By Mac McCall
As I fled New York City through Covid-infested airports, I looked like hell; disheveled, sleep deprived, and drinking too freely. Aside from a handful of trips to Brooklyn, my existence had for months been confined to the 13.4 by 2.3-mile coffin-shaped oblong of Manhattan. Weeks of relentless preparation for my law school exams had reduced me to a stress-filled shell of myself. Sleepless nights were constantly punctuated by visions of missed exams.
Writing now from my childhood home in Augusta a little over two weeks later, I am relaxed and rested. The midnight stress dreams have faded. Since my return, I’ve watched formations of waterfowl fly overhead in a cypress swamp along the banks of the Savannah as an orange glow burned in the eastern sky. I’ve chased apparitions of Ammodramus sparrows in golden-brown savannahs on Sapelo Island and stood under ramrod-straight pillars of Longleaf as pine warblers belted out their quivering songs through morning mist.
Many times as I’ve said my goodbyes on the front porch of my parents’ home, preparing to leave for school, work or the other side of the world, my mother has admonished me to “remember who I am.” For years, I wasn’t sure what she meant. Recently, however, as my meandering circuits into the world have become longer and have taken me farther from her, the old reminder has taken on new meaning.
Who are we without some home country? My formative years were spent in Georgia, between my twin hometowns of Athens and Augusta. When I wander too far for too long and allow the bonds that root me to these plots of earth to become frayed, my life likewise becomes unmoored and volatile. To care for oneself is to nurture a love for one’s homeland.
“A human life, I think, should be well rooted in some area of native land where it may get the love of tender kinship from the earth, for the labors men go forth to, for the sounds and accents that haunt it, for whatever will give that early home a familiar unmistakable difference amidst the future widening of knowledge. The best introduction to astronomy is to think of the nightly heavens as a little lot of stars belonging to one’s own homestead.” — George Eliot.
These are the foundations of my patriotism. It isn’t a nationalism of the silly oath-taking, flag-waving brand that runs deep in American idiocrasy. I have little affection for a government that inflicts wanton devastation across the globe and acts as little more than a shell for the interests of the rich and powerful. Flags are colorful scraps of cloth with utility for indicating one’s nationality on the high seas and at war, not deserving of reverence in and of themselves. The national anthem seems little more than quaintly performative voodoo, a ritual which we cling to in some desperate attempt to find meaning in a society which has become deeply nihilistic.
My nationalism is instead one of soil, water and life. The stillness of dark tannic water, the roar of the crowd at Sanford Stadium, guitar riffs reverberating across the Georgia Theater, wind on the barrier islands. My patriotism attaches not to enchanted amulets but rather the people and places which make home, home, and consequently me, me.
Like any fanatical patriot, I want to defend these places. The threats are never far away. Just last year, the specter of parasitic development reared its ugly head on one of our most pristine barrier islands, Ossabaw. Surrounding states bear witness to the legions of pastel-uniformed zombies craving an early tee time which will choke the maritime forests and marshes out of existence if allowed. Likewise, our fragile longleaf systems require constant care and regular fire to continue on a long path of recovery. True patriotism requires not performative rituals but tangible act of sacrifice to protect one’s little lot of stars.
When I return to New York City, I’ll sit at my desk on late nights and early mornings, pouring through reams of caselaw. To my left will be an old Spanish map of the southeast. I’ll do my best to remember who I am, and will dream of swaying spartina grasses.
Photo courtesy of visitaugusta.com