Don't Beat About the Bush...Change the Culture! More on Land and the Common Good

Landowners have a duty to leave some food for the poor and give people access to get it. Or that's what it looks like at least. Here are two scriptural passages taken from the Office of Readings (part of the Liturgy of the Hours) that  caught my eye when I read them. One is from January and the other is a Lenten reading. Office of Readings 24th Jan 2011, Commemoration of St Francis de Sales: "You must not pervert justice in dealing with a stranger or an orphan, nor take a widow’s garment in pledge. Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and that the Lord your God redeemed you from there. That is why I lay this charge on you. When reaping the harvest in your field, if you have overlooked a sheaf in that field, do not go back for it. Leave it for the stranger, the orphan and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all your undertakings. When you beat your olive trees you must not go over the branches twice. Let anything left be for the stranger, the orphan and the widow. When you harvest your vineyard you must not pick it over a second time. Let anything left be for the stranger, the orphan and the widow. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt. That is why I lay this charge on you." (Dueteronomy 24) And Tuesday 4th week of Lent “When you gather the harvest of your land, you are not to harvest to the very end of the field. You are not to gather the gleanings of the harvest. You are neither to strip your vine bare nor to collect the fruit that has fallen in your vineyard. You must leave them for the poor and the stranger. I am the Lord your God.(Leviticus 19) I have written on a number of occasions, here, that land is considered by the Church a common good. This means that like air and food it is something that should be available to all people. This does not mean that there should not be private property however, provided that private ownership of property is viewed as an entitlement to work the land. This privilege of ownership brings obligations. Its use should be for the benefit of the common good. This is not so completely counter cultural as it might sound at first. Generally, growing crops on a farm; and then selling anything (beyond what is needed for personal consumption) for distribution through the market is in accord with this. This entitlement, however, and this part might be counter cultural in some parts of the world, is not always seen as extending to allowing the owner to exclude others from his land all the time, as the quoted passages above indicate.


In a number of European countries (I know of England, Scotland, Spain and Italy specifically) there is public right of way preserved in law, on privately owned land. This is a tradition that goes back to medieval times. While the landowner is obliged to allow people on his land, those who go onto the land are also obliged to respect the property and the crops that are growing respecting it's function as contributing to the common good. I don't know if any applications of this extend to being in accord with the passages from the bible, which clearly allow for "the stranger, the orphan and the widow" to go onto the land and gather food.

There is an American version of this approach, as I understand it whereby in some states the default situation is that people do have access to private land to hunt. In New Hampshire there is an option to pay a higher land tax and that allows you then to bar everyone else from your land. I wouldn't be interested in hunting, just the chance of finding a walkable path across farmland. I did find one farm west of Nashua, NH when I was living there that had a notice saying. Please do come an enjoy our farm land but we ask that you respect it. I don't know if it was a coincidence, but the was a large statue of he Virgin Mary very visible next to the farmhouse as we walk off the land.

It seems that perhaps the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council and those subsequently who actually revised the Office of Readings considered this an important principle for today; otherwise it would not have been included in regular readings in the Church's liturgy. I believe that access to the land is important even for those who are not so poor that they need to pick the crops for personal use. It is important for the soul, I think. And this means access to cultivated land, productive land, not the wilderness. It is good to have firsthand experience of man's productive and harmonious activities with nature. This shapes not only the view of nature, but the view of man's proper relationship with the land. olivesThis access will also, I believe raise people's wonder at the beauty of cultivated land (whether ornamental garden or agricultural) and so perhaps help to offset the neopaganism that gives rise ultimately to the culture of death.  When the only country landscape available to man is wilderness, and all else he sees is modern suburbia or a cityscape, then it reinforces the idea that the standard of beauty is that land which is untouched by man, that is wilderness. This in turn reinforces the idea that man's influence on nature is always detrimental and the natural extension of this idea is profound evil: the most effective way to restrict man's bad influence on nature, so the logic runs, is to restrict his activity through population control, which means contraception, abortion and euthanasia.

I do not believe that this alone will reverse the culture of death (abortion exists in Europe too). However, if any discussion of these ideas in both Europe and the New World is combined with the example  of what people see if they have access to cultivated land it will, I feel,  speak of man's positive impact on the natural world. This then could help to change views on man's relationship with Creation. The change will not occur through engagement in discussion, so much as through a subtle influence that seeps into the thinking of society. Then perhaps, in some small way at least, it could contribute to the transformation a culture in the reverse direction to what is happening now and which is so anti-human.

So it seems that the dictum, spare the rod and spoil the child doesn't extend to olive trees! The photograph below of the Tuscan countryside. Above that we have Spanish olive groves and an illumination from Crete dating from the Byzantine rule.

Public Access to Farmland...in the San Francisco Bay Area

0404131204 Holy cow! Its just like going for a walk in England! In my recent trip to California I decided to investigate the footpaths in the area. As usual, I tried to find the countryside that is the most beautiful - farmland -  and expected to be able to indulge in my favorite complaint: how all paths in the US are in specially created parks that aim to create the 'wilderness' experience, which means that you spend the whole day walking through forest, unable too anything further than the nearest tree trunk. To my surprise, I found that there are plenty of areas of beautifully farmed land to which the public has access.

In Britain, in common with most European countries, there is no wilderness left and the countryside is privately owned farmland. This doesn't stop people being able to feel a connection with the land and enjoy it, however, for there is widespread public access to private land. It is the remnant of the traditional Catholic understanding of land as a 'common good'. If you are surprised by this you can read about exactly how in an earlier article Farms, Country Walks, Private Property and the Common Good. I enjoy farmland because it is more beautiful than the wilderness, if farmed well. The New World obsession with the 'wilderness experience' as exposure to pristine beauty  (strongest of all in New Zealand in my experience) is a reflection of the New Age paganism, which sees man as an unnatural influence on a perfect Nature, rather than a positive influence that raises a fallen world up to something greater.

0407131118It is the same worldview that gives rise to the culture of death. When the activity of man is viewed as necessarily unnatural, then human activity is seen as something that should be limited. The easiest way to do so is to enforcing population control; and the obvious ways to achieve this are abortion and contraception.

As well as contributing to making my visit to the Bay Area very enjoyable, these parks are a small symbol of hope for me. I visited two areas. The first is called Briones Regional Park. I am always curious as to why we are allowed onto this land. This is preserved as pastureland because it is the watershed lands that fill the reservoirs that supply water to much of the region. The regional government that leases the land, as I understand it, insists also that there is public access. Trees would suck up too much water so the land is kept for pasture. It has been ranched for about 200 years (since the Spanish colonial days) and so the terrain has been formed by that. At this time of year there is a lot of rain and so everything is lush and green - even the locally produced descriptions remark on how like English countryside it looks. 

The second area is called Lucas Valley and it is in Marin County which is north of the Golden Gate bridge. Much of the valley is own by the film producer George Lucas, but I am told that the matching names are coincidence. What is interesting about this is that we have an arrangement forged between private landowners so that people can enjoy the scenery. I know this because at he beginning of the walk I saw the following notice (perhaps noblesse oblige isn't dead after all!):


So here are some photos of the walk. First Briones Regional Park in the East Bay:


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The second area is Lucas Valley.





In the height of spring both of these areas will be filled with wild flowers. It is a little early for the full display, but I took some snaps of some of those that I saw as well.










A Walk in Wales, Seeing an Ancient Roman Aqueduct

When I did my summer trip, after seeing my parents in Spain I went to stay in England and the area where I grew up (a little town near Chester called Neston). As well as seeing friends and family there I wanted to re-establish my connection with the familiar places and especially the walks and the countryside that I remembered from when I lived there (not all that long ago - I don't want to sound too whistfully romantic here!). Neston is near the border with Wales, which is rural and hilly. Just to give you a sense of the place, I thought I would post some photos of one of these walks; but also there are interesting parallels here between this walk and one that I did in Spain (I wrote about this in an article posted on 6th July). First is the existence of laws of 'right to roam' and 'public right of way' on private land. In the UK there are public footpaths across farmland, which require the farmer to maintain for the common good. Second and even more specifically, for part of this walk, one of the reasons for this public access is that we can follow the line of an old aqueduct. The idea of the common good and access to private land here.

The Spanish aqueduct  was built by the Moors, this one was built by the Romans. The Spanish one was in a good state of repair and still used to irrigate olive groves, this has fallen into disrepair and is now a toepath along a muddy ditch in the woods because it is not needed for water any more. My guess here, because you don't need irrigation channels in rainy rural Wales, is that the Roman aqueduct would be used to provide drinking water for a town, perhaps Chester (Roman name Deva). Drinking water supplies have changed - no longer would people drink redirected stream water taken from a mountainside and so there is no reason to have kept it operable.

As you follow the path described below, remember this: the enjoyment and direct contact with farmland and farm animals is possible because of what remains of the traditional application of an idea that comes from Catholic social teaching, that land is a common good. We are crossing privately owned land, but still in the UK there is the understanding that with that privelege comes the responsibility of making it available to all in as way that doesn't stop the owner from cultivating it.

So the first step was for my friend Jim and I to take the car up to a ridge on the Clwyd hills in Wales (pronounced 'clue-id'):

From there the ridge path goes off in two directions, one through grazing sheep:

And the other up a more developed path that takes you up to the highest point on the ridge, Moel Famau (pronounced 'mole vamma') a mountain about 2,000 ft above sea level, so not very high. We took this one. It's a popular destination so the path is well maintained:

The terrain here is, like the whole of Britain, man created. In this particular area, sheep grazing stops the growth of trees, and this hilly terrain is low woody plants of dark heather (which has bright purple flowers) and lighter billberry (a small and not-so-sweet version of the American blueberry) grows wild here.

As we look down into the lower parts, some copses and naturally growing trees are allowed to remain, but much of the wooded area is planted for commercial reasons, for wood. There are also bare patches where the trees have been harvested and no ground cover has yet grown.

After several miles we turn right, climb over a stile and down into the valley below. The gate to left which can be raised is for people to walk their dogs through.

We gradually descend until we hit a level part in the valley below:

We continue until we descend again into a tree-filled broad gully. This has a stream running it, and running parallel above it, but still in this wooded gully, the aqueduct. This is known locally as 'the Leet' (or 'Lete'). I do not know why it has this name.

When we hit the Lete we turn left and walk along the gully alongside it for about two miles.

It looks like this for about another two miles until we emerge into farmland and little village called Cilcain. We stop at the pub for lunch. The red, white and blue balloons are there because this was the Monday after the recent Jubilee celebrations of Queen Elizabeth II's reign.

And we admire the cottage gardens across the road from where we sat eating sandwiches and drinking coffee.

Then we headed out of the village back up to the ridge from where we first descended, through low hills first, past grazing sheep again, then on to the ridge itself, now several miles further along from where left it this morning.

And once at the ridge path, we turned left once more, to complete the final phase of the circular walk along the ridge and back to the car.

Footnote: if anyone who is not used to the spelling of Welsh words found the pronunciation of 'Clwyd' difficult to fathom, then have a go at this name of this place, also in north Wales (it really is a genuine place name):

It is the railway station in the town of 'Llanfair p g'. I grew up in England so wasn't native Welsh speaker at all. However, we used to enjoy learning and then reeling off the pronunciation as party trick. For the curious, this what it sounds like:


A walk along an ancient aqueduct in southern Spain

When I was in Spain in May, some neighbours of my parents offered to take me on a walk that followed the line of an ancient aqueduct built by the Moors centuries ago. Phil and Brenda took me to a spectacular route that started in the town of Canillas (about an hour from Malaga). The aqueduct was a small channel providing water for irrigation and drinking water for the town. It is about a foot square in cross section and open topped. It weaves its way around the hills through olive groves and wild flower meadows, climbing at a rate only slightly greater than a contour line. This lead us eventually up high into a fast running stream in a narrow gorge, which was the source of the water.What was interesting was that this was still the means of irrigating the olive groves on the hillside. So in some sections, where the Moorish stonework had begun to leak, the channel had been mended. Somtimes with stone and cement, and sometimes even with sections of black plastic pipeline. From time to time, there would be small sluice gates that could be dropped into the channel, blocking it off and then directing the water onto the fields below that section. I have spoken in the past, here, about how there is a 'right to roam' in European countries. It's exact form takes different shapes, but for the most part, provided you don't take produce or destroy property and respect the land and personal rights of those who own it, you are entitled to go onto privately owned land. It means that in Europe that those who live in cities and suburbs and are not landowners, nevertheless have access to the land and have a sense of connection with it. People can also experience the peace and see the beauty of well managed agricultural land which has a very different effect on the soul than seeing 'wilderness' - land unaffected by man. New-world countries, such as America, Australia and New Zealand do not have such laws and so it is much more difficult to get access to agricultural land (as opposed to wilderness parks). Ironically, this means that even in New Zealand, a country in which perhaps 30% of the land is preserved as national parkland, there is still a greater sense of being deprived of contact with the land than you would have in a western European country. The reason for the difference between old and new worlds is that the new societies, driven by Enlightenment ideas of individualism that started to take hold in the 18th century rejected the traditional idea, which comes from Catholic social teaching, of land being a 'common good'. The traditional idea is that landowners balance their privelege of ownership, which is necessary so that the land can be cultivated in an ordered way, with certain responsibilities towards the community as a whole.

In Britain, which is a land of walkers (perhaps because the temperate climate is so condusive to it) there is a modern application of the custom, which has resulted in a network of public footpaths across its length and breadth. My guides Phil and Brenda, who were great company for the day, explained to me that because so many Brits live permanently in Spain now (about three quarters of a million), that the Spanish government has begun to establish British style footpaths through scenic areas and promote them to attract yet more people as tourists. Its not clear whether the Spanish people themselves are yet as enthusiastic about walking. It seems that perhaps Noel Coward was right, only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun.

An irrigation channel seems to me an example of a project that is intended for the common good and requires each landowner to acknowledge this in allowing it to be built on his land and in the way in which he uses it. Once this was built if the landownder wanted to act against the common good he could and use all the water for himself: nobody below him would be able to stop him taking it. Taking what is necessary for himself is in accordance with the common good, because this is how he grows food for the community (which includes himself of course). Maybe a historian out there could help me, but I don't think this would have been built by the central government buying the land through compulsory purchase order on the land. My guess is that there has been a cooperative process between landowners.

Any, enough of the discussion, here's the walk -  we start by filling up the water bottles at the public drinking fountain:

And then gradually climb our way up, through olive groves and some pine groves, pausing occasionally to look back at the town below. In time the trees clear and we can see the gorge ahead.



Here, below, is a sluice gate (it's on the end of the chain only partly visible). This is a simple metal plate which is dropped into the channel at this point, directing the water out through the opening which is visible above the waterline, bottom, left. This allows the farmer who owns this part of the land to irrigate his olive groves in the hillside below. We would see these periodically as we climbed. Clearly, there is mutual trust here and an assumption that no single landowner is going to abuse the privelege of access to the water and deprive everyone else of a share. Subsequent photos show the flourishing olive groves (note how the hillside is stepped to enable access when the olives are to be picked).


Round a corner, below, and things take a turn for the spectacular:

We can see the gorge in the distance which is the source of the water for the aqueduct, you can see the it cutting across the hillside halfway up on the left:

If we walk on an turn back, we can see, below, how precarious the path is in some places:

On the photo above you can see the aqueduct cut into the cliff face on the near part. In the distance to the left you can make out the line of the road through the hills, which follows the old Moorish trading route through southern Spain. It is seen more clearly in this photo:

Then we walk up into the gorge and to the mountain stream that is the source of water:

The very start of the aqueduct is on the left in the photo above. The manmade channel has water running in it, but it is not obvious in the photographs because it is so clear.

We stopped for a drink of water at a small waterfall in the stream above this point:

And then returned to Canillas retracing our steps. The day ended with a late lunch in the village square: Spanish coffee, which is a strong and milky, and tapas.
















Wild Flowers in Spain (and Possible Implications for Population Control and the Culture of Death)

During my visit to friends and family in Europe, I spent a a few days in Spain (during the last week of May). My parents have retired there (along with another million Brits). I was lucky in that the time of my visit was just the time when wild flowers are in bloom. I am no plant expert, but I did recognise a lot from my memories of my parents' garden in England when I was growing up. So I asked them if they would help me identify some of the plants and we set off to high meadows to photograph and identify them. Also, I am trying to plant an English style perrenial garden in the farm that will be the new Thomas More College campus in Groton, Massachusetts. (I say 'will be' because we have to raise the money to build. This is not easy in the current economic climate, so please if anyone feels like donating, don't hesitate to contact us!) We have been following the planting scheme of the English garden designer Gertrude Jeckyll. From my first spring of planting here in the US, I recognised that many of the Spanish plants are in American gardens too. The photo above is of a thistle called echinops. We bought three to plant and they look pretty lonely at the moment while we wait for them to flourish and multiply. Here in Spain, there is a whole field of them next to my parents' house just growing wild.

The terrain in this area around Spain is man made. Even the areas where the flowers grow and seem uncultivated would be completely tree covered if they had not been cleared by man. It is dry, shrub filled landscape common in Mediterranean areas called 'maquis'. Very often the flowers flourish most on road or field edges in the areas where the soil has been turned over by human activity but it has not been paved over or planted with crops. A common plant in the maquis terrain is the broom. There are two common varieties here: Spanish broom and genista (French broom) which has smaller flowers, both are bright yellow. The photo below shows some genista growing on the edge of a cultivated olive grove. In the distance you see a ridge of mountains with pass, appearing as a notch cut into it. For our flower hunting expedition we headed for that pass. There is a footpath there on a disused railway line which allowed for great views and a great variety of species.

The fact that the whole terrain is formed by man raises a question in my mind. What is the natural environment for wild flowers? Would these flowers be here at all if it weren't for man? If there were no man affected areas, would there be any terrain for them to grow in? Certainly, the ones I saw don't grow in the areas that are wooded, only on the edges made by man. Perhaps there are some plant experts out there who can answer these points definitively. What I can say is that these flowers are flourishing in those areas affected by man. If this man-affected terrain is the natural environment for wild flowers, and wild flowers are considered part of the natural world (along with the insect life engendered), then we would have to consider man's activity natural too.

Some extreme environmentalists that I have come across tend to assume that man's activity is unnatural and always detrimental to the ecosystem. I'm guessing that there others who object to the activities of modern man, but would consider a pre-industrial revolution, agrarian society (which would still create the landscape for wild flowers) as the natural form of activity for man. The first group would like to see man's effect on the world eliminated altogether, the second vastly reduced.

The reason that this is important to consider is that the degree to which we consider mankind's activity natural or unnatural affects whether or not we consider the the growing human population of the world a good thing or a bad thing. In both the cases cited above, that is if either we consider man's activity necessarily unnatural; or, taking the less extreme position, we consider the work of modern man unnatural and only that of primitive man's activity natural, it makes sense to advocate population reduction in the world. The few examples of modern man there are, the less unnatural behaviour there will be. The next step is to push for population control via the use of contraception and abortion.

The traditional Christian view is different. For the Christian man is the crowning glory of creation and his activity is not only natural but, potentially, the greatest of all life on earth. In fact, to the degree that his work is inspired, man can actually raise the natural world up to something higher, creating something closer to what it ought to be and to what it would have been prior to the Fall. This is not deny that man's activity can be highly destructive also. It depends on how wisely he makes use of his God-given freedom to cultivate the land.

When we have the Christian outlook, the way to deal with polution and mismanagement of the environment, is not to reduce the amount of human activity (by reducing the population), but to seek to transform human activity into something that is in harmony with creation. This is possible (at least partially in this life) only through the Church and this takes us again to the question of cultural transformation and liturical reform. Two connected themes I have spoken about often in this forum.

Anyway, we have now reached the high meadow and start to walk along the path through the notch:

We surveyed the scene, book in hand:

And then we started to look more closely. You can see the red poppies and yellow daisies in the meadow. But as you look at the limestone rock outcrops there are more to be seen, for example wild tyme:

Orchids and wild irises:

 Here is another iris amongst a cluster of flowers of helianthemum, the rock rose, a common plant in the the garden.

In our day out, we did take time step back and enjoy the view of rural Spain from this elevated position.

Where irrigated, the ground is extremely fertile. This part of Andalusia exports fruit and vegetables. The view below is of the area beyond that notch in the ridge. There is a high fertile plain hidden away. The old railway track that we were walking on was built to carry the produce down to the coastline (near Malaga) for distribution. Now the transportation is by road you see trucks driving down the winding road all day during harvest time.

The examples of the flowers shown are as bright and beautiful as the garden varieties. There were many more that I could show, and will perhaps keep for another occasion. Many of these while beautiful in the wild, are not precisely what you would see in the garden, which would be hybrids. This again raises the question of what is more natural, a hybrid developed by man or a wild variety? Anyway, that's one for a future blog post.