Stolen Land for Sale
Greetings Friends and Neighbors,
This Farm property, Goose Landing—the old Shermerhorn Farm—was transacted for $475K one month ago. Talking about money and property is like picking a glowing ember from the fire with your bare hands and passing it around the circle of friends and family gathered there with you. There is a good chance you’ll get burned, or burn someone you care about. And so we talk about these things indirectly, and mostly employ specialists to handle the dangerous stuff, to transact them and move them around, to keep and tend the fire that we rely on for warmth. Here is a sample of the ritual language from the title transfer documents:
This Indenture….Witnesseth that the party of the first part, in consideration of lawful money of the United States and other good and valuable consideration paid by the party of the second part, does hereby grant and release unto the parties of the second part, and assigns forever…All that certain farm, piece of parcel of land…described and bounded as follows, to wit: Being a part of lands granted to Matthew Adgate by Patent from the State of New York…
The title for this Farm had been passed down in the same family since the end of the Revolutionary War, when it was granted to Matthew Adgate by the State of New York as a 1436-acre Patent.
Unceded First Nations home land became this private property on a specific day in 17??.
Henry Schermerhorn’s father, Giles, married Caroline Adgate sometime between 1932 and 1958, ushering in the change of name. Are the words profiting from stolen land helpful in understanding what happened when the title transferred from the Adgate/Schermerhorn family around the long Oak table at the lawyer’s office last month? How do you steal something that was formerly not knowable as property, a place that belonged to everyone and no one at once? Or, perhaps more accurately:
How do you go about stealing a place to whom many humans and non-humans belonged, a place that was their shared home?
The place itself did not change in character on the day that patent was conveyed. What changed was the mental construct by which one could imagine how to be in relationship with this sandy, windswept hilltop. The mental construct that gave birth to our capacity to consume places as commodities. The consequence of this capacity upon what we call “Nature” has been well documented. Today, I am more interested in contending with the consequence of this mental construct is upon us, the humans who get to do the owning.
I’ve picked up a hot coal, and so I’m going to keep it moving by jumping into some stories. If the following paragraphs seem to lurch suddenly from one hand to another, imagine that hot coal, how it will burn you if it stays too long in one place. Lewis Hyde writes eloquently in his book, The Gift:
The desire to consume is a kind of lust. We long to have the world flow through us like air or food. We are thirsty and hungry for something that can only be carried inside bodies. But consumer goods merely bait this lust, they do not satisfy it. The consumer of commodities is invited to a meal with passion, a consumption that leads to neither satiation or fire. He is a stranger seduced into feeding on the drippings of someone else’s capital without benefit of its inner nourishment, and he is hungry at the end of the meal, depressed and weary as we all feel when lust has dragged us from the house and led us to nothing. (p. 12)
Heavy, wet Spring Snow arrives silently in the night, clinging to every twig and bending the world low. Clinging to our attention, drawing us out through the window glass, away from our endless lists of exclusively-human concerns, towards the ground. Farmers used to call this Spring Snow “poor man’s fertilizer” because of the way grows Grass. On the phone yesterday with a farmer friend named Tim, I learn that fertilizer prices have more than doubled since this time last year. Perhaps this morning’s Snow lands on the ground like the hooves of Santa’s Reindeer. If the grass doesn’t grow, Tim’s 300 cows will not be fed. Cows care little with for the roiling tumult of the market. They cultivate other forms of more direct relationship—with Soil and Rain, with Sunlight-become-Grass-sugar. They wield their hunger differently in the world than we do. I ask Tim how his family’s Farm will make it through this year, with diesel over $5/gallon. He says that his milk pay price is high right now, second highest he’s seen in his lifetime. That should carry them through this year, but it’s next year he’s worried about. I have written more than once about my relationship with Tim and his family, whose highly mechanized methods of raising cows stood in stark relief to our scything crew making hay by hand in a field that Tim’s family had leased for decades and was certainly loath to give up when we arrived in town. There are many reasons they could have begrudged the work of Brush Brook Community Farm—attempting to return land to commons by growing food that was then offered as a gift to anyone who was hungry for any reason. And yet I learned more about neighborliness from the Taft Family than from anyone else in that town. And neighborliness is just a fancy word for the sense of community that has recently been added to the endangered species list.
There’s an old story that comes to mind as we contend with our relationship to private property and community, scarcity and generosity. First written down by the Grimm brothers, the oral folk story called “The Ungrateful Son” is reprinted by Hyde in The Gift:
Once a man and his wife were sitting outside the front door with a roast chicken before them which they were going to eat between them. Then the man saw his old father coming along and hid it, for he begrudged him any of it. The old man came, had a drink, and went away. Now the son was about to put the roast chicken back out on the table, but when he reached for it, it had turned into a big toad that jumped in his face and stayed there and didn’t go away again. And if anybody tried to take it away, it would give them a poisonous look, as if about to jump in their faces, so that no one dared touch it. And the ungrateful son had to feed the toad every day, otherwise it would eat part of his face. And thus he went ceaselessly hither and yon about in the world. (The Grimms’ German Folk Tales, 1960, p. 507)
If you don’t feed the poisonous toad every day, it will take a bit out of your face. Does it sound at all like the market economy and its rising prices—including its skyrocketing land values?
Brush Brook Community Farm owned no land, and that stance in the neighborhood inspired to the work, alongside the generous writing of authors like Lewis Hyde. But our on-the-ground work of trying to re-establish neighborhood gift exchange drew guidance mostly from conversations with the old-timers who remembered the town just a generation or two ago, when much of the local economy amounted to a non-monetary web of shared childcare, un-tracked favors, lends and borrows—the mutual indebtedness that mark a living community, or a village. There was even an antique expression to denote goodwill passing back and forth. “Much obliged,” one of the parties would say to acknowledge the neighborly condition of residual responsibility, of shared life. These older folks in town remembered a time when the boundaries between “mine” and “yours” were less sharp, and they mourned what had been abandoned. And yet they had lived their entire lives firmly within the mental construct of private property we are talking about. So perhaps the cultural consequence of private land ownership accumulates over time, eroding communities steadily, generationally, and deposits those rich mineral sediments as fuel for the growing economy, where under pressure they harden into a shell around each family and then around each individual person. A shell within which we accumulate the security we’ve been told we need to survive.
So if the overlay of the mental construct of private property on this specific patch of hilltop ground is only a couple of hundred years old and has contributed to the erosion of much of what used to bring joy and meaning to being alive—a felt sense of belonging to a living community—can’t we just decide to shrug it off? If it isn’t natural or native to the place, shouldn’t we be able to stop seeing the land as a commodity? Is it possible to own land and actively work towards relationships of repair, towards the restoration of the commons, towards that slippery word community? These are some of the questions that will animate the nascent work at Goose Landing, and we are prepared for the answers to all of these questions to be no. The drug may be too powerful.
I can’t stop thinking about that phone conversation yesterday with my old neighbor Tim. In case you can’t tell how fond I am of the Tafts, I’ll offer one more story. I distinctly remember the day I went up there to talk with Tim and his father Bruce about taking over the lease on the other half of the field we had begun grazing the season prior, a field in the center of town adjacent to the Elementary School. The field’s owners longed for their land to engage the community in different ways, but they said that it would be best for me to go talk with the Tafts directly. The Tafts grow crops on most of the open land in town, but own little of it, relying instead on leases to secure the acreage that feed their Cows. As a new arrival, this was a tough way to begin a relationship with people so long-established in the town. Over the months and years following that meeting, in which they said they could make do without the 4-acre field, I did my best to remember to drop gifts off at their house, mostly Bread and Soup during their big harvest pushes. Fast forward four years. We’ve just mowed half that very same field by hand, amounting to nearly one hundred person-hours. The hay is dry and we have a third of it baled as Storm Clouds gather in the Western Sky. Our baler breaks down, fatally. Tim and his father Bruce have been baling hay just down the road, and so I run down there to ask for a huge favor. Otherwise, our hay will be lost to rain. Tim says that his father’s already taken the baler back to the home farm but he’ll head there and see what he can do. “No promises,” he says. Fifteen minutes later I see Bruce driving the baler into the field. He hasn’t driven onto this field since they lost the lease on it, but he surely remembers every dip and rise. Bruce gets almost all of it baled before the sky opens up, his cue to get the baler under cover. Two days later I head up to their place to settle up with Tim for the baling, and to my great surprise he doesn’t want me to pay him.
Living and working alongside the Tafts for the past four years I learned a lot. Not only about community, but also about what it looks like to do the work that needs doing until its done. The precision and timeliness with which they cultivate their fields results in some long days and short nights, and yet they somehow found enough time to extend repeated favors in our direction. Their keen management makes me trust that if any farm of their size can survive this current market gauntlet, it will be theirs. If they don’t survive, however, it won’t be for lack of hard work and commitment. And so my phone conversation with Tim sits heavily today. I can feel my anger rising that the people who drink the Milk produced by that Farm—many thousands of them who buy anonymous jugs at grocery stores across New England—will sit by and allow the market to have its way with such kind people as my neighbors. Now expand the term neighbor to include Cows, Soil, Forest, Blue Jay, Beaver, River, Winds and Weathers and quickly there is so much to be angry about that the heart can’t hold it all. Numbness seems to make sense as a survival strategy under such conditions. But perhaps numbness is not the only option. Anger has an older, more mature sibling who goes by the name Grief. And Grief seems to have some make-up work to do in the world these days.
It’s still snowing outside the window, big lazy flakes covering new Spring Grass with a thick white blanket. Just yesterday two dozen Lambs frolicked there in the Sun while their worried mothers grazed diligently, ravenous from their work of lactation. I walked the Flock back into the Barn last evening—a chaotic and noisy affair with so many young lambs. They quiet down once family groups re-unite and the babes find their way to the waiting teat. The electric net fences within which they grazed yesterday are now pushed to the ground by the heavy Snow. A proper Snow Day in late April. The world is full of joyful surprises.
That hot coal that started the conversation about money, property, stolen land, and the market has cooled now, and I’ll throw it back into the fire to heat up until next week, when I will ask a dear friend to pick it back up and toss it in the air a few times.
With great care,