In the summer of 1893, a Wellesley professor named Katharine Lee Bates was asked to teach at Colorado College in Colorado Springs. Before she could start teaching, she had to travel 2,000 miles across the country by train.
She was inspired by the expansive beauty she saw when she looked outside her train window. Filled with patriotic pride, she admired the golden wheat field in Kansas and the purple mountains in Colorado.
The scenery, changing from cities in the East to the vast wilderness, motivated her to pen a poem that would later become very famous. Her poem was published in 1904 in the Boston Evening Transcript.
The poem was set to music by many different people across the country. The most popular music was in the form of a hymn tune, composed by Samuel A. Ward in 1882. He was the choir director and organist at Grace Church, Newark.
Although the two never met, their combined effort became America the Beautiful.
Many people over the years have claimed America the Beautiful as the country’s unofficial hymn. Well over a hundred years after it was written, I downloaded it to my phone to use in my classroom for a Veterans Day program.
I’m not the best or the worst with technology, but somehow the song became synced to both my phone and my husband’s phone. If one of our phones is plugged into the charger when the car is started, the stereo plays, America the Beautiful. It’s a wonderful thought to hear the poignant lyrics every time we’re traveling.
It’s not that we don’t love the song, we really do, but after five or six years of this, we tried to fix it. We tried deleting it; it came back. We bought new phones; the song is still there.
We have now come to accept it and blast the ballad for all to hear. We have listened to it as far east as Portland, Maine, and as far west as the Grand Canyon.
The song lyrics describe not only the nature of the land but also the people who shaped the nation. First, Katharine Lee Bates speaks of pilgrims facing a journey to freedom. Then, she beautifully paid tribute to veterans particularly with this stanza:
Oh beautiful for heroes proved In liberating strife
Who more than self, their country loved
And mercy more than life!
Since Bates’ time, the national park system in the U.S. has grown to include 423 national park sites, covering more than 84 million acres in all the states and territories.
There are 63 Congressionally-designated national parks operated by the national park service. The protected areas include the most beautiful geological features and unique landscapes in the country.
The park system creates environments where animals can thrive like the bison, America’s national mammal. Bison are a symbol of unity and resilience, once again roaming the land in herds.
America’s national bird, the Bald Eagle, is another species brought back from the fringe of extinction. Their proud demeanor represents independence and strength.
The oak tree is another national symbol representing diversity. There are over 60 species in the United States. Wisdom, strength and endurance describe the stately tree. Branches spread with yearly growth and underground the root system anchors the woodland giants. The roots spread laterally, 3-7 times the circumference of the branches.
When Katharine Lee Bates wrote America the Beautiful, she was mesmerized by the land but acknowledged the sacrifices made by soldiers. Without veterans, there wouldn’t be a nation let alone national parks.
The greatest resources in the U.S. are the people who call it home. We have many different national symbols, but our national treasure is the collective group of veterans that defended freedom across the globe.
Every adjective used to describe our national symbols can easily be applied to veterans: unified, resilient, proud, strong, enduring, wise and diverse.
I am very thankful for their service and continued commitment to making the United States a great nation. They have anchored the country with a root system like an oak tree, enabling generations to stand tall and proud.
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