Interesting How Trains of Thought Develop: From Rocks to the Origins of Property

RocksI was walking to work the other day when I passed by a lot that was being developed. An old, slightly dilapidated yellow cottage used to sit there, waves of weeds marching across the lawn, waging war on the neighbour’s manicured beds. It hadn’t come as a surprise that the house was sold, razed to the ground, and the ground sown with grass seed in the fall last year, as the new owner waited out the winter for the building permits to be approved. They finally got their permits sometime in the early summer, and machinery moved in, excavating a large hole for the foundation.

I can’t see the hole, as there is a chain link fence that has been put up, for safety and to obscure the groans of the ground as it is ravaged by a dusty and tired-looking excavator. At least the bucket of the excavator looks dusty and tired; I can’t see the rest of the beast.

At the north-west corner of the lot, sits a pile of large rocks, small boulders really, as there is no way that a person could lift any of these rocks. As I passed the rocks, my mind started to wonder and wander.

My parents have a rock retaining wall, with similarly sized boulders, along the western edge of their property. I’ve planted lavender along the top, to help retain the soil, as the previous owner hadn’t built up the wall high enough, and the earth tended to spill over during heavy rains or when we were attempting to hand water newly planted shrubs. I’ve still had to build up the top of the wall with old pieces of sawn timber, and shoe-sized rocks, in attempt to help keep the soil from running down the wall. In between the lavender shrubs, which the bees just love, and the bits of wood and stone, I’ve planted alpine strawberries, which spread like weeds and are very hardy, to help with the soil erosion issue, and to give passers-by something to eat on their way past the property – there is a public path along that edge.

Rock Wall, Breacon Beacon, WalesI wondered how early farmers in the British Isles built their rock walls, those ones that seem to crisscross the island, turning it into a giant patchwork when seen from the sky. But then, those rocks aren’t small boulders. They are different rocks, flatter, less rounded. And I suppose the people who built all those walls had centuries of tilling that soil to keep uncovering large rocks, moving them aside.

Ashton Court, Bristol, UKPerhaps that is how rock walls were first formed, as piles of rock put aside during the clearing of the land. Perhaps the earliest walls were not fortifications but the byproducts of early agricultural practices, for very practical albeit mundane reasons (it’s like calculus, as my high school math teacher used to say: the solution is not the most complicated but the simplest; people tend to overcomplicated calculus unnecessarily, because it seems intimidating, but it really isn’t).

What was the origin of property though? At what point did the early agrarian decide that a particular area was theirs as opposed to that of the communal good? Modern ethnography shows that many primitive (here defined as characteristic of an early state of human development; primitive societies are still incredibly complex) societies do not have a concept of individual ownership of land. Land is shared. People work together: men hunt, women farm, all for the good of the community. I’m simplifying this communal work, but it is there in practice. 

So at what point did we go from working towards the communal good, to working for the individual good. At what point did we learn to be selfish? Is it that selfishness, in and of itself, is that innate instinct for self-preservation, twisted through social evolution, into ownership?

My friend suggested that I read Locke, which I’ll have to look into at some point, as Locke deals with this fundamental issue of property. In the meantime, I am walking past the pile of rocks, small boulders, really, watching a house get built.



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