What Does It Mean to Own Land?

I was on an online forum discussing ownership of property and how to manage the land. One participant, perhaps seeing this as a moment to remind me of my place in the ecosystem (and not knowing I revere Leopold), took the position that one cannot own land; that we are merely stewards of the land. 

In a sense, that’s true.  But whether I choose to nurture or exploit this pack of dirt is a matter of ethics; whether someone else believes I have treated the land well or poorly is determined by that individual’s personal philosophy.  And it wasn’t my point.

I can most definitely own land. I recognize that my ownership is fictive, species-specific, and overlaps uncounted other claims of ownership. The songbird claims territory, but only others of its species care. You can have several different species proclaiming dominion over the same tree, but ignoring each other.  Other critters, such as the white-tailed bucks who are pawing the ground and rubbing off the bark of saplings, have home ranges, but their defensible territory seems to be located within sensory distance of wherever they happen to be when another buck is in the vicinity.

I pounded in a stake to mark the invisible line through the woods. If I chose, there would be consequences for any human walking across that invisible boundary. On the other hand, a flock of turkeys can meander back and forth across the same line without any consequence.

So, in the human world, my claim to this acreage is power – the power to protect 20 acres from being turned into a housing development or an unofficial dump. But yes, that power lasts only as long as I maintain my claim– by guarding the border and paying the taxes. When I die, it’s out of my hands. But I can protect it while I’m here.  In theory, I can sign an easement to lock away the legal rights to turn the hardwood forest into anything other than a hardwood forest, but that protection is still a piece of paper, and in jeopardy if someone wants to cut or build badly enough.

But for now I am the owner of record, duly recorded in a deed book in the courthouse. And of course, my claim of ownership is irrelevant to the animals that dwell in the same space. But I feel better knowing that the land that has suffered two centuries of abuse can rest for a decade or three.

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