A Clear and Just Thing


JAY: You’re listening to “Hidden Language,” a podcast about tuning into place, bodies, and time and discovering the unexpected ways their stories

can be told. I’m Jay Varner.

SCOTT: And I’m Scott Lunsford. How do the civic and societal mores of our youth shape those we hold later in life? Today, Jay goes back to where he started in search of an answer.

JAY: I am nearly one-hundred and twenty miles south of the Pennsylvania border and still my home state surrounds me.

Music: “August (Summer Nights)” by Kai Engle

A large flag of the commonwealth hangs to my right. Directly in front of me, above my computer, is a concert poster from Pearl Jam’s May 3, 2003 show in State College,

Pennsylvania–I was there that night. Various other trinkets populate my bookcases: A tiny figurine of James Buchanan, the only president from Pennsylvania and widely regarded as one of America’s worst. A keystone-shaped Pennsylvania State Trooper patch, a glass mug adorned with Gettysburg National Military Park, a faded Pittsburgh Pirates ballcap. The bookshelf in the dining room is lined with weird books about Pennsylvania—books about the Pennsylvania Railroad and canal, books about ghosts and legends and highway curiosities, and books about the Johnstown Flood and Three Mile Island. A good buddy of mine suggested that if a biography ever was written about me, it should be called Jay Varner: The Pennsylvanian.

I somehow doubt that others have this many artifacts and heirlooms and reminders of their home state. Why have I turned so much of my home into a museum for a state that I left eighteen years ago? Well if, as Charles Bowden says, the only voyage of discovery is to return to where I started, then I need to discover just what it is about PA that has molded and shaped who I am. In particular, I’m thinking about things like community and democracy and commonwealth. Because that divided thing, I don’t know… maybe has something to do with those concepts?

Music: “Mist and Clouds” by Kai Engle

So, I’m going to start in the way, way back, back to when those early European settlers of Central Pennsylvania left Western Germany’s Rhineland, agricultural-rich hill country. It’s similar in landscape to the area where I grew up, albeit the Germans had a far more impressive river. Our version of the Rhine, the much smaller Juniata, was thought to have been named after a mispronunciation of a native term for “standing stone.” Legend says that the original inhabitants of the area, the Onojutta-Haga people, had erected a large stone along the riverbank. Not much else is known about them—history suggests that by 1648 they had been forced to join the far larger and more powerful Susquehannock, part of the Iroquois nation. Less than a century later, the Tuscarora, a group of North Carolinian Iroquois seeking safety after losing land to wars and treaties, moved northward and spread into West Virginia, New York, and the Juniata River Valley. Eventually the Lanape, another Iroquois tribe similarly displaced, moved into the valley and aligned with the French during the French and Indian War.

Around the start of the American Revolution, my ancestors undocked in Philadelphia. Eventually, they made their way to Mifflin County and found that the Juniata River Valley had been carved out, plowed over, and leveled off from the frontier wilderness. Of course, by then, the natives had either been killed or driven out of Pennsylvania. The Pennsylvania Canal flowed along the Juniata, delivering supplies and transporting locals and tourists. Not far away, in Lewistown, foundries—said to have produced the best steel in America—radiated orange around the clock. Abolitionists used farmhouses in the area as part of the Underground Railroad. When Lincoln called for volunteers to fight for the Union after the fall of Fort Sumter, the first men to march into Washington were from Mifflin County.

I read about all of this history in a 100-page book called A History of McVeytown Borough and Bratton and Oliver Townships. Without chronological structure, the book explores the history of the area’s churches and public schools. There are photos of the devastation left behind by natural disasters. And there are histories of local companies. Prior to advances in transportation, most businesses were local—timber mills, sand mines, photographers, drug stores, doctors, morticians. There are photos of the community attending plays and pageants at the local schools, crowds cheering the high school sports team, pictures of those who volunteered with philanthropic groups and civic organizations. The surnames of those who contributed stories and photos are also the surnames of the earliest settlers. It seemed that little changed between the area’s settling in 1795 and America’s bi-centennial in 1976.

However, in the forty-five years since, my home town has followed the path of so many small towns in America, sliding into a steady decline that writer George Packer explored in his 2013 book The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America. No one can say when the unwinding began—when the coil that held Americans together in its secure and sometimes stifling grip first gave way,” Packer writes. “Like any great change, the unwinding began at countless times, in countless ways—and at some moment the country, always the same country, crossed a line of history and became irretrievably different.” 

Pause and Music Transition

Pennsylvania officially declares itself not a state but a commonwealth, a distinction shared with only Virginia, Kentucky, and Massachusetts. The idea of commonwealth has pretty much vanished. Commonwealth gives value to the public. Commonwealth recognizes that citizens hold a valuable voice in a republican government.

Music: “Idea” by Kai Engle

At one point in history, the term referenced the struggles against the British monarchy for expanded freedoms. Commonwealth simply meant what one took care of collectively. English villages deliberated on the proper way to care for shared and common lands. What’s the best route for this road? Or footpath? How do we manage and designate farmlands? Or design public buildings? This tradition arrived in the colonies along with European settlers who had often fled their nations as they saw the monied gentry seize common lands by violence.

So commonwealth is portable. And that’s essential to helping fuel democratic creativity. Democracy doesn’t reside inside an institutional structure—it’s something each of us carries. It is a way of life. And because of that, it needs to be tied to the skills we use in everyday life. It is us, the people, who are the ultimate producers of democracy. And it is us, the people, who preserve and enhance our ideals. Or at least our government was designed as such.

In this era of late-capitalism and democratic decay, we’ve lost this commonwealth. It seems that, societally at least, we focus solely on taking care of nothing but ourselves. This is especially true within rural areas where the ebbing of community was deceptively silent for decades. In 2017, the Public Religion Research Institute, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization, and The Atlantic published a collaborative report. They found that, at least once a month, 30% of the white-working class respondents reported participating in a sports team, a book club, a PTA, and neighborhood association at least once a month. 70% of the people in rural communities either did those activities only a few times per year (34%) or not at all (36%). Researchers also discovered that those who never left their hometowns tended to hold less education, wealth, and hope for the future.

The best and brightest citizens almost always leave their small towns, so the story goes. Of course, there’s a case to be made that the best and brightest could have a true impact on their communities were they to return home. Of course, there’s no way to know if these people would actually even involve themselves. And it’s not to suggest that those who choose to stay don’t contribute to their communities in meaningful ways. Still, that study makes the case that the vast majority of those who stay mostly eschew civic responsibilities.

Music: “Remedy for Melancholy” by Kai Engle

For instance, small towns, lacking adequate tax revenue to fully support infrastructure, often rely upon volunteers to staff ambulance and fire services. Nearly 70% of firefighters in America are volunteers, according to the National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC). My father was once one of those volunteer firefighters.

Though there has been a slow increase in the number of volunteer firefighters since 2011, the year enrollment numbers hit bottom, it hasn’t been nearly enough to make up for 30 years of declining numbers. Why have the numbers decreased? The organization blames “increased time demands, more rigorous training requirements, and the proliferation of two-income families whose members do not have time to volunteer.”

What do we choose to do with our “free” time? That’s assuming free time exists—class and family dynamics certainly dictate this. If you work two or three jobs to make ends meet or if you’re raising one or more children, the time available to help fight injustice is limited. Plus, the division between work and home disappeared once email and the internet arrived in our homes. Smartphones now combine both. And we stream as ubiquitously as we breathe. 

Our news and entertainment bleed into one another because the powers that be rely upon what they perceive to be our passivity. They know the cumulative impact this has on us—in fact, they are counting on it. They need us to be exhausted and confused. They need us, to steal from the late cultural critic Neil Postman, to be entertaining ourselves to death.

Music: “Sunset” by Kai Engle

It falls upon each of us—in rural communities and everywhere else in America—to make sure these things do not happen. It means that each of us owes it to ourselves and our fellow citizens to not succumb to passivity or hopelessness. This is more than merely a moral calling—active, engaged citizenship and commonwealth are the basis of our republic.

What are your responsibilities in and to this country that grounds itself in an inalienable right to pursue—with no promise of reaching—happiness? And how is your happiness connected with the happiness of your friends, family, and fellow citizens? How is it connected to the health of your communities? What’s the difference between the shared pursuit of a public happiness rather than a solitary quest for a private happiness?

Music transition… 

In 1681, William Penn–yes, this all started with Pennsylvania–wrote the following about Pennsylvania: 

It is a clear and just thing; and my God that has given it me, through many difficulties, will, I believe, bless and make it the seed of a nation. I shall have a tender care to the government, that it be well laid at first. No more now, but dear love in the truth.

The only voyage of discovery is to go back where we started, and we started as a commonwealth. And commonwealth remains a clear and just thing.


JAY: You have been listening to Hidden Language. For a list of episodes, transcripts, and show notes, be sure to visit hiddenlanguagepodcast.com. 

Theme music by Jay Varner. Other music for this episode was provided by Kai Engle.

If you enjoy this podcast, please spread the word using whatever language you see best fit. . . .


Music was provided by the following artists through Freemusicarchive.org, with the respective Creative Commons licenses.

“Sunset” by Kai Engle CC BY 4.0

“August (Summer Nights” by Kai Engle CC BY-NC 4.0

“Mist and Clouds” by Kai Engle CC BY-NC 4.0

“Idea” by Kai Engle CC BY-NC 4.0“Remedy for Melancholy” by Kai Engle CC BY 4.0

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