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Owning the unpossessable

By Charles Johnson / March 24, 1988



IT's a curious thing, land and men. We pull over a gap in the mountains, see a lovely valley, and, rather than enjoy the experience, agonize about not having enough money to buy it. There's something that makes us want to possess what we essentially can't: soil, rock, trees, water. These all preceded us by countless millennia and will outlast us that long. If we pay our money and, in effect, buy a deed at the courthouse, we're merely signing up for the short term.

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Inheriting land is one of the burdens of modern life. We always have the question of what grandpa would have done with a particular meadow or field.

A man I know who farms in the Mississippi Delta could hardly handle the situation when a lender foreclosed on his land. His agony was not so much over his own failure of custodianship but was brought on by losing fields his ancestors cleared from the primeval forest. It was a terrible thing for him.

During the bicentennial celebration in 1976, numerous states placed recognition plaques on farms that had remained in the same family for more than 100 years. Now the United States Department of Agriculture is honoring farms held by the same family 200 years or more.

My own family farm, in Alabama, started the year of my birth when my father bought his first 40 acres. It's still not a large holding, something over 210 acres, but the distinct implication is that it will always be there, in the family, and is not to be sold except under dire circumstances. Dad's drive to own land, to buy it when he could barely afford it, probably results from his father's land being wrested away from the family. He's still at a loss to explain it. Creditors and thieves got everything, and he and his brothers and sister were left with only memories.

As a result, he wanted land, and land paid for. It's something nobody can take away, he says, and he's correct, to a point. He'd like me to buy land for sale near the farm, now that I'm making money on my own. Every time a 40- or 80-acre plot is put on the market, I deliberate until someone else pays the price and it's gone again, perhaps forever.

The problem is that I no longer live there. Though that is the family land, the ancestral heirloom, I've drifted away. I return only periodically to walk the pastures and sit among the pines on the hill. Still, there's always the unspoken: What will I do with it?

I know this: I can't sell it. It's a tie to my father. I can see where he toiled and triumphed. In the pasture where he's this very minute sowing ryegrass for winter grazing, he once planted, hoed, and picked cotton by hand, depending on it for crucial income to supplement his meager teacher's salary.

On the little rise over beyond the red barn is where he saved a good 10 acres from total destruction when strip miners seeking coal suddenly abandoned their project and never returned. Down the way, by the creek, is where he kept an Angus calf from drowning during a flood. Every tree, every blade of grass, is there because of him.

That drive to own, to possess, is in me, too. Last summer I rounded a bend near the dead end of a small winding country road 20 miles from my house and spotted the loveliest land on earth, perfectly held within the curve of an Appalachian mountain. To the front, the view of a pastoral cove can only be called stupendous.

I determined that I would have it and, fortunately, found a For Sale sign tacked to a tree. Within a month, it was mine, the only piece of land I've bought that can be called more than a house lot.

There's a trail going up the mountain behind this land and from a clearing there I can look down on it and say: This is mine. From there I can trace its outlines, following the fence rows and see the spot where I'll someday build a home. I figure where I'll put the garden, where the horse barn will stand. There's no feeling like it, owning land.

Why do we have to have it? Why do I have to look proudly down at my possession? American Indians certainly didn't. The very idea of owning land was foreign to them. Yet it seems at the core of our being, at least those of us who grew up in the country or the small rural towns. There's nothing we enjoy like going down to the courthouse and talking to the registrar of deeds. That trip to the notary public or the lawyer's office is a victory tour, Patton dashing through Belgium and Luxembourg.

Another farmer I know, this one in Georgia, says his enemies could possibly take his house, creditors could claim his tractors, his wife could leave for the big city, but the land, long paid for, is his, and only his, forever, or at least for as long as he lives.