Americans strongly believe in the right to own, and sell, almost everything, from cleaning products that emit health-damaging volatile organic compounds to nature itself, in the form of large tracts of private property populated by wild animals.
The first time it happened I was on a rafting trip with my wife, Debbie. “What’s this,” she asked, holding a glass bottle she’d picked out of the rocks. I took it from her, and my heart beat a little faster. It was an antique liquor bottle stamped with the date “1856,” a prized artifact from the Old West. “Let me see that,” said our guide, who, because of his age and river wisdom, we’d nicknamed “Old Man River.” “I’ve been rafting this river twenty years and I’ve never seen an intact bottle like this. Must’ve been dislodged by the rains.” He took it from me. “Best to leave it here at the river where other people can come across it,” he said, as he squatted down and wedged it between the rocks.
I grimaced at his back ”“ although my wife had found it, I wanted to take it with me; own a piece of history. As if reading my mind Old Man River stood up, brushed his hands on his shorts, and said to the sky, “a single person can’t own history; it belongs to everybody.” I thought about what he said for a moment, but still wanted that damn bottle.
The second time I was on a wilderness hike in Mexico with a group of friends. We were sitting on a beach, cleaning the fish we’d caught, when our guide walked up to us with a huge smile and a cylindrical object in his hand. “Look what I found,” he said, holding out a small vase-shaped object the color of dull salmon. “I think it’s an Indian pot, maybe a few hundred years old.” I licked my lips in envy, “what are you going to do with it?” “Give it back to the tribe,” he responded without hesitation, “it belongs to them.”
The rest of the trip I kept my eyes glued to the ground, searching for artifacts that I could smuggle home, forgetting about the wild beauty around me. I found nothing. Later, after we’d canoed back to the Indian village from which we launched, our guide handed the pot to a tribal elder. He told us, in Spanish, that he’d never seen an object like this; only heard about its use in ancient ceremonies. He thought it might be eight hundred years old. “We’ll keep this pot for our children,” he said, his eyes moist, “so that they can see how their ancestor’s lived.” I was glad they had the pot, but knew I wouldn’t have given it so willingly.
My internal lust to own old found objects is not altogether different from the external struggles over ownership that define environmentalism. At one end of the continuum, Americans strongly believe in the right to own, and sell, almost everything, from cleaning products that emit health-damaging volatile organic compounds to nature itself, in the form of large tracts of private property populated by wild animals. Where we draw the line between what can be owned and what cannot defines how strongly we feel about environmental protection, and about the common good.
Today we can own gas guzzling heavy-weight vehicles that, depending on how much they're used, emit hundreds of pounds of polluting and greenhouse gas emissions. We can own, and readily discard, mounds of plastic used temporarily to carry around items or to package other commodities. And we can own large sways of acres that, with a few exceptions, we can do pretty much what we want with.
Of course none of these things can really be owned forever. Even the objects that are mine ”“ my new Mini Cooper convertible; the computer I’m writing with ”“ are really only temporary companions. We’ll part company some day. Which makes our collective lust for objects quixotic. How can I own an object that will last longer than I do? And if that object harms the planet I live on, or puts by daughter’s future at risk, who really owns who?
I don’t know how I’ll feel or act the next time I come across an ancient found object. I hope, though, that if its meaning spans more than a moment that I’ll leave it where it lies, or carry it to a place where it belongs.
Steven Moss is the publisher of the Neighborhood Environmental Newswire. He serves as Executive Director of San Francisco Community Power, www.sfpower.org.
Source: An ENN Commentary