Labor Day is the American holiday designated to honor workers. Historically, the day arises from the American Labor Movement in the late 1800’s. The tradition continues — you likely noticed it last weekend – as a way of honoring the contributions of American workers to the health and wellbeing of our country.
Also vital to the country’s emergence and continuing welfare is American Wilderness – a presence, a natural fact, that has defined this country from well before its earliest days in July of 1776. For those who would eventually declare the United States a sovereign country and who knew little of the land on this continent, it appeared and was quite wild. For those who had been here for generations relationship with the land was more as with family, with relatives. For thousands of years, these indigenous people lived, with few exceptions, in balance with the land and water — their impact on the ecosystems minimal to none at all.
About the time Labor Day was established fully in 1892 the leaders of the country, representing the strong sentiment of the people already begun to set land apart for preservation. In 1872, Congress designated and established Yellowstone National Park as the first area within the wide expanse of the young country to be held forever in its intact and wild state.
I’ve been thinking about these things because … well, it’s just been Labor Day – and because over the long weekend set aside to honor American workers, I was with a few Yellowstone Park Foundation, Park Service, artist and writer friends on an island in the south arm of Yellowstone Lake. We paddled canoes 6.5 hours to make our way, we camped and two of us stayed in the small cabin on this tiny island – the latter most certainly built laborers, perhaps as part of a Depression Era WPA or CCC projects that built so many roads, buildings and other infrastructures of the Park System. There in that remote and pristine place we heard night calls of elk bugling, sandhill cranes (likely the oldest birds in the world at 2.5 million years or more), loons, owls – and one morning several hours before dawn, the beckoning song of wolves calling their relatives together.
As we paddled in and out of that largest, wildest, generally intact ecosystem in the entire temperate zone of the world, we passed plumes of forest fires, these, like the recent Yosemite Rim fire, were being tended and contained where necessary by fire jumpers and hot-shot teams from around the nation. These fire fighters, the workers who built the Park Service cabin are people I appreciate on Labor Day. The Park Service workers, the workers who document wilderness in art or written word – these too are worthy of celebration.
Containing that, however, is the intimate connection between the land of this country and the wellbeing of its people and communities. Since 1776, there has been vast economic and material development. Near every bit of it has been possible because of the richness of wilderness between (and including) the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Without this richness, labor could not proceed and the country could not have built or currently sustain itself.
Along with those material realities, there is the less immediately tangible resource of American spirit – the heart that fuels and inspires our policies and our work. This nuanced but essential experience of Americans over time was given voice in the early days of Labor Day and the National Park system when Frederick Jackson Turner (1893) presented the celebrated argument that the presence of wilderness in the U.S. – its obstacles and its richness – was the primary source of what have become our dearest values. Drawing on Turner’s words, the website x.roadsVirginia describes these gifts of wilderness as “independence, ingenuity, pragmatism, and resourcefulness, and the existence of a rolling frontier line which was constantly redrawn and redefined both geographically and politically at each stage of western expansion continually reaffirm[ing] national faith in democracy and equality.”
Given the values we share, and given the vital necessity of work and wilderness, we as Americans have the responsibility to act on what we prize. Our country needs people capable of work (and the country is indeed rich with these people) and we need leadership that is as visionary as that of the late 1800’s. Both work and policy are vital to ensuring the land and water, the fish and wildlife continue healthy and thriving.
It is the workers and public leaders who will guide all of us as we each do our parts to restore and maintain balance – in ways that, given the changes that have come to the land over the past 250 years, are different but no less crucial than those of the indigenous peoples of this land. Arguably, the inspiration and motive is the same – this rich and generous land and its clean water are, as they have always been, our life-blood.