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  • Who Owns This Land
  • Wilma Dykeman
    Winter-Spring 1985

Who owns this place where I live. Oh, I have a legal title to it. My name is duly recorded on a deed duly registered in the processes of human commerce and law. But this is only one kind of possession. Perhaps it is the least important possession. [End Page 85]

Consider the other inhabitants on my acres.

There are the cardinals that winter here, appear at my feeding station, build nests in the spring, dart with flashes of scarlet brilliance through the greenery of summer or the white snows of winter. They are worried by no boundary lines designating ownership.

There are the mockingbirds that seek out the highest limbs from which to pour forth their liquid dazzling variety of songs and calls, and the plump mourning doves that run along the ground or wing on short flights from one low tree limb to another. There are the robins that enliven my lawn with their neat, attentive presence, and the starlings that roar in periodically—scrounging and greedy. They await no invitation to visit or inhabit this place that must be designated "ours."

There are the insects that inhabit every inch of surface here, even though I encounter them only occasionally. They whirl out of the grasses as I walk across the yard, they zoom out of bushes along the driveway, and they throng in the garden—vegetables or flowers—I try to cultivate. Their numbers awe me. (I understand the scientific theory that this may be called the age of the insects.) Their variety interests me. (They range from the pure destructiveness of the Japanese beetles to the sophisticated society and usefulness of the bees.) Their noises fill the day—and night. (Is there a sound more ripe with the essence of late summer than the cries of the katydids in the early velvet darkness?)

There are the small animals that lurk in hidden shadows and know my routes of passage and my routines of work better than I know theirs. Occasionally at night my headlights catch the darting form of a sprightly rabbit. Once, quite a while ago, a possum sought refuge under shrubs a distance behind our house. One rainy evening late in the spring I smelled a skunk; it must have been prowling over alien territory for it never [End Page 86] reappeared. Even in the middle of town, woods and the bluff that leads to the river in front of my house provide habitat for these little creatures—and for the squirrels that are my favorites. Bushy tails flipping to and fro, alert to every sound and movement, they inhabit totally: saving their winter's food from oaks and hickories and Chinese chestnuts; storing their loot in the ground, in nooks and crannies; exploring crevices and holes as well as sources of food.

There is all the variety of life that owns the giant oak and elm and maple in my yard. These trees are veritable apartment houses of inhabitants ranging from borers beneath their covers of bark to the shy owl that visits late at night and utters its mysterious cry.

The psychologist, William James, once said, "The instinct of ownership is fundamental in man's nature." I enjoy "my" acres. But I also remember that Thoreau observed, "The highest law gives a thing to him who can use it." And I know that use makes several owners of this place. [End Page 87]

Wilma Dykeman

Wilma Dykeman was a novelist, historian, journalist, educator, speaker, and environmentalist who pioneered in the areas of water pollution, civil rights, oral history, Appalachian Studies, and the empowerment of women. Author of the classic Appalachian novel The Tall Woman, her posthumous memoir Family of Earth: A Southern Mountain Childhood was published in 2016. Dykeman died December 22, 2006.



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