Dear friends: I am in the shaky practice of learning to speak my truth without judging. I am still a baby in this – and so I need to say: I trust you, I love you, please bring your disagreement, your wisdom, your forgiveness. I need to speak my truth and it is not in opposition to your truth. However you serve love, I honor you, I trust you, I am so grateful to know you and please forgive me when my pain puts a growl in my voice. I do not growl at you but at my own great delusion that keeps me from seeing you and all life as family. Even when I growl, may my heart yet be in the same moment setting a table for all of us even including all of myself. If the way I speak my truth pushes you away, the greatest gift you could give me is the intimacy of telling me how I’ve hurt or misunderstood you and the call for me to sit and hear who you are and what wisdom your life exists to teach. I don’t know anything but I also must use my voice. May I learn to use my voice to serve love.
It Isn’t Ours
I think owning land is a delusion.
I can’t create or destroy land. It was / will be there long before and after me.
Land doesn’t need me to survive. I need land to survive. I am totally helpless without it and my body is made of it – therefore, I am not the land’s owner, but the land’s child. I approach it only with the delusion of being its “master.”
We are completely dependent upon land’s gifts and health to live. If land decided to cease giving us the gifts of everything we need to live, we would see quickly who ‘owns’ who.
To arrive at the matrix of interlocking cultural assumptions required for us to even make sense of owning land took hundreds of years of indoctrination, theft, and force. It isn’t “natural” to own land. It took hundreds of years of campaigns of slander, violence, and theft to, for example, enclose the commons from the peasants of Europe. We can easily forget, growing up in America, that the concept of land ownership is a culturally bound one local to this time, place, and set of philosophical assumptions that don’t have any grounding in what is real. To misquote, it takes a hell of an education to make us take something this crazy as normal.
Owning land is not like owning a car or a house. It is almost sensible to us how flawed it is by talking about someone owning a whole neighborhood, though a neighborhood is really just people inhabiting structures on top of land. It is more like someone trying to own a river. Every piece of land is infinite and provides life for uncountable other beings through time.
Land is “bigger” than me. A square foot of earth and sky stretches farther above and below me than my entire body and is infinitely more complex, potent, and unmovable. Its memory is longer, its capacity to create life over time is greater.
Land does not have any boundaries. Land doesn’t have a beginning or end. Trees and animals don’t recognize property markers. At absolute best, property markers are a short-term negotiation between humans about how to peacefully share the means for survival. As they mostly are now, property markers are strips of plastic demarcating the ability to refuse others entry and abuse the land and its beings.
Property markers are flags of our old ancestral terror coming from thousands of years of war, exile, enslavement and famine that tell us in our genes that we remember not having enough and must keep what is ours. They are also a legal sorcery corporations can cast to sever themselves from the obligations they have to the land, the past, the future, and all life on earth.
It is Ours
I just returned from the wholly life-giving NC Climate Justice Summit. Many people there understood the basic delusion of owning land at all. Some of these same people (like myself) use land ownership as a strategy to accomplish goals, like protection of ecosystems from industry or helping long discriminated against communities keep home, livelihood, and generations of community, connection, rooted memories, and proximity to the ground and cemeteries containing the bones of their ancestors.
Owning land to protect mother earth and her peoples is one of the thousands of dizzying double-binds we’re forced into when we try to live ethically in decline-stage capitalism. Every time I spoke at the summit about our life and our best guess, I saw the shadow not just of the privilege that allowed us to buy land and add shelter on it, but of buying land at all. In my heart I can only always agree with indigenous peoples’ telling us that land cannot be owned; and we also find ourselves currently by legal definition landowners.
If someone came to us tomorrow and said, “you don’t believe in land ownership – therefore, I am going to do whatever I want on your land” we would try to get them to leave – first, through clear communication; but then if they did not leave, wouldn’t we also find ourselves reluctantly but inevitably summoning like a demon that we do not know the rites to afterwards banish the systems of enforcement of the institution represented by those paranoid orange flags – criminal “justice,” militarized police, the legal constructs of property ownership itself?
The “legal” in “legal ownership” means we possess a power backed up by the entire apparatus of the militarized state. The guns and prisons of the enforcement of law are there at the margins of our deed pointed at no one yet but waiting in the wings. That simple piece of paper contains an intimation of violence at the ready. That violence isn’t to protect the land, the soil, the water, the animals, the trees, but the ability of the landowner to retain the power to restrict the ability to take the life of the land to them and their heirs.
…and here we are, us with every intention of eventually sharing “our” land with others in true equal “ownership” in order to deconstruct some part of this violent delusion of ownership and personal privilege to use that delusion, but we simultaneously stand ready to “defend” the boundaries, keep the gates of who enters and who does not, who lives here and who does not, who and who does not meet their survival needs here and how they do and do not do it.
We Can Try
This, then, is the peace I’ve found for now with this question:
Like all life, all humans (including us) deserve to live and meet their needs and we need to live somewhere and to meet our needs from the life of some land (whether or not we see the face of that land). Owning no land does not mean we are liberating land from ownership. As renters of land / a home in the US, someone still owns it. We can both be more secure ourselves and do much more to protect land by having the “rights” to it. We also are not finding land ownership to be more expensive than renting. The opposite can be true. From this perspective the choice was easy, but there is more to consider.
Why should the land that we happen to be able to afford to “own” be ours just because we could pay for it? We had two good paying jobs for three years while living simply and so were able to save a lot of money that let us afford land; and, it’s completely arbitrary that our jobs that our privilege helped us to get earned more survival tickets (aka money) for the sacrifice of our time and labor than anyone else’s work (…if anything, I would think that the road maintenance workers breathing in toxic asphalt fumes while sweating in safety vests in North Carolina’s furnace of a summer or the sometimes completely unpaid workers picking tomatoes in fields of carcinogenic pesticides for my pasta sauce deserved a lot more remuneration than me in my comfortable office job moving around bytes). What can we do about the unfair distribution of the security and abundance of “owning” a place?
The way that I work with this question is this: those of us who happen to be benefiting from the current arrangement of capitalism can do our part to deconstruct privilege and private property by helping others who are not benefiting from the arrangement to have the same access that we did by actually giving up part of our access – and, at the same time, we can deconstruct land being “owned” by structuring agreements between people sharing land in a way that gives the land an overriding voice in the conversation.
This last point is one of the key differences between us buying our own humble 2.5-acre plot (i.e. what would be needed to meet our needs without extracting the life of land we are not in relation with and so cannot help to regenerate) while giving away the rest of our savings to others for a down payment and the current approach we are taking. We are holding what we believe is a vital opportunity to transform our relationship to land, “property,” privilege, and each-other. By following the former path (donating our surplus), we would be deconstructing privilege only. By following the path we’re following, we hope we can show a model that plants the seeds for a network of collectives deconstructing both privilege and ownership, living in equality and ecological harmony, and entering a scenario that is ripe for us to learn the future-vital tools for cooperation and peacework lost in our alienated to-each-their-own take-it-while-you-can autoplay-next-episode society.
Importantly, we are not going to live with separation between how we live and how the people coming to share “ownership” of the land live. We aren’t going to be sitting on some great discrepant security of savings or some high paying jobs while pretending to be in the same struggle as the people around us. We definitely aren’t going to be anyone’s saviors. We aren’t going to retain some elephant-in-the-room ability to sell the land out from everybody if things ever get uncomfortable for us. We will be skillfully renouncing anything that is more than what we actually need. We will struggle together, celebrate together, create together, as equals; and we will need each other.
From my limited life experience and ignorant perspective, I’ve come to think that this is the only way that “charity” can go without creating more separation – not towards “green” or “social” investing that lets us retain our great distance from the people we “help” while continuing to live a life that doesn’t begin to resemble the communities we “serve,” but a great composting of the inequality itself into something that feeds the life of everyone and that lets us indebted privileged people actually finally be healed within our own aching damaged and therefore damage-causing spirits by the only true riches of interdependence and mutuality with all our sisters brothers siblings plants waters darkness and light. I ask rhetorically: what can we ever know about the “problems” we try to solve unless we have the wisdom of our own bodies’ needs intelligently processing them in order to help us and our community weather the ten thousand storms? There is a genius in need, the ‘mother of invention” that any top-down solutions lose because the people making them never get to actually feel the needs from the comfort of executive conference center leadership retreats and impact measurement infographics tailored to likely even more vastly separated wealthy donors who likely have in their lives had to know very little about what it’s like to kiss the ground and pray for rain.
Compassion has only ever meant “suffering together.” Once your suffering is my suffering, we can together use the wisdom of our own blazing inner lights to inform the permaculture designs and healing arts that can lift all of us together as one out of that suffering hand in hand, teaching each other, feeding each other, needing each other. We remember that without each other and the land, our song is incomplete.
We are the Land’s
None of what we’re doing is a new idea. In the post-industrial US, eco-villages often do just this and this is the model we are primarily following. We are also massively inspired by the egalitarian communities like Twin Oaks, Acorn, East Wind, and others that share the radical economics we are working with. We also know that billions of people currently alive, recently alive, and on through history have already done this including probably the people who once intimately inhabited this very land that was stolen from them leaving confused moderns like me now two hundred some years after trying to figure out what the hell to do about it.
This experiment is a humble attempt to begin the infinite never-ending process of paying some part of the immeasurable unresolvable debt to those people and the earth that sustains us specifically for those of us like myself raised in this very recent version of cultural amnesia and deliberate state-corporate alienation of us from the earth and each other.
So, roughly, our guess, may it please. please serve life!: we buy as much land as we can afford, create an ecological agreement with the land that recognizes our sacred debt to it and our total dependence upon it, and then, living simply humbly lovingly gratefully cooperatively and joyfully within the healthy sustainable carrying capacity of the land (meaning its soil and water health will continue to increase year by year, its wild beings will still roam, its forests will still regenerate and mature, even as people can meet their needs and feel safe and reasonably comfortable), we invite others to share in true legal “ownership” of the land regardless of the monetary contribution they are able to make as long as the community can continue to exist.
Then, with the inviolable agreements we make with the land, we collectively move from “ownership of land” to “belonging to land.” Because we depend on the land for our food, heat, shelter, medicine, and emotional well-being and we meet these needs only within the limits of the land, we slowly move towards belonging to this ground we live upon. We tend it, we care for it, we love it, we shape it – but there is no question that we also need it, we are indebted to it; we are nothing, ultimately, but part of it, and some of us will return our very bones to it. I would say the land “owns” us, but I don’t believe any living thing can own any living thing. Rather, we belong to the land as children, as interdependent caretakers, as lovers. We live in close humble reliance on it that does not let us forget this, but we are not “playing” at being poor. We choose to give away our excess so we can stay in the profound gift of this close intimate relationship.
In this, we are crucially not martyring ourselves or having to leave because we’re too hard on ourselves; that’s bad design and though there will be bad days (like everywhere), we don’t have to be miserable to be humble. It is quite the opposite! I imagine all of us living in something like paradise together because we can feed each other abundant ecstatic foods, be surrounded by piercing natural beauty, and be held by people who love us for exactly who and all that we are – while of course having a very low cost of living so we can dedicate more of our time to purposeful life-serving work, rest, and play.
I have lived in an ecovillage in NC. It was certainly full of problems: most crucially, the cultural and racial homogeneity and the buy-in-cost, which we are trying our best to change with our design. Even so, the village was in some key dimensions the closest approximation of paradise I have known and I would wish it for absolutely everyone because modern “luxury” communities feel like a morgue designed by an Apple store compared to it and there’s definitely no time to miss shopping, netflix or facebook because you are too busy being completely, utterly, and resplendently alive beneath the stars’ eternal welcome home.
Living simply doesn’t usually mean living with heat stroke, frostbite, fleas, or hunger (if the rains come). Thanks to the struggles of all the beings that came before us and those that are working alongside us now, we do know the design patterns that enable us to live both joyfully and within the limits of the land. Permaculture’s promise is that a lot of misery is solvable through good design. We have the profound unrepayable gifts of countless millenia-tested-and-refined subsistence solutions from all the peoples of the world. Rocket mass stoves, terra preta, brilliantly designed hand tools, passive solar design, solar hot water, ancient seeds, perennial food crops, regenerative partnerships with animals, light applications of solar and wind, plant medicine, and the spirit tools of cooperation, meditation, prayer, song, play, love, and peacework – plus, a wood-fired sauna with caught rainwater next to a swimming hole. Thanks to our ancestors and earth healers from every culture of the world, we find immeasurable help on our side to make the simple life really really good and innumerable companions to help us along the way.
It would be hazardous to pretend our approach does not leave an intense power dynamic in place. When one person, family, or small group purchases the land to move from private ownership to collective belonging, they usually get to decide where they want to live on the land first and have thousands of invisible influences on the direction it all moves in as a result. They clear the first small patches for access, for forest gardens. They bring in animals and plants that can change the balance. They also lay down some or all of the ecological agreements with the land that future inhabitants would need to abide by to be part of this belonging. They have thousands of subtle and great impacts on the basic culture of the collective. They also, of course, are actually deciding what land to live on at all. Finally, and perhaps most unjustly, they are deciding as an initial group what additional people are allowed to come share in living together on this land. They can say ‘no.’
I am, then, being a gatekeeper in at least three important ways. I am saying that anyone who wants to live here must 1) agree to a specific kind of ecological relationship to the land that determines some of what they can and cannot do to meet their needs 2) agree to a certain amount of cooperation, emotional intimacy, and conflict resolution that will keep our living together harmonious and our collective surviving and 3) have enough alignment and personal compatibility with us that we all actually want to see each others’ faces every day, through the good, the bad, and the rising waters.
This is not insignificant and it is not fair, but it seems like an essential compromise for this particular guess. I see how privilege led us to extra money which led to more ability to begin the process which led to more initial influence.
This approach deconstructs a lot of the privilege by taking ownership out of the hands of one person, nuclear family, or company, but it still carries a ton of it. The hope would be that much of it equalizes over time as it moves further and further from the initial “purchase,” and more and more towards the collective belonging and legal and economic equality, but it still would massively exclude people who are not willing to live in a certain kind of relation with the land and each other (or who just don’t want to share a life with us!). A little more can be done to remove privilege concentration by separating the land from genetic inheritance. The real “inheritance” is the ecological agreement of belonging with the land and not the right to sell or profit off the land in any way. The children we love may or may not be the caretakers who tend the face of the future wild but they will not be the sellers of it at auction as inheritance defined by ownership of property is a deep disparity-concentrating iniquity in our time.
The experiment does exclude people who are not culturally aligned with the kind of ecological care and commitment to cooperation and conflict resolution we’re talking about. This is very significant, as this would exclude even cross-culturally almost everyone in America right now.
Part of my choice to do this is that I don’t think we’re going to survive the future without cooperation and healthy soil and so while I don’t think everyone needs to base their life around re-membering these lifeways that were how most humans through most of human history approximately lived, but I do think some of us need to and I need to and I also don’t feel comfortable with assuming that cooperation and caring for the earth is this liberal white thing rather than actually what every non-manufactured culture has done for pretty much all of its existence when not isolated by tremendous wealth or being actively hunted starved killed or enslaved. I also don’t think I’m doing myself, any people, or the earth any favors by pretending we can all keep tilling, flying, growing our economy, and using air conditioning and it is just not my path to act like it will be OK if we do when I now irrevocably understand and accept that it won’t be.
A justice movement based around letting all communities get access to the same earth-destroying, life-commodifying and culture-eradicating systems just won’t last very long as mama earth is starting more loudly to burn and to weep and the dying soil has put us all as equals on notice.
With this said: it is also important for me to remember that the scale of our experiment means it is replicable and iterative. Others can copy it and change it open source style. There can be communities that make all kinds of variations on the ecological agreements and lifeways at the core of it. Ours, for example, probably won’t ever accommodate air conditioning or flush toilets, but some ecological collectives could accept those as a trade-off. Others could have a shared spirituality, culture, or ethnicity as defining traits.
We dream of there being a place that feels like belonging for everyone. We dream of a strong resilient diverse network of cooperating collectives across this region and we enact that dream by working to create our own small part of it.
I benefit from hearing and being changed by your disagreement, your body’s wisdom, your life experience, your needs. I am lost without it and I dream so deeply of a regional wisdom council made of a hundred rooted Piedmont communities integrating our different perspectives and approaches into one blazing lamp of uncountable colors that needs no oil and just might save some of our most precious cultural and biological seeds for the future tribes of the long renewal, those for whom I live.
Living the Questions
This, then, is part of our dream and a question we will never lose sight of. How can we move from the lie of owning land to the truth of belonging to it? How can we move from the market assertion that we deserve a safe place more than others to the just sharing of what economic resources we have been given? How can we tend the vital wild together in the shadows of our grandchildren singing a song of love where every voice is heard and where in the silence clean waters still sing, coyotes still play, gentle trees still grow?
In gratitude to my sisters brothers and siblings at the NC Climate Justice Summit. You are all my teachers.