One-Minute Essays
On Owning Land Reading, Writing, Speaking, Listening
The terminology that we use about the world around us is important. In America when we purchase some land for a house or a factory or even for farmland, we call it a "lot." In Europe, the common term for the parcel of land that a house sits on, or a factory inhabits, is a "holding." This distinction in phrasing tells us a lot about attitudes towards land in the two cultures — one developed more linearly from medieval feudalism, one reinvented in a vast open continent.
As John Stilgoe puts it, "From the first days of settlement until the official closing of the frontier in 1890, one sort of government or another allotted land to encourage pioneering, farming, ranching, mining, even railroad building." So while in Europe, holdings connote "something of the ancient tradition of fiefdoms, stewardship, leasing and yeoman rights," the lot in America connotes "the awarding of land sometimes in return for military service, sometimes for the payment of only a token fee. A lot of land is cousin to one's lot in life, something one almost wins, something which one may do with as one chooses."[1]
The American lot is interesting in another way. The other meaning of it is related to chance or to fortune. One can draw "lots" for a raffle, or speak of one's "lot in life," both of which imply a certain randomness - or at least conditions beyond our control. In addition, we commonly speak of having "lots" of stuff, meaning a great quantity. Is it possible that this meaning of copiousness derives from the colonists coming over here and having more land than they ever could have dreamed of? As a recent British writer wrote upon his moving to Vermont and buying a house on a ten-acre lot:
Ten acres. In England, where I was born and lived for the first half of my life, you can't have ten acres unless you are an Earl, or are sleeping with an Earl, or are the outcome of someone else sleeping with an Earl. I barely looked at the house. I looked at the land and saw everything my mother had ever planted in a garden, plus everything that she had always wanted to plant in a garden, but had never had garden enough. I saw blueberry bushes, apple trees, blackberry bushes, grapevines, and a rototilled vegetable garden so large I could plant corn, a vegetable that would be inconceivable in tiny English gardens, as it would block the neighbor's sunlight. [2]
[1] John R. Stilgoe, Outside Lies Magic: regaining history and awareness in everyday places (NY: Walker & Co. 1998), p. 175.
[2] Tim Brookes, The Driveway Diaries: a dirt road almanac (NY: Turtle Point Press, 2005), pp. 8-9.