The Trouble with Rights

A view of our prairie and wetland

This past weekend, following the Fourth of July, the NPR program Radiolab rebroadcast their episode about American Samoa, “Americanish.” And it struck me to my core. Everyone should listen to it, but especially the last interview, beginning at minute 50:45, with Tisa, owner of Tisa’s Barefoot Bar. Tisa spent a decade in the US during her teens and twenties, critical years in the US for women’s rights and civil rights. When she came back to American Samoa, she ran for office, because she learned in America that people can speak up and speak out. She lost. And, she found a way to run a very successful business, and the website appeals to American tourists with concepts like “eco-tourism” and “sustainability.” But she wants Samoa to remain a territory, not a state.

The Radiolab story director/producer “cannot wrap her mind around” these Samoans who don’t want the island to become more defined as part of America. Why, she insists, can’t an embrace of American identity become a way of bringing about necessary rights to the Samoan people without compromising or fundamentally changing Samoan culture?

First, Tisa says, land rights are a joke — it has been proven, she says, that the American government (or her agents) would take the land and sell it for the highest profit. So, capitalism. As restrictive as land ownership is on the island, people like Tisa believes it maintains and important part of the culture. And, interviews with other women in the story — one who is gay and cannot marry and another who is 25% Samoan and can’t buy property — demonstrate a common attitude: they are happy with what they have, and they feel secure. Americans are driven by insecurity: insecurity over work, retirement, wealth, healthcare.

But also, Tisa argues, community would break down if Samoa became a state. Americans privilege the individual over the community, in fact rights privilege the individual over the community, in a way that is destructive to the secure communal nature of the Samoans.

Yes, yes, yes.

This weekend I was talking with a friend who has moved out to the country. She has started a small CSA and when the land under her newly constructed high tunnel flooded, she approached her neighbors to plant on their land. Two neighbors were more than willing, and she has built strong relationships with them — including a recent widow — that affirms all their lives out on that place. But down at the end of the road live a family of “preppers,” survivalists who have gone off the grid in preparation for some kind of government takeover. They installed solar power because paying the power company to run power lines to their property would also benefit their neighbors (without their neighbors sharing the cost). They take care of themselves and don’t participate in any arrangement that is community-based, including the power grid.

Purple cone flowers… and some prickly weeds…

Until six months ago, I lived on a communal farm. Or so the story went. The idea when the property was bought 35 years ago was that the families living here would “own” their own houses and one acre, and the rest of the 80 acres would be treated as common land, to benefit everyone’s pursuits, hopefully to remain some kind of farm or “living off the land” for generations. The land supported at various times a pig or two, a horse, a pony, many chickens, some large gardens, and when my husband transitioned from teacher to landscaper, he also got serious about restoring converting much of the lawn and former pasture land into prairie and starting a tree nursery that has contributed hundreds of trees (as well as being part of his business).

But when it came time, about two years ago, to formalize the agreement by putting the “common land” into a Trust, so that people actually only owned their own house and one acre and the rest would be passed in common, through shares, to the next generation of owners, two of the couples balked.

It became clear pretty quickly that people were in fact devoted to the idea of personal property ownership. They wanted to be able to sell or pass on “their land,” as defined by property lines that had originally been arbitrary, to satisfy township requirements for building the two additional houses. And, in fact, the current property lines don’t make sense. Our front lawn belongs to our neighbor, and the pond behind our neighbor’s house belongs to us. Though we’ve always shared the assets — anyone can skate on the pond or ski in the wetlands and the rent from acreage farmed by a dairy farmer is split — the general care has fallen mostly to my husband, who saw the property as a whole and had the machinery, vision, and interest in putting it in prairie and caring for it, even when the others didn’t want to chip in financially or (as we have aged) through their labor.

And so it was that about six months ago, after a vote, we moved to the private property model. And now people are responsible for their own property. It is no longer a whole. And because people who are used to having their property managed for free don’t want to pay for maintenance now, it is in some places getting shabby and weedy and unkempt. It is an ugly situation, personally and physically.

I arrived on this land eleven years ago, when I married, and I started gardening in earnest about eight years ago. Each summer I offered my sister-in-laws on the farm food from the garden. They wanted to pay me for it, but I did not want to operate that way. I didn’t want to commodify the food I was growing, or be in an economic relationship with them. I was curious to see if I could grow enough food to feed three couples in my small plot. But that’s not how the farm operated. My sister-in-law charged us for eggs from their chickens, and if someone picked something up from the store, it came with a detailed receipt.

One sister-in-law didn’t want my produce unless she was assured that it was “extra” and would otherwise go to waste. I grew extra spinach for her because I knew she liked it and radishes specifically for my brother-in-law — it was an expression of relationship. But she didn’t like that, because it made her feel in some sense beholden to me. And in fact, at times when she was particularly ungenerous toward me, I did feel the sting of it. And now I’ve pretty much stopped giving them produce. I don’t want to resent her, and I don’t want her to feel beholden to me.

August produce

My husband and one brother-in-law have birthdays a day apart, and they are coming up. This means the annual exchanging of the six packs of beer. I have to say it’s one of the most joyless gift exchanges ever. In a system where people are keeping track and tallying, where everything is about equal rights, the way of life I imagined here on the farm doesn’t work. With the move to private property, we’ve seen that my husband went into this endeavor of the common farm with the wrong people, or somehow they became the wrong people over time. In order for that system to work, expectations of wealth as the primary value have to be foregone. The value in the property is in its beauty and productivity, and the people involved have to be generous in offering their talents and time to making the whole beautiful and productive and keeping it so.

Eighty acres is a particularly big “whole” and could benefit from all participants pitching in. Right now there are two lovely private 1-acre estates on the property, our somewhat messier one (we’re the only ones doing “farming,” and a lot of other rambling endeavors mostly undertaken by my husband, which are now the source of anger, resentment, and regret for pretty much everyone involved. When I said, “Well, now we will just be neighbors,” people didn’t seem to understand what that meant. For me, it meant a lowered expectation of what people would contribute to “the common” life on the farm, but also withdrawing hospitality and establishing firmer boundaries. That is what they had voted for.

Communal living and communal culture require humility, generosity, even self-sacrifice. Everyone gives their best for the common good, submits to what might be best for someone else, rather than asserting their own rights and privileges. In the end the primary interest is to keep the value “in” the land, in living off the land in this way, for another generation. It might look different when new owners take over — sheep instead of prairie, a return of pasture, even a return to farming — but the land is offered at an affordable rate to those who will continue to keep it alive in the hope of resisting development. In other words, it is not the private asset of these three families to be “cashed in” at retirement or the end of their lives. Already we can see how this will play out, as there are plans to develop one or more piece of the land currently in prairie or a tree nursery.

August dusk on the prairie

And that set of communal values is not American. The closest thing we have to this kind of arrangement in America is the family, where everyone pitches in and helps out to maintain the whole. Often when people move into a roommate relationship in early adulthood, things fall apart — dishes pile up in the sink, resentments grow, people don’t “do their share.” People don’t invest in either the space or the people they live with. In fact, it often doesn’t even work that well in families. This way of life needs to be driven by love: of the other members, of the land, of the home.

These ideas, really basically the idea of the common good, can sustain a community — this farm grew up good children who value its lessons, but none of whom want to come back and work this land. But as people squabble now over who owns what and who should take care of what, relationships have completely imploded. As they have, it seems to me, in America. And, no doubt, would the island of Samoa if they became “America,” too.

poet, writer, gardener, cook. I’m the author of three books of poetry. Pedigreed at Stanford and Sarah Lawrence. I blog at susansinkblog.com

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