A guest post by JD Stillwater: ©JD Stillwater 2022 | jdstillwater.earth
My spouse and I have a beautiful house here in central Pennsylvania. Our names are on the deed, but it is not our house. No, this is not a post in which I confess to forgery or identity theft. Our legal system asserts that my house is rightfully mine, but it is that system that I want to challenge, and what its spiritual depravity does to us as human beings. Especially human beings in this country, at this time in history, with so. Many. Possessions.
If you were an adult in the 1980s, you may now have a Talking Heads song stuck in your head, a song in which David Byrne ominously recites:
“You may tell yourself, ‘This is not my beautiful house!’
And you may tell yourself, ‘This is not my beautiful wife!’
Into the blue again, into the silent water, Under the rocks and stones there is water underground,
Same as it ever was. Same as it ever was.”
I don’t know what David Byrne was trying to convey, but his imagery resonates for me as I struggle with the notion of ownership in the Overculture.
This beautiful house of mine was built on land taken by trickery and genocide about 300 years ago. So thorough was the extinction of the Susquehannock people that no one today even knows what they called themselves. [“Susquehannock” is what their neighbors and rivals the Lenni Lenape called them.] Into the blue again, into the silent water.
My house is made of lumber from clear-cut forests on also-stolen land. Clear-cutting depletes nitrogen in forest soils so badly that it takes 400 years to re-balance. The siding is vinyl (previous owner’s decision), a toxic petroleum by-product. The roof of my house… well, you know where this is going. Every aspect of the house and nearly every item in it is the product of systems that rapaciously exploit ecosystems (and people) as though they were property.
Legally, they are. Property rights in U.S. law include the right to use, to exclude others from, to profit from, to alter, to abandon, to transfer, and to destroy the property. As though the things we own are separable from the rest of reality.
The story of my house is a long and violent one, a story of crimes against nature, and the oppression of some people for the benefit of others. Those who benefit (looking at myself here) are often loathe to admit that there’s more to the story than our own diligent efforts. Water flowing underground.
So who does my house belong to? I suggest that the rightful owner of all my stuff is not any person or group of people at all.
My primary “holy scripture” is what we know (science) about how reality works. Here’s what modern physics says about the things we own: This is not a world of things. This is a world of flow. Process. Energy.
We know that things are made of atoms, and atoms are made of protons, neutrons, and electrons, and that THOSE are made of quarks, which are made of … energy. Not tiny little objects that move around energetically, but literally only energy—movement, flow—condensed and constrained to make particles of matter during the first moment after time began. Objects are made of relationships between entities that are themselves made of relationships, all the way down—energy in constant motion. Under the rocks and stones, water moving underground.
Every year, 98% of the atoms in your body get replaced with new ones. Every time you eat, breathe, drink, sweat, or use a toilet, atoms and molecules flow in and out of your body. Are they yours? The carbon atoms that were part of your brain moments ago, but came out when you exhaled, and are now over in some corner of the room—are they yours? How about the oxygen molecules that were part of a tree an hour ago, and are just now entering your nostril, destined to be part of your face by the time you finish reading this paragraph? Yours? Whose are they? Who do they belong to?
Matter moves through us like water through a river-wave; our form stays mostly the same, but its composition is different every moment. Does the wave own the water passing through it? Or is it—all of it—the river?
This is not my body. It has always been Earth’s, on loan, to take back at any time. I get to manage or mis-manage it, just like a line of credit from a bank, but it was never mine, really. This is not my beautiful house.
Until this summer, people in Pakistan, Arizona, and Tennessee believed, as most of us do, that they owned their houses and the stuff inside them. With a single monsoon season, the earth called in thousands of outstanding loans. Into the blue again. Into the silent water.
Everything we have and are and become is an expression of energy from the beginning of time. That energy has been making love with itself for nearly 14 billion years before we came along, giving birth to everything from atoms to entire worlds. Same as it ever was.
My house, with its deep-green cloak of ancient oaks, and vegetable vines spilling from porch roofs, is indeed beautiful. As in my body, there is flow here, too, a centuries-slow river of matter; stones, soil, houses, even those massive oaks come and go, passing through in Earth’s sacred and ever-flowing birth water. How absurd to call this “mine”! I am a tiny bit of flotsam bobbing the surface of a mighty stream. Same as it ever was.
Being alive bestows on us a limited ability, to manage a limited amount of that ancient energy, for a very limited time. It was never “ours.” The belief that we own stuff clouds our ability to see reality, the reality that our stewardship is always temporary. That every thing we have represents a loan and a responsibility, and that the future always demands a return of those things to their true owner, a living planet in a vast and starlit cosmos.
Our blind faith in the pretense of ownership allows us to think that it’s normal and healthy for multi-billionaires to burden their children with obscene wealth, completely un-earned, and often spiritually and psychologically damaging to them and their contemporaries. So normal that almost everyone leaves their assets to their children, telescoping social inequities through generations, centuries even.
It allows us to accept without outrage the outrageous behavior of those who devastate millions of acres of pristine forest ecosystems to scrape out a meager profit from tar sands, or mountain-top removal mining, or who buy and sell access to air, water, and land stolen from others. They are not ours. We are tenants, not owners.
The earth is not given by our fathers; it is borrowed from our children.—Wendell Berry
Is there anything I can truly call mine? Yes. It’s this. Not this computer, or this blog post, but this moment.
And this one.
And this one.
Exquisite pearls, threaded moment by moment onto the necklace of my life. Truly unique, truly mine, provided I don’t miss them while shopping, or obsessing about all my stuff.
Make no mistake: I’m not arguing for some form of communism. That would simply shift the fiction of ownership from the individual to the group! I’m saying that our myths of possession and property poison our souls, corrupting us spiritually by distancing us from the eternal flow of reality. Possessions, and the property rights that encourage us to hoard and abuse them, are an attempt to dam the river of life.
I am arguing for humility, the kind of humility that acknowledges our total interbeing with everyone and everything else. An acceptance that the wealth and comfort I enjoy is not all the product of my own personal labor. An awareness that I am embedded in an interdependent web of existence which supplies everything I have, and to which I owe everything I have. The only sane response to this is gratitude, coupled with continuous generosity, constantly paying forward into the flow of existence.
Let me always ask, “What is the highest possible use for the resources that I control, not for me personally, but for their true owner, Nature herself?” For the great-great-great grandchildren I already love but will never meet. For the seventh generation, for all those who will live 1000—or a million—years from now.
This is not my beautiful house.
This is not my beautiful wife.
Under the rocks and stones there is water underground,
Into the blue again, into the silent water
Same as it ever was. Same as it ever was.
JD Stillwater is a science ambassador, presenter, writer, musician, coach, big-picture thinker, and cultural worker. His work springs from his broad knowledge of (and passion for) science, gleaned from 24 years teaching physics, chemistry, biology, earth, and space sciences. What JD brings to the global conversation is a gift for making difficult science concepts graspable for non-scientists, but then he takes us further, into the profound implications that those concepts engender.