We live in a wooded pasture beside Big Creek, near Ellis, on a hill under a big sky with a clear view of the wide horizon, except for the trees along the creek. We not only live on the place; we also own it in the best sense of the word.
Every year I get a letter from the county appraiser telling me how much my property is worth. The statement in no way reflects how much it’s worth to me.
Living here has provided a lesson in the meaning of ownership. We came to own this land in a series of steps, and signing the deed was only one part of it. The document gave me certain privileges and rights to the land, but the deed represents a limited kind of ownership. It says nothing about my relationship to the land.
Thoreau solved the problem of ownership by taking possession of everything he enjoyed. He thought the fields and woods he wandered over belonged more truly to him than to the proprietor who knew nothing about them.
In a similar way, Tennyson’s Ulysses counted himself king of all he surveyed. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that my property extends as far as the eye can see, but the seeing certainly enlarges the object of my enjoyment. Appreciation is another kind of ownership; it is a way of embracing that part of the world we cannot actually possess.
Humans are possessive creatures, and that can lead to a whole host of problems. We are hopelessly addicted to every new thing that comes on the market. My house is filled with stuff I have collected over the years, much of which is useless to me.
When it comes to land, the passion for ownership becomes more problematic. Disputes about territory have long been a major cause of war. And, when people themselves become property, you have the worst kind of ownership.
The is a better way to own something. E. B. White said “Walden” was the only book he owned, though there were other books on his shelves that were unclaimed. I suppose what he meant was that he loved that book more than any other. He said he always kept it with him “in much the same way one carries a handkerchief.”
It is in that sense that I own the land I live on. I always keep it with me. I suspect that many farmers feel much the same way about land that has been in their family for generations. They hold it close. To them farming is not just a way of making a living. It’s a way of life.
We moved fairly often at first, but we have come here to stay. I’ve never lived in a place that has given me such a glorious feeling of ownership. It’s not so much about having a place that belongs to us; it’s about being in the place where we belong.
Americans move an average of 11.7 times in their lifetime. People seem to think the grass is greener in yonder fields. Perhaps they keep moving because they never stay long enough in one place to appreciate the ground they are standing on.
When we bought the property, a surveyor came, and he set the boundary lines and reduced it to so many acres of land. The appraiser looked at the figures and put a tax on it.
When I surveyed it, I saw a wide horizon and a big sky with billowing clouds. I saw deer, wildflowers and birds, and grass glistening with dew in the morning light. I saw a fox dashing into a thicket and butterflies fluttering over the flowers. I saw rainbows and sunsets, and starlight shimmering like gems in a velvet sky.
Fortunately, no one has yet figured out a way too tax my enjoyment of the property. If they did, I couldn’t afford to live here.
Richard Weber is a nature enthusiast living near Ellis. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.