This Land is My Land?
Updated: May 23
As I went walking I saw a sign there
And on the sign it said "No Trespassing."
But on the other side it didn't say nothing,
That side was made for you and me.
Dorothea Mackellar famously called Australia a “wide brown land”, but there is a mar on the proverbial width of our land. The truth is that you can’t run (or walk, or ride) for long in the Australian bush before you reach a fence. A fence is a very clear symbol, but nonetheless signs reading ‘private property’, ‘trespassers will be prosecuted’ and ‘no entry’ are ubiquitous. What value is a wide brown land if its occupants busy themselves by putting up barriers and threatening those who wish to cross those barriers? Yet that is our situation, we are a people who carve off our own hunk of the land’s width and claim that anyone wishing to transverse it has no right to do so.
What’s more is the claim to a hunk of land is not always as clear cut as a fenceline. In the bush some property boundaries are not fenced, and other areas that extend beyond the boundaries of a property, or are legally speaking Commonwealth land, will sometimes not only be fenced but also guarded. On this year’s trip back to Australia I noticed it more than ever, not because this kind of thing has become more prevalent, but because I’m more actively looking for natural places to travel through on foot. In Australia people have a sense of entitlement with regards to land that manifests itself with aggression, and sometimes overflows its legal bounds. It has become abundantly clear to me that colonialism is alive and well in this country.
Near my folks place there is a fenced piece of land which, according to the map, covers an area which includes a middle section of a road. The road is called Falls Road at both ends, but due the gates on either side of the land which intersects it, the road cannot be travelled from one end to the other. If one approaches this property from the eastern end of the road one comes to a sign proclaiming the road beyond that point to be a ‘private road’. This place is relatively close to town centers, but it seems to be just far enough away to become what it is without provoking the ire of the law.
In the past I have run a trail which follows the western fence line of this property before joining with the western section of Falls Road. There are no fences preventing people from entering this trail and I understand it to be an easement between this property and the neighbouring property. On a long run I intended to use this trail, but, reaching the fence I met a big man with a big ute and a big dog and. He’d seen me coming up the road and was waiting for me. Anticipating what was on his mind, I thought it best to take control of the situation. “G’day mate,” I said, pointing to the track I aiming for, “is there an easement through here?”.
He wasn’t able to alter his prepared speech in a way that might answer my question: “Road ends here, mate”
“Yes.” This was not new information to anyone, I tried again, “but, is there an easement through here” I repeated, pointing to the entrance of the easement. This time he understood my question. “Nah, there’s one property and then another property” I gathered that this was as good an answer as I was going to get. There was no fence, but sometimes a big dog is as clear a message as a fence. I gathered that further discussion would likely result in provoking the man’s anger, and potential personal injury. I turned and headed back the way I came.
I know of instances on land that is not legally owned, where merely the idea of a dog (“there’s a rottweiler on the loose around here”) serves as a claim of ownership. Sometimes there’s a fence on land that is not legally owned. This is just someone saying “so far as you and I know, this land is my land.” In a sense they do own the area they have fenced until somebody has the courage and the means to prove them wrong. The problem with these cases is that there is often little to gain from proving someone doesn’t own such a piece of land, and a lot to lose in the attempt. In some cases the law is so ambiguous that it can become impossible to prove that someone does not own land they have grabbed for themselves. I know of instance, for example, wherein a couple who live on the Murray river claim, based on an antiquated law, that their property extends half the width of the river, despite the fact that contemporary laws attribute ownership of the width of the river to the Commonwealth.
So imagine you are in backcountry wilderness following a feature in the landscape that offers you the path of least resistance, perhaps the only path to the destination you have set for yourself, and you come to a fence with a sign that clearly states “private property, do not enter” and then “beware dogs” scrawled in permanent marker beneath. You refer back to your map and confirm that the first part is nothing but a rouse. But then there is the second part. You have no way of knowing if there is not a pack of aggravated pit bulls beyond that fence, or a prepper with a hut full of weaponry, for that matter. Ownership, especially of natural objects such as land, is itself a problematic notion. At it’s core ownership is a belief, the grounds of support for that belief are all culturally constructed. Laws are written and money changes hands, but often ownership relies on nothing more than a sense of entitlement.
On my last day in Australia at dusk I ran down a dirt road nobody goes down, almost. At the creek where it ends I found two guys ringbarking the paperbark trees and piling the bark into a trailer. I don’t know why they would do this, but obviously they felt entitled to do it. This was almost certainly illegal, and of course their actions will kill those trees. But it was getting dark, we were far from anywhere, and there was two of them and one of me. My conversation with them was as follows:
Me: “How’s it going, guys”
I didn’t break my stride, and I was happy to be back out on a main road.
There is a term, ‘Post-Colonialism’ used in academic circles to stand for the modern state of nations and societies that were historically impacted by the actions of colonialists. But I wonder about this term. As long as logging companies believe the trees in the forest are theirs to cut down and turn to profit, colonialism is alive. As long as mining companies believe they own the raw materials in the earth, colonialism is present. As long as a fence stands colonialism is here and now. As long as a piece of land is guarded with a dog, or someone with a gun, we live in the colonial age. We haven’t moved past that. We are still so far from moving past that.