Who Owns Time?
By Joseph Colwell Copyright 2016

Essay in  —    Zephyr of Time
from Lichen Rock Press

          In late 1990, on a cold winter day, my wife and I signed papers that documented our ownership of 40 acres in Western Colorado. We had been searching for a place in which to move after I retired about a dozen years from then. The land was an old homestead, vacated only 2 years previously by Hazel, a hermit recluse who had lived here for at least 50 years. A long journey started for us that snowy day and is still progressing in our trip through time.

          The property was exactly what we were looking for. It was mostly forested, although with pinyon and a few juniper and not the higher elevation aspen and spruce that I would have preferred. It had views to die for– of the distant San Juan Mountains, the West Elk Mountains, the North Fork Valley below me, the Black Canyon of the Gunnison across the valley. Year-round spring-fed streams, filled the two valleys with cattails and wetlands, which enhanced the excellent wildlife habitat.

          In the ensuing years, we learned many things, the most important of which is that we do not own the land. It owns us. We are temporary tenants, caretakers, living with many other inhabitants, sharing a world that is as old as time itself. As if it mattered, we can easily trace ownership of this piece of land. We bought it from a speculator who owned it less than a month. He nearly doubled his investment in that short time. He realized this piece of land held a value not understood by most people. He had purchased it from three young ladies who had inherited it three years earlier from their childless aunt Hazel, the hermit recluse. Hazel had obtained title from the U.S. Government via the Homestead Act in 1940. The Government had obtained title when it forced the previous owners off their land in the late 19th century and proclaimed itself owner. The Utes, or Nuche, had “owned” it for untold millennia prior to that, although they fully understood they didn’t own anything. They were semi nomadic and lived as part of this land, one of many owners, including the trees, the deer, the mountain lion, the eagle. They knew you could no more own the land, the animals, the clouds, as you could own time. The land was time and it had no beginning or end.

          As I now care for the land, tending and restoring the damage done by overgrazing, littering, cutting of trees, all of which destroyed native plants and animals, I realize what the Nuche and their ancestors knew instinctively. The land is sacred and we use it with permission of all other life forms. The frog down in the pond, the gopher snake slithering over the rocks, the ravens and eagles overhead, the ancient junipers, the sagebrush, the sego lilies, the cactus, the lichens covering the rocks, all own this place they together call home.

          The land is time, which like life itself is forever changing. As an ecologist, I understand that nature does not stay the same. A person may want to live in a place with a nice view of a forested hillside or a peaceful lake. But the forested hillside will change. Fire or disease will inevitably reduce the trees to skeletons. The lake will fill in to become a meadow. A herd of deer that frequent the winter landscape may move on to greener pastures or change their migration pattern. The scenery changes, but so does the land itself.

          The forty acres that I now enjoy were something else not that long ago, but for my meager lifespan, I can count on that not changing significantly. But change it does. When glaciers had finished picking off the edges of Grand Mesa and depositing the black basalt boulders on the ice which then left it on my property, the melting water scoured the hillsides, creating a huge lake below me. The scene I now view as orchards and pastures below my mesa was once a happening place as glacial floodwaters churned and left deposits of gravel and boulders. A few eons before that, the remains of a Mediterranean type sea left thousands of feet of what turned into shale, covering the landscape with a sterile badlands. And for millions of years prior to that, the sands and muds and sea sediment were solidifying into rock that is carved into the Colorado Plateau as a wonderland of canyons and cliffs today.

          At one time dinosaurs roamed and bellowed exactly where my house now stands. Then at another time, that vast sea covered my bedroom to an unknown depth. I own all that. I own the spirits of those beasts, the energy that still vibrates from the atoms that built their cells that may still float through the mountain air I breathe. How can I not own the very time that helps make the land what it is today?

          It is the dream of many people to own their own home. They may own a small piece of land in a town or city, squeezed between a hundred or a thousand other houses, all unaware of what happened on that land more than a couple hundred years earlier. But the history is there, hidden beneath the asphalt and concrete and wooden walls. The spirits are lost as is the connection with all other living things.

          Here, though, I can feel the energy. I wander like a child awed by the mystery of the world surrounding him. I am a visitor who wishes to understand the cry of the raven, to talk to the deer than stand staring at me with those large liquid brown eyes. They wonder about me like I wonder about them. They, and those like them that lived here before my kind learned to utter those first words that took us on a separate journey long, long ago, own this land. I am here with their permission yet my kind act like their kind don’t belong except as something that we allow.

          I wish to go back to when the sea lapped the shores of a distant land beyond sight over the eastern horizon. There were no mountains then. They had long ago been reduced to the mud that sank below me to form a shale that grew to a great depth. I want to hover above the water, green and blue, reflecting clouds that have formed and dissolved and reformed a thousand million times since then. What strange sea birds flew over this ocean and what fish probed the depths?  Or was there life at all other than blue green algae?

          Or take me back further to when my land sat on the edge of a huge Sahara Desert, with endless red sand dunes stretching to the setting sun. The land was red, the sky was red, the clouds were red. Where my chipmunks now scamper, there was no hint of life of any kind.

          The days were all the same since my land was sitting near the equator, that chunk of land now called North America part of a land mass long ago split asunder and set in motion across the world. It was indeed a different world. But I own that, too. Where does my land title say that?

          Where I now look out my bedroom window and see a distant line of white peaks reaching towards the moon, at one time that lump of rising land was awash with lava and belching steam. Calderas the size of Yellowstone were building new land and creating what I see as a wilderness of high peaks and plateaus and canyons, full of flowers and elk and grizzly, until a century and a half ago when we destroyed the garden of Eden that existed. What landowner carries that burden of guilt of what we did to that creation of wonder? I claim innocence yet I still bear the responsibility. Can I buy what that paradise looked like when the Nuche wandered its canyons and rivers?

          I want to go back, but the only direction I am allowed to go is forward and I can only apologize to the future landowners of what I did and didn’t do. My kind in my time were poor landlords and someday, we will be ashamed, but not now. We are too short sighted and too greedy to care or even realize what we own. We own time whether or not we understand what that means. I own the dinosaur bones hidden deep under my feet. I own the raindrops that fell a million years ago, now trapped in the sandstone a mile beneath me. I own the sky all the way to the moon and beyond. Where does it stop? Do I own a piece of Mars?  Or will someone in the future destroy that for their descendants to inherit?

          No, I don’t own anything. Nor does anyone else. We are visitors who deserve eviction, but who will kick us out? Someone will. Maybe a virus or a bacteria or the sky and polluted water itself.I look at the piece of paper that says this is all mine. I will treat it like it actually is, with of course the permission of the badger that sits outside the gate. With the cooperation of the dragonfly that has flown these skies for longer than the land has been here. I will sit on a rock and sing along with the meadowlark that welcomes each spring morning with song. And the frogs that serenade the night sky, that same sky that glowed red with the volcanoes of ages past. We all own it now and we own the past, but we also own the future. And what will that be? Every morning as I greet the sun with a humble thank you, I know that I am not only home, but I will forever be coming home. The morning dew welcomes me with a refreshing purity that is new each day.  I will continue to come home until someday, I will be a part of this, just like the black lichen covered boulders and the breeze that ruffles the tree tops and shakes that dew off the flowers.

Colwell Cedars Retreat

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