L. Neil Smith's
Number 301, December 19, 2004

Happy Ngu Year!

Pennsylvania: Come for the Sights, Stay for the... Milk?
by Jonathan David Morris

Special to TLE

You know what we don't need? State birds. If you can convince me we need state birds, I will give you a dollar.

This dare germinates from a visit I made to "Visit PA" the other day. Visit PA is the online home of Pennsylvania's tourism board, which can be found at visitpa.com. While there, I came across a page of "facts and interesting tidbits." I wasn't so sure it was interesting, honestly, but I was willing to take a look. I'm trying to get into this whole moving-to-Pennsylvania thing. That's why I visited Visit PA in the first place. Pennsylvania will never match New Jersey, for me. New Jersey's love is like bad medicine. But I'd like to believe you can love two states at one time.

So anyway, the "interesting tidbits" page starts off with some fairly standard stuff—real textbook material, the kind of info only dorks like me care about—such as the state seal, the state flag, the state motto, etc. It also explains why the state isn't a state, but rather a commonwealth. (It derives from an Old English term, "common weal," which means "well-being of the public"—or as Marx called it, "communism." It's much different than a "state," you see, which, if memory serves, is loosely defined as "fooling all of the people, all of the time.")

But then the "facts" take a turn towards the absurd.

It begins with Visit PA's introduction to the state bird, the Ruffed Grouse. It's all downhill from there.

"Settlers relied on this plump, red-brown bird with the feathery legs as part of their food supply," Visit PA explains, without ever explaining why PA needs a state bird to begin with. "Sometimes called a partridge, the Ruffed Grouse is still a familiar sight in Pennsylvania's forests."

So they claim.

Now, look, I'm a good sport. You want to have a state bird? Have a state bird. Be my guest. I don't care. I'm not sure the Ruffed Grouse is a very good one, to be quite honest. I'd much sooner go with the Common Loon, like Minnesota, because if you're going to have a state bird, you might as well have one that makes the whole state sound like it's out of its freaking mind. But the point is, if you want a state bird, you can have a state bird—I won't get in your way.

But I still don't think it's necessary.

For one thing, I fail to see where having a state bird benefits the tourism board, in particular. How many families actually take this into consideration when planning the annual summer outing? "Well, kids, your mother and I have it narrowed down to two choices for this year's vacation. Either we can go to South Dakota to see Mount Rushmore—" [insert the sounds of childlike groaning here] "—or we can go to Pennsylvania to see the bird that's sometimes called a partridge." Hooray!

Secondly, in what way do state birds benefit residents? I've lived in Pennsylvania for the better part of half a year now. I'm a taxpayer. The Ruffed Grouse has done precisely nothing for me. If we stopped having a state bird altogether, I wouldn't get dejected and call up my friends, like: "I don't know about Pennsylvania, man. I liked it at first, but now that there isn't a state bird anymore... it's just so embarrassing." In fact, if there wasn't a state bird, I probably wouldn't notice.

As if state birds weren't enough, Visit PA then informs us that Pennsylvania's state tree is the Hemlock. This is because: "The Hemlock was a sturdy ally to the state's first settlers." Well, gee, you know what this sounds like? Take out the "first settlers" part. It sounds like a stump speech for part-time Pittsburgher John Kerry. Say, he carried the Commonwealth this year, didn't he? Can't we make him the state tree instead?

The list goes on and on. There's the firefly, for instance, which is Pennsylvania's state insect. To me, that's a no-win situation; no matter which insect represents your state, you've still got an insect representing your state. Haven't we got enough bloodsuckers in government as it is? And, of course, what state would be complete without a state beautification plant (Crownvetch), a state fossil (Phacops Rana), and a state steam locomotive (K4s Steam)? These are very important things. I mean, God only knows where Ohio would be today, were it not for its state flower, the scarlet carnation.

Finally, we arrive at Pennsylvania's state beverage, which is milk. That's right. Milk.

"This designation is a fitting tribute to one of the Commonwealth's leading farm products," says Visit PA. "It also salutes the state's gentle dairy cows who each produce a generous 22 quarts of milk a day."

"Generous"? "Gentle"? Geez. If this were any more touchy-feely, it'd be downright uncomfortable.

And what's with this "fitting tribute" stuff? A "fitting tribute" to what—milk? Don't get me wrong. I'm sure milk appreciates the recognition it's getting for its many contributions—cooling tongues, strengthening bones, searching for lost boys—throughout the years. And no doubt, milk's got a lot on its mind right now, what with the election and "Ocean's Twelve" both happening this year. So it's good to give a little something back—this much, I'll grant you. But it's still a poor choice for a state beverage. In fact, of all the state symbols I've mentioned, it's probably the poorest choice of all.

"Even poorer than Phacops Rana as the choice for state fossil?" you ask.

Yes, even poorer than Phacops Rana as the choice for state fossil. (Everyone knows Joe Paterno is a much better fit.)

Why? Because plenty of states have milk. It's everywhere. If you're going to have a state beverage, you should have a state beverage synonymous with the state—a native drink. Pennsylvania has something just like this. It's brewed in America's oldest, and fifth-largest, brewery. Its name is called Yuengling. And it tastes darn good.

That's the thing I don't get about state symbols. I can live with having them (not like I have a choice; I'm not in charge here), but they really ought to at least represent the people of the state in some unique way. I mean, I wouldn't even know a Ruffed Grouse was a bird—let alone the state bird—if I didn't look it up. And for all I know, they don't even exist. I've never seen one. All I've seen are the birds that keep soiling my windshield. That, and whacked out drivers signaling right to go left. You want my opinion? A much better state bird would be the middle finger I keep having to give these people on the roads every morning.

At least then the state bird would stand for something.

Jonathan David Morris writes a weekly column for "The Aquarian" and other publications. His website is www.readjdm.com, and he can be reached at jdm@readjdm.com.


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