California to the New York Island, from the redwood forests to the gulf stream waters, this land was made for you and me. ~ Woody Guthrie, 1940
The America that Guthrie presented in his first verse is a grand and breath-taking land of towering forests and soaring mountains, fertile plains and flowing rivers, mysterious deserts and verdant valleys. It is flanked by vast resource-rich oceans and it is dappled with lakes and wetlands.
Over the centuries we’ve added magnificent cities, irrigated and tilled fertile croplands, constructed interstate highways and explored outer space. Best of all, America is blessed by an inexhaustible and ingenious resource: her people.
In the Shadows of our Culture
But Guthrie reminded us that amidst the grandeur of the nation, there are shadows: “In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people, by the relief office I seen my people. As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking: Is this land made for you and me?”
Today’s America is a paradoxical land of light and shadows. Beneath our soil lies a richness of water, oil, coal, natural gas and minerals. Above the soil these resources fueled an unprecedented industrial and economic expansion that made us the world’s richest and most powerful country.
But their unbridled use in service of development and commerce also brought the unintended consequences of environmental degradation. With our riches we built an unrivaled military-industrial complex and a financial system that produced great wealth, at least for a few. These, too, came with unintended consequences.
America’s financial empires soared almost unchecked by sensible regulation and — weighted down during a decade by greed and excess — spiraled into a free fall that cost millions of Americans their jobs and their homes and cast them into the shadows of relief offices. Guthrie’s question is now embedded in the hearts and minds of Americans who are being left behind by economic and social changes.
Lurking Threats to Our Future
While our nation still shines with unlimited possibility, it is tarnished by lurking threats from human-caused climate change, a degraded infrastructure, a financial meltdown, a never-ending fixation on weapons, gross economic inequality, an education system on life support, and a fractured healthcare system.
It is time for all of us to ask a version of Woody’s question: “Is this land made for you and me?” Instead, we should wonder, “Is this the land we elders want to bequeath to our children and grandchildren?”
Guthrie answered the question in the song’s last verse: “Nobody living can ever stop me, as I go walking that freedom highway. Nobody living can ever make me turn back. This land was made for you and me.”
And that is my answer. This land is our land — all of us: Native American, African American, white, Asian, Hispanic; native born and immigrant; rich, middle class and poor. It is the land our ancestors ruthlessly took from the native people and formed a nation. Now — acknowledging the injustices and mistakes of the past — the land and the nation have become our responsibility.
Opportunity and Obligation
It is our opportunity and our obligation to ensure that the America our children and grandchildren inherit is stronger, more compassionate, and more vigilant in protecting the dignity and equality of all of her people. Let’s give them a country living wide-awake to its responsibilities. Let’s commit to bequeathing future generations cleaner air, a sustainable environment, repaired infrastructure, and rigorous protection of basic human rights: heath care, economic, high-quality education and social equality and dignity.
If we embrace the opportunity and accept the obligation, our challenges will be daunting but not discouraging. America’s history proves that when we come together, when we focus together on big challenges, when we walk together on that freedom highway — nobody living can stop us, nobody living can make us turn back, because this land was made for you and me and our posterity.
But, if we’re not awake to our responsibilities to each other and to the planet, we’ll wake up to a nation in peril. We can, together, make the difficult decisions and do the hard work required of those who have stewardship responsibility of a great nation. If we don’t, we have failed our posterity.