Landscape and Possession
Henry David Thoreau: Walking
"At present, in this vicinity, the best part of the land is not private property; the landscape is not owned, and the walker enjoys comparative freedom. But possibly the day will come when it will be partitioned off into so-called pleasure grounds, in which a few will take a narrow and exclusive pleasure only, — when fences shall be multiplied, and man traps and other engines invented to confine men to the public road; and walking over the surface of God’s earth, shall be construed to mean trespassing on some gentleman’s grounds. To enjoy a thing exclusively is commonly to exclude yourself from the true enjoyment of it. Let us improve our opportunities then before the evil days come."
People ask me what attracted me to Romania. It had something to do with the landscape.
There are four photographs that show the process. Two are of the landscape itself. There’s a valley surrounded by wooded hills, with a scattering of cottages in small, fenced enclosures, with a few of those characteristic Romanian haystacks dotted about: the ones that look like witch’s bonnets. Drifting wood smoke. Small barns. A hint of shepherds with their flocks. It’s very picturesque, in a picture-postcard sort of way. It looks like a painting. But the thing you notice, beyond the small-scale farmsteads with their enclosures, there are no fences: just woods and hills reaching to the horizon. I think this is what touched me so deeply when I looked out upon it and which I found so difficult to describe: this landscape isn’t owned. It is the landscape that encloses the human, not the other way round. The picture is one of human beings being occupied in a landscape, not one of human occupation. It is a landscape without possession. The land doesn’t appear to be owned by anyone. Perhaps it is the landscape that does the owning: perhaps it owns all the creatures, human and otherwise, who dwell within it. After all, the landscape is bigger than the rest of us, and it has been around much, much longer.
Does the land belong to us, or do we belong to the land?
I have seen the ghost of a different time out there in that landscape. I have seen the ghost of another kind of mind"
The next two photographs are of me and a friend in the place where the first two photographs were taken from, maybe two or three minutes later.
Stuart is looking cool and relaxed, as usual, with his shades and his skinhead cut, in a tee-shirt that shows his tattoos. In the first I’m standing next to him in my leather jacket, looking slightly hunched; in the next I’m embracing him and he is joking with me. In both I have this look on my face. I’m smiling, but about to cry. It’s a look of deep intensity, as if I’ve just seen a ghost.
In a way, that is exactly what I have seen. I have seen the ghost of a different time out there in that landscape. I have seen the ghost of another kind of mind.
That is what I mean by possession.
When a ghost enters a man we say he is possessed.
But what if he is already possessed and he no longer knows it?
What if the mind that he carries around in his head isn’t his real mind at all?
What if it isn’t just one man, but all of humanity that is possessed? Possessed by the demon of possession, in fact, by the mistaken belief that anyone can ever own anything. What if there are people, even now, casting dark spells over you, in order to possess your mind. What if the god you worship, all unknowingly, is in someone else’s power?
Can a man be possessed by his own possessions? Can the objects he owns own a man? The ghosts aren’t things but thoughts. They are in the relationship between a human and the world he inhabits. Does he see the world, or does he only see what can be bought and sold? How does he make the world his own? By sealing it with money, or by animating it with his thoughts? By planting it with keep out signs, or by planting it with seeds? With the dead hand of legal obligation, or with the embrace of physical graft? By signing contracts or by building a home?
We have “ownership”, we have “possession”, we have “occupation” and we have “belonging”. All of them are words with more than one meaning.
So “occupation”. It is occupation that occupies a man. We have our jobs, our occupations. We are occupied. But then, when one country invades another we call that “occupation” too. Occupied France in the Second World War. The Occupied Territories in what were once Palestine. Occupied Iraq. Occupied Afghanistan. The question then is, when we say that the landscape is occupied by humans what do we mean? Occupied as in an occupying army - a band of foreign invaders in the landscape imposing an alien culture upon it, degrading it, destroying it, murdering its inhabitants, exploiting it, marching all over it with storm-trooper boots of oppression? Or as human beings merely working in the landscape, working with the land, being occupied within it?
And when we say we “own” something, how do we own it? You can own a thought. You can own a knowledge. You can “own up” to things. None of these involve a legal relationship. Ownership here is just the acceptance of responsibility. It doesn’t imply possession at all.
It is the same with “belonging”. We can belong to a club, or to a tribe, or to a culture. We don’t say that the club “owns” us. Belonging, in this sense, is a relationship with something, the way we say two people belong to each other, the way a child belongs to a mother, or a man belongs to a women. It is a relationship over time: a be-longing, a being-over-time. A longing. A longing to belong.
All cultures have a sense of ownership in these terms, as relationship, as knowledge, as commitment, as work. But most cultures until very recent times did not have a sense of possession in the way we now have it: of a legalised and exclusive ownership, of an ownership that implies that what belongs to one cannot therefore belong to another. Common ownership was once the norm. This is what has changed. And the joke here, of course, is that when you look at who owns what in these legal terms, most people in the world own very little, or nothing at all, and a very few people own almost everything.
This form of possession is invisible, like a ghost. It is exactly like possession in that other, occult sense. A man does not need to have done anything to have this form of ownership. He does not need to have built a farm, or raised crops, or raised a family. He does not need to have worked the land or to have maintained it, to have tilled the soil, to have built fences, to have planted seeds, to have reaped the harvest. He does not need to have hunted on it. He does not need to know where the wild creatures go. He does not even need to have visited it. He need not know where it is. All he needs is a bit of paper that says he owns it, and when he wants to dispossess the man who is actually living on it, and who has raised crops and a family and built a home, he can. The joke is that we have all been sold into this form of possession, and yet all it has achieved is to have dispossessed us all.
Possessed and dispossessed, all at the same time.
And who, now, truly “owns” the land in which he lives? Who, now, owns it in the form of knowledge, in the form of belonging, in the form of being occupied within it, of being occupied by it? Who, now, can hear the land talking to us? Who can hear its secret words of wisdom, in the wind, in the trees? Who, now, knows the rituals of the landscape, it’s cycles and its seasons, and the potent alchemy that plants perform to turn dirt and air into food? Who knows its secrets? Who knows its charm? And who, now, knows how to charm it and be charmed by it? Who knows its magic?
The hint out there in that Romanian landscape is of a time when a legalised form of possession was the exception, not the rule, when lands were held in common, and when humans took their abode in the landscape as passing strangers in the sacred dimension of time; when we shared the land with the other creatures of the landscape, with the wolves and with the bear, with the snake and with the eagle, and when we allowed the landscape to enter us and possess us with it’s abiding, ancient presence, and never tried to claim but temporary ownership of what can never, in the end, belong to anyone.
Let’s face it: death takes all possession away, but the landscape will remain forever.
As I was walking a ribbon of highway
I saw above me an endless skyway
I saw below me a golden valley
This land was made for you and me
As I was walkin' - I saw a sign there
And that sign said - Private Property
But on the other side .... it didn't say nothin!
Now that side was made for you and me!— This Land Is Your Land: Woody Guthrie
© 2009 Christopher James Stone