Sunday, April 24, 2016

Freedom to Wander

Ken Ilgunas

Staying on point is something I've never been good at.  One of the great efforts I learned I had to make when writing anything is to stay on the topic and not to digress or wander off into interesting but unrelated topics.

Which is why Ken Ilgunas's lovely article in today's New York Times struck such a chord with me.  At first glance, I thought it was an article about the Keystone XL pipeline.  It carried a picture of the pipeline from its origin in Alberta to the terminus in Port Arthur, Texas, but it turned out to be not so much about the pipeline, or a description of the lands and vistas it would cross as it is an article about the adventure and rewards of actually trying to walk the entire length of the thing, which took Ilgunas 136 days.   The whole journey brought him face to face with the strictures in America which thwart those who love to go a wandering.

The real subject of the article, if it can be said to have a single subject, is the idea that in the United States you cannot just wander, by foot along much of the continent because so much of our land is owned as private property.  When Woody Guthrie sang, "This Land is Your Land. This Land is My Land," he could not have been speaking of America, because this land is apt to belong to someone else.

The only public land in America is, most often, the roads. 

For years, I practiced medicine in Washington, D.C. and my practice had a high proportion of Europeans and I always asked them what they found different about living in America and, almost to a man or woman they replied, "You Americans, you DRIVE everywhere. Go to the 7-11 down the block, half a kilometer away: You drive!"

The other thing they noticed is how fat Americans are.  

One thing I noticed was how thin Americans returning from extended stays in Europe had become. One twenty something returned to Washington after 3 years posted to a news outlet in Italy,  and I hardly recognized him. He had lost 30 pounds. In Italy! How had he done this?  "Well," he said. "I wasn't trying to lose weight. It just happened. For one thing, you eat only fresh food, but mostly I just walked a lot."

In Sweden and Scotland and many other European countries, you can walk across private land and that right is guaranteed by "freedom to roam" laws.  You do not have to stay on roads, as you do in the USA.  Of course, as Ilgunas notes, if we tried to pass such laws here, allowing people to roam across your lawn or fields, we'd run up against the Fifth Amendment, which forbids government taking of private property.  While "eminent domain" has been invoked for the building of highways or other such use, we are pretty skittish about allowing the government to trespass or to allow the public to trespass on private property.

Except, when we are not.

We are not so skittish, it turns out, in some places in America, namely New Hampshire, if that trespass involves a person carrying a gun.  

One day I was entering the Urban Forest in Portsmouth, and as I did a stream of rather panicky looking parents and children and dogs came at me along the path from the woods, making a bee line for the parking lot behind me.  Behind them I could hear thunderclaps and I thought, "Oh, a local squall." But no, one of the mothers told me, "Somebody's shooting out there."

I proceeded onward along and was joined by  an off duty policeman, who was there with his dog, and we followed the sound of the gunshots to the water's edge. The Urban Forest runs down to salt marshes which run under Route 1 and out to the sea.  About thirty yards off shore two men with shot guns were shooting toward the sky at some birds.

"They may be within their rights," the off duty cop said, but he still phoned the police department to come out and investigate. 

It turned out the hunters were hunting legally, within the city limits, within spitting distance of Route 1 and within the Urban Forest. 

I wrote the Mayor of Portsmouth, who replied with a copy of the applicable law enclosed in the envelop.  It turned out two separate legal protections covered these hunters.  The first was in the will which bequeathed the land for the Urban Forest to Portsmouth, guaranteeing that hunting would be allowed there. 

The second was a law, which was more interesting.  In the State of New Hampshire it turns out:
1. It is legal to shoot your gun while hunting beyond 300 feet (the length of a football field) of an occupied building, within 15 feet of a road and within 1,000 feet of a school. (Think about that next time your kid goes out for dodge ball at recess.)
2. It is illegal to walk across private property UNLESS you are carrying a gun, hunting, unless the owner has clearly posted "No Hunting" signs. So, the acre of woods behind my house is open to anyone with a gun, unless I nail the signs to trees.  Furthermore, it is legal to shoot at a deer across any road in New Hampshire with 9 exceptions, and those exceptions spell out Route 95, Route 101, Rte 93,  and a bunch of other multi lane highways which it is hard to imagine anyone in his right mind would try to shoot across.

Such is the respect for hunting in New Hampshire. Hunting trumps private property rights. This is still, in parts, a rural state, or was once. Only 1.3 million people live here and most are concentrated along the Western border with Massachusetts, in Manchester or along the 18 mile Seacoast.  Most of the territory is still farmland or forest or mountain or lake. Loons live here, which says something.

When I was in high school, I read Thoreau.  He spent a week on the Concord and Merrimack rivers and it sounded idyllic.  But I now cross the Merrimack 12 times a week commuting to work across the bridges which traverse it as it meanders past Methuen and Haverhill, Massachusetts. Long ago, the shoe factories polluted the Merrimack thoroughly, and although efforts to clean it up are longstanding, the muddy bottom still stores chemicals from that legacy.

Today, I'll go out on my bicycle along the road from Hampton through Kingston to Exeter, New Hampshire.  Those are public roads and automobiles roar past me, some trucks pull trailers carrying mowers and tractors behind, and those are the vehicles I fear most because they veer and swerve behind the trucks towing them.  It would be nice to be able to walk through the woods and fields along the road, but this is America, not Europe.  Of course, this is New Hampshire, so if I carried a AK-15 assault rifle, I'd be perfectly within my rights to walk across that privately owned land.

During the Fall hunting season, one of the best times to walk through town and state parks, I have to wrap my yellow lab in an orange vest and I wear an orange hat, because you can hear the deep throated rumble of gun fire from unseen places off in the woods.  We live free up here, and, occasionally, owing to hunting accidents, we do die.

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