Enclosure of the Commons: the borders that keep us out

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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.

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" 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."

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The Practice of the Wild by Gary Snyder

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."

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Kith by Jay Griffiths

"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.

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"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.

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"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."

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"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.

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"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.' "

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Kith by Jay Griffiths

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Artist unknown, circa 1840Words: 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.


On the border

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Over these last months, I've been thinking a lot about edge-lands, borders, and liminal spaces, about myths of thresholds, transitions, and transformations. It's a reverie inspired by a number of different things: reading Kith by Jay Griffiths, Common Ground by Rob Cowen, Common as Air by Lewis Hyde, Meadowland by John Lewis-Stempel, and John Hupton's novel The Ballad of John Clare; re-visiting essays by Barry Lopez, Scott Sanders, Sergio Troncoso, Alan Garner and others; and working on a new story for the "Borderland" series -- all while moving through the amiguous edge-world of illness and disability.

This week's posts will focus on edge-lands and borders: physical, spiritual, and metaphorical. I'm not entirely sure where this journey is going to take us; we won't known until we've arrived. But first we must find our way through the borderlands: passing from highways to holloways and street lamps to starlight...wading through "rivers as red as blood" into Faerie...stepping through wardrobes to Narnia and crossing the hilltops to Shangri-La...although we might find the twilight lands on the borders themselves are the most interesting of all.

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In his book Common Ground (which I highly recommend), Rob Cowen turns a naturalist's eye to a small patch of woodlands and fields usually dismissed as unremarkable: the neglected scrublands on the border of his Yorkshire town, where the regimented streets of housing peter out and the countryside begins.

"For many years," he tells us, "I had sought out and written about the wilderness encountered in more expected places: the rarefied national park, the desolate moor, the distant mountaintop, the sweeping coast, but I'd forgotten there is something deeper about the blurry space surrounding us where humans and nature meet. One word stayed with me: layers. Even before I'd started the process of investigating it in any depth I was aware that this edge-land was a crossing point where countless histories lay buried. There were its human narratives, the records of our long tangling with the land -- colonisation, hunting, farming, war, industry and urbanisation -- but these were only part of the story. Emeshed in every urban edge is also the continuous narrative of the subsistence of nature, pragmatic and prosaic, the million things that survive and even thrive in the fringes. This little patch of common ground was precisely that: common. And all the richer for it."

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In his provocative essay "The Trouble With Wilderness," William Cronan argues against wilderness preservation, focusing instead on landscape that is not remote and dramatic, nor pristine and untouched by the human hand. While I disagree with Cronan's essay as a whole, I was struck by the following passage:

"When we visit a wilderness area, " he writes, "we find ourselves surrounded by plants and animals and physical landscapes whose otherness compels our attention. In forcing us to acknowledge that they are not of our making, that they have little need or no need of our continued existence, they recall for us a creation far greater than our own. In the wilderness, we need no reminder that a tree has its own reasons for being, quite apart from us. The same is less true in the gardens we plant and tend ourselves: there it is far easier to forget the otherness of the tree. Indeed, one could almost measure wilderness by the extent to which our recognition of its otherness requires a conscious, willed act on our part. The romantic legacy means that wilderness is more a state of mind than a fact of nature, and the state of mind that today most defines wilderness is wonder. The striking power of the wild is that wonder in the face of it requires no act of will, but forces itself upon us -- as an expression of the nonhuman world experienced through the lens of our cultural history -- as proof that ours is not the only presence in the universe.

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"Wilderness gets us into trouble," Cronan continues, "only if we imagine that this experience of wonder and otherness is limited to the remote corners of the planet, or that it somehow depends on pristine landscapes we ourselves do not inhabit. Nothing could be more misleading. The tree in the garden is in reality no less other, no less worthy of our wonder and respect, than the tree in an ancient forest that has never known an ax or saw -- even though the tree in the forest reflects a more intricate web of ecological relationships....Our challenge is to stop thinking of such things according to a set of bipolar moral scales in which the human and nonhuman, the unnatural and the natural, the fallen and unfallen, serve as our conceptual map for understanding and valuing the world. Instead, we need to embrace the full continuum of a natural landscape that is also cultural, in which the city, the suburb, the pastoral and the wild each has its proper place, which we permit ourselves to celebrate without needlessly denigrating the others. We need to honor the Other within and the Other next door as much as we do the exotic Other that lives far away -- a lesson that applies as much to people as it does to (other) natural things."

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To return to Rob Cowen's insightful and beautiful book:

"Once upon a time the edges were the place we knew best," he writes. "Times were hard and spare but the margins around homesteads, villages and towns sustained us. People grazed livestock and collected deadfall for fuel. Access and usage became enshrined as rights and recognised in law. Pigs trotted through trees during 'pannage' -- the acorn season from Michaelmas to Martinmas -- certain types of game were hunted for the table and heather and fern were cut for bedding. Mushrooms, fruits, and berries. Mushrooms, fruits and berries would be foraged and gathered for winter; honey taken from wild beehives; chestnuts hoarded, ground and stored as flour. The fringes provided playgrounds for kids and illicit bedrooms for lovers. Whether consciously or not, these spaces kept us in time and rooted to the rhythms of land and nature. Feet cloyed with clay, we oriented ourselves by rain and sun, day and night, seasons, the slow spinning of stars.

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"Humans are creatures of habit," Cowen continues; "we all still go to the edges to get perspective, to be sustained and reborn. Recreation is still re-creation after a fashion, only now it occurs in largely virtual worlds. Clouds, hyper-real TV shows, 3D films, multiplayer games, online stores and social media networks -- these are today's areas of common ground, the terrains where people meet, work, hunt, play, learn, fall in love even. Ours is a world growing yet shrinking, connected yet isolated, all-knowing but without knowledge. It is one of breadth, shallowness and endless swimming through cyberspace. All is speed and surface. Digging down deeper into an overlooked patch of ground, one that (in a global sense at least) few people will ever know about and even fewer visit, felt like the antithesis to all of this. And it felt vitally important. You see, I still believe in the importance of edges. Lying just beyond our doors and fences, the emeshed borders where human and nature collide are microcosms of our world at large, an extraordinary, exquisite world that is growing closer to nature every day. These spaces reassert a vital truth: nature isn't just some remote mountain or protected park. It is all around us. It is us."

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Common Ground by Rob CowenWords: The passage by Rob Cowen is from the introduction to Common Ground (Hutchinson/Random House, 2015).  The passage by William Cronan is from "The Trouble With Wilderness" (Environmental History, 1995). The passage in the picture captions is from Common as Air: Revolution, Art & Ownership by Lewis Hyde (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 2010) -- run your cursor over the photographs to read it. All rights to these texts are reserved by their authors. Pictures: Our own village, Chagford, still has its public commons, which is widely used and cherished. Meldon Hill, pictured here, and the land just below it are on common ground, with the village beyond nestled in a mix of private and public fields.


The Windigo

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I'd like to end the week with one last passage from Robin Wall Kimmerer's Braiding Sweetgrass -- this time dipping into the myth of the Windigo. I was planning to illustrate this post with Windigo illustrations, but I found them all too scary! So instead: the Devon hills, misty and mysterious in the early morning light, and a furry black protector to scare off any monsters in lurking in the bracken.

"The Windigo is the legendary monster of our Anishinaabe people," writes Kimmerer, "the villain of a tale told on freezing nights in the north woods. You can feel it lurking behind you, a being in the shape of an outsized man, ten feet tall, with frost-white hair hanging from its shaking body. With arms like tree trunks, feet as big as snow-shoes, it travels easily through the blizzards of the hungry time, stalking us. The hideous stench of its carrion breath poisons the clean scent of snow as it pants behind us. Yellow fangs hang from its mouth that is raw where it has chewed off its lips from hunger. Most telling of all, its heart is made of ice....This monster is no bear or howling wolf, no natural beast. Windigos are not born, they are made. The Windigo is a human being who has become a cannibal monster. Its bite will transform victims into cannibals too....It is said that the Windigo will never enter the spirit world but will suffer the eternal pain of need, its essence a hunger that will never be sated. The more a Windigo eats, the more ravenous it becomes. Consumed by consumption, it lays waste to humankind."

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"Traditional upbringing was designed to strengthen self-discipline, to build resistance against the insidious germ of taking too much. The old teachings recognized that Windigo nature is in each of us, so the monster was created in stories, that we might learn why we should recoil from the greedy part of ourselves. This is why Anishinaabe elders like Stewart King remind us always to acknowledge the two faces -- the light and the dark side of life -- in order to understand ourselves. See the dark, recognize its power, but do not feed it.

"The beast has been called an evil spirit that devours mankind. The very word, Windigo, according to Ojibwe scholar Basil Johnston, can be derived from roots meaning 'fat excess' or 'thinking only of oneself.' Writer Steve Pitt states 'a Windigo was a human whose selfishness has overpowered their self-control to the point where satisfaction is no longer possible.'

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"No matter what they call it, Johnston and many other scholars point to the current epidemic of self-destructive practices -- addiction to alcohol, drugs, gambling, technology, and more -- as a sign than Windigo is alive and well. In Ojibwe ethics, Pitt says, 'any overindulgent habit is self-destructive, and self-destruction is Windigo.' And just as Windigo's bite is infectious, we know all too well that self-destruction drags along many more victims -- in our human families as well as in the more-than-human world.

"The native habitat of the Windigo is the north woods, but the range has expanded in the last few centuries. As Johnston suggests, multinational corporations have spawned a new breed of Windigo that insatiably devours the earth's resources 'not for need but for greed.' The footprints are all around us if you know what to look for."

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"We are all complicit," notes Kimmerer. "We've allowed the 'market' to define what we value so that the redefined common good seems to depend on profligate lifestyles that enrich the sellers while impoverishing the soul and the earth. Cautionary Windigo tales arose in a commons-based society where sharing was essential to survival and greed in any individual a danger to the whole. In the old times, individuals who endangered the community by taking too much for themselves were first counseled, then ostracized, and if the greed continued, they were eventually banished. The Windigo myth may have arisen from the remembrance of the banished, doomed to wander hungry and alone, wreaking vengence on those who spurned them. It is a terrible punishment to be banished from the web of reciprocity, with no one to share with you and no one for you to care for.

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"I remember walking a street in Manhattan, where the warm light of a lavish home spilled out onto the sidewalk on a man picking through the garbage for his dinner. Maybe we've all been banished to lonely corners by our obsession with private property. We've accepted banishment even from ourselves when we spend our beautiful, singular lives on making more money, to buy more things that will feed but never satisfy. It is the Windigo way that tricks us into believing that belongings will fill our hunger, when it is belonging that we crave. On a grander scale, too, we seem to be living in an era of Windigo economics of fabricated demand and compulsive overconsumption. What Native peoples once sought to rein in, we are now asked to unleash in a systematic policy of sanctioned greed.

"The fear for me is far greater than just acknowledging the Windigo within. The fear for me is that the world has been turned inside out, the dark side made to seem light. Indulgent self-interest that our people once held to be monstrous is now celebrated as success. We are asked to admire what our people once viewed as unforgiveable. The consumption-driven mind-set masquerades as 'quality of life' but eats us from within. It is as if we've been invited to a feast, but the table is laid with food that nourishes only emptiness, the black hole of the stomach that never fills. We have unleashed a monster."

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Later in her book, Kimmerer discusses how to defeat the Windigo in our midst through the "economy of the commons, wherein resources fundamental to our well-being, like water and land and forests, are commonly held rather than commodified. Properly managed, the commons approach maintains abundance, not scarcity. These contemporary economic alternatives strongly echo the indigenous world view in which the earth exists not as private property, but as a commons to be tended with respect and reciprocity for the benefit of all.

"And yet, while creating an alternative to destructive economic structures is imperative, it is not enough. It is not just changes in policy that we need, but also changes to the heart. Scarcity and plenty are as much qualities of the mind and spirit as they are of the economy. Gratitude plants the seed for abundance.

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"Each of us comes from people who were once indigenous. We can reclaim our membership in the cultures of gratitude that formed our old relationship with the living earth. Gratitude is a powerful antidote to Windigo psychosis. A deep awareness of the gifts of the earth and of each other is medicine. The practice of gratitude lets us hear the badgering of marketers as the stomach grumblings of a Windigo. It celebrates cultures of regenerative reciprocity, where wealth is understood to be having enough to share and riches are counted in mutual beneficial relationships. Besides, it makes us happy."

Indeed.

Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall KimmererThe text above is from Braiding Sweetgrass by Potawatomi author and biologist Robin Wall Kimmerer (Milkweed Editions, 2014), which I highly recommend reading in full. The poem in the picture captions is from Jacklight by Ojibwe poet & novelist Louise Erdrich (Flamingo, 1996), which I also recommend. All rights reserved by the authors.


Archaic values

Bluebells in Nattadon Woods

Wild poppies in Nattadon Wood

''Humans, like other animals, are shaped by the places they inhabit, both individually and collectively. Our bodily rhythms, our moods, cycles of creativity and stillness, even our thoughts are readily engaged and influenced by seasonal patterns in the land. Yet our organic attunement to the local earth is thwarted by our ever-increasing intercourse with our own signs. Transfixed by our technologies, we short-circuit the sensorial reciprocity between our breathing bodies and the bodily terrain. Human awareness folds in upon itself, and the senses – once the crucial site of our engagement with the wild and animate earth – become mere adjuncts of an isolate and abstract mind bent on overcoming an organic reality that now seems disturbingly aloof and arbitrary."

  - David Abram (The Spell of the Sensuous)

Wildflowers in the studio

''I wonder how it is we have come to this place in our society where art and nature are spoke in terms of what is optional, the pastime and concern of the elite?'' - Terry Tempest Williams (Leap)

Tilly in the studio

Tilly in the studio

 ''As a poet I hold the most archaic values on earth...the fertility of the soil, the magic of animals, the power-vision in solitude, the terrifying initiation and rebirth, the love and ecstasy of the dance, the common work of the tribe. I try to hold both history and the wilderness in mind, that my poems may approach the true measure of things and stand against the unbalance and ignorance of our times.''  -  Gary Snyder (The Practice of the Wild)

Practice of the Wild