Friday, January 31, 2014

Ownership versus Stewardship

The oldest known tree in the world is in California and it is over 5,000 years old. Are trees immortal or do they have a lifespan? Do any of them die of natural causes or of old age ... or do they just die from humans or other mammals cutting them down, from insect infestations, erosion or wind? This is something that I asked my wife recently (who seems to know everything) and she didn't know either. What I discovered, from an afternoon of doing one of my favorite exercises (Googling), they are not immortal. They have lifespans but vary tremendously by species. Like mammals, they really don't die of old age, but when they get older they become weaker and more susceptible to disease and infection. Unlike mammals, trees don't have a central nervous system nor are they controlled by a central agent like our brain. When our brain dies, we die. Tree's systems are decentralized so large parts of them can die and they can still live. They are brainless. The University of Virginia has a chart that shows the average and maximum lifespans of some North American trees. None of my trees on my land in Vermont have been around since before Christ but maybe some of them were here when the Pilgrims or Columbus landed. None of them seem big enough for that. Since they are so old, are they really my trees? How much hubris do we have to think that we can own something that predates our grandparents' grandparents? And the land, that the trees are planted in, is a millions of years older than the trees? I can own the home, but I can never really own the land. I can be a steward of the land. I hate to sound like a bumper sticker, but here we go: "we don't inherit the Earth from our ancestors, but borrow it from our children". Since I don't have any children and don't believe in God, who the hell did I borrow it from?

Recently, I received a letter from my home insurance company about the moss (aka "organic growth") on my roof that needed to be removed before my policy could be renewed. This was just a stark reminder to me that I really don't own my home. A bank owns my home. I'm just the douche that makes the mortgage payments for the next decade or so. Obviously, I have difficulty with the concept of ownership. It seems more like an illusion the more I think of it. I understand how I own my stereo, my computer or my car. But what about my dogs. Do I own them? They are more like good friends that I have volunteered to take responsibility for. That relationship is more of a steward than of an owner. If I mistreat them, they will be taken away. But if I took a sledge hammer to my stereo, well, no one would really care other than myself and my wife. 

I have met a few land rights activists. They always seem so nutty and extreme. Somehow they think that no one should be able to tell them what they can do with their land. Since all land is connected, as is water, there are some restrictions to their usage. Collective ownership does exist on some level. If I were to pour something into the ground polluting my neighbor's well water, I would expect he'd have something to say about it. If I had a child, I assume I'd feel the same way about the child. I'd expect everyone in my life to help me raise the child in some way or another. Yet most people don't refer to children as being owned. Hillary Clinton popularized the term, "it takes a village to raise a child," in the 1990's when she was the First Lady. Not a new idea. Collective stewardship of children has been around for a long time. I remember when the school shooting happened in Columbine High School, I offensively quipped that "it takes a child to raze a village." I remember it didn't go over very well. "TOO SOON!" The point of this comment was that the village didn't take care of their children and they payed for it. It is not just the parent's job to raise their children but their extended family, neighbors, teachers and church members ... society in general. We look out for each other. We do it for children, our pets and our land.

Collective stewardship of land isn't a new idea either. Not a communistic idea. One of the US founding fathers, Thomas Paine, believed in collective ownership. This is from Agrarian Justice:
"Personal property is the effect of society; and it is as impossible for an individual to acquire personal property without the aid of society, as it is for him to make land originally.

Separate an individual from society, and give him an island or a continent to possess, and he cannot acquire personal property. He cannot be rich. So inseparably are the means connected with the end, in all cases, that where the former do not exist the latter cannot be obtained. All accumulation, therefore, of personal property, beyond what a man's own hands produce, is derived to him by living in society; and he owes on every principle of justice, of gratitude, and of civilization, a part of that accumulation back again to society from whence the whole came."
That's right.  "You didn't build that."  This is, of course, is our most liberal founding father. You don't hear him quoted on Fox News much. He supported a huge tax on land to fund such things as care for the elderly and the disabled. He also supported a stipend to be paid to every citizen when they turned 21 to help them get a start. To him land was "the common property of the human race." My feeling almost seems opposite to his. I don't think the land belongs to everyone, but no one. The deer who poop in my yard own my land. I'm just the douche that steps on it in the Spring.  Other owners: the owl I see in the old sugar maple, the blue jays and chickadees that come to my feeder, and critters the burrow in my lawn. Their families have been here longer than mine or any other human. They own this land, not me.

Here is a short video I made of one of my trees over a years (thanks to the iMovie and Everyday apps to used to make this):

1 comment:

Olga said...

I had heard (actually as part of the ferry tour spiel when we took students on a field trip to Fort Ticonderoga some years ago and then something similar on VPR more recently) that there were trees nearly as large as some of the California trees in VT. They stood in the way of progress, I suppose, and were all cut down.
Since my house sits on an old corn field, the only trees are along Brown's Trace. They are all suffering from effects of road salt and will have a shortened lifespan, I am sure.