The Commoners of Amethyst Brook

A beloved place in my town is Amethyst Brook, a gorgeous wooded area with majestic stands of trees, a cheerful, babbling brook and a few open fields.  This patch of natural beauty is the theater in which various townspeople walk their dogs, socialize before and after work, garden, exercise and commune with nature.

The place is a classic mixed-use commons. In the summer, the community garden plots sprout all sorts of vegetables and sunflowers. There are occasional convoys of runners. Dog walkers revel in being able to let their dogs off-leash. There are bird-watchers. Kids sometimes wade in the brook. I once encountered a bearded college student playing a harp under the canopy of the trees, next to the brook. Fantastic!

But there are also tensions between the commons and private landowners, leaseholders and among the commoners themselves. On an open field in the park, a private farmer leases land from the town to grow vegetables. But he wants to expand. Should that be allowed? A private landowner on an adjacent swatch of land lets the public use his forest land for hiking – wonderful! – but he has also been known to dump farm animal carcasses on his land, which lets a truly foul odor waft throughout the area.  Don't nuisance laws cover this sort of thing? Yes, but he could well decide that hikers are “nuisances” that intrude on his private property.

Then there are tensions among the commoners themselves. This recently came to the fore when an off-leash dog bit someone in the park; others have reported encounters with menacing dogs. In response, the town Conservation Commission reversed a long-standing policy of allowing dogs to be walked off leash, restricting that practice to the early morning hours only. This supposed compromise has caused outrage among dozens of dog-walkers. (Full disclosure: My dog Marcus is very unhappy with this new policy, but I will decline from arguing his case here.)

It now seems that the Conservation Commission hopes to undertake a more sweeping review of the policies governing the town's open spaces and parks. In light of the recent ruling about off-leash dogs and its chilling effect on people's social lives, this has caused some fears. What next? people wonder. What process will the Commission use in revamping park policies, and which factions will it side with?

Some enterprising and anonymous wag expressed such fears by creating the poster below and stapling it to a tree in Amethyst Brook. I have to give the prankster high marks for his or her pitch-perfect impersonation of a privatizer.  While no sell-off is imminent (to my knowledge!), the poster is clearly a jab at the town and its handling of off-leash dog-walking.  A reminder that the commons has its own disputes and politics; its own idiosyncratic, negotiated solutions; and its own style of participation and protest -- in this case, an artfully devised spoof.  All commons are ultimately local.