When I bought this place nearly 20 years ago, I found it a very strange thing, this idea that I could own a small rectangle of the planet along a small creek near the Mason-Dixon Line.
All these years later it’s still a wonder.
The thing I find strange about owning property is the thing itself, the concept. This occurred to me early in my residency here as I burrowed into the dirt bank under the house. I had been whacking away with a pick around a large and adamant chunk of shale and was getting a little fed up with it. Taking the larger of my two crowbars, I jammed and wriggled for awhile, until a big piece of it came loose unexpectedly.
There I was, lying on my back, a great, gray-blue stone perched on my stomach.
I swear it snarled at me. Obviously not a Pet Rock-type rock, but one of its feral cousins, not to be trusted in the home, or around small children.
Sprawled there in a staring contest with this chunk of stone (the secret is not to blink,) I could not help but feeling a little bit betrayed. After all, it was my rock.
It had come out of the ground under my house, where it had rested for many millions of years. Dinosaurs had perhaps stubbed their cold-blooded tootsies on this rock. General Abner Doubleday’s troops may have groused about its hardness as they slept here during the Battle of Gettysburg. This stone, by golly, has a history, for all its bad attitude.
That’s when it hit me. A century from now, when I am reduced to a boxful of rattly bones, this same rock will be sitting wherever I leave it, chortling quietly to itself.
Suddenly, I hated that rock.
But what really struck me as funny was the idea that it was mine. Land ownership in this country is largely done in “fee simple,” that is, “An estate in land of which the inheritor has unqualified ownership and power of disposition,” according to The American Heritage Dictionary.
An odd state of affairs, though understandable. In Europe, from which many of our ancestors came, ownership of land was a more uncertain thing. For that matter, who among those early immigrants would have ever thought, stepping ashore on this vast continent, that deciding how best to use all this land could ever become an issue?
Even today, I am told, in some countries it is forbidden to develop productive farmland.
But land use has become an issue. We have built cities and malls on the best farmland, a fact that may come back to haunt us. We have poisoned much of the land, and the water within it. We have scattered development all over the green hills. We do this, all unmindful of the costs of providing services to those developments, all for the sake of a pretty view. Too often, the pretty view becomes yet another development.
Naturally, I have no answers to this dilemma, only questions. I would not champion the surrender of control over my little piece of ground. And yet I would cry loud and long if my neighbor yielded to a deep and so-far secret desire to raise, say, hogs in the space between our houses.
A prediction: The more crowded we become, the more we will find ourselves qualifying our degree of ownership, the more “power of disposition” we will surrender, perhaps not always willingly.
I say this with neither glee nor despair but in a kind of resignation, to the realities of this place, where people not very different from me came desiring Eden but stayed to live, clumped into ticky-tacky neighborhoods coyly named and depressingly like their clone neighborhoods everywhere else.
Now, if I can just get this rock of my chest, I can get back to work.
Photo by Scorpions and Centaurs
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