Handbook for Not Owning Land

I step off the gravel road onto a trail hidden by undergrowth. Sword ferns and cedar branches close behind me like a curtain, and my breathing subtly changes. My senses tune to nature’s frequency and I begin to hear them: The high chiming of golden-crowned kinglets; the questioning eponymous cry of the towhee; a croaking curious raven. Colors seem more vivid: witches’ butter—a gelatinous orange fungus that a friend once convinced me to taste—oozes from damp madrona bark. Lichens sent sailing in last night’s storm populate the path in contrasting luminescent greens. A downy arch of blue-gray feathers is a bittersweet epitaph to a short life in flight.

Witches' Butter Fungus

Witches’ Butter Fungus

After traversing a small ravine, the trail crisscrosses another, and a sign nailed to a hemlock tree catches my eye. “Land Corner” it declares in square metallic authority. I continue on, but as I push between glistening salal and the waxy leaves of evergreen huckleberry, the statement nags at me. The words “land” and “corner” together seem an oxymoron. This phrase represents right-angle thinking in a stunningly chaotic universe. What in these woods is square? Does the millipede follow a grid system? Shall the strut of the field mouse be geometrically contained? I turn a circle on the path searching for corners. Humans have divided and labeled this place to own it, control it, make it work for them. Of course it can be argued that birdsong is math and an insect’s body is map-able, but try to chart the soul of nature and I think you steal something from it.

The sign makes me think of a radio report I heard about the Inuit people when they gained governance of their homeland, an historic alteration to Canada’s map. In 1999, the Northwest Territories were divided into two sections: the Eastern part, now known as Nunavut, is managed by the native people who have called it home since the beginning of snow. Nunavut occupies one-fifth of the country, stretching from Manitoba in the south nearly to the North Pole. The concept of property ownership is not part of Inuit culture—they believe they are one with the land. In the radio interview, one native leader expressed his desire to write a handbook for owning land to help his people more clearly conceive this new relationship. The idea of needing to learn about what it means to own property has crossed my mind many times since I heard that interview. When I think of guidelines that could help my own culture, it’s the counterpart to the Inuit document, a handbook for not owning land.

It is essential reading I could benefit from myself. As a landowner I struggle with what’s right for one tiny slice of this glacier-carved island. Admittedly, a cornered document legally proclaims it as my family’s piece. I worry over the best way to steward it. Do we remove alders to benefit conifers? How many, and which ones? Shall I mow the grass near the pond, or will that impede amphibian courtship? Is feeding hummingbirds a selfish act?

I own this land, but it equally owns me. When I’m gone, only my attempt at right ownership will live on. So, I choose not to use chemicals, I allow the deer to prune my apple trees, the bats to take refuge under shingles—I plant native trees and work to vanquish the ivy to let the wild free.

And what of neighboring properties? I can steward this land, but it is an island within an island. Protection of wild places cannot be limited to isolated preserves and properties. As island land conservation efforts have shown, when surrounding area is also protected as a buffer, the healing can truly begin. Judd Creek is one example of how independent efforts by both land owners, the Land Trust and King County are all contributing to improved conditions there. A telling contrast is Shinglemill Creek, where positive effects of the Land Trust and King County’s major restoration effort there have been undermined by run-off and erosion from upstream private properties all the way to town parking lots. It takes a team effort to care for land across private boundaries—a new way of viewing land ownership, an accountability as stewards of the greater land and waters that we call home.

This property is my land corner, but I try to live on it in a circular fashion—taking responsibility for the reach of my family’s impacts. I aim as much as possible to let nature manage it as she will—maverick moles, moss, and maples—without a corner in sight.

Banana Slug

Banana Slug

One Comment on “Handbook for Not Owning Land

  1. The incredibly impertinent act of spreading a rectangular ‘quilt’ over irregular geography upon a spheroid is really an example of people living “in their head”- with their eyes closed- and not in the Real World. A quick look at the map of the USA will show the results of this kind of thinking amplified beyond actual knowledge of the ground being “defined”. The States beyond the eastern mountains become more rectangular, until, west of the Mississippi River, they’re basically boxes… with almost no regard for physical features of the land being ‘defined’.
    We “own” property! That has to be the biggest conceit of our culture! It either makes us self-important idiots, or demeans the nature of the concept of “ownership”- or both. The imposition of “borders” really becomes another expression of “Might makes Right”… which is a pretty sorry way of expressing our humanity; and a sorrier one of expressing our membership in the World of Living Things.
    Thanks for writing this! It gives me hope for our future… ^..^

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