Just Because We're Free
By Molly Murfee
While the individual reasons varied slightly, many certainly understandable, when we came here, we came here to take. Those of the 1600s sought religious freedom. High estimates show up to 400,000 Scots-Irish immigrants coming over in the 1700s, impoverished, looking for cheap farmland away from the oppressiveness of the British government.
By 1845 the Potato Famine became the greatest instigator of immigration, with the Irish topping the charts of all other ethnicities by a long shot. By 1860 nearly two million Irish facing poverty and disease had fled to the United States. By 1862 private land had “run out” in Europe, and so the American Homestead Act promising 160 acres to anyone who could “improve” the land became a mighty shiny penny. Advancements in transportation caused a veritable flood of Europeans washing into the U.S. after 1880. Greeks, Hungarians, Poles, and other Slavic-speaking people made up a vast majority of the over 20 million immigrants in a 30-year period.
The new country seemed to have an endless frontier, inexhaustible resources—we could take whatever we wanted! We had been told it was all put here for our use, it was all under our dominion. Our taking became one of ravishment and excess. Our government couldn’t get enough—of the land, of the power, of the wealth. We were succeeding! Extractive industries ripped up the Earth without regulation or retribution. Whole forests were decimated with no agency to look over them or call the actions in check. The buffalo essentially removed, the Great Plains were fenced and plowed for the things we knew like cattle and crops. The religious and political persecution we experienced in the old country gave us a “don’t you tell me” attitude that dared any to cross the line. The creation of this country and the pursuit of the individual goal was the most important. We removed any obstacle we encountered—human or beast—that hindered our progress. There was nothing holding us back, nothing to keep us in balance We were free.
And now what once was a focus on simply creating a better life is a hyper-focus on material wealth and economics as our driving value. Need has become greed, as we no longer possess the reason to tell the difference, and the acquisition of newer, better, shinier, bigger things has become our addictive obsession and determination of our personal, even internal, worth. We are still taking whatever we want, bolstered by the antiquated and now-ignorant belief the Earth has an endless capacity to support our bottomless hunger, as we mindlessly tick off plants and animals going extinct every minute like ticking off items on a grocery list. The sole pursuit of the individual leaves us bereft of care for the common community, for anyone or anything outside our personal sphere. The advancement of the individual and wealth and power is the lord above all, to the detriment of everything else, whatever it is—land or water or air or creatures or plants or people. We seem incapable of self-restraint. And don’t you dare, anyone, challenge our perspective or tell us anything we ever did was wrong. This is ‘Merica. And if you don’t like it you can get the hell out.
This is what we have become.
It is not, however, who we have to be.
Once upon a time, indeed thousands of years ago, people indigenous to Europe, the deep ancestors of many of us, had a different code of ethics with the land than what we practice now. It was based on balance and reciprocity. The king was advised by a storyteller, among others, whose job it was to help ensure this value of balance stayed intact through the telling of tales. It was the king’s job, then, to guarantee the physical acts of staying in balance were observed.
We lost this. But it’s still there, somewhere, swimming around in our blood and our genes. It is time to draw it out. It is time to move from our belligerent and egotistical adolescence, where the world, we think, spins around only us, and mature into evolved adults recognizing there are other beings in our midst with needs.
We must allow these other beings to not only exist, but help them to thrive in the wake of our bloodied hands. The water, the air, the earth. The Great Blue Heron, Black Bear, and Wilson’s Snipe. Native people, Black people, Asian people, Latinx people. All these beautiful, important, other ways of existing.
Our evolutionary journey reaches a peak, when we use our acquired freedom and wealth to make better decisions than what we mistakenly felt we had to in the past.
Where we call up our sense of generosity and sharing. Where we are open to all the voices, seek diversity’s strength in all our dealings—from people to the planet. We pause. Listen. Seek guidance. Learn. Make collaborative decisions based on this variety of input and value.
We must think deeply to engage in this task. Act selflessly. Embody compassion. Practice restraint.
Just because we might have the freedom or wealth or both to do whatever we damn well please, does not, actually, mean we should …
Creative non-fiction and place-based author Molly Murfee specializes in nature and environmental writing cut with cultural and societal critique. Sign up for the Earth Muffin Memos Blog & Newsletter for more on her ongoing book project; field-based Writing & Connection Workshops; online advertising and syndicate column opportunities; and freelance writing services at www.mollymurfee.com.