We Are Owned by the Wilderness

Tuesday, July 11, 2017 - 4:00 pm

We Are Owned by the Wilderness

Last year, I had the privilege of spending some time in the high desert mountains of New Mexico — hiking, sitting by cascading streams, marveling at tiny wildflowers and huge ponderosa pines, breathing deep of the scented mountain air.

I felt deep gratitude for everyone who’s helped preserve the wilderness areas of this country for public use. And I remembered this poem by Margaret Atwood, with its warning of what happens when we say “I own this.”

The ownership of private property has long been a touchstone of the American dream — for better (when we’re able to meet our basic needs) and for worse (when need becomes greed and overwhelms generosity and economic justice).

But when “ownership” is applied wholesale to nature, there’s no better, only worse. The arrogance that leads us to say “We own this patch of the planet” has also led us to foul our own nest and desacralize much of the earth.

As an antidote to arrogance, Atwood’s poem is worth meditating on.

The Moment
by Margaret Atwood

The moment when, after many years
of hard work and a long voyage
you stand in the centre of your room,
house, half-acre, square mile, island, country,
knowing at last how you got there,
and say, I own this,

is the same moment when the trees unloose
their soft arms from around you,
the birds take back their language,
the cliffs fissure and collapse,
the air moves back from you like a wave
and you can’t breathe.

No, they whisper. You own nothing.
You were a visitor, time after time
climbing the hill, planting the flag, proclaiming.
We never belonged to you.
You never found us.
It was always the other way round.

I felt its truth with every step I took along those New Mexico mountain trails. In the poet’s words, we need to hear nature saying:

“We never belonged to you. / You never found us. / It was always the other way round.”

What a joy it is to be in the wilderness and feel oneself “found”!

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is a columnist for On Being. His column appears every Wednesday.

He is a Quaker elder, educator, activist, and founder of the Center for Courage & Renewal. His books include A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life, and Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation. His book On the Brink of Everything: Grace, Gravity, and Getting Old will be published in June.

Share Your Reflection


  • Katharine

    A lovely companion piece to David Wagoner’s Lost….thank you, Parker.

  • Neptuneand Theoak

    profound – and delightful!
    many Thanks for sharing this.

  • Christine Robinson

    Okay I meditate and I come up short. I like Margaret Atwood. I like Parker J Palmer. This poem is great – as far as it goes. But the Larson Ice Shelf just broke off Antarctica and the gratuitous killing off of other species because we label them (also) as property and the overt threatening of all our national parks and the resuming of the search for oil in the Arctic and resuming digging for coal of all things – bleaching of the coral reefs – removing animals from the Endangered Species List – we are no longer even embarrassed about our racism we are proud of it – letting refugees flounder in the ocean…..the sentiment is too small – everything we love – even if we don’t know we love it – is in profound danger – and this poem is too small. I am not sure there is a poem big enough for what is happening minute by minute before our eyes. What is happening now feels like far more than an expression of arrogance. It feels like betrayal.

    • CrummyVerses

      Thanks Christine Robinson for sharing your angst (I guess I could call it.) I also meditate and “come up short.” But I keep looking, and we have to keep looking, don’t we? Although many of us turn our eyes away from the notion of dying some day, some of us don’t and have learned to live today as if it were our last! Maybe in a similar way, we can’t turn our eyes away from the facts of our planet’s fate and do what we can…today…as if it were our last “today” and maybe even the earth’s last “today” cherishing both our lives and our Mother Earth’s life. Just a thought. Thanks again.

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