Owning a Piece of the Rock

Stuart Vail

The other day while driving through a residential neighborhood, I noticed the many “for sale” signs. I got to thinking about land ownership and what that entails. One can claim mineral and water rights, and even airspace to a point. How far down into the dirt does one “own?” Does one’s 50 x 100-foot section of land continue in diminishing size to a single point at the earth’s core? A jet can fly a few thousand feet above my house, but my neighbor can’t build a bridge over my backyard. Just how far up is “mine?” I thought about real estate, owning a piece of the rock, landowners, and landlords. Aren’t we all truly just squatters?

Chief Seattle never would have professed to owning a single pebble of the earth. He felt he was merely a visitor, a guest, the relative from out-of-town who must make his bed and keep the sink clean lest he not be asked back. Chief Seattle never laid claim to a single stream, lake, or bay. He may have drunk from them, bathed in them, or traveled on them with his canoe, but he never in a million moons considered a single drop to be his. Ownership was not his thing. The word “deed” was not even in his vocabulary unless it was preceded by the word “good.” The chief was the tenant, not the landlord. He thanked the great Mother Earth for the privilege of his tenancy. He asked for her permission to fish her waters and harvest her ground. The good chief blessed the life of the deer he was about to kill, and gratefully used every part of the animal. The deer became an extension of the man, cloaking his body and wrapping the leader’s aura with its own.

In contrast, consider Western Civilization (make note of the root word “civil”), which largely consists of plunderers, scoundrels, murderers, thieves, rapists, the greedy, the self-centered, self-righteous, wasteful, slothful—not to mention self-serving, back-stabbing liars and cheats. Western Civilization never dreamed of asking anyone or anything for permission to move in; it just took for itself. Its history is one big land grab. In “discovering” America, a queen-pleasing, party-crashing Spaniard sailed into a neighborhood much older than his own and planted his flag. It’s as though he looked over his backyard fence for the very first time and saw more houses, except that this fence happened to be the Atlantic Ocean, and all the rooftops belonged to the Iroquois, Kwakiutl, Shawnee, Nez Percé, Paiute, Seminole, Zuni, Massachusett, Cherokee, Arapaho, Haida, Okanogan, Tuscarora, Shoshone, Winnebago, Sioux, Chickasaw, Kickapoo, Navajo, Hopi, Apache, Susquehanna.... Columbus claimed the “New World” for Spain, took some “heathens” back as house keepers for Isabella, and handed her the deed.

The history of Western Civilization is ultimately known for two things: blood shed in the name of religion, and blood shed in the name of real estate. My god is better than your god: off with your head. You’re on my land: off with your head—no matter that you have lived on this land for the last three-thousand years, I’m moving in. Mine. These are now my harbors, my rivers, valleys, mountains, and fruited plains from sea to shining sea, including the twelve-mile limit. This land is now mine to build cities up0n, to pollute, to strip-mine, to burn, and to herd indigenous peoples (such as Chief Seattle and all the other “heathens”) off to reserved areas of undesirable, barren dirt—until I discover that there is oil underneath that dirt, in which case I’ll relocate the heathens to another “reserved area.” In the meantime I’ll create the Bureau of Indian Affairs to keep an eye on them, tax them, and deny them benefits while I go on sucking the oil out of the land, ripping up coal, stripping the forests, paving the planet, and wiring the landscape with telephone poles and power lines. I’ll build high rises, garbage dumps, factories, suburbs, malls, parking lots, and sports arenas. Mine—all mine. This is my land and I have a piece of paper to prove it: paper that is made from trees I cut down (my trees now) and No, I didn’t ask permission because they are mine to cut.

Western Civilization, a gas-guzzling, land-raping, consumer-driven society is now the new landlord of North America. It sprawls across the continent, squashing the life out of every person, plant, and animal that preceded it. Chief Seattle never collected rent. He never slit his neighbor’s throat and raped and murdered his neighbor’s wife so that he could move into their condo. Even if those thoughts were to enter his head, he would certainly have first asked permission. Who in this world today is asking permission? Does the phrase “May I” even exist in the corporate vocabulary? The Trumps, Rockefellers, and Kochs of the world, along with the CEO’s of Philip Morris, Exxon, Standard Oil, and Halliburton believe in “Me first,” “I am Number One,” “Outa my way,” and “The one who dies with the most, wins.” All they are—all civilization is—is one big bad tenant squatting on the face of the earth, leaving gouges in the furniture, breaking everything it comes in contact with, and not paying the rent. Earth hasn’t gotten a dime, sou, or ruble out of civilization yet, and someday this tenant from Hell, this freeloader without even a lease in his hip pocket, will be evicted big time by the supreme landlord of us all: Mother Earth. And remember, never piss-off a woman.

©2001, 2015 Stuart Vail