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Long ago when I was traveling in Scotland, I asked a Scotsman how I could tell where I was allowed to walk. I wanted a closer look at the lovely streams and meadows. He laughed. “In Scotland we don’t believe in private property,” he said with a twinkle. “It’s all God’s land. We don’t believe in fencing people off. You’re welcome to wander where you please as long as you don’t cause damage.” He went on to explain that if I encountered an estate that was owned by someone from beyond Scotland’s borders, I would need to take heed of fences and signs—hence one of the disagreements between Brits and Scots as they were at the time.
My own American cultural training forbade me from taking his advice. I couldn’t make myself “trespass” upon the grounds of ancient Scottish castles. I paid for official tours, instead. But the Scotsman had reminded me of something I once read about Native American tribes—not that they didn’t suffer plenty of territorial disputes. However, many held beliefs that Mother Earth cannot be owned by humankind. They were convinced that ultimately all human beings are here on a lease, obligated to return the land in good shape when they moved on.
Much later, as I accompanied my husband on an American mountain fishing trip, my spirits drooped when we had almost no access to the many fishing streams. Each was fenced with “Private Property: No Trespassing” signs. I could understand an owner wanting to prevent careless outsiders from despoiling pristine streams, but I suspected the owner lived far away, visited rarely if ever, and fenced the property because he or she could. The locals who had once depended on the fish as a source of food were forced to save their pennies for the grocery store. Perhaps they were reminded of the sea gulls in Finding Nemo: “Mine, mine, mine, mine, mine!”
These days when blood is readily spilled for ownership (and the attendant power), I imagine our planet eons from now. World citizens will need historians to remind them of precisely where all our national borders once were. As present-day archeologists puzzle over the remnants of ancient civilizations, often not knowing who they were or what happened to them–much less where their precise boundaries were–so may future archeologists wonder what a strange figure like “USA” might have meant–if they find such symbols at all.
Territoriality (the need to mark and claim a territory) is a basic urge we share with our animal cousins. To manage it better than we do, we would need to use our tools of communication, mutual respect, and understanding far better than we do. Territoriality becomes blended with our preference for sorting “us” against “them,” using any differences we can find or invent to separate the two. It’s complicated by our dominance displays (who’s the baddest?)–that animals can often accomplish with mere chest-beating. Occasionally, the rationales for dividing up human populations and national and civic borders seem reasonable, especially given the love of violence certain individuals nurture. I just can’t help wondering if humans are capable of keeping in mind that we are not immortal—nor is the land. All will change. In his poem “Mending Wall,” Robert Frost wrote, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall…” What do you suppose that “something” might be?