Historically, the Commons straddles the border between private space and unmanaged wilderness. Last week, we looked at the history of the English Commons via a passage from Lewis Hyde's fine book Common as Air. (If you missed it, go here. The text is quoted in the picture captions; run your cursor over the images to read it.) Today, I'd like to dig a little deeper into the subject with the help of Gary Snyder, Jay Griffiths, and George Monbiot.
"There is a well-documented history of the commons in relation to the village economies of Europe and England," writers Synder in his influential book The Practice of the Wild. "In England from the time of the Norman Conquest the enfeoffed knights and overlords began to gain control over many local commons. Legislations (the Statute of Merton, 1235) came to their support. From the 15th century on the landlord class, working with urban mercantile guilds and government offices, increasingly fenced off village-held land and turned it over to private interests. The enclosure movement was backed by big wool corporations, who found profit from sheep to be much greater than that of farming. The wool business, with its exports to the Continent, was an early agribusiness that had a destructive effect on the soils and dislodged peasants. The arguments for enclosure in England -- efficiency, higher production -- ignored social and ecological effects and served to cripple the sustainable agriculture of some districts.
" The enclosure movement was stepped up again in the 18th century," Snyder continues; "between 1709 and 1869 almost five million acres were transferred to private ownership, one acre in every seven. After 1869 there was a sudden reversal of sentiment called the 'open space movement' which ultimately halted enclosures and managed to preserve, via a spectacular lawsuit against the lords of fourteen manors, the Epping Forest.
"Karl Polyani says that the enclosures of the 18th century created a population of rural homeless who were forced in their desperation to become the world's first industrial working class. The enclosures were tragic both for the human community and for natural ecosystems. The fact that England now has the least forest and wildlife of all the nations of Europe has much to do with the enclosures. The takeover of common lands on the European plain also began about 500 years ago, but one-third of Europe is still not privatized. A survival of commons practices in Swedish law allows anyone to enter private farmland to pick berries or mushrooms, to cross on foot, and to camp out of sight of the house....The environmental history of Europe and Asia seems to indicate that the best management of commons land was that which was locally based. The ancient severe and often irreversible deforestation of the Mediterranean Basin was an extreme case of the misuse of the commons by forces that had taken its management away from regional villages."
In Kith, her fine book on the cultural history of childhood, Jay Griffiths gives us a more personal view of the Enclosure of the Commons through the eyes of the great 18th century nature poet John Clare, whose heart (and mental health) were broken by the loss of lands he'd roamed as a child in Helpston, Northamptonshire:
"Born in 1793 to a sense of freedom as unenclosed as 'nature's wide and common sky,' John Clare knew that the open air was his to breathe, the open water his to drink and the open land, as far as his knowledge of it extended, his to wander, and he began to write poetry of such lucid openness that it can best be described as light: his poems are translucent to nature, which shines through his work like May sunlight through beech leaves. Clare writes of the land as if he were a belonging of the land, as if it owned him, which is an idea one hears often in indigenous communities. His childhood belonged to that land and to its creatures; he knew them all and felt known in turn. One day, Clare writes, he wandered and rambled 'til I got out of my knowledge when the very wildflowers and birds seemed to forget me.'
"And then, to his utter anguish, came the Enclosures, the acts of cruelty by which the common land was fenced off by the wealthy and privatized for the profit of the few. The Enclosures threw the peasantry into that acute poverty which would scar Clare's own life and mind so deeply."
"Between 1809 and 1820," George Monbiot explains (in an essay on Clare published in 2012), "acts of enclosure granted the local landowners permission to fence the fields, the heaths and woods, excluding the people who had worked and played in them. Almost everything Clare loved was torn away. The ancient trees were felled, the scrub and furze were cleared, the rivers were canalized, the marshes drained, the natural curves of the land straightened and squared. Farming became more profitable, but many of the people of Helpston -- especially those who depended on the commons for their survival -- were deprived of their living. The places in which the people held their ceremonies and celebrated the passing of the seasons were fenced off. The community, like the land, was parcelled up, rationalized, atomized. I have watched the same process breaking up the Maasai of east Africa.
"Clare documents both the destruction of place and people and the gradual collapse of his own state of mind.
Inclosure came and trampled on the grave
Of labour's rights and left the poor a slave …
And birds and trees and flowers without a name
I sighed when lawless law's enclosure came.
"As Jonathan Bate records in his magnificent biography, there were several possible causes of the 'madness' that had Clare removed to an asylum in 1837: bipolar disorder, a blow to the head, malaria (then a common complaint on the edge of the fens). But it seems to me that a contributing factor must have been the loss of almost all he knew and loved. His work is a remarkable document of life before and after social and environmental collapse, and the anomie that resulted.
"What Clare suffered was the fate of indigenous peoples torn from their land and belonging everywhere. His identity crisis, descent into mental agony and alcohol abuse, are familiar blights in reservations and outback shanties the world over.
"His loss was surely enough to drive almost anyone mad; our loss surely enough to drive us all a little mad. For while economic rationalization and growth have helped to deliver us from a remarkable range of ills, they have also torn us from our moorings, atomized and alienated us, sent us out, each in his different way, to seek our own identities. We have gained unimagined freedoms, we have lost unimagined freedoms -- a paradox Clare explores in his wonderful poem The Fallen Elm."
"The Acts of Enclosure," Griffiths concurs, "signified the enclosure and destructive of [Clare's] spirit as well as the land. Winged for the simplest of raptures, he now limped at the fences erected by the 'little minds' of the wealthy.
"His own psyche had been as open as the footpaths of his childhood, paths which wend their way 'As sweet as morning leading night astray' but with sudden brutality. 'These paths are now stopt -- ' and
Each little tyrant with his little sign
Shows, where man claims, earth glows no more divine.' "
Words: The text today comes from Gary Snyder's seminal essay "The Place, the Region, and the Commons," published in his essay collection The Practice of the Wild (North Point Press, 1990); from "The Patron Saint of Childhood" in Jay Griffith's book Kith: The Riddle of the Childscape (Hamilton Hamish, 2013); and from George Monbiot's essay "John Clare, the poet of the environmental crisis -- 200 years ago," published in The Guardian (July 9, 2012). All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: The photographs are of Tilly roaming Padley and Nattadon Commons in the edge-lands of our village. The painting is a possible portrait of John Clare, artist unknown, circa 1840.