I wonder. It has come to my attention that there are not many people who know what a commons is. Maybe there are just so many people in the world these days and so many places that are now overcrowded that the commons have just disappeared. Probably without anyone even knowing about it. Where they went is a mystery to most people, although our history books could tell a tale or two. However, it’s likely that there are a lot more commons out there than people realize. They’re purposely kept secret.
First, the meaning of a commons. A commons is common ground that is accessible to all the members of a particular area in which the commons is located. No single person owns the commons. It’s something that everyone has a stake in. Most commons are land, but certainly commons do exist in the sea as well, such as the freedom to catch lobster along the coast so long as environmental and sustainability rules are followed.
Of course, a right comes with responsibility. You can’t just take and take and take and not give back. Sustainability and love of the land is an inherent part of that right. The land (or ocean) has to be cared for. Other people and their rights have to be considered. The rights of the plants and animals and fish have to be considered. But it can be done, and in fact, it has been done for a good portion of our history.
Which is why I was so surprised to recently learn that many people do not know what a commons is. The idea of the commons came about during the medieval period. It was part of the feudal system. The commons was land that was part of an estate. Different classes of people were allowed different rights on the land, such as the right to allow their animals to graze, the right to fish in the waters, the right to take enough wood to heat a house, etc. People who had these rights were called commoners.
Yep. That’s where that term comes from. “He’s a commoner.” “Oh, how very common of you.” “Common knowledge has it that . . .” These phrases make it sound as if being part of the commons is a bad thing. I don’t know about that. I guess if you’re a king or a knight or a bishop, you might not want to be part of the commons. It would make you so ordinary, after all. As for me, I wear my membership in the commons as a badge of honor.
Many commons are gone now. They disappeared through enclosure. The land was literally “enclosed,” i.e., fenced in, which meant that it was bought. Bought from whom? Well, that’s a good question. You shouldn’t be able to buy land that belongs to everyone. Then, too, governments appropriated a good amount of commons and now call them “government land.”
Government land? Yes. People use that phrase today as if it’s normal. It is not normal. A government is a system or a process to govern, rule, or control a group of people for their benefit (hopefully). Here in the U.S., we supposedly elect those who govern us. We call them public servants. That’s as far as I’ll go with that because I’ll have to write a book on it. But . . . government land? No. Governments do not own land. Or at least . . . they’re not supposed to.
So when you hear of someone grazing their animals on “government land,” they are simply using the commons. When someone fishes or goes lobstering, they are simply using the commons. Hunting on state land is simply using the commons. I’ve seen slick campaigns lately that talk about the “nerve” of some people to graze their animals on “your land.” That’s what the campaigns say. Is it my land? And that’s as far as I’ll go with that, too.
In any event, the photo you see above is a plaque placed on a very large rock in the Brunswick Town Commons. This thousand-acre commons was granted to the people of the Town of Brunswick by the Pejepscot Proprietors in 1719. Over the years, many acres were “given” away here and there for this project and that. Seventy-one acres remain. They are seventy-one precious acres still available for use by the commoners. You can’t haul wood off them anymore and no grazing that I know of is done, but there sure is a lot of enjoyment and delight in the land by all the people in the area.
Every year, I go through it and pick bags and bags of blueberries. There are lots of blackberries and wild raspberries as well. I gather acorns, too. Sometimes I pick up pinecones and turn them into Christmas ornaments with a bit of glitter and ribbon. There are a lot of old pitch pines there. The pinecones are nasty and sharp as razors, but they sure do make pretty ornaments. I don’t know if I’m allowed to do all of that or not, but I do it anyway. It’s common ground. I’m a commoner. Are you?