By William Ecenbarger
The Pennsylvania General Assembly can again become a national leader this year by passing a newly introduced bill that would designate the Pennsylvania Long Rifle as the official state firearm. No other state has such a symbol - or is even considering one.
Historically, Harrisburg has been a fertile breeding ground in the complex field of state symbology--the naming of official flowers, minerals, songs, birds, dances, fish, beverages, and so on. It is here, over the years, that Pennsylvania legislators have left their marks, rather like the official state dog (Great Dane) on the official state tree (Eastern hemlock).
Back in 1965 one of the most controversial issues before the lawmakers was whether the Great Dane or the beagle ought to be the official state dog. At this time, no state had a state dog. After months of acrimonious debate, the Great Dane carried the day. Other legislatures found it impossible to let sleeping dogs lie. To date eight other states have placed canines in kennels of honor.
In 1974, Pennsylvania legislators again blazed the way when -- bucking a determined lady bug lobby -- they chose the firefly as the official state insect. Today no fewer than 43 other states have followed their lead. The honey bee alone has been enshrined by 16 states, including New Jersey and Delaware.
The designation of state symbols can cause great controversy, and recent history provides an illustration of the legislature's uncanny ability to swallow camels while choking on gnats. For example, lawmakers in recent years have approved a half-dozen multi-billion dollar budgets while being unable to decide whether the polka or the square dance ought to be the state dance, Sadly, the issue remains unresolved.
In addition to the state firearm issue, this year the General Assembly has been asked to name the Pennsylvania tartan as the official tartan; celestite, as the official mineral; the Hazleton soil series, as the official soil; anthracite, as the official rock; and the Johnstown Traction Company's Car Number 355, as the official trolley. It never stops.
The official box turtle
There was a movement in Pennsylvania to designate as state dinosaur--Atreipus milfordensis, which was named after a town in New Jersey where its footprints were discovered. So it should come as no surprise that these same legislators are giving serious consideration to conferring the honor of official Pennsylvania reptile on the Eastern box turtle (terrapene carolina). Or that in 1959 they named as Pennsylvania's official animal the white-tailed deer (odocoileus virginianus).
Pennsylvania is not alone in its symbology compulsion. Nearly all states already have birds, flowers and trees, but there is no immediate danger that legislators will run out of symbolic possibilities. Arizona has an officially designated necktie (the bola ), Kentucky has a flatware pattern (Old Kentucky Bluegrass), and while New Hampshire gives lip service to the idea of small government, it has 10 official state songs. Oklahoma has gone whole hog and recognized a complete official meal, which consists of fried okra, squash, cornbread, barbequed pork, biscuits, sausage and gravy, grits, corn, chicken fried steak, black-eyed peas, strawberries. And, last but not least, pecan pie
Symbolic overload does appear to be approaching in Massachusetts with, at last count, 44 official things -- including a cat, dog, doughnut, dessert, muffin, marine mammal, horse and polka. Recent additions to the Bay State pantheon are a state syrup, shellfish, and novel (Moby Dick, which is about a whale, which is the official marine mammal not only of Massachusetts, but California and Alaska as well.).
No stone, official or otherwise, goes unturned in the naming game. When opponents of designating the tomato New Jersey's official vegetable pointed out that it was a fruit, proponents dredged up an 1893 U.S. Supreme Court decision that, botany be damned, classified the tomato as a vegetable because it is served with dinner, not dessert. The issue remains unresolved. Not so in Arkansas, however, where the tomato does double duty as the state fruit and state vegetable. It's a win-win, regardless of the facts.
The state cowboy song?
A number of much-needed gaps were filled last year. Two states crowned official insects--- Hawaii chose the Kamehameha butterfly, Nevada enshrined the vivid dancer damsel fly. New Mexico adopted an official state cowboy song (Under New Mexico Skies ), which can be played on the new official state guitar (the Pimental New Mexico Sunrise). They also approved a bilingual poem ("We Love It Real Hot"), but Gov. Bill Richardson showed cojones by vetoing it after reading its opening couplet:
"¡Bien venidos amigos, "Mí casa es su casa!
"Come savor our delicious salsa!"
Once again this year, from Boston to Austin, the air is full of speeches, and vice versa, as America's state legislatures choose things official - the edible, the botanical, the geological, the illogical, all creatures great and small. And in several capitals, there are direct challenges to Pennsylvania's heritage.
For example, the cherished Pennsylvania Dutch delicacy, the whoopie pie, is about to become the official dessert of Maine. And Wisconsin is expected to overcome the muted opposition of the anti-noise lobby to designate the Harley-Davidson as the official state motorcycle - despite the fact that many of the iconic bikes are assembled at a plant in York, Pa.
Can Pennsylvania legislators fritter away their time on such issues as budget deficits, school vouchers, unfunded public pensions and high insurance rates when the state is without an official muffin? New York already has the apple muffin, Massachusetts, the corn, and Minnesota, the blueberry. The good ones are almost gone. Will Pennsylvania, in desperation, settle for being known as the Bran Muffin State?
These are difficult matters. Even the so-called Pennsylvania Long rifle is no shoo-in as the state firearm. For one thing, its origin is in dispute - indeed, this weapon is known in some places outside the state as the Kentucky rifle. Moreover, there are potential rivals. The famed derringer handgun was developed in Philadelphia, and the legendary Sharps carbine (hence the word "sharpshooter") also has Philadelphia roots.
So the next time you hear loud noises coming from Harrisburg, it might not be over increasing your taxes. It might just be a clash of symbols.
Bill Ecenbarger is a journalist who neither owns nor desires to own any of the state symbols.