Neighbours

Growing up in Balgo, an Aboriginal community between the Great Sandy Desert and Tanami Desert in Western Australia, I was taught that people belong to land, and not the other way around. CS Lewis explained it so well somewhere (perhaps in The Four Loves? I can’t find it at the moment …) as my having two sides: possession and relationship. The possessive my in my slippers clearly differs from the relational my in my mother, my family, my child; we understand those extremes. But what about my cat? Relationship or possession? And my property? Ownership or guardianship? Kaitiakitanga, tino rangatiratanga, or kawanatanga, or something else entirely?

This is an idea which has played on my mind a great deal when purchasing this land here in the Kauaeranga Valley. 80 hectares is a lot to care for. A lot to respect and love. A lot to enjoy, a lot to protect, a lot of territory.

The depth of the territorial feeling surprised me, especially since we’ve only lived here for 107 days. At best, I can rationalise it: the human damage done here by previous human owners is so great, the disrespect shown to this land so immense, the rubbish and neglect and human-centred idiocy so potent that to care means first to be protective and exclusive.

Quite apart from the rubbish left everywhere when we bought the property, we’ve since found branches broken, tracks from outside newly slashed, water bottles hung on trees as markers: perhaps hanging red-and-white PRIVATE signs everywhere will help stop that, perhaps not. After all, we have cut branches, trodden on seedlings, fixed markers to trees. Are we any better? Making clear paths protects the bush from us, since we – people, both owners and otherwise – are the danger to the bush. Would I still mind random people coming onto the land if they stuck to the tracks? Yep, I probably would! Because of course that same territorial feeling is, at worst, an instinctive, human-centric, colonial response to someone else invading my possession. Stealing my ball at playtime. Way less Zen.

This territory, the line on a council map, is a human thing. The trees don’t care. The birds don’t care. Each has territorial lines for their own species, intersecting, overlapping, layered one upon another, and none referencing that line on the council map. I’m learning – at a very superficial level – that other beings inhabit this, my land. And we have met so many inhabitants! From native birds to rats, possums, stoats. Kauri and kōura, tobacco weed and tōtara.

IDs for above pictures: Green and Golden Bell Frog, sludge worm, NZ giant bush dragonfly, kōura, huhu beetle, sheetweb spider, stick insect shedding its skin, puriri moth holes, scarab beetle, cinnabar caterpillars on ragwort.

All species have their own ways of interacting; with each other as well as with us human newcomers. We found freshwater crayfish in the stream, perhaps coming out to investigate the four-year-old-human-vomited cake remains (… was that a good interaction for them? It was thrilling for us!).

We’ve watched a giant dragonfly casually chomp its way into the insides of a still-living cicada; there’s something shocking about the slowness of the chewing and ambivalence with which it ate. You can imagine David Attenborough narrating a documentary from both sides: the dragonfly has finally found food and thus will survive despite its broken wing. The cicada cannot escape and dies a lingering death.

We’ve had to negotiate the new building space with the locals. Here, a large wētā is removed from a roll of insulation; I can only assume the jaws did not display contentment at this process. Big spiders too face eviction notices, as well as countless moths and endless passion vine hoppers. But other populations seem quite happy with our arrival. Ratty McRatface is a big bold beastie, and there’s a possum who’s been enjoying the fruit bowl at night time (and with their eventual eviction we hope the local native birds and animals will begin to enjoy our presence here too).

It still feels right to say that this is my land, but there are significant limitations to that little word. First, it’s a my of relationship, not of possession. This is my land because it’s the land for which I must care, protect, respect, enjoy. It’s thousands of miles from the baked desert of outback Australia, the legal relationships are chalk and cheese, but perhaps the my is the same. It’s also an exclusively human-defined my as we are certainly not the only ones living here, not the only ones to say my home, to have a relationship, a territory, a place. Habitats overlap. Learning to be a good neighbour means learning who you live beside. Your neighbours are closer than you think.

One thought on “Neighbours

  1. This land is your land and this land is my land
    From California to the New York island
    From the redwood forest to the Gulf Stream waters
    This land was made for you and me
    As I went walking that ribbon of highway
    I saw above me that endless skyway
    Saw below me that golden valley
    This land was made for you and me
    I roamed and rambled and I’ve followed my footsteps
    To the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts
    All around me a voice was sounding
    This land was made for you and me
    When the sun come shining, then I was strolling
    And the wheat fields waving and the dust clouds rolling
    The voice was chanting as the fog was lifting
    This land was made for you and me
    This land is your land and this land is my land
    From California to the New York island
    From the redwood forest to the Gulf Stream waters
    This land was made for you and me
    When the sun come shining, then I was strolling
    And the wheat fields waving and the dust clouds rolling
    The voice come a-chanting and the fog was lifting
    This land was made for you and me
    Source: Musixmatch
    Songwriters: Woody Guthrie

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