What is the soul of America? Not soul as a metaphysical entity, but soul as felt essence, as deepest nature, so deep it includes not only everybody here, but the land that supports us?
An assumption I bring to this question is that what we are named, whether person or place, is neither random nor meaningless. Exploring the etymology of names can reveal hints about the deeper story behind them. What if names are often intuitively wiser than the namers?
The busy Italian merchant and wayfarer Amerigo Vespucci thought, like Columbus, that he had arrived in Asia, which he then called “The New World.” For this, a European cartographer who drew a rough outline of this mysterious (to the Europeans) land dubbed it America, a feminine version of Amerigo. But what does that name mean?
The name is a Latin form of Emmerich, a compound made up of words like “whole, universal,” “labor,” or “home,” and ric: “ruler, mighty, rich.” A shallow interpretation could be that America means the land of hard-working global might, but that sounds more to the oversized shadow we tend to cast. Perhaps the deeper and more soulful sense is: Laboring mightily at home to become whole.
“America,” of course, is a latecomer as a name. “When asked by an anthropologist what the Indians called America before the white man came,” noted Vine Deloria, “an Indian said simply, ‘Ours.’”
Some among the first people also referred to Turtle Island. The turtle can be wise, armored, strong, persistent, adaptive, and methodical, and mobile home on scaly legs walking from land to water and back. The I Ching, an ancient Chinese oracle, is said to derive from reading the cracks formed in heated cast-off turtle shells, thereby orienting the querents on the future.
Now, “America” isn’t just the USA, of course. It includes Canada, Mexico, and the nations and territories of Central and South America. Is “laboring mightily at home to become whole” true of them? Can two continents share one core mission, however diverse its multitude of expressions?
Consider the Americas before Europeans and their namings arrived. Here, moving from south to north, is a small sketch from a much larger picture:
In South America, corn (maize) began as a weed but was ingeniously evolved over many generations into a key staple that supported entire cities, regions, and realms. Likewise, the Inca developed a small tuber into the potato; by 1491, as Queen Isabella of Spain sought another path to the riches of Asia after the Turks closed the Silk Road, farmers in Peru grew potatoes for at least a hundred thousand people. In the Nasca region, not only enormous lines and other shapes marked the landscape, but puquios: basins in a highly sophisticated hydraulic network that drew and stored water from underground aquifers, turning one of the most arid places in the world into a miracle of agricultural plenty. The builders maintained this network across active tectonic faults nearly a thousand years before the birth of Christ.
At one time the Incan empire was larger than Ming China. Twenty-five thousand miles of paved roads helped hold it together over valley, rainforest, desert, and mountain. So did a knot-based writing system of binary code like that of later computers. The precisely placed stones of their buildings stand to this day, although no longer faced with sun-reflecting gold. Cuzco, site of four hundred well-maintained shrines, hosted messengers, administrators, masons, miners, healers, metallurgists, sailors, artisans, weavers, farmers, and engineers to build and maintain canals and dams for irrigation, terraces for agriculture, suspension bridges for transport, pastures for huge herds, ceramics factories, warehouses stuffed with goods, and messages carried via lama. The entire system worked without money or markets. Visitors were welcomed; those who stayed kept their languages and traditions.
In the Andes, terraced agriculture complemented cotton, beans, fish, shellfish, squash, maize, quinoa, and potatoes gained through trade. Around 800 BCE, a coalition of mountain nations drained wetlands to build Tiwanaku, a wealthy, brightly painted city of clean avenues, tall monuments, running water, terraced pyramids, and sophisticated sewers. Its breakwaters reached into nearby Lake Titicaca, navigated by squadrons of reed boats. By 1000 CE, the population was 115,000, not counting the lands around the city; Paris got to that size only five hundred years later. To the northwest, the capital city of Wari housed seventy thousand souls in six-story apartments.
The Amazon lay thick with human inhabitation, from villages along the shore, their orchards spanning mile after productive mile, to fishers in the river and tree-planting farmers in the uplands and floodplains. The island state of Marajó at the river’s mouth held 100,000, roughly the same population as Santarém six hundred miles away.
In the Beni, a thirty-thousand-square-mile region of what is now Bolivia, a million inhabitants of a thousand years ago built forest islands, roads, causeways, reservoirs, dikes, canals, raised fields, and managed grasslands. Three thousand years ago, people living in the western Amazon region reshaped the landscape, building their own fish weirs, canals, causeways, raised homes and farms, and intricately crafted villages with palisades. North and South, most people lived on farms or in cities large by European standards and equipped with roadways, gardens, and sanitation.
In Mesoamerica, where a Neolithic revolution flourished ten thousand years ago, avocadoes, squash, beans, and other nutritious crops fed hundreds of thousands, many housed in towns and cities near temple mounds as early as 1800 BCE. The Olmec conducted long-range trade, studied the heavens, tracked the planets, wrote in documents made of fig tree bark, and invented an accurate year-long calendar and more than a dozen languages. Later, the Mayan state Calakmul stretched across twenty-five hundred square miles of buildings, reservoirs, canals, and hundreds of monuments. In Mexico, the Aztec lake city of Tenochtitlan was a raised marvel reached by boats and long causeways. As a whole, Central America held more people than China, India, Portugal, or Spain.
In what we now call the USA, the Anasazi of Chaco Canyon erected multistory complexes of up to eight hundred rooms each. Juniper and pine were grown for timber. Great Plains tribes burned grasslands to extend hunting prairies. Bison ran across them from Texas to Montana. At Cahokia, across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, towered a fifteen-acre mound a hundred feet high, where a temple complex rested on top and cultivated maze carpeted the ground below. The mound was one of a hundred and twenty spread across six square miles. The city boasted large plazas, game fields, palisades, and shops for artisans. Its population exceeded that of London. California, land of many microclimates, was home to roughly five hundred tribal groups speaking with greater linguistic diversity than all of Europe.
The New England shore was called Dawnland by its original inhabitants, the People of the First Light. Their web of trade ran throughout most of North America. Large villages and hunting camps in their river valleys held winter-insulated homes next to miles of fields of squash, beans, maize, and other crops, some held in storage pits after harvest. Unlike hunger-gaunted Europe, where people routinely died of famine, the dwellers of Dawnland and the surrounding areas had plenty to eat. Nobody was homeless. A basic value of these societies was looking out for one another; and yet youngsters were self-reliant enough to live in a winter forest with only a bow, knife, and hatchet for tools.
Circa 1000 BCE in what is now Canada, where people had created complex cultures and rituals and languages at least thirty-nine thousand years before Europeans set foot there, artisans wove textiles, crafted leather, cultivated crops, and fashioned a wide variety of decorative and useful gourds and pottery. In another two hundred years, beads and copper bracelets appeared; ceramics had debuted thousands of years earlier. Large populations in the British Columbia Coast lived in wooden cedar houses and ate shellfish and salmon. Some societies built mounds, and most traded widely. By 1000 CE, mother-of-pearl from the Gulf of Mexico was available in Manitoba.
Throughout the Americas, centuries of thoughtful organized labor, negotiated trade, fire management, water control, master craftsmanship, political leadership, and careful farming evolved what incoming European settlers described in letters as a paradise on Earth. Most never knew it had been brought about through human creativity, effort, and listening to the land.
In Europe, by contrast, nobles owned most of the land, tilled by famished peasants living on porridge and bread. By the late 1400s, wildlife had been pushed off the available farmland, and sediment clogged rivers and lakes and killed off freshwater fish. The Alps were stripped of timber for ships, monasteries, castles, tools, and weapons. Cities and fleets were built with wood cut from shrinking forests and hauled away by animal power: livestock and beasts of burden loaned their energy to European life and industry, whereas the Americas knew no similarly domesticated animals until the colonizers arrived. Everything was built and managed by human bodies working together.
The Americans labored mightily at home to become whole. They succeeded brilliantly for millennia.
Everybody knows that conquest and slavery came next, but histories tend to emphasize the power of European horses, swords, ships, and guns. Diseases get a passing mention, but by the time the invaders and armies landed in the Americas, indigenous populations already had vastly declined, struck down by pathogens carried by early European visitors and animals. The survivors fought back…
Today, too many in the Americas must struggle for food, water, shelter, basic rights, and a sense of identity. To face this honestly and support those who struggle is not just about politics of one side or another. It’s about justice.
We are industrious here and always have been. Let us be so in the right directions.
America: where the alchemical Great Work of recreating society together brings us visions of how a variety of differences can delight us here on common ground.
- “Usa Raises Her Voice: Recalling the Soul of the United States.”
- “Thoughts on the Soul of the United States of America.”
Dunbar-Ortiz, Roxanne. An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States.
Gates Jr., Henry Louis, and Yacovone, Donald. The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross.
Mann, Charles. 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus.
Meacham, Jon. The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels.
Wilson, James. The Earth Shall Weep: A History of Native America.
Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States.