The Commons of World, Experience, and Identity

The commons, sadly, have become less common. Mark Vernon writes that, “in the Middle Ages, fifty per cent or more of the land was commons, accessible to everybody” (Spiritual Commons). The Charter of the Forest formally established the commons within English law and it lasted from 1217 to 1971. That isn’t some ancient tradition but survived far into modernity, well within still living memory. The beginning of the end was the enclosure movement that was first seen not long after the Charter was signed into law, but the mass evictions of peasants from their land wouldn’t happen until many centuries later with sheep herding, coal mining, and industrialization.

It’s hard for us to imagine what was the commons. It wasn’t merely about land and resources, about the customs and laws about rights and responsibilities, about who had access to what and in what ways. The commons was a total social order, a way of being. The physical commons was secondary to the spiritual commons as community, home and sense of place (“First came the temple, then the city.”) — “Landscape is memory, and memory in turn compresses to become the rich black seam that underlies our territory” (Alan Moore, “Coal Country”, from Spirits of Place); “…haunted places are the only ones people can live in” (Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life). The commons also was a living force, at a time when Christianity permeated every aspect of life and when the felt experience of Paganism continued in local traditions and stories, often incorporated into Church rituals and holy days. Within the commons, there was a shared world where everyone was accountable to everyone else. Even a chicken or a wagon could be brought to court, according to the English common law of doedands (Self, Other, & World).

The parish was an expression of the commons, embodying local community and identity that was reinforced by the annual beating of the bounds, a practice that goes back to ancient Rome, a faint memory of what once was likely akin to the Aboriginal songlines in invoking a spiritual reality. It was within the parish that life revolved and the community was maintained, such as determining disputes and taking care of the sick, crippled, elderly, widowed, and orphaned. We can’t genuinely care about what we feel disconnected from. Community is fellowship, kinship and neighborliness, is intimate relationship and familiarity. This relates to why Germanic ‘freedom’ meant to be part of a free people and etymologically was related to ‘friendship’, as opposed to Latin ‘liberty’ that merely indicated one wasn’t enslaved while surrounded by those who were (Liberty, Freedom, and Fairness).

“It is the non-material aspects of life,” Vernon suggests, “that, more often than not, are crucial for finding meaning and purpose, particularly when life involves suffering.” He states that a crucial element is to re-imagine, and that makes me think of he living imagination or what some call the imaginal as described by William Blake, Henry Cobin, James Hillman, Patrick Harpur, and many others. And to re-imagine would mean to re-experience in new light. He goes onto speak of the ancient Greek view of time. John Demos, in Circles and Lines, explains how cyclical time remained central to American experience late into the colonial era and, as the United States wasn’t fully urbanized until the 20th century, surely persisted in rural eras for much longer. Cyclical time was about a sense of recurrence and return, central to the astrological worldview that gave us the word ‘revolution’, that is to revolve. The American Revolutionaries were hoping for a return and the sense of the commons was still strong among them, even as it was disappearing quickly.

Instead of time as abundance, the modern world feels like time is always running out and closing in on us. We have no sense of openness to the world, as we’ve become insulated within egoic consciousness and hyper-individualism. As with beating the bounds of the parish, cyclical time contains the world into a familiar landscape of the larger world of weather patterns and seasons, of the sun, moon and stars — the North Wind is a force and a being, shaping the world around us; the river that floods the valley is the bringer of life. The world was vitally and viscerally alive in a way few moderns have ever experienced. Our urban yards and our rural farms are ecological deserts. City lights and smog hide the heavens from our view. Let us share a longer excerpt from Vernon’s insightful piece:

“Spiritual commons are often manifest in and through the loveliness of the material world, so that matters as well. It’s another area, alongside education, where spiritual commons has practical implications. That was spotted early by John Ruskin.

“Consider his 1884 lecture, The Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century, in which he noted that “one of the last pure sunsets I ever saw” was in 1876, almost a decade previously. The colours back then were “prismatic”, he said, the sun going into “gold and vermillion”. “The brightest pigments we have would look dim beside the truth,” he continued. He had attempted to reflect that glorious manifestation of the spiritual commons in paint.

“He also knew that his experience of its beauty was lost because the atmosphere was becoming polluted. As a keen observer of nature, he noted how dust and smoke muddied and thinned the sky’s brilliance. In short, it would be crucial to clean up the environment if the vivid, natural displays were to return. Of course. But the subtler point Ruskin draws our attention to is the one about motivation: he wanted the vivid, natural displays because he had an awareness of, and desire for, spiritual commons.”

That is reminiscent of an event from 1994. There was a major earthquake on the West Coast and Los Angeles had a blackout. The emergency services were swamped with calls, not from people needing help for injuries but out of panic for the strange lights they were seeing in the sky. It scared people, as if the lights were more threatening than the earthquake itself — actual signs from the heavens. Eventually, the authorities were able to figure out what was going on. Thousands of urbanites were seeing the full starry sky for the first time in their entire lives. That situation has worsened since then, as mass urbanization is pushed to further extremes and, even though smog has lessened, light pollution has not (Urban Weirdness). We are literally disconnected from the immensity of the world around us, forever enclosed within our own human constructions. Even our own humanity has lost is wildness (see Paul Shepard’s The Others: How Animals Made Us Human).

We can speak of the world as living, but to most of us that is an abstract thought or a scientific statement. Sure, the world is full of other species and ecosystems. That doesn’t capture the living reality itself, though, the sense of vibrant and pulsing energy, the sounds and voices of other beings (Radical Human Mind: From Animism to Bicameralism and Beyond) — this is what the neuroanatomist Jill Bolte-Taylor, in her “Stroke of Insight”, described as the “life-force power of the universe” (See Scott Preston’s Immanence of the Transcendent & The Premises of Our Existence), maybe related to what Carl Jung referred to as the “objective psyche”. One time while tripping on magic mushrooms, I saw-felt the world glistening, the fields shimmered in the wind and moonlight and everything breathed a single breath in unison.

That animistic worldview once was common, as was the use of psychedelics, prior to their being outlawed and increasingly replaced by addictive substances, from nicotine to caffeine (The World that Inhabits Our Mind). And so the addictive mind has built up psychic scar tissue, the thick walls of the mind that safely and comfortably contain us (“Yes, tea banished the fairies.” & Diets and Systems). Instead of beating the bounds of a parish, we beat the bounds of our private egoic territory, our thoughts going round in round like creatures caught in a tidal pool that is drying up in the harsh sunlight — when will the tide come back in?

* * *

Here is some additional historical info. The feudal laws were to some extent carried over into North America. In early America, legally owning land didn’t necessarily mean much. Land was only effectively owned to the degree you used it and that originally was determined by fencing. So, having a paper that says you own thousands of acres didn’t necessarily mean anything, if it wasn’t being maintained for some purpose.

It was every citizen’s right to use any land (for fishing, hunting, gathering, camping, etc) as long as it wasn’t fenced in — that was at a time when fencing was expensive and required constant repair. This law remained in place until after the Civil War. It turned out to be inconvenient to the whites who wanted to remain masters, as blacks could simply go anywhere and live off of the land. That was unacceptable and so blacks need to be put back in their place. That was the end of that law.

But there were other similar laws about land usage. Squatting rights go back far into history. Even to this day, if someone shows no evidence of using and maintaining a building, someone who squats there for a period of time can claim legal ownership of it. Some of my ancestors were squatters. My great grandfather was born in a house his family was squatting in. Another law still in place has to do with general land usage. If someone uses your land to graze their horses or as a walking path, some laws will allow legal claims to be made on continuing that use of land, unless the owner explicitly sent legal paperwork in advance declaring his ownership.

There was a dark side to this. Canada also inherited this legal tradition from feudalism. In one case, a family owned land that they enjoyed but didn’t explicitly use. It was simply beautiful woods. A company was able to dredge up an old law that allowed them to assert their right to use the land that the family wasn’t using. Their claim was based on minerals that were on the property. They won the case and tore up the woods for mining, despite having no ownership of the land. Those old feudal laws worked well in feudalism but not always so well in capitalism.

I’ll end on a positive note. There was a law that was particularly common in Southern states. It basically stated that an individual’s right to land was irrevocable. Once you legally owned land, no one could ever forcefully take it away from you. Even if you went into debt or didn’t pay your taxes, the land would be yours. The logic was that land meant survival. You could be utterly impoverished and yet access to land meant access to food, water, firewood, building materials, etc. The right to basic survival, sustenance, and subsistence could not be taken away from anyone (well, other than Native Americans, African-Americans, Mexican-Americans, etc; okay, not an entirely positive note to end on).

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