Brehon Law, Kunstler, and land use

A short walk in the snow today got me thinking about a few things I've been reading lately. The photo is of my main hillside, an L-shaped half-bowl separating my top garden/mini-field and my lower field. It used to be a white pine grove I played in as a kid. My family felled the trees at one point and lots of brambles came up. By the time I was managing the property, it was overgrown. I had goats for a couple years, and they "reclaimed" it, turning it into very turfy sod clinging on the bony gravellish soil underneath. Much of my time in being a steward of this land, I've thought about what to do with this area, clearing it for fruit trees, vines, etc. Honestly, my focus and obsession was that as a small landholder, I had to "maximize" the value out of all the land, and get what I could out of it.

However, I've become interested in old Celtic law, called Brehon law, and in it I'm finding a lot of remarkable wisdom that we need today. This is a site I found while doing some preliminary reading. It's helping me to realize that some of my mindset is very much a result of old Anglo Saxon relations to land usage. And coincidentally, I stitched this together with my recent reading of James Howard Kunstler's work, an author who lives fairly close to me and talks about the decline of American cities, while touching on land use issues, zoning, the petro-economy, and the like.

What I realized was that it was all connected. When land is taxed on potential value, we have this skyrocketing in taxes that can lead to the gentrification of areas. What Kunstler mostly notices in cities, also applies to rural areas, with a bit of a twist. I can't help but connect that American law, based on English common law, from Anglo Saxon times, has so much deference towards property and property accumulation and exploitation. If you are sitting on "valuable" land (i.e. land that could be an even larger tax revenue source), you may be taxed right off it to make room for someone who will exploit it. That's not even to mention "eminent domain."

This mindset explains much of why young farmer land access can be so troublesome. Being a farmer in the Northeast, we have massive nearby markets like New York City and Boston, and densely populated land in general, and we have to find a way to farm on land that has a value *not* shooting through the roof because developers figure it's 5, 10, 20 years away from being the next suburban development. We don't want local farming to vanish, but as a city grows, the property around it, in a ring, gets ever more expensive.

What's amazing is that even as an Irish-American, I've had to dig and find these old Brehon / Celtic traditions to see that there are others ways of viewing property. Our education system makes us think of it as the status quo but there are other worldviews and systems out there. In old Ireland there were penalties for digging up raspberry brambles, for God's sake. Even on "your own land." Things that you did had consequences beyond your individual right or freedom to do something. To kill a productive oak, or in modern Northeastern context, to take down a beautiful sugar maple, was more damage to that ecosystem than could be priced properly. Looking at a property and thinking of how to get the best "bang for your buck," you may forget that the present is a very, infinitely tiny sliver of time compared to the near infinite past and future.

Our system of land zoning, of taxing property, of evaluating its value, causes us to be extractive in mindset and to ignore the externalized costs borne by the rest of society. The world would be a bit less rich if I were to have done half the things I'd thought of doing to this hillside.

Last year, I got piles and piles of berries from this largely neglected hillside. In all my time thinking how to extract value from it, the brambles that needed a second year to form fruit finally came out. If I had acted too fast, I may have lost much of these hardy natives. They must have limped along in the shade of the pines or at the edges for years, and now they're coming back. Partially from the influence of the goats, there is also a lot of goldenrod coming on the hillside. And I know with a degree of confidence that this semi-neglected, but much loved hillside is an absolute bonanza for native pollinators, free from any sprays, any conventional crop practices that could harm them. So maybe it's just fine as is. Or, if I do plant some things there, I do it in a way that let's the hillside be itself a bit too.


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