Out in the cold

Selling the family farm severs connection with place and past

  • Sale day at the Bair family farm.

    Courtesy Julene Bair
  • Life on the farm, c. 1980s.

    Courtesy Julene Bair
  • Life on the farm, c. 1980s.

    Courtesy Julene Bair
  • Life on the farm, c. 1980s.

    Courtesy Julene Bair
  • Life on the farm, c. 1980s.

    Courtesy Julene Bair
 

Page 4

As soon as the money from the sale hit my bank account, I talked the man I live with into going in together on a house and barn on a little under two acres on the Colorado Front Range. We were buying, I argued, a tiny fraction of connection, a bit of what I'd sold.

It was indeed pretty here on the plains below the mountains. But just owning 1.7 acres in exurbia seemed to satisfy nothing. That Felliniesque image, the auctioneer's wagon, rode through my subconscious all winter.

What was so compelling about owning, anyway? And what was it about not owning that could cause such sickness to arise in me? The word "property," it surprised me to discover, was first defined as a "bundle of rights." What we gave up in selling was not the thing itself, which will last far longer than us, but our rights over it.

This made sense to me. Land is one of the four traditional elements. Air, Fire, Water, Earth are nature, its essence. We naturally grasp onto land, the only solid thing among them, but land belongs to all life, not, ultimately, to any individual or family or species.

Tracts on property theory often quote the Enlightenment thinker John Locke, who proclaimed that what man "removes out of the state that nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property." The idea that mixing with the soil makes it ours appealed to my body's reasoning. Farming is an intermingling of self and soil. My father mixed himself, his labor, into the soil he owned. To morally earn the farm, I would've had to do the same.

Another theory, "libertarian socialism," holds that owners lose their rights if they abandon property or try to reap benefit from it while not living on and working it. This also made emotional sense to me. As an absentee owner, I should have felt just as empty, if not emptier, than I did having sold. I had no moral right to that land.

Why did anyone have to own it? I would rather have liberated our property from the annual assaults waged on it by plows and irrigation pumps. The Nature Conservancy would not have been interested in our denuded fields but the law requires that it belong to someone. Had I the means, I could have held the deeds, paid the taxes and put my father's land all back to grass.

That romantic return to wilderness would have soothed my ache, but it would not have healed it. The cover of one book I ran across, The Philosophy of Property, featured an idyllic white clapboard house and red barn surrounded by golden wheatfields. I longed for what we'd had, the way we'd once had it, for how the land had nurtured us with the produce and livestock we grew. Right relationship.

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