Independence is Always Relative

I had been planning to write about the Oxford Botanic Gardens on Thursday, July 3. Then it dawned on me that the following day is the Fourth of July, and while I may not be particularly patriotic, no way was I going to write about England on our (American) Independence Day!

When I was a child, I constantly chafed at the bit to be more independent, whether that meant being able to read on my own or learning how to drive. Now, having lived away from home, I’ve become even more independent: I can cook, clean, do laundry, mow the lawn, take out the trash, unclog a toilet, change lightbulbs, do dishes. Among other things.

But the only way I’m defining independence here is relative to my previous childhood dependence on my parents. I’m still dependent on them in some ways and, zooming out a bit, I realize that I am dependent on a whole host of people and places, including people I’ve never met and places where I’ve never been.

To my mind, these still have a little wear left...

To my mind, these still have a little wear left…

My favorite pair of jeans (also the only pair of blue jeans I had in France) just wore out. They’re threadbare all over, but the real kicker is that I now have torn patches in the rear end. Both knees had already split, but conveniently that has been fashionable this year.

Though it isn’t obvious, jean production relies on a healthy planet. Or at least one healthy enough to grow cotton and indigo. Denim is a fabric made from cotton; the dye used is now often synthetic, but was once indigo (from the plant). Thinking like that takes a certain stretch of the imagination, though, since we are so far removed from most of these basic processes. Most things turn up either in totally artificial contexts (like shopping centers) or in plastic (like the apricots sitting on my desk, couched in a plastic tray and covered with a plastic netting).

I have actually had to explain to adults where eggs come from. We are too far away from that which gives us life. With limited personal power–(in my current job) even the power to make decisions about what food to buy or where to buy it–it is discouraging to try to figure out how I can make a difference. But, realistically, “I” can’t. Just as I can’t survive on my own–if nothing else, we all need the planet’s natural resources–I also can’t change things on my own.

In Wendell Berry’s essay, “Compromise, Hell!” published in Orion Magazine, he writes,

We have got to learn better to respect ourselves and our dwelling places. We need to quit thinking of rural America as a colony. Too much of the economic history of our land has been that of the export of fuel, food, and raw materials that have been destructively and too cheaply produced. We must reaffirm the economic value of good stewardship and good work. For that we will need better accounting than we have had so far.

Throughout Berry’s writing, “we” are the subject. We are interdependent, not independent–nor should we be. As an American, I do value freedom. To me, that is, most of all, the freedom to breathe clean air, to drink clean water, to eat clean food. To ensure these freedoms, we the people need to band together against corporate interests, like the freedom to destroy land I–we–depend on.

Yet our current system seems to prioritize cheapness over value–and it’s really not just our current system. As Berry points out, Americans have never taken very good care of America, the place. When we were colonists, the land was much richer than we were. We didn’t learn stewardship, we learned how to make a profit.

By now, however, we should have grown up. We shouldn’t need slavery or colonialism to provide for our basic needs, yet we still use both of those systems in exported forms. When I go to replace my jeans, I will almost undoubtedly be buying a pair sewn overseas by sweatshop labor. While I try to find better options, it’s difficult to discover–and afford–alternatives.

As an individual, I’ve been told over and over that my main democratic power comes in the form of dollar bills which I can choose to spend wherever I like. Yet I don’t really have that freedom when the system is rigged. When I buy food, I shouldn’t have to decide between what’s healthy and what’s subsidized by the government (if anything, healthy food should be subsidized as its consumption would have a public health benefit)–yet that is reality.

Americans have always been idealists. We’ve never shied away from risky ventures or hard labor. Those are some of our better qualities. We are now at an historical moment in which we can decide to pursue these values–and the values of freedom and justice for all–or we can continue in the path we are headed, following dollar signs to our own destruction.

The real beauty of America is that we are free to decide. Free, but not absolutely independent: everything we are is possible because of the land; everything we do affects the people and places around us.

… Happy Independence Day!


From my solitary travels in Paris, June 2014. A small measure of my own independence.

P.S.  If you haven’t read it in full, I highly recommend reading “Compromise, Hell!” here, on Orion Magazine’s website. Published in Nov/Dec 2004, it is still highly relevant and particularly so on July 4th, touching on themes of freedom and our colonial history.

1 comment
  1. Berry’s article is spot on. But the real challenge is not just to point fingers. Instead, as individuals, it is critical that we begin to take full responsibility for our own behavior and start leading the way…for ourselves, as well as others. For example: Life In The Middle of Nowhere…can easily become (again) a life worth living. Yes? 😉

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