“Rooting around on riverbanks and mountain slopes, we may be looking for that missing piece, or love, religion and the rest of it – whatever is missing in us – just as we so often are doing in the digging and rooting of sex.”
-Edward Hoagland, "Bears, Bears, Bears," 1973
I own 35 acres on the Atlantic edge of Virginia’s Eastern Shore, my childhood home. The property was originally purchased over thirty years ago by my father. It was then a fallow, frequently flooded soybean field separated from a sprawl of salt marsh and two brackish creeks by a faulty dike. My father’s conscientious stewardship (1) has since turned the acreage into a haven for wildlife and it is today protected by a Nature Conservancy Conservation Easement. In place of an unproductive field, the land now supports a mixed deciduous forest, two pine groves, a shallow water impoundment, and an extensive canal and fortified dike fringing the marsh, as well as some non-landform improvements, including a handsome, if humble bridge, a buried water control system, two hunting/photography blinds and two small docks.
My father refers to the land as “your property” and he relates to me news of recent or ongoing projects when we talk by phone. For example, he'll tell me, "I cut back some overgrown pines on your property this week, Christopher, and I'd like for you to let me know what you think of this surgery when you're next down." Until recently, though, I hadn't contemplated the significance of his appellation. In my estimation, "your property" meant only that I was the legal landowner, committed to paying the modest, annual property tax.
I blame my thoughtlessness on an earlier, biased relationship to the land. Although I spent many days on the property as a child – dove and duck hunting, planting trees, fishing in the canal, reinforcing the dike – I took it for granted. I dismissively referred to the area as "across the road" because the 35 acre parcel was set apart from Heron Hill, my father’s 250 acre farm, by a well-trafficked country thoroughfare. Heron Hill, so called because of the plentiful great blue herons, our family name (reiger is the Dutch and Middle Low German word for heron), and the homestead's relatively high elevation, literally rose above the low-lying, water-logged property "across the road." When my parents sold Heron Hill in the late 1990s, I was surprised that they held on to the marshy nodule, and even more surprised when they deeded it to me.
Fortunately, opinions change and attitudes evolve. Every winter I travel south to the Eastern Shore and, with each passing year, the property becomes more important to me. This is due, in part, to my having lived in New York City for seven years; the restorative powers of the outdoors are more profoundly felt.
View of canal bridge from northeast corner of dike
On my most recent trip, I walked “my property" with a camera. Often an interesting tree or shrub formation provides inspiration for a drawing or painting, and I take a snapshot for future reference. But after a short while, the photography became unimportant. Instead, I inspected animal sign. Three bald areas on the dike betrayed frequent use by white-tailed deer. Bucks displace the topsoil and fallen pine needles when they "scrape," a scent-marking behavior that requires the animal to rub his head and antlers on trees or the ground. I also studied the diggings of a raccoon (or fox) near the canal’s bank, and I spotted a little-used otter slide. The canal, home to a healthy largemouth bass and bluegill population and offering easy access to the marsh, is an inviting residence for a Northern river otter family.
To an outside observer, my activity would have appeared curious. I moved along the dike in a crouch, hopping-and-scurrying as I excitedly looked for further evidence of animal activity. The camera was now slung over my shoulder, and I gave no thought to picture taking. It was a windy morning and various bird calls – snow geese, black ducks, clapper rail, a belted kingfisher – blew to me from the marsh. A group of crows flapped just overhead, fussing about my presence. Thrilled by so much abundance and feeling totally at ease, I remained crouched in one place for a long while, staring at nothing in particular, just listening.
Sometime during this active meditation I lost track of myself. I remember, as if retracing a dream or excavating some buried memory, removing the camera and pawing at the dike. I wasn't looking for anything in particular. It was a purely sensuous experience; I was touching and seeing. And then suddenly I was rolling on the dike’s crest, pine straw clinging to my clothes.
When I "came to," I felt wild-eyed and crazy. I didn't even know where or, more alarmingly, who I was. It took several moments of looking around in mild panic before I recovered my bearings, my sense of self. I’m not sure how long the episode lasted. It was only after I snapped out of the experience that I was able to reflect on what led to my behavior.
I'm still uncertain what prompted it, but I do know this: for the first time, I fully belonged to “my property." For a spell (whether moments or minutes), there was no distinction between me and the rest of it. Afterwards, as is demanded by waking life, the experience was abstracted by reason. Yet something of the connection remains.
On back dike
What happened to me on the dike? Barring a neurodegenerative disease or serious head trauma, most people maintain their sense of self. Indeed, we are individuals, but healthy humans sometimes glimpse their multiplicity. Freud may have been subscribing to Occam’s razor – one should not increase, beyond what is necessary, the number of entities needed to explain any phenomenon - when he proposed that the human psyche is composed of three competing parts: the id, the ego, and the superego. As useful as Freud’s psychoanalytic scheme remains, recent research suggests that he vastly underestimated the number of components.
In a normally functioning brain, distinct, specialized areas, called modules, go about the business of identifying, translating, commanding, and so on, enabling each of us to feel that we are the person, the individual, reflected in the mirror. But as Steven Johnson reminds readers in “Mind Wide Open,” "we can experience the modularity of the brain more directly by taking drugs that throw a monkey wrench into its machinery, causing individual modules to take on a new autonomy (which is why people on drugs often feel as though they hear voices).” The auditory hallucinations, or “voices,” associated with ingestion of psilocybin, LSD, and other psychoactive drugs or substances are not really hallucinations, then. They are only the normally ignored commands, thoughts, and impulses of our multitudinous brain. Drug use, in essence, quiets our inner, censorious interpreter and allows us to eavesdrop on the brain's gabble. Necessarily, acceptance of the many-voiced brain raises difficult questions about the validity of the individual.
But I was sober on the dike that afternoon, and I heard no interior voices. To the contrary, I heard only what was outside me, the crows, the kingfishers, and the wind. Still, I lost all sense of self. I was, for a short time, effectively erased. If my "I" wasn't erased by the inner cacophony, the question remains; what happened to me?
Looking over canal to the shallow water impoundment
In this heyday of advertising for pharmaceutical panaceas, we're well aware of how fragile our mind and body are. Last night, standing up after a workout, I pushed and poked at the muscle of my abdomen and at the fat of my lower back, trying to imagine how the different organs were embraced by the ribcage and lower spine. I swallowed and then burped, involuntarily. What an interesting machine!
Like the mind, the body is an aggregate. In turn, the human body is part of a larger organism, and this radiating expansion continues infinitely. Each of us is an insignificant figure in an unfathomably grand equation. This design may seem terrifying, but it doesn't have to be. Contemplation of that grand equation is nullifying but, metaphysically speaking, there is comfort in nullification. The “me” and "I" are spread out such that everything blends into one moment and body. Everyone accepts that each individual is a fraction of infinity, and as Daniel Matt, a scholar of Jewish mysticism, points out, "since infinity cannot be quantified, no matter how it is divided and subdivided, even a fraction of infinity is infinite." Conscious contemplation of this expansive nullification is the intellectual equivalent of Nirvana, a rational rejection of the individual in the name of the Whole.
With respect to practical environmental and social improvement, though, contemplation does us little good. Much of the world’s population is concerned with day-to-day survival; my First World musings are the product of insulation and relative privilege. Rumination and good intentions do little to alleviate injustice abroad or to stave off another species extinction. Yet my experience on the dike can't accurately be described as contemplative. I was not meditating or concentrating on any question when I lost all sense of self. My experience began, in effect, with an absence of thought that was spontaneous, washing over me as I was “rooting around,” as Hoagland puts it, on the dike.
View of marsh from northeastern corner of dike at Heron's Foot
There is, fortunately, a counterpart to contemplation that offers some explanation for what occurred. In his 1943 landmark work on aesthetic theory, "Art As Experience," John Dewey writes:
"To grasp the sources of aesthetic experience it is...necessary to have recourse to animal life below the human scale. The activities of the fox, the dog, and the thrush may at least stand as reminders and symbols of that unity of experience which we so fractionize when work is labor, and thought withdraws us from the world. The live animal is fully present, all there, in all of its actions: in its wary glances, its sharp sniffings, its abrupt cocking of ears."I'd like to think that my antics on the dike were those of the live animal. The self-conscious human was, like the camera, for a short time forgotten. The resulting realization that I was intimately tied to the land makes sense; the live animal is indivisible from the rest of it. This concept can be described in more concrete terms. For the live animal, conceptions of property as capital aren't applicable. Ownership as we understand it - taxes and fences - is meaningless without the socioeconomic contract; no one can own property if the currency of power, both literal and figurative, isn't supported by all participating players. Many animist cultures, most of them no longer with us, interpreted land and borders in this more equitable way.
To elucidate the Native-American concept of land ownership in his book, "Changes In The Land," environmental historian Bill Cronon distinguishes between natural and civil rights. The Puritan settlers believed in civil ownership, with strict boundary demarcation and control of all rights to resource consumption within a defined area, whereas the Native-Americans understood land as shared, like water. As a result, settlers often believed they were buying land from local tribe leaders while the Native-Americans instead understood the "deal" as a trade for shared hunting and fishing rights. For the Indians, these deals were "more a diplomatic exchange than an economic one." How does one sell land, after all, if no one possesses it to begin with?
A friend birdwatches over the marsh at Heron's Foot
It's difficult to discard cultural mores. The assumptions we are raised with inform us at the most fundamental level, and property accumulation is for Westerners the ultimate measure of self worth. It's curious, then, that it took a temporary erasure, or warping, of self awareness (and, therefore, self assessment) for me to appreciate the land that (on paper) is attached to my name. Indeed, there is a world of difference between ownership and stewardship. The owner is a possessor, a member of a hierarchal system that determines an individual's societal value by calculating the market price of all their accumulated property. The steward is merely a manager, an agent of another. The conscientious landowner does not think of himself as a title holder first. He is a steward working for the land.
As Bill Cronon insists, true wildness is no more; all land will be marked by man, but we can decide what sort of signature we leave. Aldo Leopold, the beloved godfather of modern conservation, was among the first to write at length of the paradoxical, but vital relationship between the steward and the land. Leopold was a Romantic pragmatist(2), a type as well-suited to diplomacy as to conservation, and he was a proponent of hunting and controlled burning, complicated practices deemed wrongful by armchair environmentalists today. Resource use, like the economy, can be regulated thoughtfully (though it rarely is), but the Romantic in Leopold was dismayed by the dark side of our equating land with money.
"I suspect that the forces inherent in...economic evolution are not all beneficent. Like the forces inside our own bodies, they may become malignant, pathogenic. I believe that many of the economic forces inside the modern body-politic are pathogenic in respect to harmony with land."He deemed his heroically optimistic response to the increasing pressures of population and market a "land ethic." Despite the difficulties of cultivating such an appreciation of the natural world in the twentieth century, Leopold insisted,
"That land is a community is the basic concept of ecology, but that land is to be loved and respected is an extension of ethics...A land ethic, then, reflects the existence of an ecological conscience, and this in turn reflects a conviction of individual responsibility for the health of land...We can be ethical only in relation to something we can see, feel, understand, love, or otherwise have faith in."Prior to my experience on the dike last week, I lacked a land ethic. I appreciated my father's attachment to the land, but I did so from an intellectual remove. Slogging through the marsh mud with a canvas sack of duck decoys at nine years of age, I didn't think to myself, "This land is me." Returning home tired from middle school, I wasn't buoyed by any natural high when my father and I crossed the road to plant eight hundred small pine trees in fading light. But, rolling around on the dike this winter I understood something new. I felt as I imagine a first-time parent might when cradling a newborn. The experience shook me up.
Rereading bits of Leopold's "A Sand County Almanac" this week, I was struck by his explanation of what a land ethic entails. It "...simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land." Is that what happened to me on the dike? Was I absorbed, for a few moments or minutes, as a live animal, into the greater community, into the integrated universe?
Back dike at Heron's Foot
I very much doubt I will return to the Eastern Shore of Virginia to live. In fact, I'm looking northward, to Maine, as my disposition is more suited to cold weather and the rolling northwoods. All the same, I will keep the land in Virginia, and do my best to ensure the conservation easement is maintained and that the land is thoughtfully managed. I feel attached to the property in a way I never did before. I am responsible for the species which thrive there. Reciprocally, they are responsible for my well-being. Some readers will argue that this exchange is a selfish one, that the work a steward puts into the land is driven by pride and want of pleasure. I agree, but the pride and pleasure derived is akin to the satisfaction we feel upon completing a rigorous workout or after we introduce a child to a new idea. It satisfies because we are one body; in some cases what feels good to one person is good for the whole.
A few days after the dike incident, the property was properly named. I no longer refer to it as "across the road." The new name honors the original farm, of which the land was a small, but vital part. It also references the property's low elevation and, lamentably, my discovery of a dead great blue heron, feet bound together by knotted fishing monofilament, the day after I was embraced on the dike at Heron's Foot.
(1) The full story – or most of it, anyway – can be found in my father’s book "Heron Hill Chronicle."
(2) The realist in Leopold forced him to contemplate the greater ambition of conservation as most environmentalists will not. "All conservation," he wrote, "is self-defeating, for to cherish we must see and fondle, and when enough have seen and fondled, there is no wilderness left to cherish."
Young pine tree volunteers on the dike at Heron's Foot
Photo credit: all images Hungry Hyaena, 2006 (More pictures from Heron's Foot can be found here.)