Owning Land in an Animist World

A couple weeks ago The Wild Hunt ran a feature on Wade Mueller, who leads a Pagan intentional community in Wisconsin. Some of Mueller’s comments stirred up controversy, which led to my post titled We Don’t Have to Own the Land to Honor the Land. That in turn led some folks to wonder if it’s really possible to own land, or if we’re just deluding ourselves.

In this post, I want to explore the idea of what it means to own land in a world where everything is not a thing but a person, a world where the very ground we walk on is inspirited.

I do not intend to address the many different political ideas about land ownership that exist within the Pagan community. But as you think about the spiritual aspects of the land, I encourage you to explore how your spirituality expresses itself within your wider community.

The land is alive

Go outside and look around. Walk barefoot on the grass, dig in the dirt, hug a tree. The land is alive! We’re used to associating life with movement and the land doesn’t move like we do, but it moves nonetheless. Plants grow and spread – their roots can break concrete. Trees communicate with each other. Scratch the soil and you’ll find insects – use a microscope and you’ll see all kinds of bacteria and other living things too small to see with your eyes. Even the ground itself moves. We’re all familiar with plate tectonics, but here in North Texas the soil moves so much it can damage home foundations.

Open your other eyes and you’ll see the land is inspirited. We do not relate to our cats and dogs the same way we relate to other humans, but we do relate to them. Likewise, the way we relate to the land and the spirits of the land is different still, but we can relate to them, because they are alive.

We must use the land to live

I looked for a softer word than “use” but I couldn’t come up with one. We have a strong utilitarian need for the land.

If we attempt to treat the land like it’s a museum of fine art, we will die. We have to eat other living things. We have to leave our waste on the land, or at least bury it in the land (so does every other living thing). We have to use the things that grow on the land to make clothing and shelter. We have to occupy space on the land, and when we do, we crowd other creatures off the land. There is no such thing as zero impact.

Since we are so utterly dependent on the land, it seems reasonable to treat the land with honor and respect, for without the land we could not be.

Greater intelligence brings greater responsibility

Every other creature on the Earth also uses the land. Every other species modifies the land for their own use, some intentionally and some instinctually. None of those modifications happen in a vacuum, and that’s OK – Nature is a living thing, not a pristine museum.

But when wolves are removed from an ecosystem, the rabbits don’t understand that eating all the greenery impacts other species. All they know is that there are no wolves to eat them, so they can eat, drink, and make more rabbits to their hearts’ content. They don’t understand their food supply is limited until they begin to starve to death.

We are smarter than rabbits. Well, most of us – I’m not sure about politicians. We can see the impact of overpopulation, overconsumption, and over-modification of our environment, and so we have both the ability and the responsibility to moderate our activities for the good of all the inspirited persons on the Earth, both human and non-human.

bird on roof 05.12.12

Many animals are territorial

So the land is alive, we must use the land, and we have a responsibility to use the land wisely. Given those facts, how can we best go about doing what must be done?

Many animals claim and defend parts of the land, either as individuals or as groups. They mark them with scent and they will fight other animals who intrude into their territories. The biological details of territorial behavior are beyond the scope of this essay – the point is that humans are far from the only animals that attempt to “own” land. But again, our greater intelligence means we have greater responsibility to use the land wisely and not just instinctively.

Private ownership of land is a fact in Western countries

Yes, we have some public land, and I strongly recommend keeping public land public. That’s the best way to insure at least a few wild places remain wild and aren’t carved up for development by the highest bidder.

But most of us live in places that were carved up for development by the highest bidder a long time ago. We either own our homes, or we rent homes owned by someone else. There aren’t any viable alternatives short of homelessness.

What does it mean to own land?

It doesn’t mean you have the right to absolute control. You can scream “it’s mine and I can do what I want with it” like a four year old, but zoning and environmental laws say otherwise. But you generally can control which humans can enter your land and what they can do while they’re there.

And that’s the key to owning land in an animist world – using that control in ways that are respectful to the land and to the biological and spiritual creatures who share it with you.

That piece of paper in the courthouse doesn’t mean a thing

It does in human society, of course. But in dealing with the land and the spirits of the land, only two things matter: where you are and what you do (and sometimes it matters who you are, but that’s another post for another time, that I may or may not write).

oak tree 10.11.15 02Are you living on a particular piece of land? Of course you are. You may be living in a cabin in the middle of a wilderness, or you may be living in a high rise apartment in the middle of a city. You’re here. So go meet your neighbors.

Before you do, ask yourself what you’ve done to give the local land spirits any indication you’re someone they want to meet. Have you spent any time outside? What have you done while you’re there? Have you made offerings? Are you living in ways that are respectful of non-human persons? Look beyond appearances: high rise apartments aren’t very natural-looking, but they’re some of the most resource-efficient ways to live.

Whether you own land, rent land, or are visiting the land where you are, treat your neighbors with respect.

The advantages of owning land

Owning land – or buying a house – is a complicated, expensive financial proposition. Sometimes it make sense and many times it doesn’t, as we learned in a painful way in 2008. The economics of buying a house and owning land are beyond the scope of this post.

But if you can own land, there are advantages – mainly that no one can sell it out from under you (mostly). You can build a stone circle in your back yard knowing you won’t have to abandon it just because the landlord decided he could make more money turning your house into a parking lot.

Of course, if your job goes away and you have to move, you’re left trying to sell a piece of land that most people will not value as much as you do. We live in a transient society – consider how much time and money you want to invest in permanent structures.

You can’t control what your neighbors do on their land, but you can make sure no one dumps harmful chemicals on your land. You can feed the trees rather than cutting down them so the lawn will get more sun and look more “manicured” (as I was advised to do – I laughed). You can plant decorative plants suitable to your climate instead of something that will use more water than your community can spare.

So yes, we can own land, at least in a limited sense of the term. But owning land does not give us absolute control over it. It simply increases our ability and our responsibility to care for the land like the living, inspirited being it is.

Stay in touch! Like Patheos Pagan on Facebook:
About John Beckett

I grew up in Tennessee with the woods right outside my back door. Wandering through them gave me a sense of connection to Nature and to a certain Forest God. I’m a Druid graduate of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, the Coordinating Officer of the Denton Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans and a former Vice President of CUUPS Continental. I’ve been writing, speaking, teaching, and leading public rituals for the past eleven years. I live in the Dallas – Fort Worth area and I earn my keep as an engineer.