With so much scholarship focused on commons as “resource management” and the measurement of externals, it’s refreshing to encounter a book that plumbs the internal dimensions of a commons –that is, commoning. Canadian writer and scholar Heather Menzies has taken on this challenge in her recently published Reclaiming the Commons for the Commons Good (New Society Publishers), a book that she describes as a “memoir and manifesto.” It is a three-part exploration of commoning as a personal experience, social negotiation and finally, as a spiritual quest.
The first part of Menzies’ book is the memoir: an account of her trip to the land of her ancestors, Scotland. She wanted to try to imagine their lives as commoners and understand the impact of the cataclysmic enclosures known as the Highland Clearances, in the late 1700s and 1800s.
The Clearances, a landmark in Scottish history, saw thousands of small family farmers forced off their traditional lands to make way for “Improvements” -- that is, conversion to the profitable enterprise of sheep-raising. Landlords raised rents, colluded with politicians to “legally” take the lands, and when necessary, resorted to violence to get the job done.
The Clearances were not only a major economic and political disruption, but also a profound cultural, ecological and spiritual dispossession, as Manzies writes:
My forebears and their neighbors didn’t just lose their together-as-one connection to the land. They lost all that these ties meant to them economically, politically, socially, culturally and even spiritually. They lost ways of working the land and working things out together. They lost ways of knowing the land directly, intimately through the soles of their feet, the tone of their muscled arms and hands….They lost ways of knowing the animals too, wild and domestic, and how they moved from woodland to water and claimed certain spots conducive to begetting. As well, they lost ways of sharing this experience, this knowing as common knowledge, with that knowledge both informing and supporting the authority of local decision-making.