Why we should have the right to explore private land
J.B. MacKinnon makes the case for occupying the wild
We were out for a hike on Bowen Island, which sits at the mouth of Vancouver’s harbour like a cork to bottle in the urban whine, when we came to a no trespassing sign. Beyond was the familiar devastation of development: blasted stone, felled trees, a muddy road. Well. The six of us knew that locals had been walking in the area for decades, and besides, we were a freedom-minded bunch. Onward we went, past the sign, into the forest and down to the soul-refuelling shore.
We were on our return journey when, nearing the new road, we saw a luxury SUV pulling to a stop. A luxury-SUV kind of fellow stepped out, followed by a luxury-SUV variety woman. I knew what would happen next—it’s a legend in my family that, as a boy, I was often rousted from whatever I was up to in the neighbourhood by somebody shouting, “Hey blondie! Get off of my land!” The SUV owner’s tone was the same, though his words had a little more substance. “How would you like it,” he said, “if I took a walk in your backyard?”
Let’s pretend for a moment that he was actually interested in the answer to that question. For starters, I don’t have a backyard, because Canada’s richest real-estate market has rendered me the modern equivalent of a feudal peasant. Secondly, I am—like more than 50 per cent of people on earth—a city dweller, so I’m unlikely ever to own a yard large enough that a stranger could pass through it without being able to see what I do in the bedroom or otherwise seriously infringe on my privacy. So really the question is, How would I like it if I owned that guy’s backyard—which is an undeveloped forest large enough that a visitor could wander through it for half an hour without figuring out where the house is hidden—and then one day I stumbled on some people taking a quiet hike on my private property? And the answer to that question is: I wouldn’t mind it one bit.
I’ve made the SUV driver the bad guy in this story, but I know that many people would see me and my band of trespassers as the snotty-nosed wrongdoers. It all depends on how you feel about private property, and this is my actual point. In Canada, we’ve never had much public debate about our access to an increasingly privatized countryside. Maybe it’s time that we did.
Here’s another story, this time from the opposite coast. My mother lived in Newfoundland for years, and one late spring I paid her a visit. We headed out in search of that most magnificent of Newfie sights, humpback whales breaching and diving among icebergs. Suddenly we crested a hill and there they were, the huge black leviathans flashing their tails against the whites and blues of the bergs, the whole scene playing out in a snug little cove. My mom parked the car as close as she could get to the water, which happened to be in front of an obviously inhabited acreage. Then she wandered into these strangers’ backyard, with me and my lady-friend trailing behind and muttering that this might not be a good idea. Predictably, the man of the house soon appeared on the patio. Then he said, in the whale-oil-beef-hooked accent of rural Newfoundland, “Isn’t dat de most wonderful ting you’ve ever seen?”
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