The fox owns herself
“Soul, self; come, poor Jackself, I do advise You, jaded, let be; call off thoughts awhile Elsewhere; leave comfort root-room" —from "My own heart let me more have pity on," Gerard Manley Hopkins
A couple of mid-mornings ago I was sitting at a table with my younger sister, her two little girls, and my daughter, playing an interminable game of Unstable Unicorns. I glanced up from my hand with the two “Neigh” cards I kept forgetting to use, when I lost control of words and patted my daughter on the arm enthusiastically several times before spitting out, “There’s a fox on the porch!”
My daughter has been hoping to see a fox in person for ages and thought I was joking, but no. It was right there looking at us through the window. I’ve seen a number of foxes even just around our town, but she somehow always misses out.
We were staying at a Forest Service cabin in Montana’s North Fork valley, no internet or electricity or running water, and it just trotted up during our card game. We all put our cards down and padded from window to window as the fox tracked around the cabin, watching it until it disappeared back into the woods.
One of the most famous and pivotal property law cases in U.S. history, the 1805 case Pierson v. Post, involves the hunting of a fox. I have no interest in hunting foxes (I only hunt for food, and not very successfully at that), but the legalities of that particular case have staying power for a reason. They hinge on the question of what grants ownership: labor or possession? Was it Post, who was hunting the fox, or Pierson, who actually killed it, who owned the animal in the end? New York State Supreme Court reversed a lower-court decision in Post’s favor and granted ownership to Pierson. The written decision reached back through centuries of legal thinking, drawing even from the Byzantine emperor Justinian I.
Law students—and people like me who read too much about this stuff—can get hung up for ages arguing about Blackstone and Locke and whether it was the labor of the hunt or the person who had physical possession in the end that determined ownership. Labor and possession are two keystones of property law.
Yet none of us asked: What about the fox herself?
How can ownership really be debated or discussed without considering whether every entity has rights in and of themselves? To exist, to wander freely, to sniff around a porch for food humans might have neglected to store. To decide they don’t want to hang out and play Unstable Unicorns.
The five of us were staying at this cabin in my usual run-away-from-election-news routine. I have an unfortunate emotional reaction to elections. I’m sure it’s not uncommon, but it’s exhausting and also completely useless to be refreshing news every few seconds, tracking outcomes to events that I have zero control over. A couple of years ago I started booking cabins far away from internet service over election days, and hope I can keep doing that as long as Montana still has early absentee voting widely available. Which might not be long.
When we drove up to the cabin, my sister said, “Are you f—ing kidding me?” in response to the stunning view, and I said, “When do they light the beacon fires?” because it really did look like that scene in the movie version of Lord of the Rings. This is from two people who live barely an hour’s drive away and grew up here. You’d think we’d be used to the beauty. You’d be wrong.
But I don’t just engage in this ritual so that I can get away from it all and admire the view. I persist in it because I want to spend that day reminding myself of why I care. I’m not interested in politics because I’m into politics. I’m interested, and emotionally invested, because I care about this world we all share, these ecological and social and spiritual commons. Going away to a silent river valley, spending all night feeding the wood stove every hour because it’s well below freezing, watching the sun rise over the mountains, being surprised by a fox—these things remind me why I volunteer in my community, why I encourage people to attend school board and city council meetings now and then, why keeping places like the North Fork free from too much human development is important, why the political bent of my home county breaks my heart all the time, and has done since I was a teenager.
It also reminds me that my heartbreak isn’t even a noticeable microbe in the span of geological time.
A few years ago we visited Zion National Park in Utah, another place of surreal beauty. I stopped on a trail to observe the facing cliff for a while, so tall it felt unreal. All that orange- and red-tinted rock, and somewhere deep down in the face, a single, narrow band of black. How much time did that band represent in the hundreds of feet of stone surrounding it? A thousand years? Ten thousand? Everything that happened in a span of time far beyond humans’ ability to grasp, pressed into that one bit of different-colored rock, a tiny note for future observers to see: Something happened here. For millennia. And yet in the vastness of geological time it barely left a mark.
Several hours after the fox left us, alpenglow from the sunset hit the snow-covered peaks of Glacier National Park (pictured below), looking deceptively like a sunrise, and barely forty-five minutes later the full moon rose behind them (pictured at the top of this post), covering the entire valley with the kind of unfiltered sky-light I sometimes forget exists, and we all stood in our pajamas and watched it, our breath spilling out into the frozen air.
I thought about the fox’s visit, and Pierson v. Post and the question of property, and how long ago it was that some humans decided to claim ownership over others—water, wildlife, women—and then create justifications for such claims through centuries of philosophical, religious, and legal argument. What could change if we inverted that relationship? If we started from an assumption that all beings own themselves, that every being has agency and choice?
Our lives are so short. The events that shake our worlds so brief, against the timespan of stone. No matter what is forgotten of these times—eventually, everything will be, and everything for hundreds and thousands of years on either side of us, even foxes and Unstable Unicorns—it still matters how we care for one another. How we practice kindness, how we love, how we watch the moon rise and whom we share it with.
The joys and the pains are not everything, but they are not nothing.
Some stuff to read or listen to:
Science writer Sarah Boon had a piece recently in Electric Literature on 7 books about trees and humans’ relationship with them written by women.
A reader on the recent post about Simon Winchester’s book Land linked to this story about a beautiful-sounding piece of filled land in Toronto that has become a haven for birds, butterflies, and, as is true of all such places, people.
In September’s High Country News, I really loved this essay by Madhushree Ghosh that weaves together a story about Indian restaurants that cater to Sikh long-haul truckers in the U.S., and the history of Sikhism in India.
A two-part podcast collaboration between Reveal News and ICT (formerly Indian Country Today) about Native American boarding schools and the lasting individual scars and intergenerational trauma they’ve created: “[Basil was just six years old when he was brought to live at Red Cloud.] I was in a state of shock, traumatized. . . . I didn’t cognitively understand what abandonment meant, but I knew what it feels like. Being left at a school, I felt taken away from my parents. It was very traumatizing. You block your emotions.”
Yesterday the U.S. Supreme Court heard opening arguments in a case challenging the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA). ICT reports on the background of this case, but for a deep dive, This Land podcast’s series in ICWA is invaluable and important.
A timely, nuanced essay by my friend Sarah Buttenweiser on being an adoptive parent and what “choice” really means when it comes to adoption: “Books like American Baby and The Girls Who Went Away convey the terrible harm done through shame and loss of one’s bodily agency, because adoption was imposed upon a young, pregnant woman. Rather than being her decision, adoption constituted an aggressive and assaultive act of family separation.”
Kind of a random tangent, but as alpenglow is always a fascinating phenomenon and not everyone will have the chance to see it in their lifetimes, it’s interesting to read about what causes it. Landscape photographer Dan Bailey has a post explaining why he thinks it’s caused by direct sunlight, contradicting than the usual explanation of indirect light from the just-set sun.
Walking compositions are usually for paid subscribers only, but I wanted to the photos on this one to be available for all.
Just a quick note to say thank you for suggesting the Freyfogle book. I thought I was only going to read the first chapter, but that is like trying to eat only one tiny morsel of dark chocolate with that cup of hot tea. It (the book) has given me new insights and a new vocabulary with which to think, talk, and write about land ownership and the rights of the commons.
Antonia! My friend Ann's poem was just published in the Hastings Journal on Gender and the Law Review
You'll have to download to read it, Pierson v Post's Unheard Voice, by Ann Tweedy