Essays from
Giving Ground


It's not for everyone, this proverbial "piece of the rock."

There have always been Johnny Appleseeds among us who wander, give themselves to land that isn't theirs, never need to "own."

And owning, anyway: a piece of paper, recognised this day, this year, by this government. What does ownership mean to the people in a war zone? It's a pretty flimsy pretext anywhere, any time.

And we owners know full well what taxes-in-arrears, droughts, forest fires, or crumbling chimney mortar can do to our precarious hold.

But so many of our English/American expressions refer to safe landings:  safe harbor, anchorage, territory, tenure, dominion, settlement. You hear parents say they hope they'll be alive long enough to see their children "settled." This has something to do with household and community, and something to do with earth.

I am thinking about all this because lately, three life-long friends have spoken with great angst about not being settled. We are all in our 50's and 60's, but it's the land-angst that is rising, not the age-angst. Or is it? One of the friends who feels unsettled owns, free and clear, an 18th century barn which magnificently camouflages a home and a separate, 13-employee computer firm in its 20,000 square feet of floor space looking out over the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York. She yearns for the ocean. Where she grew up.

All three of these friends, in fact, yearn for their geographical childhoods. The daily struggle now is whether such a quest, such a change of community, employment, mortgage status, is probable or even possible at this age? And can that idyllic childhood environment hold up under adult scrutiny? Can it retain its power and grace and sense of infinite possibilities? Can we separate place from time?

In our late adolescent rush to leave our parents behind, did we indeed throw the baby out with the bath water? Does the stage these friends are in now - a wistfulness for all things lost or not completed - have, really, very little to do with land?

Like an institutionalized infant who receives food and clean bedding but no hugs, these people are not thriving where they are. Often farm families who lose their land do not thrive anywhere else. Refugees rarely thrive in camps.

The second sons of second sons who came here from Europe landless, and were needy in a primeval way to own a piece of land and "prove it up" - many of them achieved that goal through incredible adversity. Their children often left as soon as possible for a city apartment with piped-in water and heat. No more summers loading stone-boats and digging wells by hand.

Everybody knows I'll be carried out of here "feet-first," as the saying goes. I'm like a barnacle on a pier: I cling. In the bad times, I walk my boundaries, however tenuous a hold I have over them, and it is comfort.

Is it illness or health, weakness or strength, to be so attached?

Copyright 2012 by Pam Thompson

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Giving Ground
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