Property Crimes

I am not above a little trespass. In fact, I take a little joy in poaching someone’s land rights in the name of adventure. A friend often jokes that property is a sin, but the joke works because there is an element of truth in it.

Last night the wife and I were paddling on a pond a stone’s throw from Walden, a place Thoreau is said to have spent a fair amount of time walking, fishing, and generally appreciating the wildness of things. The night was languid and warm, and families splashed in the roped off shallows. We pushed away from the boat launch and worked our way across the water.

At the far edge of the pond, we came upon a small, empty patch of sand with a few boats piled on one end. On a tree, above them, hung a sign that said, “PRIVATE BEACH. NO PUBLIC ACCESS.” We ignored the sign, pulled up onto the beach, climbed off our paddleboards and swam.

I don’t know what it is about wealth, some fear of losing it I suppose, that makes the rich so neurotic about their property, this urge to keep everyone away. I reject outright the notion that you can buy natural beauty and sequester it, that you can own a beach on a public pond.

In the fall each year, I spend some time on Block Island with friends. Block Island is a sparsely populated, elevated shelf in the Atlantic Ocean, just off the coast of Rhode Island. Birds and deer far outnumber human inhabitants, but it’s the sort of place the affluent build monuments to themselves. Often as you ride the web of paved and dirt roads there you come upon a sign that reads: PRIVATE ROAD.

I am told that there is no such thing, that if the fire department serves a location, that it is not private. It is public. But this is part of a strategy by the wealthy to keep the riff-raff (me, in many cases) out.

I ride right past these signs too. I have even ridden past the angry looks of aggrieved residents.

I will never come in your home. I have no interest in your material property or in violating whatever sense of security and serenity you have there. But if you have a piece of nature that you think you deserve exclusive access to you, I will happily borrow it, as it suits me.

And if/when the cops come to confront the trespasser, I will smile and say, “Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t know you could own a thing like that.”

3 thoughts on “Property Crimes

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  1. Yeah. I feel like private beaches are bullshit. And there are definitely times when I’ve looked up a public trail map, only to discover that someone has planted a “Private Property” sign right in the middle of it (the Lords of the Manor houses in Lincoln, MA are prime offenders). I usually make the decision that if this is listed as a trail, I’m allowed to be there. That being said, every time that happens, I think about my Black running friends who would probably be terrified to do that, for fear of having the cops called on them (or worse?) Nobody ever calls the cops on me. I wish my friends could just run without fear. If I turn around and obey the sign in honor of them does it help? Not at all. All I can do is acknowledge this double standard and talk about it.

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    1. Yes. 100% this. I think, if I’m willing to engage a property owner about what fair access is, then I’ve established some precedent in their mind. If/when they treat someone else differently, then they have to confront that, and that’s a better outcome than just letting people create fake boundaries to deny other people outdoor experiences. I’m not out courting conflict with people, and playing dumb gets you a lot of leeway. That is the result of white privilege, but I still think that interaction is useful.

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