An Impromptu on Owning Land
I own some land, in the western foothills of the Ochoco Mountains in Central Oregon. Somewhere or other I have a packet of papers indicating that I have title to it. I pay yearly County taxes on this property; if I stop paying them, the County will claim the property, and eventually auction it off “for back taxes,” which is exactly how my parents bought our home-place at the end of the Depression. So we pay taxes, on what we own.
Actually, I hold joint-title to this foothill property with my brother and our wives. It’s understood in this arrangement that we share it equally, undividedly, right down to the smallest indivisible unit, an acre, a square foot, a grain of sand. What’s ours is theirs, and vice-versa. No problem there, because we’re close; but most of the time, when I think about the place, or walk around it, it’s as if I’m the owner, and I imagine my brother thinks of it in the same way. When the place makes us a little money, on timber or pasture-rental, we share equally, and likewise the expenses of keeping it up.
This easy arrangement is going to become more complicated, I think, when the place passes on to my brother’s three children and their spouses, and my three children and theirs. Can ten or twelve owners carry on as easily as four, pay the taxes, keep the fences and the old farmhouse in repair, resist the temptation to “develop” and make deals? I worry that possession of the place will not mean to all of them what it means to this generation. And in the the next generation, after them…? Maybe we should form a “family corporation” now, so that conflicts-to-come can be settled, even by buy-outs if need be. But that seems awfully dramatic, even dynastic, for an old worn-out sheep ranch that up to now has been maintained by a kind of neglectfully possessive love.
When my father bought the place almost sixty years ago, from the original homesteader, the latter (who had mined for gold in the Yukon) insisted on retaining the mineral rights. A strange feature of law is that mineral rights can be perpetually separated from real property rights – so now, after all these years, I’m not really sure who holds the former. It may be a dentist in San Diego, who probably doesn’t know what he owns up here. It’s a serious vexation: if my life depended on it I couldn’t show you where our real property rights end, and his mineral rights begin, but if he suddenly found the deed to our place and decided to prospect on it for oil and natural gas, he could come through our gates willy-nilly, and set up drilling rigs wherever he pleased on an acre of ground for each well, and drill as deep as he wanted, using our water as necessary! Who would ever think of dividing land up that way? My dad must have wanted the place very badly, to have accepted such a deal. I hope it doesn’t turn around and bite us one of these days.
Thinking about those buried, alienated minerals, I brood sometimes about the air over my property. Do I own it; how much? Probably about as high as I can reach up and fan with my hat, no more. Maybe I should test this assumption by erecting a 300-foot flagpole and flying a proprietary flag on it. But for all intents and purposes I’ve conceded that what I own, really, is the gritty mineral skin of the land, which I share with the ants and lizards, sagebrush and trees, and enough air and sunshine for all of us to live. When it rains, I get to keep what soaks in. Fair enough.
Long before it was homesteaded the place was visited by Paiute and probably Chinookan Indians on hunting and root-gathering expeditions. I doubt that they settled in for long, up here, although we still find their arrowheads and hide-scrapers, especially on sandy south-facing hillsides, where they could make sun-warmed camps. Once I found the bottom of a very old bottle: the glass, sun-blued and full of bubbles, had been expertly chipped to make a sharp scraping edge! That would date it around 1860, at the latest. Did the Indians who came up here then or before think this stretch of country “belonged” to them? No more than they would have claimed any other parcel they regularly traveled through. More likely, so far as they reflected on it at all, they held that the land owned them, as a mother owns her children, and so they possessed the freedom and the duties of being owned: that would have been the basis of their allegiance.
As late as the 1920s, Indians from the Warm Springs Reservation used to ride up here in the fall, with their kids, pack horses, and dogs, and camp in the willows along one of our creeks. Probably they were on their way to hunt deer and elk in the Ochoco Mountains further east and south, but they would stay long enough here to build and use sweat-lodges in the willows. A very old lady who grew up on this part of our place told me this years ago, just before she died. She remembered that her father always welcomed them onto his land, and usually traded whatever he had to offer for buckskin gloves and mocassins. She also remembered that her family’s neighbor over the hill, who ended up owning both properties before we bought all of it, had some trouble with the Indians early on and told them never to come on his place, and they didn’t.
This meant, I guess, that they stayed outside the fences he’d put up to keep his sheep in, and Indians out. Judging from the evidence he left us, he wasn’t a very exacting fence-builder. Most of the thirteen miles of four or five-wire barbed fences around and across our land are still, despite our improvements, no better than they have to be, the rusty wires and the old juniper and cedar posts holding each other up mutually. And on some sectors, we’ve discovered, the fence lines do not correspond to anything in the County Courthouse records. For years, according to the legal description of our place, we didn’t really own our front gate, or the summit of the hill above the house; a neighboring rancher farmed some of our land on the wrong side of the fences between us, and we grazed some of his on our side! Recently, through a series of land-trades, we’ve “rectified our frontiers,” and that’s a comfort.
Our fence line must seem even more arbitrary to the deer and elk, whose immemorial trails often cross the fences at right angles, as if challenging them. As a consequence, each spring we go around with rolls of barbed wire and staples and fencing tools, and repair the considerable damage done by these wild herds jumping over or crashing through the lines. Once I found the carcass of a young buck, its limbs, head, and horns woven into the wires in a horrible knot. But usually the deer vault right over, without doing more damage than breaking or loosening a top wire or two, and so we keep on cutting and splicing our fences, and when I’m done with the job each year, I feel good about it, as if an unequal truce between the two-legs and the four-legs has been renegotiated for another year.
During the early fall hunting season, when there are still cattle on the place, we’re pestered by deer-hunters straying across our boundaries and sometimes cutting our fences. So like all ranchers hereabouts, we’ve put up signs saying POSITIVELY NO HUNTING OR TRESPASSING on prominent fence posts facing out, for would-be trespassers and poachers to see. It’s hard to say whether this “posting” of the property does much good, and I confess I’m not fond of putting up such blunt challenges to any and all visitors. They must seem like insults to innocent, gun-less hikers. On the other hand, most of our signs around the place are shot to pieces every few years and have to be replaced, indicating I guess that their message is reaching the right people, whether it stops them from trespassing or not. Only a few times have I ever confronted a total stranger on our lands, but others in the family have had some ugly encounters with poachers, and after one of these, my father actually got himself deputized by the County Sheriff, and carried a worn silver deputy’s badge in his shirt-pocket during hunting season, in case he had to invoke the law.
Beyond our northeastern fence line lies another man’s property, which I covet. My father could have bought this place from the son-in-law of the original homesteader, but declined, reasoning that we had enough land up here already. He was right, but coveting land is not rational, and I do covet this other place. It’s much smaller than ours, only about 800 acres, but being mostly above our highest land, it’s densely timbered with ponderosa pine and Douglas fir, and embellished with springs and creeks and meadows. It’s not been logged in recent years, and walking through it (trespassing!) is like walking through a forest park. The blue lily-blossoms of camas appear along the creeks in June, and even in the heat of August you can always walk in the shade, and come upon little meadows full of scarlet gilia in bloom.
Once for the better part of an hour, at the edge of a meadow back in the pines, I watched a young coyote playing with a pinecone as if it were a mouse, flinging it high into the air, retrieving it with great galumphing leaps, pointedly ignoring it, and then pouncing on it again. When finally, having promises to keep, I walked into the meadow and broke the spell, the coyote ran off – but when I looked over my shoulder a few minutes later, here he came behind me, discreetly keeping his distance, fellow traveler through the woods, probably expecting me to flush out a chipmunk.
Back there at the edge of the meadow, watching the coyote at play, I had coveted nothing – what more was there to want? But later, of course, far away, I resumed my brooding over that land, and everything on it, under it, and over it, wishing that I owned it and had the undivided title to it in my safety-deposit box, and could pass it on to our children, along with our place just over the hill. For shame: thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s property, let alone his wife, and if the sin applies to land as well as to human flesh, I am guilty as sin. What if I could turn my ownership-complex inside out, and really accept the proposition that the land owns me, gives me my life, requires my devoted service? The habits of thinking otherwise run very deep, but I remind myself that when Thoreau felt that universal urge to build and live in his own house, he built his Walden cabin on land he neither owned nor rented. I wouldn’t want to try that now, on the shores of Walden Pond, but like everything else in Thoreau’s story, it shows what you can try to do without.
Meanwhile, I keep looking for images of being in place, in the right place, without ownership. Two years ago, before he died, an oldtimer here made a final request to a neighboring rancher, one of his best friends. The friend owns and flies an antique biplane, and the oldtimer’s wish was for his friend to take his ashes up in the old plane and scatter them over a rocky pinnacle known to locals as “the Dry Island.” So late in spring, as the sidehills above the creek were greening, the oldtimer’s extensive family assembled close by, and the pilot took off with his cargo and flew over the Island. In the calm morning air, the oldtimer’s ashes came straight down in a faint ribbon of white, and vanished, reclaimed, in the bitterbrush.
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