When I stopped standing in school for the national anthem and Pledge of Allegiance, no one noticed. Not only was I not famous; I wasn’t even popular.
But it was already clear to me—almost 50 years ago—that I was primarily a citizen of a planet, not of a nation, especially not a nation that used young people as fodder in a baffling war, and a nation that diminished women and demonized people of color, although I would not have used that language then. Still, I knew enough to be disturbed by the images of war and the Civil Rights Movement that I saw on television and Life magazine.
Maybe the knowledge that I was basically invisible gave me the courage to resist the flag-waving agenda. Perhaps I was slightly odder than other 16- or 17-year-olds. I’d grown up a little wild and a little dreamy, by a lake in the remnant forest of Washington state, and so I felt allied with the earth, with land and creatures. This was well before the first Earth Day in 1970, and long before the language and concepts of biodiversity and ecology became widespread.
The times have changed. In recent months, sports players, protesting racial injustice, have made headlines for “taking a knee” during the national anthem. I admire the courage it takes to risk one’s career in public dissent. Sometimes I feel like a privileged coward. I seldom attend events that include the national anthem or flag allegiance, so I have few occasions to risk not standing.
Since the breakdown of civil discourse and rise of anonymous Internet bullying (and worse), it’s now risky to be regarded as “unpatriotic”—a word with multiple interpretations. For some, patriotism involves protecting water or the integrity of wild ecosystems, or creating resilient communities; for others, it means strip-mining or clear-cutting to create jobs. Some patriots focus on the common good; for others, self-interest may be primary. In the rural West, patriotism may run in the Cliven Bundy direction.
Disparate views and voices today often clash with the intent to dominate, intimidate or silence the less powerful. Respectful listening is no longer a high priority, if it ever was. Yet democracy depends on the flourishing of a spectrum of voices. I write letters to government officials; I sign petitions; I make modest donations.
For years now, though, my opposition to the politics and policies that undermine our life-support system has shape-shifted into a different kind of participation in the world—a kind of deep listening to the wild earth, where, it turns out, biodiversity is robustly expressed by an orchestra of wild voices.
Over decades, the bio-acoustic engineer Bernie Krause has recorded natural sound habitats all over the world. His careful listening led to the discovery that creatures vocalize in relationship to one another, in a specific frequency and timeframe— or acoustic bandwidth—in which their voices can be heard. Krause proposed the once-radical idea that, if a species’ particular vocal niche is lost, the creature can no longer survive in that ecosystem, and will move on, or die out. Today, many of the once-thriving wild habitats that Krause has recorded have gone mute, overcome by human activity.
In our tweet-infested social media maelstrom, dominant voices are often mistaken for those that contribute meaningfully to the cultural conversation, mistaken for offerings that nourish our collective ecosystem. In divisive times, it’s challenging to refrain from demonizing those with different views. It’s easy to regard others as uninformed or somehow deficient. Easy, and about as fruitful as adding motor oil to compost.
Healthy ecosystems include predators and prey, grass and grass-eaters, bacteria and hosts. Is there a more ecologically coherent response to our moment than bludgeoning one another with opinions, shouting over the shy ones, cordoning off those whose views disagree with our own?
I want to honor the quiet speech of the most vulnerable. I want, especially, to honor and offer wild prayers for the continued howls, creaks, grunts, chitters and caws of the Others. Somehow, nearly 50 years ago, I recognized that my primary allegiance was to the wild Earth—not to a nation-state or flag. I did not have Gary Snyder’s poet-philosopher sensibilities, or even his poem “For All,” which may not have been written yet. But when I came across the poem decades later, I resonated, and still do, with Snyder’s vow:
I pledge allegiance to the soil
of Turtle Island,
and to the beings who thereon dwell
under the sun
With joyful interpenetration for all.
When the trail disappears in rubble, or when there are a thousand plotlines to choose from, or when the conditions are divisive and the dominant voices are clashing, it’s essential to have some kind of compass, some allegiance, by which to steer.