Meditation on Land “Ownership”

June 1, 2024

By Sam Brown, Low-Impact Forestry Steering Committee Member

I am a Maine land “owner,” according to existing U.S. law. I began buying land when I inherited some money from my family in the early 1970s and have acquired title to more as the years went by. My ancestors were colonial immigrants from Scotland and Ireland, who moved to Wisconsin and Minnesota in the mid-1800s to saw lumber from the white pine forests there and succeeded in converting those trees into money. Those forests were the homelands of the Chippewa, the Ho-Chunk and other Indigenous people before the Europeans came. I am not sure how my ancestors treated those people. I assume my ancestors accepted the premise of Manifest Destiny, the settler social ethic of their times, to rationalize their money-making roles. My ancestors passed this converted forest wealth on to their descendants, as was expected. Even though Indigenous people had been living in relationship with the land for thousands of years, and thus stewarding the vast areas of large healthy trees valuable (it turns out) for making lumber, I am not aware that they received any of this value from my family.

forest illustration

I used my inherited portion of this wealth to buy acres of land in Maine. The land I bought is part of the homeland of Abenaki people, who were forcibly removed from Maine to Quebec about 400 years ago by the British, and these homelands were taken by European settlers for little or no recompense, again according to the settler’s social ethic of the times.

The social ethic of our times is inexorably changing. We’re recognizing the injustices of the past, how those injustices manifest themselves in current society, and what to do about finally addressing them. Everything is inescapably related.

Changing our culture, and specifically its relationship to land stewardship, is why I am involved with MOFGA. I joined MOFGA in the ‘80s because, as a community, we seem to recognize this necessity of being in relationship with the earth. I have admired MOFGA’s evolution over the decades as more and more people make this recognition and seek to find ways to implement changes that use truth, character, example and, most importantly, unity to accomplish amazing feats (such as the Common Ground Country Fair).

As I age, I am not sure what to do with the land I have acquired. For many years I have tried to improve the size, age and health of trees and plants in my forest by encouraging some and discouraging others. The process of discouragement means, in most cases, removing unwanted stems from the sunlight to give more room for the encouraged ones. Sometimes there’s enough value in the cut tree to make the work of getting it out of the woods worthwhile, but lots of times, especially in young stands, there’s not. The world’s current market system does not yet value most of the biological attributes of plants, therefore a tree only has monetary value after it’s cut down. Spending the day among living creatures has certain benefits that are also, usually, unnoticed or undervalued by our current economically-centered culture.

“Ownership” of land is a European idea. Control is a colonial imperative and is based on fear of scarcity: that there’s not enough to go around. It’s about the power to dominate instead of cooperate. Being in a relationship with the earth and all its creatures is different than being in charge. Relearning how to do that is a struggle for me because the culture I grew up in trained me to believe that being in charge is the most important thing.

Since time immemorial, Wabanaki people have lived in relationship with all their surrounding flora and fauna. They observed and respected how the natural system worked and kept within its limits — and this ethos continues today. We humans are part of, not outside of, the world around us.

A few years ago, I was privileged to join a few MOFGA staff and board members in participating in the ongoing First Light Learning Journey, which is a collective of non-native land-oriented organizations and agencies working to “expand Wabanaki access and stewardship of land toward a future of nature and people thriving in Wabanaki homelands.” This mission is challenging because it strikes at the heart of control-based systems firmly in place in Maine, and beyond, since colonialization. I have to constantly remind myself of how these systems influence my unconscious thinking.

Most MOFGA members love our land. It is not a commodity: It’s our home and source of our life and health. We have carefully tended it to our best abilities, striving to improve its fertility and long-term health based on what we’ve learned about ecology and interactions. But now I am beginning to understand that my own underlying attitude is still one based on control instead of cooperation. In other words, I want to somehow ensure that my concept of land stewardship is continued on this piece of earth after I’m gone instead of trusting that future dwellers will make their own good decisions based on their own exigencies. (Even using the word “stewardship” implies a kind of control, no matter how benign.)

Are there other ways to imagine people living with the land instead of owning it? In my view, it’s past time for Wabanaki influences to be reestablished as we consider how to answer that question. MOFGA is not a land trust, but in 2022, it adopted a Land Acceptance Policy in response to requests from landowning members hoping to find a suitable organization to continue their loving stewardship. The policy of “partnering with and transferring property to a mission-aligned land trust, tribe, or other entity committed to land justice and land access for Indigenous people and farmers who have faced generations of disinvestment“ is a tangible step towards a healing vision. Bomazeen Land Trust is a Wabanaki organization that has emerged recently to partner in this transformational journey.

I sense we are in the midst of a spiritual maturing as a species on the planet, and a new form of stewardship is emerging from the past few centuries of self-interested “ownership” and scarcity to inevitable cooperation and abundance. We need to look at the moral, ethical, environmental and social implications of our behaviors and reflect on how spiritual principles can help us overcome the self-interests that have allowed all the crises we face to deepen. It’s a messy transition, and I am glad to belong and contribute to, and benefit from, the MOFGA community’s own evolution.

Sam Brown is a forester living in Cambridge, Maine, who oddly loves to help park cars at the Common Ground Country Fair.

This article was originally published in the summer 2024 issue of The Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener. Browse the archives for free content on organic agriculture and sustainable living practices. Subscribe to the publication by becoming a member!

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