Between Oakwood Avenue and Brenner Place in Allouez is a small forest. The backyards of homes on Brenner and Oakwood run into this forest which climbs the hill rising from Brenner. Though I long to explore it, I have never been in this forest. I think I can see a trailhead at the end of Brenner, but the owner of the home lets two nasty sounding dogs run loose in the yard. If I had grown up near that forest, I would have gone wandering in it. Now, as an adult, I worry about who owns the forest and who owns the trailhead and whether some suspicious homeowner would call the police. And I wouldn’t blame someone for calling the police for seeing a strange man lurking in the woods behind their home. If I could settle the question of who owns that forest, I might even approach the owner for permission to enter it.
For some people, the ownership of any part of Creation was something quite incomprehensible:
“How can you buy or sell the sky, the warmth of the land? The idea is strange to us. If we do not own the freshness of the air and the sparkle of the water, how can you buy them?”
These questions about the ownership of land are found in a letter written by Chief Sealth (Seattle) to President Franklin Pierce in 1854 in response to Pierce’s offer to buy two million acres of land from Chief Seattle’s tribe. Chief Seattle was pretty sure “ownership” wasn’t a concept to be applied to Creation. Chief Seattle believed that the Creator had made a home specifically suitable for him and his people to enjoy together freely. How could you sell a gift from God? How could you sell a home built specifically for you by God? Especially if you had no other home to go to, no other home you loved so gratefully. The confusion, frustration, and anger that European Americans caused among Native Americans with their attempts to buy their land obviously ended badly.
Chief Seattle might have liked this passage from the scriptures: “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it” (Psalm 24). To be sure, the people of Israel believed a portion of the land of Canaan had been promised and entrusted to them by God for their use, despite the fact that other people were already living there. But the scriptures also reminded the people of Israel that the land they lived in was a gift from God to be shared equally by all the people of Israel and that God had certain expectations for the people of Israel about how to treat each other (i.e. the “Ten Commandments”) and “resident aliens”:
“The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.”
God even wanted the land (Leviticus 25) and domesticated animals (Exodus 20) to enjoy a Sabbath. The scripture witnesses to God’s anger that his people failed in their management of the land he had given them; Isaiah believed God had “delivered them into the hand of their iniquity” (Isaiah 64:7) and allowed them to become refugees for a time in the land of Babylon.
All of which is to say that according to the bible continued “land ownership” depends upon the “owners” living according to the will of God that defines relationships between people, between people and animals, and between people and Creation.
There is, however, a growing movement to return the management of Creation to the same kinds of people who poured PCBs into the Fox River and lit Lake Erie on fire. And loving “resident aliens” among us as much as we love ourselves is hardly the law of our land. And neither the government nor the captains of industry are doing anything for citizens these days that can be described as “equitable.” The ownership of everything is falling into the hands of fewer and fewer people.
I don’t know what will happen to the Small Forest of Allouez. I’m not sure who owns it. If there is a single owner, maybe he or she will “subdivide it” and have its oaks sold and sawn into boards and “developed.” Or maybe all the property owners around it own a little piece of it which prevents any one of them from destroying the whole thing. That’s close to the principle that Chief Seattle had in mind. And maybe the children living around the forest are free to go a wandering in it for that reason.
So as much as I’d like to get to know the Small Forest of Allouez, I’ll stay out of it. I’ll continue to enjoy other parts of Creation which, as national parks or county forests, it’s clear that we all own, hoping that that principle continues to be remembered and respected.