I just got done cleaning up the damage in my yard that was left by Hurricane Ike’s surprising inland surge. I live about 250 miles to the north and east of Jim’s home in Columbus, Ohio, so we didn’t receive the kind of storm they did, yet we still had a lot to clean up.
Among the casualties was a 50 year-old maple tree with a trunk about 15 miles in diameter. Half of the tree is still up, and I have hopes that it will survive. The other half of the tree came crashing down to the ground when Ike came through, though.
The problem is that the two parts of the tree were growing in very different conditions. One half of the tree lived in the light of nearly a full day’s sun. The other half grew in the shade of a nearby spruce tree that stands about 120 feet tall.
This difference meant that, when Hurricane Ike hit, half of the maple tree had already lost most of its leaves, while the other half of the maple still had strong, green leaves growing on it. So, half the tree was barely moved by the hurricane’s winds, and the other half caught the storm like boat with all its sails still up. One part of the tree was moved, while the other remained still.
I’ve been cutting the fallen limbs of that tree the old-fashioned way, by hand with a bow saw, and so I’ve had a lot of time to think about that tree and what led to its split. This morning, it occurred to me that the United States of America are a lot like that tree.
Those of you who know American history will understand why I use the word are, referring to a plural, when I describe the United States of America. For the first few generations after the creation of the USA, people still regarded the United States as more of a collection of sovereign states than as a single entity. More recently, Americans have emphasized the unity of the United States, but it may not remain that way for long.
Like the maple tree in my yard, the USA is in danger of splitting apart because it is comprised of two halves that have grown under radically different conditions. The right branch of the USA has grown in relative darkness, holding itself tight and closed, out of fear. The left trunk of the USA has grown in the light, more open in its habits.
So far, the nation has been subjected to a few big gusts. It was nearly split apart in the 1860s, but was grafted back together again.
Nonetheless, the inherent division in the structure of our nation has remained unresolved. There is no strain when times are good, but when the United States of America are presented with another storm, one branch of our nation may remain unmoved, while the other branch is torn away.
There has been a great deal of derision at Sarah Palin’s history of support for the Alaskan secessionist movement. However, that idea of secession reflects a real fissure in American culture. I was reminded of that fissure when looking at the messages left by Sarah Palin’s supporters in reaction to the story about Thomas Muthee, the Christian witch hunter who has been a spiritual mentor to Palin.
To many of Sarah Palin’s supporters, the idea of hunting down women who are accused of casting dark magical spells in league with Satan makes perfect sense. To the rest of us, the idea seems archaic and insane.
There isn’t much middle ground on this issue, and as much as politicians love to play the game of calling themselves centrists, the truth is that there isn’t much real material remaining in the American center that unites our nation. Most of it has turned rotten and soft, and politicians who claim to be in the center actually promote policies from the left or the right.
With a division as deep as there is in the United States of America, every national election is close, and leaves one branch feeling profoundly unrepresented. So, maybe a final split is inevitable, though we cannot say how soon the storm will come that will rip us apart.
Wouldn’t it be better to make a pre-emptive split ourselves, with one clean, sure, deliberate cut, rather than to allow our nation to be roughly ripped apart in a violent crisis?