This land is my land


The chorus from a folk song came to mind as I looked out over our wooded property. Fortunately, our home is in town south of the Wabash campus. One white oak is over 250 years old. I sat looking out through the woods and thought of the old folk song. “This land is your land; this land is my land.”

It is beautiful all around with birds singing and small animals scampering. Occasionally a deer darts through the woods. A creek meanders along the edge. Good fortunate and gratitude floated through the mind. Contemplation raised the nagging question of ownership, or stewardship? Legal deed and rights, or moral obligation?

Religious training and one Sunday yearly focused on Stewardship and the Christian Rural Overseas Program. The moral and religious obligation required good stewardship of the land and sharing with others. One could list all the benefits of woodlands accruing to others in Crawfordsville, even those who never view the beauty up close — cool, fresh air, full of oxygen. Preserving the trees, plants and land in their current state means that others, even those unborn, might benefit from good stewardship.

Perhaps that is what Woody Guthrie intended, “This land is your land; this land is my land … It was made for you and me.” Even if the singers did not intend religious meaning, it surely implies the act of creation, intent, a creative power, even a god. Pondering that possibility brings forward other possible worldviews that provide frameworks for relating humans to landscapes.

Hunter/gathers and herder/farmers rely on fertility of the land and animals. Often that extends to personification into male and female creative forces, and then into male and female deities. Rituals and objects display the creative acts in vivid reenactment with the goal of encouraging fertility of the land and animals. The Israelites were surrounded by neighbors who worshipped Baal (male) and Astarte (female) “on every high hill and under every green tree.”

Other worldviews propose that the land itself is divine or part of the gods, and people worship the earth or the personification of Mother Earth. Modern environmentalists avoid personification of creative powers and nature worship, but many do attribute rights to the land and to animals analogous to human rights.

Some Eastern and New Age religions indicate that the material world is a mirage that exists only in the mistaken imaginings of the individual’s mind. The distinctions that our minds make between objects are an ephemeral error. Hence, mind control is the key, which is obtained through disciplined yoga or meditation. True knowledge and liberation come when all distinctions of words disappear, and only silence remains.

Materialists maintain that the land and those who inhabit it are accidental results of age-long random developments. Those and humanist concepts lead to diverse concepts of the relation of humans to other elements, from which develop diverse ethical and moral obligations.

Most of these alternatives lead to different interpretations the folk song worlds away from concepts of stewardship that are based on both western traditions of free, reasoning individuals and Christian concepts of stewardship-based moral principles.

All that leaves me sitting on the patio enjoying the beauty, diversity, and blessings flowing from creation beyond all deserving. Surely, we should take care of it all to the best of our ability, to preserve it for others, and to share the benefits as widely as we can. It seems the least we can do in response to undeserved blessings.


Raymond B. Williams, Crawfordsville, LaFollette Distinguished Professor in the Humanities emeritus, contributed this guest column.