Tuesday, July 22, 2014

A Stewardship of the Heart

“…in any true sense there is no such thing as ownership of the earth and the shadow of any man is but for a time cast upon the grass of any field.” Henry Beston, Northern Farm.

It would be all too easy for me to fall into the trap of thinking that I own this land, this wooded five-acre hillside that slopes down from Grant’s Hill to Swan Pond. One of my neighbors has perhaps a better claim to that thinking, as this entire area, including my own humble parcel, once belonged to his father. So I’ve come to understand his attachment to it that extends even to my land, as it was once in his family, and he’s never stopped thinking of it as such. I, however, am a relative newcomer here, and unless I will the place to my own heirs, someone else will someday invariably take stewardship of this knoll.

But can any of us, no matter how long we’ve occupied it, truly own the land? Are the trees, hills and fields to be owned, or do they simply allow us the luxury of our imagined dominion over them? We’ve all witnessed the ravages of progress, how it can strip away acres of trees and replace them with shopping centers and apartment complexes. Yet, once abandoned, does the earth not take over again, with nature slowly but inexorably reclaiming what is hers? No legal proceedings are involved, no hand needed to sign deeds or easements. She simply moves in quietly, and over time, refashions the hills and fields into something more befitting her eclectic preferences.

Our history is full of stories of those who held unwritten rights to this land for centuries before the Europeans decided it was theirs simply to take. Who better to attest to the fleeting nature of ownership than those very souls who now eke out their existences in the places allotted to them by those with the power to decide such things? I think I know a little of how they must have felt as they left their ancestral lands, I, who have only been here a few years and who is hardly rooted yet can feel how tenuous my grip is on this place.

A good friend of mine once said that no one ever really owns the land, that we are all merely stewards, a reality that extracts from us a promise to leave it as we found it. He and his wife owned 80 acres of pine-studded wilderness not far from here, and he, too, had a healthy reverence for that wild place that held him in tenancy only. Even in death, whatever small space any of us occupies passes to someone else: heirs, new unrelated owners, even developers, and all perhaps thinking it is theirs, all theirs, to do with as they will.

None of us knows what lies ahead, and it’s perhaps better that way. If I should have to reluctantly leave this place someday, I hope that whoever comes after me will see the light golden in the pines at sunset and hear the wind approaching from the west on a stormy night. I hope they care for it, give back whatever they take from it, and not interfere too much with processes that have gone on long before any of us were here. But most of all, I hope they hear what it has to say and that they, too, take comfort in the truths it has to share.

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