Thursday, August 22, 2013

Telling The Story Of Our Common Wealth

In his essay "Common Wealth," Scott Russell Sanders quotes Jean-Jacques Rousseau:
"The first man who, having enclosed a piece of land, thought of saying 'this is mine' and found people simple enough to believe him, was the first founder of civil society."  (A Conservationist Manifesto. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009. p. 26)
Sanders knows that's too simple a story to tell of all civil society, but he also knows that there's a grain of truth in it: even if it isn't what happened in some imagined historical past, we see something like it played out in front of us all the time when individuals and corporations land sweet deals to purchase rights to something that until then was held as common property.  It happens everywhere.

And it is, for many of us, the story of our childhood Manifest Destiny dreams, stories we read and watched with delight, of finding long-forgotten buried treasure, unclaimed land, undiscovered islands and continents and planets.  It is the story of crude Texas tea (oil, that is) that comes bubblin' up through the ground, of gold nuggets sitting unclaimed on riverbeds. 

One of my favorite stories - one that I read as a boy and have written about as an adult - is Tolkien's The Hobbit. It's a classic treasure-hunt, a story of a far-off mountain of gold and gems held by a dragon that has no right to sleep on its bejeweled bed.  Bilbo Baggins is drawn into an adventure that chooses him, along with dwarves whose desire to regain their treasure overshadows any willingness to share it with others, even in a blasted and impoverished land.  My friends and I dreamed of such adventures when we were young; and the childhood dreams do not vanish so much as they grow.  Which of us does not from time to time dream of suddenly striking it rich?


I often wonder why it is that "striking it rich" holds such appeal for us.  We are unreflective people, all of us.  We know what happens to the rich.  We have read the story of King Midas, and of Lazarus and Dives, and of Lindsay Lohan.  We know what becomes of those who do not have work, or who do not need work.  We know what comes of those for whom money matters more than people, because they have become infected with the fact that money can be used to get people to do many things, even if it cannot make them do the best things.

So we settle for second best, as long as we can have second best as often as we want it.


Once this place was open grassland for hundreds of miles.  Fencelines crisscross the prairie now, etching lines across fields and defining them.  In late October, as I walk the prairie miles, I step over barbed wire as I have been taught, laying down my shotgun on the other side then crossing over before picking it up again.  Sometimes I don't see the wire until it strikes my thigh in tall grass. Sometimes it is the barb that strikes me, piercing even my heavy chaps, if I walk too fast.

It's not all bad, this barbed wire.  Where farmers put wire, they don't plow or mow.  The grass grows unchecked, and falls, and grows again.  While the soil of the fields washes away, the fenceline grows taller, a guard against erosion, a tiny ark in which small animals find refuge from machines. It marks private land, or private use of land, but the boundary becomes a place of common life.  It is, I suppose, a metaphor: without the hedge of common concern, private property vanishes. 


Thoreau once said that you may own the land, but the landscape belongs to all of us.  The view is, in Sanders' words, common wealth.

As it turns out, we hold quite a lot in common, in our common wealth:  Air, water, sunlight, the view, literature, history, languages, rivers, parks, tradition, culture and custom, a past and a future, the very ideas that shape us.  Laws, constitutions, rights.  The story we tell of our nation.  Education.  Genetics.  Health.  Knowledge.

Obviously some of the things we own are our possession.  Some are ours to steward.  Some represent our unique responsibility.

Sanders' point is one that I've made a few times on this blog: we need good laws, but we also need to become good people; and one important part of becoming a people is telling the story of what it means to be that people.  

The story of our people is no longer told by poets and prophets.  We have no Moses, no Homer, at least not yet.  Our story is told piecemeal, in increments.  We tell it by the habits we form as a culture.  You become the person you act like every day.  The story that will be told of your life will include some exceptional events, perhaps, but in all likelihood your "exceptional" behavior will emerge not as an exception but as the culmination of other smaller but similar decisions.  This is why athletes and firefighters and musicians all train themselves, so that their bodies will know what to do in the decisive moment.

So it is with a nation, with a people, and with our species.  The story that will be told of us is one we are writing right now, one political decision at a time, one television advertisement at a time, one credit-card purchase at a time.

"It is not your job to finish the work, but you are not free to walk away from it."  (Talmud, Pirke Avot, 2.21)

It's not easy to see what our decisions will lead to, and no doubt the results will be mixed: barbed wire stops the bison from migrating, but it also stops the combine harvester and the plow.  But our inability to see the end does not free us from taking the next step on the journey.

Wherever we erect fences, or pull them down, let it be said of us that we did so because we intended the best for our common wealth, and not just because we longed to turn all things we touched to gold for our private gain.  Love, and virtue, do not hope for second best.

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