Master of the Acres Across the Creek

November 25, 1993|By PETER A. JAY

HAVRE DE GRACE — Havre de Grace.--Almost 20 years ago, I bought a piece of farmland that abuts what I think of as the back side of our place. From a farming standpoint it was not an especially good buy.

It's a pretty tract, about half of it tillable, and close by if you're on foot or happen to have a helicopter. The trouble is, it lies on the far side of a creek and a very hilly patch of woods. To reach it with most farm machinery from our barn requires a roundabout trip of about 2 miles on county roads.

It was much more accessible to a neighbor, and as he was looking for more land to farm I decided to rent it to him until I figured out a better use for it. He's still farming it today, and has been a good steward; it looks much better than it did when I bought it. I get over to it as often as I can, but a recent event forcefully suggested to me that that might not have been often enough.

Last Sunday, I finished the chores I had to do around the barn earlier than usual, and because it was a beautiful November morning thought I'd go take a look at the land across the creek. I hadn't been there in several months. I got on a horse and rode through the woods, down the steep hill to the creek, across the creek, and up the even steeper hill on the other side.

Out in the field, I was thinking how well everything looked when the horse stopped and pricked his ears, and I noticed something odd in the grass ahead. It was a red fox. At first I thought it was jumping on a mouse, but as I got closer I saw it was caught in a trap. I've never set traps on any land I own, or given anyone else permission to do so. Moreover, I'm especially fond of foxes, wonderfully resourceful little predators who go about their important business without bothering humans, their crops or their domestic animals.

This one was large and healthy-looking, but I couldn't see turning it loose with a mangled foot, and in any case I doubted I could either kill it or turn it loose while holding a fidgety horse. So I rode home, got a car, and returned to the fox by road. I brought a rifle, expecting to shoot the fox and then remove the trap. My mood, which had been as sunny as the morning, was by then something less than amiable.

When I got back to the trap, the trapper was already there, and the fox was dead. It was still twitching, in fact. The situation was not at all a good one.

It was saved by the trapper's politeness and professionalism. He was duly licensed by the state of Maryland, and wore his license on his coat, as is required. He'd been given permission to trap by my neighbor, who has been bothered by coyotes, and he apparently hadn't been given clear enough guidance about the property lines, which aren't at all obvious. He told me quite candidly that he'd been trapping on my land for more than a year.

O? The explanation was reasonable, and I didn't see that I had any choice but to accept it, so I did. The trapper took the fox and his traps -- there was another one set nearby -- and left.

The more I've thought about this incident since, the clearer it has become to me that the real fault was mine. I was the negligent one. My name is on the deed for those acres across the creek, and I hadn't been attentive enough to what was happening there. That illustrates something important about land ownership that most country people know instinctively, and that most city people who buy rural land don't.

You may own land on paper, in the courthouse records and on the assessor's maps, but you don't truly own it unless you live on it, are out on it in all seasons and all weathers, and know it with all your senses as intimately as you know the inside of your house.

Aldo Leopold got it right when he wrote that although his Wisconsin farm was 120 acres in the books kept by the county clerk, the clerk was a sleepy fellow who didn't check the books before 9 a.m., and thus ''at daybreak I am the sole owner of all the acres I can walk over.'' (But not more, he might well have added.)

David Kline, an Amish farmer and essayist who lives in Ohio, writes that he's found 70 acres of good land to be all that he can handle, with the help of his son and a good team of horses. It provides a nice living for his family, and if he had more land it would only overwhelm him. This observation flies in the face of the more-is-better philosophy which prevails in much of our country, but it has the ring of wisdom.

Sometimes in the newspapers I read about great tracts of land for sale at modest prices in Maine, or upstate New York, or West Virginia, and wonder what it would be like to own all that. But then I realize that even if I paid somebody money and signed some papers, I couldn't own that faraway land in any fundamental sense. It would still belong to the various creatures, human and otherwise, who lived on it or near it and knew it as I never would.

The Ted Turners and Robert Redfords may think they own their giant western ranches. The California psychiatrists, Washington lawyers and other moneyed urbanites with their own rural holdings, bought in the main from failed farmers and ranchers or their creditors, think they own their property too. They erect their glassy solar-heated houses, visit from time to time with their mountain bicycles or their cross-country skis, and post their No Trespassing signs. But their title, though legally sound, is incomplete.

As for me, my encounter with the trapper reminded me not only how tenuous is my hold on those few acres across the creek, but how fragile and complex a concept all landownership really is.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer. His column appears Sundays and Thursdays.

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