Exclusion and Access

Walking composition

“If England is full, it is full of space. And the walls that hide it.” —Nick Hayes, The Book of Trespass

Last night after dinner my family and I went down to a tiny patch of public beach squished between gargantuan multi-million-dollar houses (are they homes? I’m not sure; so many of the most expensive properties here are only occupied part-time). It’s small and scruffy, full of bushes and reached via a bumpy dirt path. But the public beach has benches and a well-maintained dock, even if occasional occupants of neighboring docks that cost millions glare at beachgoers—we might not be trespassing on their land, but are certainly trespassing on an aggrieved sense of exclusivity.

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The sense of exclusion is something I’m going to be hyper-aware of after finishing Nick Hayes’s The Book of Trespass. There is so much in this book—so much that resonates and informs and brings readers into the story of how England’s common lands were increasingly enclosed and privatized (that is, stolen) following the invasion of William the Conqueror in 1066. Something I didn’t expect was how well Hayes would portray the psychological senses of exclusivity and trespass and how those psychological walls have created problems related to absolute land ownership as much as the law itself has. I was left with a powerful sense of how fragile an entitled sense of absolute ownership can be.

That sense was what prompted me to use the photos in this post. Except for the one below of my to-be-read shelf, they’re both from the place in southwestern Montana where I camped for the recent pronghorn-fencing weekend. I walked up a hill to watch the sunrise sometime before 6 a.m. (can you see it in the photo, sneaking out vast and wildfire-smoke red from behind the distant hills?), and was treated to the early-morning moon at the same time. The area was open and felt vast, though of course compared to what this land once was it’s only a speck (plus, the water is a reservoir created by a dam—what did that land look like when the river was free?). But the lack of people, the “pitch your tent anywhere sensible” approach, the immense quiet granted by wind blowing over grasses instead of through larches and lodgepoles—it was all a release, an open-ness, and a reminder of a right that every human of our species once had the right to roam this earth.

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I don’t usually write much in here about writing-as-writing, but it was a curious experience to read The Book of Trespass because it was essentially the book I wanted to write (similar research, same themes, very similar title, though I had some different areas of ownership in my proposal, like data), but is written in an utterly different voice. It was like having a conversation with someone who totally gets where I’m coming from but who sees it slightly differently and opens up considerations and ideas that had never occurred to me.

Though I wouldn’t have been able to commit trespass in the same way that Hayes did consistently. The threat of being shot in the U.S., especially in areas like Montana where I live, is too real. You can do it—Ken Ilgunas trespasses plenty in his books (Trespassing Across America; This Land is Our Land)—but I wouldn’t have taken the risk.

But it made our after-dinner trip to the public beach particularly precious. Unlike England’s strict control and privatization of most waterways, Montana’s navigable waters are all public land up to the high-water mark. Given the sudden extreme rightward shift of our legislature and governor, I don’t know if that will last but I hope we can hang onto it, that we can resist some parts of this myth that privatizing everything creates some distant future where everybody benefits. It’s a myth that’s destroyed far too much for far too long. Our shared imaginations can do better.

I’m trying to decide what to read next. Guy Shrubsole’s Who Owns England? is referenced in The Book of Trespass and would make a natural next read, but I think I’ll try finally finishing Buying America from the Indians first and then go for something different. Anyone have suggestions from this selection? I mostly want to read Seeing Like a State but the print is tiny and I need to wait for my eyes to recover from copy editing.

Bonus photo: Almost the same spot, almost the same minute, moon in the other direction.

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Some stuff to read, listen to, or watch:

  • Iraq war veteran and writer Roy Scranton on the Last Born in the Wilderness podcast on climate change and adapting to life beyond the “normal” we’ve known up until now: “Life as we know it is over. . . . It doesn’t mean that we’re all doomed, but the way that we’ve been going on is done. And that’s the fundamental challenge we need to grapple with is how do we move forward in an ethical way.”

  • Former drug addict and current psychology professor Judith Grisel writing on the complexity of addiction in Aeon. Trying to pin it to brain wiring or a single gene is missing the point, she says: “It turns out that there are many catalysts for substance use disorders and they interact with each other, making it nearly impossible to disentangle the cause, including those from our genome.”

  • A bolstering interview with Maine state representative Seth Berry on the Building Local Power podcast about legislative tangles involved in building a publicly-owned local power network and the deeper question of rights of choice and absentee for-profit utilities ownership that make local networks ever more necessary.

  • I loved Ed Roberson’s most recent interview with author Nickolas Butler on the Mountain & Prairie podcast. I don’t usually seek out interviews with other authors for a variety of reasons, but Ed always manages to mix the craft and process of writing with subject matter and—what really matter to me—how you be human in the middle of all of it, and I really appreciate that. Butler gets into issues of affordable housing and the importance of place and belonging in his own life in Wisconsin. I don’t read a lot of modern fiction unless it’s fantasy or science fiction, but Butler’s Godspeed sounds like a good one.

  • ShelterForce goes deep into the history of affordable housing through the lens of cooperative ownership buildings, and how the cooperative model can pair with community land trusts for a more robust and community-centric housing model going forward.

  • An interview in Nautilus with geophysicist Janice Coen on the complexity of wildfire. Nothing too revelatory here, but good comprehensive explanations of how fires create their own weather systems, the pyrocumulnimbus phenomenon (can we just call those “fire-clouds,” please?), firenados, and of course the contribution of climate change to the frequency, size, and behavior of wildfires: “Persistent deep fires have the potential to create regional climate disturbances that affect not only your weather, but also the food you eat.”

  • Also on Nautilus, an interview with evolutionary anthropologist Paul Hooper going into his research on how it’s possible to structure egalitarian societies. I don’t think I ended up understanding how mathematics plays into it (I should probably read his original paper), although possibly it has to do with tipping points of reward and mutual benefits in his hawk/dove and prisoner’s dilemma experiments. I liked the part about how vast areas of Siberia and Mongolia are managed as a shared commons perfectly well without either fencing or private land ownership.

  • Tom Flood’s full interview on the War on Cars podcast is unfortunately for Patreon supporters only, so after listening I sought out his website to share instead. It’s full of his work inserting pictures and videos of his kids riding bikes into the kind of high-speed, aggressive automobile advertising he used to create for a living.

  • The state of Oklahoma is trying to get the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn their decision in McGirt v. Oklahoma that essentially found most of Oklahoma remains Native land. I don’t have anything interesting to link to related to this, but will be watching it. The different make-up of the court in no way guarantees that the decision will stand, though Gorsuch’s record on these kinds of cases has been fairly consistent.

  • This 10-minute video with City Kids Adventures, a non-profit that teaches underprivileged kids in San Antonio to hunt, might have been one of my favorite things of the last couple weeks (though I will never like nor understand the need for grip-and-grin photos; why perpetuate that in the next generation?).