Last month’s visit to Iowa City by Jay Walljasper, author of All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons, was by all accounts–including, admittedly, my own–a great success. I once again thank Little Village for helping spread the word so effectively and I thank all who came to discuss the commons with us and who supported Jay’s visit in any way.
In this season of giving, I would ask that you indulge me one more reflection on the commons. I do so in part because of this very season–the time of year when sharing, the root idea behind the commons, is uppermost in many people’s minds.
During his visit here, Jay Walljasper would, whenever possible, practice the idea of the commons in his talks, turning the session into a shared experience by asking all audience members to share their favorite commons. As host, I refrained from responding and taking up too much time myself, but when Jay was giving his talk in Grinnell, I couldn’t help but put in my two cents. I thought that I was drawing together a few things in perhaps a bizarre way, but I forged ahead anyway.
This summer, we welcomed a new addition to our family: a six-year-old stray three-legged black labrador retriever named Mabel. So for my first example of the commons, I was grateful for the existence and expertise of the Iowa City Animal Care and Adoption Center. As a public institution, it is an obvious example of a public service, which is clearly part of the commons. Thanks to the animal shelter, Mabel found her way to safety and ultimately our home.
The other aspect of the commons that I am grateful for is the compassion that prompted someone (whoever you are, thank you) to pick up a stray three-legged Labrador retriever and take her to the shelter. No legal obligation exists for anyone to extend the effort and time it takes to transport and turn in a stray dog. Yet someone did extend such time and effort out of, I would think and hope, compassion for an animal in trouble. My gratitude is all the more bounteous since Mabel’s only goal in life, it seems, is to lie comfortably on her bed and be petted. I can think of few dogs I’ve known or cared for who would have had a harder time alone in “the wilderness,” as we joshingly say at home, than this little three-legged “mush dog.”
This led me to another commons connection. The compassion for animals–an ethical commons–is part of one of the most important aspects of our shared heritage here in Iowa, as well as the shared ethics of environmentalism that are our only hope for a clean, beautiful world–the heritage of Burlington native Aldo Leopold. Leopold’s most important idea–and arguably the most important environmental idea of the twentieth century, if not ever–is the “land ethic.” As Leopold said in the classic A Sand County Almanac, “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise. … The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land.”
No doubt many naturalists and environmentalists consider wild animals more than domesticated pets as part of “the land,” but I think Leopold would agree that we have this deep obligation to all life. It seems like such a simple, if not obvious idea, but it was profound in its first observation and altered the course of how we think about our relationship with nature–and literally everything around us.
Now I’m not saying that the person who picked up Mabel had read Leopold, or that his or her compassion couldn’t have originated more directly from sources other than environmentalism. But this person’s reaching out to a stray animal is nevertheless part of the “land ethic,” an idea that we share–and desperately need to share–as Iowans, as human beings, and as inhabitants of this planet. One might argue that the land ethic is the most important commons of all.
So that’s my commons story. Now you’ve seen the circuitous, Byzantine paths my thinking sometimes takes. You may be right. I may be crazy. But it just may be the commons you’ve been looking for. Jay Walljasper himself has said that people often throw up their hands when he tries to define the commons for them and say, “So the commons is everything.” Well, yes, in some ways, it is–or at least everything that should be most important to us: what we share in common. “The environment” was a difficult new concept for people to wrap their minds around in the early 1970s; litter, soil degradation, water pollution–these were all separate issues for many in the 1960s and not necessarily part of a larger whole. In a similar way, perhaps “the commons” is an idea whose time has come, even if the threads that tie it all together aren’t so obvious yet.
I do think that Mabel the three-legged Labrador, compassion, Iowa’s cultural heritage and Aldo Leopold all have something to do with each other and are part of a larger whole. They share common ground, and perhaps their greatest strength is in those (perhaps for now) gossamer threads that tie them together in the fabric of the commons. In this season of sharing, the commons is a great idea to ponder, all of a piece with peace on Earth and goodwill to all people.