Reclaiming Common Ground: past and present, part 1

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Based on Heather Menzies’ presentation at Camp Gabriola on August 26, 2016.

Part 1 of 2

A politics of hope can prevail over a politics of despair if it’s guided by a vision that itself is grounded in what has worked in the past…  when the so-called unseen hand of the common good was not only seen but attached to people like you and me.


John Capon, Grace McInnis and other CCF Campers in 1945.

1945 CCF Camp Woodsworth, with the young Gabriolan John Capon (seated left centre) with a number of CCF luminaries, including Grace McInnis. Photo credit: Gabriola Museum Archives.

A politics of hope can prevail over a politics of despair if it’s guided by a vision that itself is grounded in what has worked in the past. It can inspire if people see themselves as more than a part of a narrative that merely got lost on the road to empire and globalization. They will put their faith into some of the emergent economic and social alternatives of today if they can see these as linked to an historical legacy – when the so-called unseen hand of the common good was not only seen but attached to people like you and me. At least that’s what I think.

The legacy I offer is that of the pre-modern commons. Its’ ethos and practices have persisted in such modern organizations as the CCF: the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation, that flourished in Canada in the 1930s.

I encountered the commons by accident, having gone looking for some alternative to the current endgame of corporate and investment globalization, something that would get me out of the box of thinking only about jobs and alternative investment opportunities.

On a whim, I went to Scotland to trace my ancestral roots, and found them at something called Tullicro, a pre-modern commons hamlet in the remote Glen Lyon River Valley in the Highlands. Over the next three years, I immersed myself in the historical record on this much-misunderstood form of societal organization.  I combined this with long days actually walking the land that my ancestors had walked, and farmed and pastured their sheep, cattle and goats, in common.

The first thing I learned is that the commons isn’t just land: it’s people and land living together; habitat and human inhabitants.

It’s  people living in direct relation –even right relations–  with the land for mutual sustainability. That was the first gem of discovery: an ecological form of direct democracy in which ‘agency’ was not only local but centred in relationships, not isolated individuals. Moreover, these relationships included the land and non-human inhabitants of habitat.

I learned that the word ‘common’ means ‘together as one’. I also learned that this togetherness was worked out through ongoing commoning relationships, between families in the commons community and between them and the land they had co-inhabited since before recorded time. An ethos of the shared or common good infused this, which meant very simply limiting individual ambition within the carrying capacity of the local community and environment.

The commons is actually a verb – to common. Commoning involved sharing work and resources like plows and breeding bulls, sharing the land and common pastures. And this involved a lot of shared self-organization into work bees, and also self-governance and related justice. It was about contributing your share, getting your share, and also about sharing decision-making power and related responsibility.

It was responsible self-governance, with this practiced first and most often at the level of the daily work-project team – be this around maintaining stone fences or getting everyone to the common pastureland called the Shieling for the summer, and more broadly in regulations such as the limits, or ‘stints’ on how many sheep, cows and goats any one family could pasture at the shieling.

Another thing I learned is that the economics of it was interwoven with the social, the cultural and the spiritual. I want to emphasize this because we’ve been schooled to think of economics as separate from how we live our lives, and so the contradictions that economics forces upon us are kept at a distance. Yet when social and cultural priorities inform economics, the economics that emerge can be different – something that is happening today in everything from community-assisted agriculture to fair-trade networks.

One aspect of the social and cultural was in commoners’ knowledge practices. Instead of a super-powered expert few and a disempowered many, you had the commoning of experience and observation into shared knowledge – notably through the spoken word. This knowledge informed  decisions at commons meetings – such as when certain strips of shared farmland should lie fallow for a season, or how many sheep could be sent to the common pasture land for the summer so that the pasture would not be over-grazed. Not only did everyone have a stake in getting these decisions right. Everyone had a share in the knowledge that informed them.

The cultural included the social aspects of the meetings and all the shared work. It also included gatherings around the music of a kaelie (ceilidh), both pagan and Celtic Christian faith practices and rituals accompanying the annual flitting to the shieling.

This wasn’t culture as consumption. It was culture as participation, as self and shared expression, as social bonding and mutual trust.  All of this cultivated the common ground of the commons. It underpinned the success of its small-p politics by helping sustain a shared commitment to the common good and trust in the mutuality of this.

Part 2 of this presentation will be posted on Monday, October 3, 2016.

The Commons as a fable for our time – a fable with teeth. Part II

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“The People’s Climate” Blog Series, Part 3

Without ties to the land is to be a broken person.

– Scottish proverb

By Heather Menzies, Author of Reclaiming the Commons for the Common Good

Heather Menzies

Heather Menzies stands before an uplands valley once used as pasture commons, just as the mist begins rolling down the hills.

As I continued to walk the land my people had walked and worked and with which they’d lived in common since before recorded time, bits from the academic research I’d done on the commons stood out. One is the phrase “a field in good heart.” At a utilitarian level, It means that the soil is fertile, having good structure for holding moisture and nutrients. But at another level, it means exactly what it implies as it links a farming field to a human heart: an intimacy of identification and connection.

I’m similarly moved by an old custom that an academic researcher uncovered. When the commoners had elected or chosen a field officer – the person entrusted to ensure that everyone followed the regulations, which included manuring practices and leaving fields to lie fallow on a regular basis – he took his oath of office while standing in the field. Often too, he would not only take off his hat, but also his shoes and stockings. Standing there bare foot, he reached down and picked up a handful of dirt and, holding that fist against his heart, he then took his oath, swearing to be faithful to the community and the land they farmed together.

One more story to make my point (see my book for more details): When my commoner-ancestors headed out from the main settlement where they lived full time and grew field crops, when they headed into the higher hills to the shieling for the summer, tradition bearers would lead them in songs, including Chi Mi, which is Gaelic for “I see.” Each verse began with these words, and went on to tell a story that linked the singers to some ridge or other feature of the landscape they were passing. Singing that song every year was a way of greeting that bit of the land like an old friend or relative. The stories of shared experience on the land knit them closer to it, affirming that connection as part of their identity.

There’s an old Scottish saying that a person with no ties to the land is “a broken person.” It’s a saying worth remembering as we work toward actionable policies, and a shared commitment, to heal the climate by healing humanity’s relations with the earth.

I don’t know whether someone like Clayton Thomas-Muller might see me as a possible ally some day. And I don’t know exactly whether seven generations back in time for me does situate me closer to a pre-modern identity, tied to the land or not. But if I am to have integrity as someone trying to articulate an alternative to the “same old, same old”, I must practice what I preach.

The heritage of the commons offers actionable policies, including limits on extraction, carbon and other emissions. This is part of the work we need to do to renegotiate relations with the earth for mutual sustainability, but only part.

The intellectual work is important; that’s the teeth of meaningful change. But reclaiming old rituals and practices of connection, relationship building and community are equally important. So is recovering the old stories of connection and, equally, owning the stories of disconnection and our participation in this. They are the cultural, spiritual and even psychological work that’s needed as much as the political work of policy making. Or, to continue the metaphor, they are the jaws in which the teeth are set. They are the face, the voice and the body, too, powering the momentum of identification and commitment that are needed to make earth-sustainabilty policies part of a new common sense.

The Commons as a fable for our time – a fable with teeth. Part I

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“The People’s Climate” Blog Series, Part 2


Reclaiming the Commons for the Common Good is an admirable, even noble, vision, and expresses very eloquently what will have to be done if humanity is to escape the current race towards disaster.”– Noam Chomsky

An uplands pasture near the ancestral Menzies lands in Scotland.

An uplands pasture near the ancestral Menzies lands in Scotland.

Fable is an old-fashioned word for a story meant to convey a useful lesson. I noticed it used in several reviews of Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything on climate change and what to do about it in the context of addressing what the reviewer sensed as a gap in an otherwise excellent book: the absence of a vision to unite alternative action or, as one put it, a fable. I think the commons offers such a vision. This first of two blog posts is about being open to ancient story and vision.

Like so many activist writers, I knew what I was against: letting an overheated global corporate economy remain on a collision course with our increasingly distressed planet. But I couldn’t name what to do about this in terms meaningful enough for a social movement to sustain action on them.

I kept banging my head against ‘alternative job opportunities’ and other vagueries. Until I read Aboriginal environmental activist Clayton Thomas-Muller’s 2010 essay “The Seventh Generation” where he wrote: “something deep inside me snapped. I quit trying to be Canadian,” settling instead in the knowledge that “I was Cree.”

I packed a bag and headed to the Highlands of Scotland hoping to find remnants, faint echoes and lingering intimations of what it was like when my ancestors lived in direct relation with the earth, and called themselves “Cruithne,” simply “the people” in Gaelic. One day I tracked the small symbols on an ordinance map marking the ruins of stone shieling huts, seasonal dwellings in the upland pasturing commons where my forebears spent their summers, from Beltane to Llamas time on the old pagan calendar. The path that would take me there began at a lay-by beside a single-track road that ran around the back of Ben Lawrs, one of the biggest mountains in the Highlands. The path was a rock-studded affair that wound its way around bits of fern-covered bog, up over ridges and finally to a lovely hung valley where even I could tell the grass was taller and thicker if not positively lush.

Knowing that this area was land long inhabited not just by my father’s father’s people, the Menzies, but also those on his mother’s side and one side of my Mum’s family too, I walked into that valley as though I was coming home. I took in the feel of the ground rough and gnarled against the soles of my feet, the mist in the air billowing gently against my face. I heard the water in a stream that came boisterously down from the saddle-back ridge at the far end of the valley, and saw where it pooled beside a cluster of tumbled down stones that, yes, must be the ruins of the shieling huts, called bothies that I’d been reading about. One was more intact than others, the angle of the corner stones still sharp and clear, some cavities in the stone walls where my ancestors would have stored the cheese they’d made through the summer, plus the cooking tools, the horn and wooden spoons they used in eating. I was drawn to what seemed to be the entrance, a single slab of stone still marking the lentil above it. Some ancestors might well have shaped that stone, I realized, using an iron chisel forged from bog iron that they would have found under the peat during their summers here. My great, great grannies and aunties would have gone in and out this way, carrying armfuls of dried heather that served as mattresses for sleeping in the bothies.

I stood at the entranceway as though it was a portal to another time, and in a way it was. So I just stood there, immersing myself in the sense of this, open to what the spirits of my ancestors might have to tell me, should they by chance be present in the mist that was gathering, thicker now, in the valley. I had come to a place where my forebears had lived connected to the earth: as responsible inhabitants of a habitat, and it was helping me get my bearings.

Common means “together as one. For my ancestors on the common lands of the Highlands, it meant land and people together as one, one inter-relationship. It also meant negotiating that relationship in daily work, knowledge and governance practices – commons practices that persisted in some glens like this one right up until the Clearances (which I will unpack in later blog posts). These practices have recently been vindicated as the basis of a genuine alternative to market or state governance of land and resources, notably through the work of Elinor Ostrom, who was awarded the 2009 Nobel Prize in Economics in recognition of it.

To be continued…

The Road to Tullicro

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Tullicro_roadI had only one small clue to guide me: the word Tullicro. It’s where my great, great, great grandfather James Menzies was born, in 1792.

Turns out it’s a fermtoun or township, a commons community, half way up into the hills rising on either side of the tumultuous Tay River. I rented a bicycle from the gas station near the bed and breakfast where I was staying in Aberfeldy (named after the spirit that is said to inhabit this particular spot, where there are a lot of rapids).

Tullicro_houseI cycled around asking the locals to guide me. An old farmer raised a work-gnarled finger and pointed up the road. The next laneway, he said. There’s a sign at the bottom…. And so I went, pushing my bicyle up the hill. At the top, I found the ruins of a traditional Crux cottage that once had a byre at one end where the cows and chickens were kept.

I stood transfixed: this was my portal, my way in. I knew it. I had no idea really. But instinct prompted me to make inquiries and the next year I was back, able to rent one of the restored buildings in this old walled community, a bothy.

Excerpt from Reclaiming the Commons:

“Tullicro became an archeological dig site to me, a place where I could connect what I  learned over the next two years from reading all I could get my hands on about the commons and the history of everyday life in the Highlands. When I returned to Scotland from Canada, I rented the smallest of the renovated buildings on the fermtoun, what had been a bothy (a sleeping quarters for unmarried men and hired hands). It was and still is a simple granite box of a place with two small windows on either side of the narrow, low door, the key to which is a long, iron latchkey, which scraped matching iron deep inside the thick plank of wood that was the door as I unlocked it. I moved in my stuff, and turned on the heat, glad of the mod cons that had been added with the renovation.

“I picked some flowers from the yard outside, weeds really, but pretty still. I took my time arranging them in a mug, set this on the table where I’d eat and work during my stay, then went to air out my bed. I took my time. I walked the fields where my ancestors had labored semi-communally, with scattered strips of the infield shared out by lots. I sussed out where old pathways, called loans and driftways, which also served as common rights of way used to be.

“I found a stone that seemed more than just another piece of glacial erratic. It might have been a march or mark stone from the days when Tullicro was a flourishing common. Large standing stones were used to mark the boundaries of land that was farmed in common, boundaries that my ancestors “marched” at least once every year in a ritual ceremony to ensure that no one had erected some hedging or fencing, enclosing a bit of land for private gain. In one account at least, any such evidence of enclosing would be summarily destroyed, with axes and mattocks carried along for the purpose.

“I liked that story, the cheerful efficiency of local justice, though aware too of its shadow in the abuse of such power and its potential conflict with higher, more remote authorities as these intruded more and more over time with a different way of ordering and organizing society, and even of understanding its purpose. Still, I got in the habit of visiting the mark stone when I was out walking the fields, now a sheep pasture. If the day was sunny and warm, I sometimes clambered on top where there was a small depression and sat there, arms hugging my knees to my chest, having a good think.”

To order my book, request it at your local bookstore or order your copy from New Society Publishers today!

Breaking from the Status Quo

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farmstead_ruins_DSCN0322When you’re stuck, you’re stuck because you know you’re at a dead end. You know you’re just flapping your lips, moving words around on the page or in your mouth but without cutting through to something that truly is an alternative to the status quo.

I knew that the problems in the social environment —deepening inequalities, more and more people marginalized, displaced, disconnected and depressed— were linked to the problems in the natural environment  and its deepening crisis of toxic waste, carbon overload, more extreme weather and rising temperatures.

In fact, the world seemed to be on a collision course with the planet that sustains it. But how to find a place to stand that would be inside a genuine alternative. I had to break away, to force myself to get on a plane and go where instinct told me I might find a new perspective: the land of my ancestors, in the Highlands of Scotland.

Excerpt of Reclaiming the Commons:

“At a time of feeling at a dead end, I went to Scotland looking for my ancestral and even, I hoped, my tribal roots. In the rugged glens of the Tay River Valley, I discovered a legacy of which I had known nothing: a people, my people, living in direct relations with the land in self-governing commons and commons communities, small villages or hamlets called fermtouns or townships. They set stints, or limits, on the number of sheep and cows to be sent to the upland common pasture, and decided how often field strips should be left to rest, to lie fallow and recover their fertility.

“The legacy I discovered included great loss as well: a loss that goes well beyond the dislocation of people from the land itself through the Highland clearances. My ancestors weren’t just displaced. They were dispossessed. They were stripped of their traditional knowledge vested in the land, their ways of knowing through the experience of working that land, their ways of sharing this in a commons of knowledge and, in their spiritual practices, honoring their place in Creation. They were disenfranchised too because they lost the legitimacy of local self-governance, the local interpretation of justice, fairness and the common good. The so-called tragedy of the commons, I learned as I explored this lost history, turns out to have been based not on the facts of how people like my ancestors lived on the land but on assumptions useful to those trying to clear them off of it.”

To order my book, request it at your local bookstore or order your copy from New Society Publishers today!