Probing the Commons from the Inside: Heather Menzies’ New Book

With so much scholarship focused on commons as “resource management” and the measurement of externals, it’s refreshing to encounter a book that plumbs the internal dimensions of a commons –that is, commoning.  Canadian writer and scholar Heather Menzies has taken on this challenge in her recently published Reclaiming the Commons for the Commons Good (New Society Publishers), a book that she describes as a “memoir and manifesto.”  It is a three-part exploration of commoning as a personal experience, social negotiation and finally, as a spiritual quest.

The first part of Menzies’ book is the memoir:  an account of her trip to the land of her ancestors, Scotland.  She wanted to try to imagine their lives as commoners and understand the impact of the cataclysmic enclosures known as the Highland Clearances, in the late 1700s and 1800s. 

The Clearances, a landmark in Scottish history, saw thousands of small family farmers forced off their traditional lands to make way for “Improvements” -- that is, conversion to the profitable enterprise of sheep-raising.   Landlords raised rents, colluded with politicians to “legally” take the lands, and when necessary, resorted to violence to get the job done.   

The Clearances were not only a major economic and political disruption, but also a profound cultural, ecological and spiritual dispossession, as Manzies writes:

My forebears and their neighbors didn’t just lose their together-as-one connection to the land.  They lost all that these ties meant to them economically, politically, socially, culturally and even spiritually.  They lost ways of working the land and working things out together.  They lost ways of knowing the land directly, intimately through the soles of their feet, the tone of their muscled arms and hands….They lost ways of knowing the animals too, wild and domestic, and how they moved from woodland to water and claimed certain spots conducive to begetting.  As well, they lost ways of sharing this experience, this knowing as common knowledge, with that knowledge both informing and supporting the authority of local decision-making.

Manzies spends several chapters roaming the lands where her ancestors once lived, reconstructing their history and that of commoning.  In the process, she weaves in the misleading “tragedy of the commons” story popularized by Garrett Hardin in 1968.  She also tells stories of indigenous peoples in Canada whose lives in many respects resemble those of her Scottish ancestors.  Manzies’ reflections draw upon considerable research, as reflected in many short, provocative references to books on various aspects of the commons written by ecofeminists, economists, poets and activists.

The second part of Reclaiming the Commons for the Common Good deals with some of the personal and spiritual migrations that Menzies has made in coming to understand the commons more intimately.  Travelling home from Scotland, she reflects, “As I gaze out the plane window, at the vastness of the open ocean unscrolling beneath me, I realize that in choosing to remember and to reconnect with my heritage on the commons, I have crossed a threshold of perception. I have discovered another path, another way of being in the world. It was cut off, abandoned and left to grow over; yet I have brought it back to life at least in my heart and imagination. I recognize it now as a possible path of reconnection, a place to stand in confronting the crises and impasse of our times.”

Menzies explores some of these possibilities through her participation in the Gabriola Commons – a group on Gabriola Island, British Columbia, Canada, that is a grassroots community group run by volunteers that is attempting to remake the practices of a nonprofit organization into a commons.  She also reflects on the commons after participating in campaigns with the Idle No More movements in Canada that are mobilizing indigenous peoples, and through her attempts to engage with permaculture, local food efforts and other cooperative projects. 

The third and final part of Menzies’ book is the “manifesto” in which she calls for both deeper inner explorations as well as more focused civic action.  She starts by situating contemporary activism in light of history, stressing the importance of becoming an “implicated participant,” not just an angry outside observer.  “Imagine yourself as an implicated participant in healing our relations with each other and with the living world,” she writes.

One chapter explores how gardening and agroecology can help us reinvent right relationships with the land.  Another chapter looks at fair trade as another tool in the same quest.  The overall goal is well-summarized in another chapter:  “Re-enfranchising People as Commoners, Participants in Responsible Self-Governance.”

Menzies’ experience with commoning is obviously quite personal and local – which is as it should be.  Yet rather than narrowing our gaze, her book open up rich new territory for the rest of us to contemplate.  After all, she has been grappling with many of the same challenges facing other commoners – in overcoming dispossession, in seeking reconciliation with past injustices, in building new sorts of stable, functional, fair-minded communities.  Menzies speaks to the same feelings and satisfactions experienced by many other commoners, albeit in different settings and cultural traditions, as they attempt to reclaim their own commons. 

The great virtue of Reclaiming the Commons for the Common Good is its willingness to probe into the deep personal and spiritual dimensions of commoning -- while not losing sight of the entrenched, all-too-real political and policy structures that also must be confronted.  We need more such approaches to the commons -- because if the commons aspires to bring about a more integrated, holistic way of life and self-governance, we must begin to pay as much attention to the inner, invisible mysteries as the outer, visible dramas.