for caring rocks and strawberries that like their own taste
"For and in consideration of the great love I bear this tree and the great desire I have for its protection for all time, I convey entire possession of itself and all land within eight feet of the tree on all sides." WILLIAM H. JACKSON
In 1890 a US colonel loved a tree so much, he deeded it to itself. It became known as “The tree that owned itself”, and, when it died, one of its acorns was placed on the same spot, sprouting the “Son of the tree that owned itself” (which also owns itself). Lawfully, this is not possible, because there is no legal capacity for the tree to govern itself. However, the people didn’t care about such a thing: they loved the story so much, they acted as if it was true. What does this tell us about how and why we care for the world around us? A tree became free from human destruction because of human love, but there were no stories to convince an ice storm to avoid it. A tree was given to itself because that was, according to the colonel’s thinking, the best way to protect it (again, for human desires, or at least because of them). Is this a glimpse of how, in 1890 already, we thought of ourselves as stewards of the world around us? Ultimately, it was through the work and care of the community that another acorn was planted, and the tree has spread it seed. Managing what is common to us, and what is common with others, is a trouble that we hope won’t end in tragedy. Thing is, we do not belong to ourselves, but in fact exist in a world with others - humans and non-humans alike. What might this mean? Let’s begin with the very fabric of reality.
If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it hurt? Do things exist without us, or only with our presence? And how do they exist? I’m not asking because I think we can know, I’m asking because I think they might (exist). Sounds preposterous to even ask? Well, let’s remember that post-Kant, there wasn’t so much talk about substance anymore. That was naive. Passé. The question became „no longer ‘which is the proper substrate?’ but ‘which is the proper correlate?’” (Meillassoux, 2010). Slowly, but surely, we became the center of the universe (again), by relating everything that exists to our knowledge. Even more so, human talk started to construct realities and manipulate them according to its own discourse. We not only created romantic love and memes, but also forests, oceans, stars - as we see them. Stepping back in a mundane desk chair, it doesn’t take longer than a few breaths to realize what this means for an „ontological commons”. There was no human universal to create it, and truth has been spread through political power. We haven’t commonly acknowledged Mozart and Dali as valuable, nor have we commonly decided that the nuclear family is the way to organize society, yet here we are. There seems to have always been conflict over what the nature of reality is, we just can’t grasp it. When we act as if everything is so because it reveals itself to us, we wield more power than we can handle. And not democratically. Timothy Morton says it best, „correlationism revelation mode ... is a mode of sadistic enjoyment in which one can do anything to anything”. The desk will be here even when I leave – and what will it be to the chair, or the coffee cup? Just because we cannot know, it doesn’t mean it is not worth asking. And yet, what the desk is to me, only I know. Just like Meillasoux writes, „the melodious beauty of a sonic sequence is not heard by the melody”. We do create reality in common, with humans and non-humans. And also, we don’t. Object-oriented ontology opens up this very possibility – of unfanthomable beings, of the world without us. The rocks and the wild strawberries have valuable existences, even if we’ll never access them. Who knows how the idea of „commons” might translate for them.
Trees practice solidarity. In a forest, they „synchronize their performance so that they are all equally successful”, sharing water and nutrients (Wohlleben, 2016). Even more, they make ‚friends’ with other species. The saliva of each species of insects is different, and that’s how trees ‚recognize’ insects that bother them. Afterwards, trees can release pheromones that ‚call to help’ the needed predators. In the face of such successful cooperation, what do we, humans, do? We teach trees ownership, instead of learning community from them. Even more, we price-tag trees, forests, whole ecosystems (Sullivan, 2009), so that we know how to speak about them – as if we’ve forgotten there are other ways to talk about things besides money. Wait, you might wonder: who is this ‚we’ I keep referring to? It seems like it is the human species, but the moment one starts saying things about it, it all becomes a blur. Certainly, the indigenous people being chased off their lands are not the ones talking about forests in dollars. The natural commons is being co-opted by capitalist relations, and few people benefit from that (Caffentzis & Federici, 2014). More and more of what isn’t open is called so, from private university’s libraries to parks that are „better managed” privately, anyway. Capitalism pushes the frontier further and further, accumulating the future, fearless enough to send its fierce narcissistic dreams into space, in the shape of a red car to became space debris (Letzter, WashingtonPost, 2018). No matter how much we want, need, and push, at least for knowledge to be free and accesible (Bollier, 2011), who will be there to know, if the people making red cars are breaking their backs (Wong, The Guardian, 2018)? We need to learn tree ways, not teach trees human ways. And we need to learn quickly, before we enter a Phagocene (Bonneuil & Fressoz, 2017), fetishising and consuming everything. Quickly, before we get too tired, before the struggle to keep the commons common becomes to heavy for some of us (Timm, Freedom.Press, 2018).
The commons hold us. We’re here because the air is still breathable, and vegetables are good to us, or anyway, they can’t help it. As trees form bonds with other trees, with certain predators, with mushrooms, so do we, and by bonds I mean, such strong bonds that there is no I without you. There is no human without the social, as we know it. Neither are there humans without bacteria. Or wheat. There is no clear line break where „I” begin and „you” end. But we’re not all the same, and overlooking differences is dangerous. We shouldn’t idealize nature to keep it distant, nor should we consume it to make it ours. We shouldn’t do everything as it does, as if we are one, nor should we think we can dominate it with our tech toys. Take the closest bond we like to imagine: mother and child. It’s not all beautiful and it’s not all commonly managed. There is a spider mother that lets herself be devoured by her children. For humans, there’s a war in the womb between baby, needing as much nutrients as possible, and mother, trying to survive, stay healthy, keep some for herself (Sadedin, Aeon, 2014). There is conflict even in the closest of human connections. Therefore, what can the politics of the commons take from this assemblage of reality?
From a US colonel we learn to give ownership to that which we love. To let it manage itself. From a scholar raised in the tradition of humanities and disco balls, we learn that solidarity is cheapest, it is „the default affective environment of the top layers of Earth’s crust” (Morton, 2017). From researchers of the commons, we learn that they are a choice we make, „a commitment to the creation of collective subjects, a commitment to fostering common interests in every aspect of our life” (Caffentzis & Federici, 2014). We should act towards togetherness, not only because that is what we are, but also because we will fail enough times to experience the opposite, anyway. We are both the commons’, and we must choose to be so, actively, against enclosures that seem to satisfy so few of us for so little time. For the trees and the babies and the wild berries.
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