Illustration by Elenia Beretta

The Age of Enclosure

A reflection on man's relationship with land we come to call "property."

There was always a period of grief after harvesting the fields—when, after so many days of the combine coming through for the corn, the specks of husk shining in the long rays of the last summer sun, the fields turning back into mud, all the work we had given the land to do was done.

We used our land to farm soybeans and corn, and our neighbors used their land to grow trees, and down the road a bit a man used his land to raise pigs—the smell was enough to keep us from ever really going that way. My father bought the land to raise his girls, he told me once, but in truth, he bought it for himself. He had grown up seeing that if you don’t own the land you live on, you can’t plant when the ground is ready for the seeds, can’t cut a path through the trees for your children to walk on, can’t do what you can plainly see the land needs. Owning a piece of land, he believed, makes a man somehow a little more free. As if power only comes from what we have power over, as if it can be extracted from the soil and the trees. My father didn’t have power over much, but he had power over the land, my mother and sisters, and me.

Our land had a field for planting row crops, a pasture for the horses, a twisting line of forest that followed the creek. The back of our house had a row of windows that looked over the entire valley—we cleared the creek bottom for planting, but up along the ridges was wild and overgrown. Osage orange trees marked the property lines—a bramble of thorns always sticky with the sap of the fruits that looked like weird green brains. Their only purpose, as far as my father was concerned, was marking a boundary: the edge of what he had claimed as his own.

The law told my father that he owned everything enclosed by the fences, including the trees and barbed wire that made it. He could cut down the trees if he wanted to, could burn them, or drag them out of the ground by their roots because he owned the land on which they grew. He owned the house and the barn and the tall grass in the pasture; he owned the dogs and the horses and could slaughter or breed them; he owned any babies they might have—and their teeth and milk and hair and skin. He could use or abuse them however he saw fit.

Everything inside the fences became his property, though the bank called it his real estate—“real” meaning immovable, coming from the Latin res for “thing.” A thing is not vital, has no agency, is not living. Turning the pasture into a thing—as if it were as discrete and isolated as a can of soup, as if it wouldn’t exist without his labor—deprives it of its meaning, severs the relationships that bind the grass to the soil and the wind and the sun. And if the pasture becomes meaningless, so can the creek that winds through the forest, and so can the forest, and the trees that grow there, and the deer that eat their leaves. The entire world becomes an object. Its destruction also becomes meaningless.

Every fall we harvested the fields, and after the tractors had left, the turkeys came, and they were followed by the quail and the deer, which in turn were followed by snow. A white blanket fell over the valley without regard for our fences. And then one year my father sold the farm and we never harvested again. We moved to a house in town with a porch that faced the house across from us. It had a little yard in the back, though my father never bothered to fence it. We sold the horses, but kept the dogs chained up between two trees. They barked all day and all night. Eventually we all stopped hearing it.

Orion‘s Summer 2022 issue is generously sponsored by NRDC.

Lacy M. Johnson is the author of several books, including the essay collection The Reckonings, and is coeditor of More City than Water: A Houston Flood Atlas. She teaches at Rice University and is the founding director of the Houston Flood Museum.