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.

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.

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