Reflections on Owning Land

– Posted in: Essays

There was a time when the land was experienced as alive and sentient.
It was not property. It was not even environment.
It birthed all beings and at the right time,
received each and everyone, back into her fullness.
It was both matrix and mystery and a source of wonder, reverence and awe.

Today, in our culture of commerce, land has become property.
It is seen as a commodity; something to be bought or sold,
a resource to be used or abused or at best enjoyed.
What happened?

A few months ago, people across the road began to dig up a two acre paddock to create an off track motor cycle track. This caused a considerable upheaval amongst many of the neighbors who were very concerned about the noise. The issue of the noise was eventually resolved but the issue of tearing up a living meadow was never even addressed. This interaction stimulated a lot of thoughtful discussion and these reflections on owning land, have arisen as a result.

Tens of thousands of years ago, with the emergence of thinking, remembering and story telling, the gregarious cultural creatures that were our ancestors, experienced the living earth as something created by an ineffable, essentially nameless mystery; a mystery eventually pointed at with words such as God, Allah, Atman or the Divine Spirit. The land was given to nourish and sustain all creatures. Back then, people lived lightly on the earth and their sense of ownership was probably very unformed. At that time, most humans were nomadic hunters and gatherers, learning the skills of observation, knowing when this plant ripened and when that shrub suggested the presence of water, and when a particular pattern of weather indicated the migration of the animals they depended on for food. We shared in the mystery with each other and with the other creatures living here with us.

About eighteen thousand years ago, animal husbandry and plant cultivation began to appear. Patterns of land use associated with sedentary agriculture, blossomed in the natural world and humans began to accumulate things, leaving traces to intrigue the archeologists of today.

Ten thousand years ago, towns, and division of labour: builders, gardeners, warriors, merchants, priests and so forth, began to leave their marks. Attitudes and understandings about life slowly but surely changed. In the course of time, ‘kings’ were seen to hold the land in trust for God. Piecing together from archeology and mythology, it seems likely that there was often a sense of responsibility, what later became known as a noblesse oblige,(1) on the part of the rulers towards their subjects. A shared system of cultural beliefs linked the king’s moral foundation and the health and welfare of the land and all its inhabitants.

In more recent years, as the human population expanded, land was sometimes bestowed by the king on other men who had given him service. (There was not much evidence of land being bestowed on women.) Perhaps this was the beginning of sub dividing and real estate investment. Now we see a proliferation of little kingdoms within a larger single kingdom, and all of these within the kingdom of god, which itself was within the matrix and mystery of un-namable becoming.

By the late 1800s, the European social system was disintegrating. Revolutions, wars, accelerating growth of human population and the birth of a merchant class that measured wealth in terms of money and power, began to rapidly change the shape of our relationship with the earth. No longer the rule of nature, no longer the rule of god, no longer the divine right of kings or the rule of justice; now we begin to see the rule of law; and law was almost always something imposed by the rich and physically strong.

Following the two world wars of the twentieth century, the ideal of ‘owning’ land became realizable by large numbers of people. Perhaps even readers of this essay. The living earth, a dynamically evolving matrix of becoming, a loam of sentient beings, was gradually transformed in our beliefs and understandings. It became solidified, objectified and then carved up into parcels that are now owned by countless little kings and queens.

In New Zealand today, as in many other parts of the world there is a cherished assumption that when one ‘owns’ a section of land, one can then do anything one likes on it, or to it, as long as it doesn’t contravene the local human made laws. We seem blithely unconcerned about the natural order of life unfolding. My home is my castle. No-one has a right to tell me what I can or can’t do on ‘my land’. The owner has all rights and virtually no obligations, beyond paying taxes. Certainly no obligations, no noblesse oblige, to the sentient beings living on, in, and through, the land. By and large, these assumptions and beliefs about ownership and the right to do as one wishes, are deeply internalized and very rarely questioned.

When Mary and I began to hold the title for a two acre section of rural land near Katikati,(2) we were told that a local attitude about owning land was expressed with the phrase, “a good fence is the first step to good neighborliness.” The idea was that, by clearly defining what was and what was not your property, this would diminish arguments since it was none of your neighbor’s business what you did on your property and none of your business, what they did on their’s.

The whole idea of owning land is deeply and tragically flawed. The land that we think we own, is in fact an extraordinarily dense community of living beings that have been evolving with each other and through each other for millions of years. It is a summation of the birthing and dying of uncountable numbers of beings. What on earth could it mean to own another living being or to own whole communities of beings?

I was about five or six years old when I first registered of the size of the human population. It was approximately two and a half billion. Today, it is approaching seven billion. An extraordinary number of people aspire to rule a kingdom. Everyone is touched by the ideal of owning their own land. Large properties are being further sub-divided at a staggering pace. Sections of land are becoming smaller and smaller and yet this deeply cherished belief, that owning land entitles us to do anything we want with it, is stronger than ever. We can dig it up or pave it over. We can clear cut the trees or plant mono-culture crops. We can poison, maim and destroy virtually any non-human beings that live there, with legal impunity. We can ‘develop’ the property and then sell it on for a short term profit. We can do virtually anything we like with it.

The concept ‘owning land’ is now so deeply woven into the structure of present day human cultural beliefs and assumptions, that it almost carries the power of a religious conviction. To question it is risky. So many of our understandings about ourselves and our place in nature are tied up with it that, depending on where you live, to seriously raise these issues for debate can leave you open to being accused of being a marxist or an anarchist, or to be dismissed as a flaky animal rights person, or an idealistic greenie. Politicians are always in the news but question that is not being debated by our law makers and parliamentarians is our relationship with the rest of the living world.

Much of our ideas and ideals about owning land are undoubtedly based on emotional needs for security and control which are sometimes extended into needs for prestige and power. Perhaps ‘property’ is something that ‘props’ us up. Once God looked after us. Then kings. Then nobles. And now it’s everyone looking after him or herself, and sometimes their immediate families. This way of relating to the land has become a disaster for every living being. A fantasy of commercial real estate has replaced the deep experiential knowing of our real estate. Emotional assumptions and legal frameworks are blinding us to the reality of this living world, of which we are all part.

What we do on this piece of land affects all the surrounding land and the water and the atmosphere and the living beings that comprise it. They make up our environment. We are a dynamic part of their environment. Our mutual shaping over vistas of time reveals the shape of evolution. Even to speak of a ‘piece’ of land is potentially misleading as it can reinforce so many illusions and delusions. The ‘piece’ or ‘block’ or ‘section’ may exist in a registry of the local municipality but it is really nothing more than a conceptual construct. In reality, that block of land, this piece of earth, is continuous with the rest of the planet; an extraordinary living sphere, perhaps even a living organism, floating in space. Sectioning off pieces of land as functionally independent from everything else is perhaps analogous to identifying and dissecting out parts of our body. My liver isn’t a piece of body to be bought or sold. It is a living organ that is part of a community of organs each with their own whakapapa(3) weaving its way backwards through time for billions of years. It is also a bit mad to say that I can pour alcohol into my liver to the point of cirrhosis and it is not the business of my heart, or lungs or neurons that I do.

In this age of i-phones, social networking and global finance we humans need to find ways to stay in touch with our deep, trans-species, communal nature. This is a moral imperative that is necessary for our survival. We need each other. We arise from each other. We are food for each other and, as Gary Snyder(4) has written, through the act of eating each other we touch an extraordinarily basic level of communion; they becoming us and we becoming them, a daily demonstration of our tangible union and need for each other.

I hope this essay doesn’t sound like utopian ‘pie in the sky’. I’m writing it as an invitation for all of us to think deeply on these issues and to allow the possibility of a fresh way of being what we are, and of being with each other. The idea of owning land has evolved in our minds over the course of thousands of years. Its pedigree is inextricably interwoven with who and what we think we are and with our place in the world of people and the world of other creatures and landscapes. Political revolutions, or law changes won’t make make such a pervasive concept go away.

If we must retain the concept of ‘owning land’ then it surely needs to be infused with a profound breadth of ecological understanding. These days, there is much talk about sustainability. The only thing that is truly sustainable is life. If there is to be a future for us then ‘ownership’ of land must go hand in hand with a deepening sense of responsibility. To drive a car, one must first take a test that proves a basic degree of competence and only then do we get a license. Perhaps we need to have licenses to ‘own land’. Like the noblesse oblige of by-gone eras, land owners should be obliged to acquaint themselves with the immense diversity of living beings and processes that together compose their land and then to interact with these particular beings, the land, this living matrix, in ways that, in the words of biologist Aldo Leopold,(5) “tend to support the integrity, the stability and the beauty of the (entire) biotic community.”

There was a time when the land was experienced as alive and sentient.
It was not property. It was not even environment.
It birthed all beings and at the right time,
received each and everyone, back into her fulness.
It was both matrix and mystery and a source of wonder, reverence and awe.
May we realise that time, is now.

Endnotes:

(1) – noblesse oblige, Oxford English Dictionary => privilege entails responsibility

(2) – We have a reluctance to think in terms of owning this land, hence the phrase ‘holding title’. Having written these words, it strikes me that the phrase, ‘to hold title’ probably hearkens back to the times when kings awarded land and along with the land went a title. What alternatives do we have? Instead of ‘owning land’ we could say that we pay for the privilege of being ‘custodians’ or ‘guardians’ of the land, but this implies we have the knowledge and skills to do what until recent times was the juridiction of God or Mother Nature. The more I contemplate the question of land ownership, the more I feel that in order to support a truly sustainable world we will need a revolution of understanding and attitude towards the land and the world of which we are part.

(3) – whakapapa; a Maori word meaning genealogy, family tree or cultural identity

(4) – Gary Snyder, “The Real Work”, New Directions Books 1980

(5) – Aldo Leopold, “A Sand County Almanac”, Oxford University Press 1989

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