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RACHEL BEGLIN COLUMN: We belong to the land

I have recently decided that I’d like to become a landowner someday. My dream is to rehabilitate the soil, grow food, plant native perennials, have a few chickens, keep a few Scottish Highland cows and tend some wild foods.

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I have recently decided that I’d like to become a landowner someday. My dream is to rehabilitate the soil, grow food, plant native perennials, have a few chickens, keep a few Scottish Highland cows and tend some wild foods.

I’d like to build a cabin, dig a pond, be a good neighbor. To do all of this, I have to sign some papers that say, “This land belongs to Rachel and no one else.”

Land ownership. Where does that come from?

What may seem as normal or natural as breathing is really not that old, relatively speaking, and frankly it makes me a little uncomfortable. For the sake of my dream, yes, I’ll participate in the western notion of land ownership and play the down-payment-and-title game and “own” the land, but with an asterisk.

No one owns the land. We belong to the land.

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We humans may try to impart anthropocentric borders and territories, like when European aristocrats gathered at the Berlin Conference in 1884 to draw out the new makeshift countries of a colonized Africa, but the land, the animals, the elements and the people who were there before all have their own ideas.

Rivers flood, change course, change direction. Places once covered in ice, like Minnesota, become green and fertile. Islands like Hawaii bubble up from the depths of the ocean floor as molten rock, cool to form landmass -- that exists today, but may be taken back by the oceans in our lifetime.

Nature, being far more powerful than we humans hubristically admit, may not let us own her without putting up a fight. But if we come to the land humbly, perhaps then it will feed and house us.

Land ownership may have origins in Abrahamic religions. In fact, it starts in the first chapter: Genesis.

Genesis, for those who haven’t read it verbatim, is the story of God creating the universe and Adam and Eve, but it is also one of the first texts that put humans in the hierarchy above all other living things. God creates mankind in His image “so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals.” God tells humans to “fill the earth and subdue it.” God then damns Adam and Eve to a life of toiling on the land in order to feed themselves.

But it was the white man, not God, or Eve, who hunted the American bison nearly into extinction.

Nevertheless, the United States was founded with the basic idea of land ownership and titles. Legal questions have arisen that the U.S. has had to answer. Do you own the air above your property? The soil below it? The things that grow on it? If the previous landowner planted an apple tree, are they entitled to the apples?

What if someone is buried there? What is legal in defense of one’s property? We created easements so that if the city wants to build a highway through your property, they can. And we created trusts so that beautiful places like the Great Lakes and national parks could be held by the state on behalf of the people.

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What if the pesticides my neighbor sprays blow over to my land? What if a bird carries a patented seed onto my land and it grows? Can the Homeowners Association really make me plant grass in my yard instead of tomatoes?

The more questions I ask, the sillier the idea of land ownership becomes.

Yes, our legal system has come up with answers to these questions, and yes, Monsanto can sue you if their patented corn grows on your property, but to me, it is at odds with the rules of the natural world. Yes, we can work land, love land, exist on land. But the idea that we own it is, to me, far-fetched.

We lease it, briefly, as we lease the atoms and energy that temporarily give us human form, and as we lease the water that today resides in our cells but yesterday was a river and tomorrow will be a rainstorm. As Chief Seattle famously said, “We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.”

If you’re thinking by now that I’m off my rocker, that the legal system has come up with an answer to every single question I’ve posed (and it has), I offer you living evidence of the alternative.

Look at Red Lake. In 1889 the Reservation avoided allotment and the loss of tribal land by putting the whole of the reservation in trust. In line with the Indigenous belief of belonging to rather than owning the land, the tribe collectively holds the 806,000 acres of Red Lake and the precious freshwater of Upper and Lower Red Lake for all band members.

It is a place where an average family can have a house that backs pristine lake property, land that when commodified is normally snapped up by resorts and restaurants. There are still land assignments and private homes, but there is an underlying understanding: the land is not mine or yours, but ours.

Be certain, I am not petitioning for an overhaul of property law in the U.S., a proposition so time-consuming it seems hardly worth it. But perhaps we can at least challenge, mentally, the systems that seem inevitable but are in fact only one way of doing things, and consider that our way is not the only way.

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The birds will continue to migrate over our invisible human borders and, if we take care of it, the water will continue to run underground in the veins of the Earth that we cannot see but indisputably rely upon.

Originally from Phoenix, Ariz., Rachel Beglin now resides in Bemidji. She is a former Peace Corps Volunteer, sustainability advocate, gardener, writer and coffee enthusiast. She can be reached at beglinr@gmail.com.

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