We’ve been having some landscaping done on our front yard this spring that has quite unexpectedly become a communal project as I will describe below. In contrast to this being solely a personal endeavor, the whole process has thus caused me to give more thought to what it means to “own" property, to have the right to cut down trees and manipulate nature. We hope in our instance that the landscaping will ultimately provide more beauty and function to the space. But there is always a questionable and often negative aspect to what it means to “own” the earth.
Suquamish and Duwamish tribal chief, Chief Seattle (or more accurately, Chief Sealth) spoke perhaps on behalf of most aboriginal people (and I would like to think all of us) when he said: “Man does not weave the web of life. He is merely a strand of it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself. All things share the same breath - the beast, the tree, the man - and the air shares its spirit with all the life it supports. Take only memories; leave nothing but footprints.” In my own theology, agreeing with Chief Sealth, I try to profoundly honor the sacred interconnectedness and interdependency of all of creation of which I am only a humble part.
Alternatively we have the European model of property, of ownership and possession, most especially the land, but, of course, it has extended to “owning” people during slavery and various forms of general ownership today we call wealth. And under capitalism there are incentives to accumulate more and more personal and corporate ownership of property and wealth as a means of establishing political and social control.
In this post-Covid, liminal time of possible radical change I continue to be intrigued by the alternative possibilities for more communal life, more co-operatives, more ways to counter our near obsession with individualized possessions under the myth that a successful life is one in which I we have been mostly self-sufficient and have kept our social dependencies minimal. Many my age at least flirted in the 70’s especially with an alternative lifestyle of self-sufficiency - growing our own food, working in a small alternative business, building our own homes, making our own clothes, etc. But most of these dreams never materialized or fizzled into the more dependable and comfortable world of mortgages and paid jobs. But these dreams continue as embers with various exploratory models, and I am pleased to note places where a communal culture has survived and even thrived, like the Bruderhof* (see below) and Scandinavian models of socialism.
So I am particularly gratified that the landscaping project in our front yard has taken a kind of communal life and doesn’t feel at all like ours alone. From the inception the idea was it would be a “Quaker Garden” by the woman who designed it, and the community of landscapers and wall builders who stayed with us while they did the work, and the curious observers who have stopped by with food and support, has now made it truly a “commons,” and I will never consider that I “own” it. The result is that we have a beautifully landscaped garden with a surrounding rock wall, pathed areas defined further with various boulders - and plantings will follow - and it will “belong” to all who created and enjoy it. Even before it is finished neighbors and fiends have been drawn to stop and offer the space their “blessing."
So as I view our little “commons" I keep trying to imagine a whole alternative community and culture that has a similar “feel” of a sense of shared beauty and joy. Our socialist-phobic, capitalist culture makes it more difficult to envision much grand foreseeable progress in establishing many alternative co-operative communities, but I truly believe if we want to create a sustainable future, it can only be possible through deeper and more pervasive commitments to co-operation and a shared sense of property and “possessions” however that may evolve.
Here on Whidbey I do see a movement in this direction with land trusts and various efforts to share responsibility for those who need food assistance, medical and transportation support (we have a free bus system), and an overall recognition that mutual support is such a satisfying way to live together when we are committed to it. Truly, “another life is possible.”
* I have especially been interested in the success story of the Bruderhof (www.bruderhof.com) with their 100 years of building and sustaining intentional communities with a membership of 3000 people in 29 settlements on 5 continents. They just published a beautiful publication, Another Life Is Possible, in which they chronicle what has worked and hasn’t during their sustained experiment in which they hold their possessions in common and staunchly commit to pacifism and nonviolence. They believe peace is made more possible when we eliminate the need for competitive wages and reliance on shared possessions, and I think this is true. (Interesting, of course, is that the Christian community in Acts and the early Quakers also shared possessions and became pacifists!) It’s clear their Christian-based communal life is demanding and people come and go as they adjust to it, but for those for whom the security, warmth and well-being of a shared life, whatever the sacrifices to individual freedom, also provides a deeply fulfilling, peace-loving way to live. I wonder if I would have been successful as a Bruderhof member.
This we know: the earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the earth. All things are connected like the blood that unites us all. Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.
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