July 30, 2012 Leave a comment
I’ve just finished reading a book entitled Trespassing – an inquiry into the private ownership of land by the North American nature writer John Hanson Mitchell. The book was first published in 1998 and over its 300 pages explores Nashobah Plantation, a sixteen square mile rural hilltop estate 35 miles west of Boston, Mass. Mitchell’s is a search for the essence of this area, though consideration of the ‘interactive effects’ of its ownership history over the 350 years since it was ‘granted’ to a local Indian tribe on the occasion of their Christianisation. He chronicles the decline of Indian ownership and the means and stages by which – through subdivision – the hilltop passed into the ownership of various reclusive orchard owners, arable farmers, developers, public utilities and recreational trusts. What is striking about Mitchell’s approach though is how he weaves himself, and those who he meets during licit and trespassing excursions, into this story.
By ‘interactive effects’ I mean how that succession of ownership was something made by (i.e. brought about by) actors in the story, but also how the rights and expectations conferred by ownership status acted back upon those actors – shaping their performance of notions of ownership, stewardship and territoriality over their portions of this hilltop. Whilst conceptualisation in terms of performativity is my overlay here – it is what Mitchell’s book effectively portrays in its attentive examination of this place and its layers.
The final parcel of Indian owned local land was sold to white settlers in 1736 by Sarah Doublet, the last living member of her tribe and throughout his book Mitchell weaves in and out of the image of that event and the ways in which it might be interrogated. He closes his book with the following reflection on the limits of an archive-only reading of this place and this act of ownership transfer:
“And we who are, by reason of English Law, the inheritors of this corner of the Western world do not know the full story of those who were the people of this place. We know only that she, Sarah Doublet, relict widow of said Thomas Doublet, in consideration of the sum of five hundred pounds in bills of credit paid to her by Elnathan Jones, Gentleman, and Ephraim Jones, did fully and absolutely, give, grant, bargain, sell alien, convey, and confirm unto them and their heirs and assigns forever in equal shares, a certain tract of land.
We know only that if we go to brightly lit local town offices, as I sometimes do, we will be directed to a computer, and instructed to enter the name and street address of a certain tract of land in which we have an interest, and that there, on a clean, cold screen, we will see written certain facts and figures, the book, the page, and number, inscribed in the state archives, a record, a map, an accounting of structures, of square footage of those structures, of acreage within said boundaries, of taxes owed, and taxes paid, and then we will be instructed to unfold a large blueprint map and there, in straight lines, and inscribed with numbers and angles, we will see the place that was Nashobah, where this Sarah and her people once lived.” (290-1)
Mitchell is reflecting here on the fact that the ‘historical record’ (such as it exists) is a trail of land grants, transfers and related ownership and taxation records. These show how title (i.e. ownership) to the hilltop, and its parcels, devolved over time but other than providing names, they can give little insight into the human stories (whether of exchange or of use) that sit behind those documents.
Mitchell bridges this deficit through an evocative medley of wise conjecture, interviews with long-standing residents, probing present territoriality via recreational trespass (‘cross-lot walking’ as he calls it) and at every turn an embodied celebration of the scenery.
The points that he makes in the paragraphs quoted above about the limits of the archive are all sound and important, but as a nature writer his main aim in his book is actually to flag the constitutive relevance of the ‘alien’ lawscape. He is showing his primary audience that this landscape cannot be understood without regard to the abstract imprint of law and its notions of property upon the land. Whilst I – as a lawyer – instead counter-read his book as a refreshing example of how there is more to ownership than the legal dimension.
Mitchell and I would in default, approach this place from different disciplinary (and discursive) angles, but we happily meet in the middle, and that’s the point both he and I would want to make. To characterise landscape as dwelt place you need to meld the land, the laws and the people (the material, the discursive and the social if you wish).
In breaks during reading Mitchell’s book I have wandered the suburban fringe lanes on my doorstep here in my mother’s home town. These are narrow, high banked, rich red earth lanes with thick vegetation curling back over to form dense tunnels. Walking down them feels timeless, only the drone of traffic on the nearby ring-road breaks the revere. But wandering these lanes, and the way that they cut-through the later-built settlements in a way that would make no sense if those settlements had been built first, chimes to the enduring power of ancient trackways (and their attendant use-rights) to continue to shape the landscape as it urbanises.
And what of this town’s urban-fringe farmers? How would they compare to the reclusive stewards of property and self-contained freedom that Mitchell encountered on his travels? Presumably they are used to public access, they have no choice where public rights of way cut across their land (a legacy effect alien to Mitchell’s wander zone). Perhaps these farmers are content to bide their time – to await the subtle creep of urban development beyond the confines of the townscape into this supposedly greenbelt hinterland. The focus of new development (out of town shopping centre, business park, new road scheme) has all been in this area in recent years.
At times whilst reading Mitchell’s book I have looked up, and out through the net curtains of my mother’s home at the expanse of roughly concreted parking bays, elderly ‘lock-up’ garages, unadopted side lane and expansive municipal gassed bank beyond that lie at the rear of her 1970’s terrace house. She has often regaled me with anxious stories about that land, its ambiguous status and uses. For, when these houses and the ‘facilities’ at the rear were originally built they formed part of a unified development scheme – a ‘council estate’ in which the houses, the paths, the roadway and the garage land were all built and owned by the local council. The council mended the road, painted the railings, leased the garages and parking places to its tenants. It also cut the grass on the expanses of communal embankments.
But then along came ‘right to buy’. Some of the houses in this terrace where taken into private ownership and the council’s unity of control (and responsibility) was lost. Subsequently the cash strapped council divested its remaining ownership of houses and ancillary land and facilities here to a ‘housing association’. The result: ambiguity and inattention. The unadopted alley is not tended by the council, the railings sit unpainted, the garages have fallen into disuse and the parking spaces are appropriated daily by staff from the local hospital, driven here by a desire to avoid the expense of the hospital’s now imposed ‘pay and display’ charges and the subsequent permit-only parking restrictions introduced by the council to deal with the knock-on parking burden inflicted upon the local streets.
But the orphan status of this ‘back of the houses’ zone leads to little prospect of enforcement of parking restrictions in this place. This is not ‘highway’ (therefore it falls outside of the council’s remit), and it is no-longer council land. Some of it is housing association land, but they have no incentive to intervene. Via ‘right to buy’ some of the parking spaces are now private – but with little prospect for protection of that privacy short of verbal or physical confrontation with the hospital parkers, pre-occupying the space with your own car or appealing to their better nature via home-made ‘disabled parking space’ signs which approximately ape the stylistics and words of official signage.
If I ever wrote a book about this place, in the spirit of Mitchell’s approach, my mother’s views would get a good outing. But I’d need also to speak to the farmers who once owned this land, the council’s housing department officials who proudly made this poured-concrete estate amidst communal grassland, the right-to-buyers who proudly bought-out their places, the succession of housing associations who have owned the remnants and the opportunistic hospital staff and tradesmen who walk proudly each morning from their cars, pleased in the knowledge that they have once again ‘beaten the system’; that their skill and local knowledge has found them this secret – free of charge – parking place. A place unknown to everyone else.
Except for my mother, her neighbours and everyone in the past who has ever dwelt here.
Mitchell, J.H. (1998) Trespassing – an inquiry into the private ownership of land, Perseus: Reading, Mass.