Yesterday morning, shortly after 7 am, the phone rang: it was 911 calling us at the farm. Some cows had wandered out into the road at one of our leased farms.

We have been working on about 400 yards of new boundary fence on this farm and had the old fence all down, the site prepped, and half the new posts pounded in. We were hoping to finish up yesterday and stretch fence today. We’d left a couple of internal electric gates open in our comings and goings on the project. A deer went through our small temporary electric fence surrounding the cows and they wandered out through the open gates and across the boundary onto the neighbours and into the road.

Of course, we arrived on the scene and immediately got everyone back in, fences up, and gates closed. This farm is right on the outskirts of Staunton, and is surrounded by some 20 houses and lots, or house-and-small-acreage property owners. We don’t know them all, but have talked to several of them. We didn’t know which ones the cows had wandered onto, or if any damage had been done, but figured we’d hear about it if someone was disgruntled.

Lexicon of Sustainability infographic looks at cross-contaminationSure enough last evening the phone rang and it was one of the neighbours who said the cows had trampled two rose bushes. I apologised profusely and asked what would satisfy her. “$50 would be fine,” she said, clearly not wanting to sound too upset. I immediately wrote her a cheque and put it in the mail this morning. That was the first time in more than half a century that we’ve ever had to compensate a neighbour for cow damage.

But that’s not the main part of the story. The main part of the story is this: as I was writing the cheque – and very happy to do so – I couldn’t help but think of the folks who suffer trespass from Monsanto’s genetically modified organisms, bred to be promiscuous, who don’t recognise property lines, and come willy-nilly to conduct cross-contamination sexual orgies on property where landowners do not want them, with NO LIABILITY ON THE PART OF THE OWNERS. That Monsanto or any other bio-tech company views such activities cavalierly indicates a profound and terrifying view on personal space and the sacredness of personal property.

In the current state of our cultural thinking, not only is Monsanto not liable for trampling my rose bushes, our courts have decided that I should pay a royalty to Monsanto for the privilege of their life forms contaminating my farm, their company-owned patented beings trampling my rose bushes. Can you imagine my telling this nice neighbour: “Not only will I not pay you $50, I think you should pay me $50 for free tillage services?” My goodness, she could call the county’s district attorney and have me served with a warrant before lunchtime.

Trampling someone else’s rose bushes is the essence of “secure in their persons and effects,” a right guaranteed by the US Constitution and the underpinning of personal ownership of not only my being, but the stuff that is an extension of my being. My clothes, my home, my car, may family, my food – if we can’t have anything that’s “mine” then I cease to exist as an entity.

As a culture, we’ve become increasingly belligerent about bullying other people’s stuff. Whether it’s zoning regulations in Fauquier County threatening to license in-home prayer meetings because too many cars arrive at someone’s home, or denying my ability to sell you a glass of raw milk, or telling the Syrians how they are supposed to run their country – this idea that “I know what’s best for you and I’m going to force you to do it,” is eroding the very essence of personal beingness. I’m told by people in foster care and orphanage administration that one of the first and most profound healing things that can be done in any of these situations is to create personal security for something of ownership. Maybe it’s nothing more than a pencil and notepad, but knowing that my stuff will not be violated is the first step in self-worth, self-awareness, and personal well-being.

Last Sunday, I capped off the four-day freshman orientation activities with an afternoon speech at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. As part of the day’s activities, Teresa and I had lunch with a couple of professors, deans, students, and the campus chaplain. I couldn’t help asking the chaplain: “What’s the number one issue that brings students to you for counsel?”

Without batting an eye or hesitating, she responded: “Dealing with the tension between what they really want to do, deep down in their heart, and what their parents expect them to do to be high income-producing people.” This is a perfect extension of this self-beingness I’m taking about – parents using their bully emotional or economic superiority to pooh-pooh the passion of young people wanting to heal what their parents have broken: economy, environment, emotion. We see it even within our intern program. Too often parents think their children are throwing their lives away in becoming farmers. Actually, it’s considered a personal disgrace to have a child go into a vocation that creates blisters, splinters, and callouses.

This heavy-handed demand to tell you what to do, whether it’s telling someone they can’t smoke marijuana, or demanding parents vaccinate their kids, or demanding people buy health insurance, or criminalising neighbour-to-neighbour voluntary food commerce,  it’s as if we’ve become so disempowered by shallow employment and a money-only business vision that we must turn our personal druthers on other people to give us a feeling of ownership and meaning. That’s a long sentence. I apologise.

Here at Polyface, we do not ask for subsidies, government blessings, grants, or anything. All we ask is to be left alone. We don’t advocate dumping manure at McDonald’s or more regulations about corporate abuses. If people like us are free to practice our God-given self-beingness, the choices and alternatives created will bring competitive accountability to business and political agendas. As a culture we’ve strayed far from liberty. The essence of liberty is allowing someone to engage in risky behaviour, for someone else’s fist to go as far as possible… without touching anyone else.

Trampling rose bushes may seem insignificant, but the way this neighbour and I handled it is the way toward liberty. I recognise her right to be secure in her effects – yes, her home is her castle and her rose bushes are an extension of her beingness. The ultimate statement of liberty is to recognise the sacredness of personal effects, to recognise the rightness of being able to own something that a king or bureaucrat can’t take, whether it’s my health care options or my food options. The next time you think: “we should have a law to make sure that can’t happen,” or “that’s wrong, we need to intervene,” think about whether it passes the trampled roses test. Does my solution trump liberty? Does my GMO trump liberty? Do my beliefs trump your liberty? Does my vision for our society trump your liberty? The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Think about the things society has absolutely known. The world is flat. Blacks are inferior. Slavery is fine. Native Americans are barbaric. Leeches heal the blood. Spirits cause sickness. Homeschooling is wrong. Alcohol needs to be prohibited. GMOs will save the world. DDT will save the world. Raw milk is hazardous. Hemp is horrible. Get the drift?

My take away: I must be very careful about what I become righteously indignant about. It could come back to bite me. Remember the trampled rose bushes.

This blog is a re-print of a blog originally published on the Polyface Farm Facebook Page.

Photograph by zekedawg00

Infographic by Douglas Gayeton

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