Pennsylvania is a Commonwealth
State capital: Harrisburg. State flower: mountain laurel. State bird: ruffed grouse. State animal: white-tailed deer.
Pennsylvania is not our nation’s only commonwealth (Kentucky, Massachusetts, and Virginia share the designation), but the word seems to say something about Pennsylvania itself. It’s where We the People first came together to found a country. And it has gifted us much of what still brings us together.
The land that became the state was granted to William Penn in 1681, but it did not become what we now recognize as a state until 1787. Penn was a Quaker, a member of the Religious Society of Friends, and he wanted to use the land to create what he called a Holy Experiment, where people could enjoy both religious and economic freedom. The state’s welcoming attitude toward religious minority groups also attracted Amish and Mennonites, who still call it home.
Approximately 100 years after Penn’s experiment, another group of people came together to help establish a new country. Pennsylvania is where the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution were crafted. For a brief period in the 1790s, Philadelphia served as the nation’s capital. The Liberty Bell — cracked, replaced, repaired and cracked again — no longer rings, but it still proclaims a message through its inscription: “”Proclaim Liberty Throughout All the Land Unto All the Inhabitants thereof.”
Pennsylvania has continued to be a fulcrum in our country’s history. It is where the Union and the Confederacy converged in the Battle of Gettysburg. It is where United Flight 93 crashed in a field in 9/11, drawing a nation together behind the words of Todd Beamer: “Let’s roll.” And it’s where Jonas Salk developed the polio vaccine, at the University of Pittsburgh.
But what brings together the commonwealth and the nation as a whole on a regular basis are basic, daily joys.
• Sports! The first steel and concrete baseball stadium, Forbes Field, was built in Pittsburgh in 1909.
• Music! The first piano built in the country was assembled in Philadelphia in 1775.
• Snack food! From chocolate (Hershey, The Sweetest Place on Earth), to pretzels and potato chips (Hanover, Snack Food Capital of the World), to candy (marshmallow PEEPS, Hot Tamales, Mike & Ike, Clark Bars, Rolo, Twizzlers, Kit Kat, Cadbury, and Reese’s — peanut butter cups et al.), they’re all made in Pennsylvania.
• The great outdoors! Pennsylvania is a green state, with three mountain ranges and many navigable rivers. Much of the state is heavily forested. It does have a bit of coastline, both along Lake Eerie and beside the Delaware Estuary. If you want to visit one of Pennsylvania’s state parks, good news — no entry fees and no day-use fees.
But in order to know if today is a good day for that sort of exterior adventure, you’ll need to check the weather. And what really brings Americans together is our need to know the forecast. For that we need the “Seer of seers, the Sage of sages, the Prognosticator of prognosticators, a Weather Prophet Extraordinary.” We need a scruffy fellow named Phil, who resides in Punxsutawney.
In the iconic 1993 movie Groundhog Day, weatherman Phil Connors (played by Bill Murray) gets stuck in Punxsutawney until he gets it right — himself, his life, and of course, his weather forecast. Here’s my favorite of his dispatches from the town square, putting a bright spin on the last six weeks of winter:
When Chekhov saw the long winter, he saw a winter bleak and dark and bereft of hope. Yet we know that winter is just another step in the cycle of life. But standing here among the people of Punxsutawney and basking in the warmth of their hearths and hearts, I couldn’t imagine a better fate than a long and lustrous winter.”
The first thing I look at when I wake up is my weather app, so I can decide how to dress for my daily walk. I don’t get a lot of gray days where I live, so I relish them. For my friends in Pennsylvania, who are yearning for an early spring, I offer this poem, because, eventually, winter will pass.
Pennsylvania, in Winter
these gray times, easy on the eyes
the sky rations color
across the country—silver light
the ground—tender under foot
lakes—asleep like clouds
nothing to confess, no judgment
‘tis the season of stars obscured
How long will it last?
It’s the groundhog’s guess.
More About Pennsylvania: Poets & Writers + Landmarks
Allegheny National Forest
Louisa May Alcott, author of blood & thunder tales, plus a few more family-oriented novels
James Buchanan, U.S. president
Fred Rogers Center, because Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood lives eternally
Ben Franklin, born in Boston, but claimed by Philly, where he organized the library and the fire department
Delaware Water Gap, National Recreational Area, in the Poconos
Independence Hall, in Philadelphia
Lancaster Central Market, oldest and longest-operating farmers market, in an 1889 building
Philadelphia Museum of Art, also home of the Rocky steps
Gertrude Stein, novelist, poet, salon-host
Valley Forge National Historic Park
[Andy] Warhol Museum, in Pittsburgh
Andrew Wyeth, painter
Youghiogheny River, “the Yough,” for kayaking, canoeing, and white-water rafting
Poetry Prompt: Pennsylvania Generosities
Use any of the things you learned about Pennsylvania (research more, if you want!), and put one or more of them into a poem. If you like, weave in a little generosity. Share in the comments.
I loved this book. As soon as I finished, I began reading it again.”
—David Lee Garrison, author of Playing Bach in the D. C. Metro