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.
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”!