In a yard across the street behind my back fence stands an enormous, hero of a pine tree. In spring it’s draped in dainty wisteria; in winter, it’s one of the few green things standing. It hosts eagles and vultures, and dances cheerfully in winds that brutalize lesser trees. Its towering consistency has been reassuring to me in times of trouble, when seeing it reminded me there is Someone Greater in control. I used to wish it were my pine tree, growing in my yard. But then I realized I don’t really wish that, because if I owned it, it wouldn’t be mine.
The most common meaning of “own” is, of course, “to possess”, to have something that belongs to you. But the same word (according to Webster) also means “to recognize” something, “to acknowledge” it – to know it. So, to “own” something isn’t just a matter of having it in our possession, it’s also a matter of observing it, to become familiar with and appreciate it.
After several years of falling in love with the magnificent pine tree, I wanted to find out to whom it actually belonged. That took a while, as big trees look very different up close. I drove around the bordering neighborhood following trunks up to crowns, and crowns down their trunks until I finally found my “friend”. It takes up the majority of the clean and modest front yard where it lives, is neatly mulched with its own needles. The house is quaint and tidy, too, but as I drove past it my heart sank for the homeowners: they don’t know their tree the way I do. They can’t. Because it’s in their possession, on their property, they’ll never be able to see it the way I can. I’m sure they’re proud of their stately pine, perhaps they picnic beneath it, their kids play chase around it, but all they have of it, all they can see is its brown, knobby girth, and its discarded golden straw. Yet I know the great pine is so much more than that. So, while it may belong to them, they don’t truly “own” it.
Certainly, there are many things that must be possessed to be appreciated, like a car, a home, a good pair of shoes. And of course, there are folks who actually do possess entire mountains, own deeds to island beaches. But anyone with the ability to observe and delight in the mountains or the beach, owns them as equally, if differently, than those who hold the deeds.
And no, we cannot govern what we do not possess, cannot change what is not under our control, but perhaps that’s the freest type of ownership. How often, though, do things happen without our consent to what we (supposedly) control? I spend a lot of time and energy nurturing the trees on my property, mulching, raking leaves. But my opinion didn’t matter to the wind that felled one oak, or to the rot that stole another. To glean beauty, serenity from a property is to procure its highest value. To not have the chore of maintaining it is to be completely free to enjoy it.
I not only see the great pine beyond my fence, but I also see a whole forest made of trees in others’ yards. Here are more pines, white and live oaks, magnolias, and bay trees strung with various vines; this neighborhood forest bustles with birds, squirrels, bats. This amazing view – any view unique to my vantage point – is all mine simply because I see it.