How many of you have heard of the tree that owns itself? I hadn’t, until my sister mentioned it while we chatted some time back. It’s kind of a weird story, where supposedly a man who loved an old White Oak tree in Athens, Georgia, granted the tree its freedom back in the early 1830s. (Yes, that this act of liberation was taken in the heart of the slave-owning south should disturb you.) The story only became known in the 1890s in a news article and it’s unclear if it is legend or not, as the deed was supposedly only ever seen by one person. According to Wikipedia there is another case, where E.H. Graves, the mayor of Eufaula, Alabama did the same for a Post Oak tree in 1935 (perhaps inspired by his Georgian counterpart). And this one actually has a deed recorded, with these words included:
“I, E. H. Graves, as Mayor of the City of Eufaula, do hereby grant, bargain, sell and convey unto the ‘Post Oak Tree,’ not as an individual, partnership nor corporation, but as a creation and gift of the Almighty, standing in our midst—to itself—to have and to hold itself, its branches, limbs, trunk and roots so long as it shall live.” 1
This is poetic, and other than giving God, instead of Gaia, the credit, is quite a Gaian sentiment.
Graves’s words, and re-tellings of the Athens story, seem to suggest that trees can’t own themselves or the land in which they inhabit, because trees aren’t persons. But is that really true?
Back in July, at the polycrisis conference I attended, there were many provocative conversations going on. One grappled with the question of Earth’s Rights—exploring in particular how to enact rights for non-human beings, bodies of water, even entire ecoystems. The discussion ranged from drawing in non-human beings into one’s work, such as onto a board of directors, and even explored whether one could establish a corporate entity for a piece of land (or a tree?) as a proxy entity, as corporations can own land.
This seems like an obvious workaround (even though as gifts of Gaia, they deserve to have rights themselves). Corporations, which are not persons, but are treated as such (or even better), are granted significant (i.e. far too much) legal protection. And considering that corporations are theoretically immortal, unlike even the longest-lived trees, this makes them extremely powerful.2
So, as Earth’s Rights, and river rights, and land rights are developed, maybe corporate proxies become the workaround to break through old, incompatible judicial systems that were developed in a time when we were even more disconnected from the voice of Earth.3
And perhaps this is simply the equivalent of land trusts, but what might be missing in land trusts is representation of the land. Is the land entrusted for the human community, the land and non-human beings themselves, or for the full human/non-human community in partnership? While I’m sure most land trust stewards would say the last, how many regularly ask during board meetings: “Is this what would be best for the land and non-human beings who are represented by this trust?”
Learning from Pets as Well?
A-whole-nother realm that perhaps can offer guidance is that of animals who either became famous (and rich) or inherited wealth of their rich owners. In the case of the latter, a trust seems to usually be created. In the case of the former, a corporation seems to be established. One example: Tardar Sauce, aka Grumpy Cat, who earned millions from her meme work and brand licensing, had a corporation protecting her interests, Grumpy Cat Limited, which even sued a beverage company for copyright infringement, winning $710,000 in that battle. So if pets’ rights can be sustained by corporate entities, why can’t the rights of other (less domesticated, less profiteering) animals, and nature more broadly?
Inviting Non-Human Beings to Guide Organizations
That’s why the other part of the conversation at the conference was so exciting: how to draw in non-human beings to be part of an organization’s leadership. I wondered immediately: why don’t all environmental groups include non-human beings on their boards? And I don’t mean in a token way, where they become voiceless charismatic mascots (lots of groups already do that), but truly represented: asking their perspective and providing time in every meeting to see what they think. Imagine a board meeting like that:
Treasurer: “So, if we use 50% recycled paper, costs for a 30,000 print run will total $45,000. That goes up to $52,000 if we use 100% recycled. So I recommend the 50% recycled.
Pine (as channeled through Secretary): “I think Pine would respond like this: ‘Yes, I know 100% recycled paper will increase the print run costs by 15% but isn’t that better than killing 150 additional pine trees and supporting paper companies that use “virgin materials” (aka my brethren)?’ And I agree with Pine that as an environmental organization, it’s imperative that we pick the most sustainable choice whenever possible.”
Chair: “Thank you for sharing these additional perspectives. All in favor of using recycled paper, say Aye.”
“Aye. Aye. Aye.”
Chair: “Ok, it’s unanimous. We’ll reach out to a few major donors to see if we can raise the additional costs or lower the initial print run otherwise.”
Naturally, being an ecospiritual, deep environmental organization, we wanted to incorporate this evolution into our own organization. But it wasn’t as easy as we thought it would be. I brought the idea to our council board as soon as I got home from the conference, but several questions arose, such as: Who would speak for that non-human member? Would that mean he or she had two votes compared to one for the other board members? Could this cause bigger issues down the road?
But then one board member suggested each council member represent a non-human and that became quite an elegant solution—where we would have equal amounts of non-human and human representation, and that would allow more diversity of bioregions and ecosystems. So we assigned ourselves the task of listening to who might want to partner with us. And while that took several months, we have finally found our first four non-human board members, which we are excited to share with you. Next week.
Until then go with Gaia,
1) In an icky turn of events, when the tree that owned itself in Alabama died, it was replaced by an offspring tree (with rights passing to him) courtesy of the International Paper Company. UGH.
2) Then again, it’d be interesting to see if appointing more trees legal ownership wouldn’t simply establish this as precedent. However, once it moves beyond symbolic trees to property worth value and under pressure for other uses, there will need to be humans that speak for the trees (unless the Lorax appears, but even then, having humans on the side of nature would be helpful).
3) Perhaps in a future time, when this connection has been mended, legal systems will look incredibly different—where ecosystem rights are placed first, human actualization next, and only third are human property and stuff. (Not sure if corporations will still even have legal protection in that context!)