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Independence Day

July 8, 2011

Your author, in preferred habitat.

This is how I spent my Independence Day, 2011, in Congaree National Park in South Carolina (Thanks, T.R., for making it happen and for recording the moment). Cypress knees, cottonmouths, fishing spiders, tiger beetles, lots of birds I couldn’t identify. An embarrassment of riches, from a biochick standpoint. Hotter than hell, but too much to see to really notice. I knew it would be a day I wouldn’t forget when we watched an introductory film about the park before getting in the canoes. I started to get verklempt sitting in the back row of the theater in the visitor center listening to the narrators talk about what we can learn from snakes. There is no way I can sit through something like that without tearing up. Good thing it was dark; T.R.’s friend who was sitting next to me probably thought I was wiping sweat out of my eyes.

The United States has destroyed so much along the way in our climb to prominence in the world: cultures, ecosystems, livelihoods. Our influence is universal, welcome or not. But one of the greatest things about this country’s prosperity is the fact that our relative wealth makes it possible to set aside land of historical (and contemporary) significance to persist in a natural state without expecting tangible economic returns from it. Developing countries do not necessarily have this luxury.

Humility, though it is one of my favorite virtues, is not one usually associated with the American national character. But to me, the fact that our National Park System preserves places like Congaree is evidence of a degree of humility in the face of grandeur, even grandeur that does not have the soaring ego and presence of a hydroelectric dam or a skyscraper or an obelisk. Old cypress trees do not really need us, but I like to think that we need them. The National Park System is evidence that as a nation, we formally recognize the value of the diverse natural wonders within our borders. Reminding myself of this makes me proud to be an American, when I do not always feel that way.

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