April 22, 2021

Keep This Oath

In 1915 Wilhelm Miller, then head of the University of Illinois’ Landscape Extension—the first of its kind in the country—published a small but influential tract titled The Prairie Spirit of Landscape Gardening. Miller had come to Illinois a few years prior believing that the true American style could first be realized in a region less burdened by European tradition—in other words, right here in the heartland.

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For Miller and others, the “Prairie Style” was not only a style of design or approach to planting, but a genuine conservation ethic that permeated all aspects of community life. Towards the end of his passionate pamphlet, Miller included “The Illinois Citizen’s Oath” (Suggested by the famous Athenian Ephebic Oath which was taken by every young man when he came of age and received the suffrage). Let me state right here that I do not believe Miller intended “citizen” to be restrictive only to men but, rather, to refer to all members of the community. (He was writing before women had won the right to vote.)

I have found Miller’s Oath to be inspirational, provocative, and odd all at once. He envisioned people gathering in public open spaces to express their civic ideals by making this pledge:

  • I will receive the right to vote as a sacred trust and always use it for the good of the whole community, instead of my own selfish interest.
  • I will vote for the liberty, health, and happiness of all my fellow citizens, not for the privilege of any class.
  • I will separate local issues from national ones and vote for the best man for each job, regardless of party politics.
  • I will assume all men to be honest and try to cooperate with public servants before criticizing them adversely.
  • I will strive unceasingly against graft, corruption, and inefficiency.
  • I will work for peace and try to prevent war—military, economic, and social.
  • I will practice moderation in speech and will urge toleration in matters of conscience.
  • I will help Illinois enlarge and improve her cities by promoting cooperation or emulation among neighboring communities, and I will not work against nearby towns.
  • I will help Illinois preserve and restore her sacred shrines of native beauty by extending the state and local park system for the recreation of soul and body.
  • I will do what I can to develop a living civic art, as the Athenians did.
  • I will endeavor to make my community so comfortable and beautiful that her children will always wish to live here and share in the perfecting of our civilization.
  • I will try to build a permanent home surrounded by many permanent plants native to Illinois.
  • As a public token of my loyalty, I will plant beside the foundation of my home some Illinois roses to remind me and others of the “Illinois spirit.”
  • I will work persistently to express the highest ideals of all citizens in a comprehensive city plan for extending, developing, and beautifying the city.

Quaint, perhaps, and yet stirring in its way. Today is Earth Day. If the land and all its inhabitants—birds, bees, plants, bacteria, mountains, rivers, waving grasses—belong to all of us, if we are all part of Earth’s wondrous community, then who will take care of it? Who takes care of what belongs to all of us? We must, together, so let us declare it. What is your version of Miller’s Illinois Citizen’s Oath today? I’m working on mine.


Water panels coming up! 

Citizen’s Greener Evanston Earth Week Programs

Friday, April 23
6:00 pm
“Water and Earth”
Moderator: Ajiah Gilbert

  • Water for All or Just for Us?
    Debra Shore, Commissioner of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago
  • Community Gardens and Black Liberation
    Maia Robinson, Nia Williams, and Emma Barreto of Evanston Fight for Black Lives

REGISTER FOR EVENTS

Water: The Driving Force of All Nature

Moderated by Jerome McDonnell, former host of WBEZ’s Worldview and sponsored by the New Trier Democrats. Panelists and speakers include Representative Robyn Gabel, MWRD Commissioner Debra Shore, Illinois Section American Water Works Association Trustee Dawn Walker, President and CEO of Alliance for the Great Lakes Joel Brammeier, and Go Green Wilmette's Beth Drucker.
Monday, April 26
7:00 pm—8:15 pm
REGISTER