Reclaiming Common Ground: past and present, part 1

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrby feather
Facebookby feather

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 Road to Tullicro

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrby feather
Facebookby feather

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!