Whenever I utter this line with a straight face, the receiver usually laughs, smiles, grimaces, or looks very flummoxed.
This time was different. My adolescent male questioner immediately responded by saying: “I want to go to America.” Then he left me speechless with his next question. He asked me in all sincerity and with wide eyes: “Is it worth it?”
He explained it was his distant dream to explore one day the mountainous regions of America and wondered if the cost, time and effort was worth it.
The answer to this query is complex. However, I firmly believe that America still reflects words written by Kathryn Lee Bates in 1895.
Bates, who was a 33-year-old college professor, travelled across America by train from east to west and the panoramic views she saw during her journey inspired the lyrics to one of America’s most important and popular songs. In 1910, they were set to music from the hymn “O, mother dear, Jerusalem” and the final song was entitled America the Beautiful.
Her opening line was “Oh beautiful, for spacious skies” and I have witnessed these spacious skies that I believe have served as the inspiration for many generations of poets, playwrights, and performers.
When one visits America and stands upon the rim of the Grand Canyon or looks across the star-filled sky of the Pacific Northwest, your spirit shall be almost instantly lifted to greater heights and you shall be profoundly encouraged to imagine a world of possibilities that are perhaps seemingly boundless.
The song’s next line describes the agricultural roots throughout America with the strong iconic images of “For amber waves of grain”. Thanks to my wife being a native of one of America’s most well-known agricultural states, I have travelled with her through hundreds of miles of corn, wheat, barley, and other crops, and witnessed the sun’s embrace of these treasures from nature and also recognised the historic importance of our relationship to and our future stewardship of the Earth to insure our survival.
The third line in this song/poem is one of my favourites because it perfectly encapsulates the gloaming time in the east and the west when the mountain ridges appear to glow from within, as Bates describes “With purple mountain majesty”.
The diversity of the American landscape’s topography causes one to suddenly stop, look up, and appreciate these cathedral spires of nature, as they rise above clouds, much like the majestic cathedrals of Europe.
These three parts of the opening stanza reflect the sky, the ground, and the mountains. Each one of these images represents to me constant aspiration, deep ambition and a continuing desire for greater achievement. From time to time, America, due to its capitalist roots, has been accused of overstepping its mark upon the world by exhibiting too much ambition and aspiration.
This may be true, however, these are also the values that have attracted millions of immigrants who possess within their soul a desire for a better life and they know that only in truly democratic societies may they find the fertile ground, the endless sky of possibilities and the mountainous connections to help them fulfil their greatest dreams.
I have occasionally met individuals such as the young man upon our distant isle who, upon hearing my American accent, may wonder what motivated me to make Scotland my home. When officially asked to describe my citizenship, race or ethnicity, I without hesitation always tick the box that confirms I am, without reservation, Scottish.
Identity is a complex matter, but I have no hesitancy in both being proud of the land of my birth and also recognising and cherishing that my chosen identity is Scottish.
The reasoning that led me to this conclusion is one firmly grounded in the shared values of the unique land of my birth and also the special land that adopted me and my family. Therefore, I am grateful every day for being the son of a mother and father earth who many millions ago were once firmly joined and then, through the movement of tectonic plates, were physically separated.
In my mind, heart, and spirit, this wound and separation has actually been healing ever since due to our shared values of a deep desire for a better, heathier, and more just world for all its citizens.
Both America and Scotland demonstrate through their citizens great generosity, imagination, invention, equality and a strong resolve for justice. Therefore, it is not surprising to me that so many of America’s philanthropic, technological, environmental, and political achievements were those of individuals such as Andrew Carnegie, Alexander Graham Bell, John Muir and others of Scottish ancestry (75 per cent of US presidents have Scots or Ulster-Scots ancestry).
My young friend, when he visits the land of my birth, shall discover a place and people that are a strong mirror image of the better world many of us hope that our children and grandchildren shall inherit.
This is the world that is best summarised in the hopeful ambition of the closing lines of America the Beautiful when Kathryn Lee Bates dreams that we may “Crown thy good with brotherhood, from sea to shining sea”.
It is my fervent wish my new young friend will discover that not only is America worth it but he will return from my unique and beautiful homeland to the cherished land that adopted me, with even greater ambition, aspiration, and resolve to increase our combined worth in the future.
Joe Goldblatt is emeritus professor of planned events at Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh. He immigrated to Scotland in 2007 and became a Scottish citizen in 2014. To explore his views visit www.joegoldblatt.scot