I got yelled at by a stranger yesterday, through a door I didn’t see open but caught slamming shut out of the corner of my eye, on the sly – only there’s nothing sly about screaming at someone across a quiet street through a banging door. And for the record it is not sly to later deny you created all that racket when you’re the one sitting on the other side of that same door and the party you were yelling at politely asks why you were so mad. And by the way, shaking your finger through the window at the person you did not open your door and yell at, when they are looking directly at you, does not do much to build a case of innocence or for that matter neighborliness.
I am not a confrontational person. I often wish I had more fight in me, but by nature I would rather get along, make peace, find common ground. Typical spineless milk toast nonsense. But when some bitter voice hollers “Get away from that water” while I am filling a jug at a PUBLIC spigot, and then disappears into a PUBLIC place of business (not a home or a car or a hidden piece of privacy), something in me wants to get to the bottom of the matter.
Now, I have been happily camping on different bits of the Coronado National Forest lately, loving the freedom of living on rolling terrain peppered with rocks and boulders, mesquite trees and old oaks, enjoying acres upon acres of open, public land and the beauty and bigger breathing it offers. We have cooked over clean campfires almost every night, explored the trails and the corners of forest without paths, and taken care to clean up after ourselves and minimize our bruising of the site for future campers. I even brought Mac the Horse out with his electric fence for a few days of riding, wandering, and horizon gazing, making sure to keep his stay from impacting the area too much. So I’m a little smitten with all things public right now.
I’ve also been reading a book about land trusts and land conservation recently, so public access and sharing public resources has been on my mind in many ways. This land is your land, this land is my land. To cherish, to protect, to share, to safeguard, to pass on to others, to learn more about, to use responsibly, to save and steward and respect. So maybe I was wrong to think water from a town spigot where I am buying groceries, renting a Post Office Box, contributing to the food bank, and helping my friend pay taxes and municipal fees with my horse boarding check written out to the Town of Patagonia, is public. Or public to me. Maybe the angry woman who couldn’t quite look me in the eye when I went across the street to ask why she was yelling and shaking her finger at me felt I was taking HER water. Maybe she has a hard time paying her water bill and thinks using a jug instead of a meter is stealing. From her. Maybe it is. Maybe this land is her land, not my land. I asked if using the public garbage cans or the public restrooms at the other end of the town park bothered her, because sometimes I guess I AM a confrontational person, and she said no. Just the water.
So now I am left with questions about what is public, and what should be labeled and left alone and fenced off. Am I taking more than my share if I fill up my water or throw away my kleenex, or drive on muddy roads already rutted, or park crookedly so my left rear bumper hangs into another spot, or take photos from Pinterest to turn into paintings? And am I being cavalier with what is mine if I drop off peanuts and breakfast bars at the church, give work advice to another nonprofit, or post my paintings where anyone can take them and copy, print, or have their way with them? Is it public or private to sit in a room of a library working while another patron makes a phone call to discuss a nursing client in obvious decline? Public or private to let my posts about Linus go to Facebook with my artwork before I personally tell my dear friend Beth or my brother the news? And what about the guy spread out in that same town park, laundry hanging from his van to dry, clipping his nails and sunning his shirtless expanse with dogs strewn around like lawn ornaments? His very own set of hairy, panting garden gnomes? Public or private? Who is entitled to what, what do we share, and what belongs to no one? The stars are lucky they shine so far away; no one can fight over who owns them or what should be done with their beautiful light. No one is yelling at me to get away from them and I’m not worried they won’t survive the next four years.
I get feeling protective. I wish more people felt like they had a right and a voice to safeguard resources. And a leg to stand on. And an actual shot at being effective. I wish more land trusts and individuals could wrap their arms around the places I treasure. I wish more people could save more wildlife and farm animals and puppies. I am awed and cheering when someone stands up for the rights of the voiceless, the homeless, the fenceless, the free-est and least of these. Save the oceans and the wild horses and the mom & pop shops and the underdogs and the public treasures and vacant lots and human rights, God bless them every one. And maybe the way we do that is to yell for folks to come near, come use, come fall in love with, come take part in – that water, that mountain, that corridor, that resource – instead of get away. And instead of slamming doors maybe we open them, invite others in, share. I don’t know. I don’t get yelled at very often. But my theory is if you care enough to get out of your chair and bang the door and shake your finger, bringing others in vs turning them away might actually save the things you care so much about.