Reclaiming Common Ground: past and present, part 1

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.

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

“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.

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

“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.

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The Road to Tullicro

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

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!