Saturday, January 12, 2008

Lines on the Land

The country was made without lines of demarcation,
and it is no man's business to divide it...
The earth and myself are of one mind.
The measure of the land and the measure of our bodies
are the same... Do not misunderstand me, but understand me fully
with reference to my affection for the land.
I never said the land was mine to do with it as I chose.
The one who has the right to dispose of it
is the one who has created it.

—Chief Joseph, Nez PercĂ©

Perception is such a personal thing. I've been perceiving lately that there are two kinds of people. For each of us, for any mood we may have, we could perceive two kinds of people. There are always 'our kind' and 'some other kind.' And there are hundreds of bases for developing dichotomies. Why are there so few for developing unity? And why do we always seem to see only two sides?

We credit other humans with being fundamentally like ourselves: sharing a basic physical form, and perhaps sharing basic interests or feelings like love of family, joy or pain, anger or grief. Thus it can come as a surprise to learn that there are people who see land differently, not as land but as lots—people for whom drawing lines on the land is both natural and necessary: Lines of ownership, lines of use, lines of vision.

We have only to look around us to notice the prevalence of the line drawers in today's world, and the effects created by their particular way of looking at our world. From the haphazard pasture fence or carefully surveyed property boundary, to the deliberately engineered sweep of a highway alignment or railway, these lines divide our world up into manageable chunks and enforce a rigid linear pattern on all of us. Each line propagates new lines. And we cheerfully fall into line, following and even respecting the lines someone else has drawn on the land.

But it is well to remember that before there can be a fence or a highway or property line, there must be someone who can imagine, then create, the necessary lines. The presence, and indeed dominance, of line drawers in our world is thus a function of the way we as a people are taught to see the world, the land. It is only one way out of many. When I look at the land, I can see the lines the line drawers create. But I could never have imagined them. I can see also lines that were not put there by the hand of man; which are, for the most part, ignored by humans.

For me though, land is often a seamless whole. There are parts and parcels of the natural community, as there are of the human community, but overall there is a wholeness in the pattern. Blending of edges, continuity in time and space. On bad days, I may see only disruption, but thankfully more often I can look beyond misplaced intrusions. On good days, a weed on abandoned mine spoils is enough to reassure me that the natural system will prevail.

Others have the vision, while I struggle to apprehend mere reality. They see future roads and buildings—homes and workplaces for future people—where I search for old dried bison dung without success. They see lawns and parking lots, where I see endless reaches of tall prairie grasses. They see landscaping where I see only land. How can I have become so superficial? My weak sight can see only what is there, and what is there no more. Their superior vision sees what could be, and sees it clearly enough to make it be. They see the future, where I can see only present, and past.

A continent totally without lines, were it even possible to imagine such a thing, is no more useful than a continent with nothing but lines. But perhaps it is time to ask whether we already have enough lines on this piece of the planet, and whether it is time to consider other ways of perceiving, time to overcome the rigidity imposed by dichotomies. We forget that once any line is created, it will endure far beyond its makers.

Clearly we need a third type of person. My weak historical vision and the superior futuristic vision of others only define the extremes. Where is the person who can see both of these, and add a unique sense—a moral vision perhaps—that can see what is right for a particular time and place? Neither what is/was, nor what could be, but what should be. Someone who can sense what serves all, not merely one of us; what will work with the land, and its inhabitants, large and small. One who can blend and soften the lines on the land, and know what belongs.

Man is whole when he is in tune with the winds, the stars,
and the hills as well as with his neighbors.
Being in tune with the apartment or
the community is part of the secret.
Being in tune with the universe is the whole secret.

— William O. Douglas

Originally written 1989.

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