Thursday, August 11, 2011

Property rights

We started with an acre of scrub pasturage. Some scrappy gorse and heather, but nothing of sufficient substance to impede the wanderings of sheep or cattle. Back in the 1920s, when the Land Commission took over the vast properties of Lord Ventry and parceled it out among the peasantry, each family in the village got a few fertile fields on the gently sloping land below the road, and four or five acres of rough grazing on the hill. That was our land: rough grazing.

But it had one advantage that appealed to me greatly on that sun-drenched day thirty-three years ago when I bought the land: the view was eye-popping. Our neighbors, however, could not understand what we were up to. "Only crazy Yanks would live on the hill," they said. The hill was wind, and cold, and loneliness, and maybe worse. Our narrow unpaved lane was called "the fairies' road."

We picked out the flattest patch of land and built a cottage. My wife scraped together a few hundred pounds and had a local gardener plant two-hundred trees -- a hundred willow sticks jabbed into the earth, and a hundred tiny evergreens and hardwoods more firmly planted, as they would need to be to survived the battering winter winds that roared in from the Atlantic.

Enough trees survived to transform our scruffy acre, now multiplied to three, from rough grazing to just plain rough. We have beaten back the encroaching tangle from the immediate environs of the house. Each summer, it's me and the strimmer against nature green in frond and thorn. The trees -- those that survived -- give us some protection from the wind and the gift of shady bowers. Elsewhere, the gorse, bracken and nettles grow rank and wild.

So wild that we fear if the hill catches fire the house will go with it. And so this summer I hired a neighbor to come in with his tractor and cut a fire break around the outer perimeter of our land. I did so with misgivings. I'm a planter, not a cutter. "In wildness is the preservation of the world," said Thoreau. Certainly, wildness is the preservation of my little world. I love the rough chaos that nature has enveloped us with, of her own accord, our very own tangled bank. I weep to look up the hill behind the house and see the bare, churned-up earth left behind by the tractor.