Late June and early July is the peak of summer and American pride. The icons of fireworks, star-spangled flags, and burgers on the grill are everywhere. Even the flavors of your iced tea are red, white, and blue. What could be more American than consumerism?
But the Fourth of July still has an integral component of community which makes me proud. In regards to family and community participation, I’d say the Fourth of July is up there with Christmas and Thanksgiving. Even people who aren’t patriotic go to picnics with their family and friends. Hoards flood beaches, parks, and athletic fields where music blasts over the explosions of fireworks.
Laser light displays, musical light fountains, and other types of celebrations and shows are alternative to fireworks.
For me, the Fourth of July was always a day to celebrate fireworks. A day to sit in my grandpa’s backyard and “oooo” and “ahhh” at the bright colors painting the sky above cornfields.
One year, I was traveling with my parents in the wilderness of Michigan’s upper peninsula. It felt like any other day, but it was July 4th, and I realized that it would be my first year not seeing fireworks. It felt odd, like skipping church on Sunday (which we also missed while traveling), but this was a national holiday that only happens once a year, so if felt that much worse to miss it. At church, our pastor is part of the Air Force, so every year we’d sing the National Anthem and play a slideshow honoring all of the US service members in our congregation. Just like singing praise songs in church or taking communion, fireworks were my way of remembering the United States and my place as a member of it. How was I supposed to connect with my country if I couldn’t have my heart beat in unison with the fireworks?
The Macy’s show in New York City alone is estimated to have 3 million spectators and an additional 15 million people will watch the live broadcast. Even more people will watch smaller displays in local communities across the country or launch their own fireworks. Just like looking up at the stars at night, there’s a sense of metaphysical connection that overcomes any distance and unites people as one nation.
I felt like if I did not watch fireworks on the Fourth, I would miss out on that connection. The campground host and a few neighbors pulled out some lawn chairs on a hill to watch neighbor’s launch personal fireworks. My parents and I went out for a short time, but I don’t remember seeing any fireworks; they probably couldn’t make it above the trees and hills. Late into the night, I lay awake staring out at the stars as fireworks popped in the distance, or they could have been shotguns (some would say, which are just as patriotic).
It’s not ironic that fireworks are made with black powder and sound like gun shots; it’s symbolic.
As I got older, I still loved the way fireworks looked, but watching them always gave me the sensation of a vegan eating meat. I’m the type of person who cuts plastic bottle rings before throwing them away so that landfill birds and rats won’t get strangled by them. It’s hard watching the dark shadows of smoke behind the bright colors knowing the massive amount of pollution fireworks produce, from chemicals in the atmosphere to shrapnel and cinders littered in waterways and across miles of land. I’ve never launched my own fireworks beyond using sparklers, but even watching community displays felt like a guilty pleasure.
This year, I’m working in an Environmental Public Health office in the PNW. In September 2017, about a year ago, a teenager lit a firework illegally in the forests of the Columbia Gorge and the whole valley went up in uncontrollable flames (Eagle Creek Fire). Because of weather conditions, the fire spread rapidly and could not be put out. It burned 50,000 acres for three months before being contained. Local residents have immense pride in the Gorge and this thoughtless destruction enraged them. The teenager received a very serious convictions for the deed and restoration units and trail workers are still working on repairing the damages. Driving through the valley, dead trees paint swaths of brown scars among the towering evergreens, and it’s impossible to forget what caused it.
This year, personal fireworks are banned in the city of Vancouver, Washington, but I still hear them in my neighborhood at dusk. At work, I posted sources to firework rules and disposal procedures on social media and our blog, but I don’t know much of an impact it will have. Clark County Public Utilities organizes a firework display at the Fort Vancouver National Historical site right on the Columbia River in downtown Vancouver every year. I don’t even want to imagine how long it will take clean up crews afterwards and how much debris will end up being washed down the Columbia into the ocean. At least public displays have fire trucks on-site, but fireworks can travel miles after being launched and rain down hot debris as they go. A few years ago, I ranted about firework pollution and proposed a few alternatives that are less polluting and still spectacular (take a gander).
This year, it’s more than pollution that’s bothering me, it’s that so many people act in selfish, violent ways without regard to other people or the environment. The teenager who started the Eagle Creek Fire has an eerie echo of school shootings. A recent news report showed grotesque mutilations of children’s feet that were burned after running over illegal beach campfires that had been buried and not fully put out. When I was little and sang The Star Spangled Banner, I misheard the lyrics and sang, “The rocket’s red glare! The birds bursting in air!” Forevermore, I can only picture a flock of birds being hit by fireworks when I hear this song. It’s not ironic that fireworks are made with black powder and sound like gun shots; it’s symbolic. Fireworks: firearms. Fireworks are explosives and just as dangerous as guns, yet many parents care more about putting a gun in a child’s hand than a firework. It just seems wrong that we use such destructive items for amusement.
If we’re truly proud of our country, we should be celebrating it, not destroying it with pollution and violence.
The United States is a symbol of freedom rooted and founded in violence. I’m not saying that war and struggles aren’t necessary for gaining freedom, but are we really honoring the freedom or violence? Our national anthem is a song written in the middle of a gruesome war. You cannot deny the imagery of fireworks sequenced with the lyrics “bombs bursting in air.” How much longer are we going to gloss up violence with the iconography of national pride? These social constructs go far beyond fireworks.
My vote is for changing the national anthem to America the Beautiful and addressing the root causes of violence. Arguing over firearm isn’t enough. Uniting the nation for one day a year isn’t enough. If we’re truly proud of our country, we should be celebrating it, not destroying it with pollution and violence, but each individual must come to that realization themselves for there to be real change.
This year, I won’t be watching fireworks; I’ll be having a cookout with some church friends, just like any other summer day. I’d take the colors of a sunset or the twinkle of fireflies over fireworks any night.