2014-07-03 / Top News

Topo map, Independence Day

In the hilly topography of American life, history hardly lends itself to the chatter of jingoists — the love-is-blind fatherland flag wavers and chest thumpers.

That’s because our national story creates deceptively rough terrain. As a people, we aren’t clansmen or tribesmen. We don’t come from the same blood or geography. We don’t look alike. We don’t all hold the same notion of god or gods. You can’t take us to a prayer meeting or a party, either one, and expect all of us to know the manners or the music.

Too commonly, we actively dislike each other.

In 234 years, we’ve proven to be a nation neither wholly right nor wholly wrong. We’ve done greater good than ill, occasionally in spectacular fashion. But sometimes the split is iffy.

We were once the most racist large nation on earth. Now we’re the least racist large nation on Earth — which still isn’t good enough.


Burdie Baker, do-gooder Burdie Baker, do-gooder Now, our nation is the most varied in its people, the most ambitious in its hope for everyman and everywoman and by far the boldest, socially.

We can fight, too, as our enemies periodically misunderstand. But no nation has ever designed more formidable weapons, and once in possession of them, no nation has ever practiced such restraint.

Nor has any other ever produced more honest critics of itself, or more fearless introspection from its own people.

At our worst, we’re greedy, callous and arrogant. But at our best, we display courage, grace, humility, humor, tolerance, endurance, generosity, empathy and the raw desire to make it over the next hill and see what’s there.

That’s what I hope you will recognize in these simple photos.

Every countenance here is a map of our entire history — in this case, the best of it. In each lined face the hills and valleys of an American lifetime reveal the topography of our peerless and sometimes difficult country.


Ruth and Dan Danforth, nursery owners Ruth and Dan Danforth, nursery owners I know these individuals. I photographed them because I admire them. Since he is often with me, my youngest son, Nash, appears in a couple of pictures, too.

With any luck, he’ll be the one looking into a lens 80 years from now, joined by an invisible wire — the enduring notion of independence wrapped in the long muscle of memory — to the men and women you see on this page.

In one photo, the little boy had slammed his thumb in a car door only seconds before, flattening it, as we went to buy tomatoes. But Nash was determined to suffer as stoically as Mr. Lee has, both in peace and war, across 90 years or so. He refused to shed tears.

Simply by his presence, Mr. Lee offered my son an unspoken gift, but also an imperative: Stand up and take it, whatever it is and whoever you are.


Irby Lee, cattleman, cracker Irby Lee, cattleman, cracker Each of these people offers that gift to all of us. They’ve starved, fought, suffered wounds in battle, tolerated dire mistreatment from fellow citizens, endured privation, raised children, lost children to war, cared for neighbors unasked, raised cows, raised crops and insisted on good cheer.

There is little complaint or bitterness in any of them.

None would fail to give you food if you were hungry, or defense if you were besieged, or solace if you were sad.

You will know others like them, breathing or not — but each still a living part of us.

So help me offer them each a grand thanks, and a glorious Independence Day to all. ¦

— Note: This column, which first appeared in 2010, has become an Independence week tradition. Mr. Lee and Mr. Scheneman have passed away.



Lloyd Marsh, farmer, gardener Lloyd Marsh, farmer, gardener

Ellen Nash Williams, Coloradoan, visitor Ellen Nash Williams, Coloradoan, visitor

Chester Scheneman, citrus grower Chester Scheneman, citrus grower

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