Stake Your Acre Challenge!

Sharon March 25th, 2010

I’m not the challenge queen – that title could go to her Crunchiness , with whom you can freeze your buns, change your menstrual supplies and do a host of other moderately sexualized activities for fun and ecological profit or to Chile, who is currently preoccupied with moving house but regularly gets folks using their sun ovens, eating more locally and moving more. In all these years, I’ve only done the one, my Independence Days Challenge, now in its third year.

But I feel it may be time to diversify – I’ve been mulling over other possible challenges for a bit, and finally one came to me that feels right. I’m calling it the “stake your acre” challenge. And the sum of it is this – I want everyone who can to find an acre of land and tend it. There are so many profound pressures on the land and people around us – our places need us to take more responsibility for them, for keeping them safe, clean, humane, wild….

But, you argue, I don’t own an acre of land. And that, my dear friends, is precisely the point. This is not about private ownership – the only and best way to tend what is damaged on the planet is not to own things privately. That is a luxury for those of us who are either fortunate enough to live in rural areas where land is cheap, or lucky enough to be rich or have family connections to land. Not all of us have the power of ownership, but that’s ok – this is about taking responsibility for your acre, and the living things within it – plant, animal, human, wild. You don’t need a contract to do that. Maybe you can’t do anything about your neighbor’s acres – or maybe you can do something by getting involved, by modelling, by talking, by offering to help, by being a better neighbor, or simply by caring about a place that no one has ever looked at as a whole before.

In fact, even if, like me, you own land measured in acreage, I’d encourage you to stake an acre that isn’t fully your own – one that your road runs through, one that encompasses at least one neighbor if you can. Or one that at least makes good habitat for wildlife. This is not about possession, but about finding a manageable space and making it better. It isn’t about permanence – that is, if you move or change acres, go home from school or lose your home, just pick a new acre – there are more than enough that need someone to love them. Don’t pick the prettiest, best, already best cared for spot, if you can avoid it – the ugliest, dirtiest spots and the ones that need us most.

You can use google maps or pace it out, estimate or count city blocks, but choose an acre that surrounds you, is connected to your home, apartment, dorm room, and claim it. Make it yours, Stake your space (you need to plant a flag claiming it in the name of Mars, but I won’t stop you if you want to). Does it have to be an exact acre? Nope. And if you live in midtown Manhattan, maybe that’s too much – it can be half or a third. The point, however is a space beyond our private property, one large enough to offer some variety of people or creatures that live on it, and to offer some need.

Now what? What do we do after we’ve paced out our acre? Well, in the simplest terms, make it a better place. All of us have a limited amount of time and energy and resources, but each of us, adopting a manageable space as our own home can do something to improve it.

What can you do? Well, a lot of things. Clean it up, for starts – perhaps your acre needs someone to pick up trash or call a meeting to help neighbors learn about low-toxicity ways to treat lawns. Maybe it covered mostly with asphalt and needs some green to reduce the heat island effect and clean the air – maybe you can pass out potted tomatoes to neighbors, get the city to plant more trees, start a neighborhood garden or throw seedballs into the vacant lot. Maybe you can get your neighbor to reduce his spraying, or you can cut back on yours, and the chemicals you are putting into the groundwater – and talk about the benefits. Maybe you can learn about soil remediation and clean up heavy metal contamination on vacant lots, or make sure that the local kids aren’t playing on a lead-contaminated playground. Maybe you can make sure your animals aren’t contaminating the creek. Maybe you need to know more about the local ecology, and can talk to local resources, learn about water quality and plant life. Maybe it is time to walk your neighborhood, and see what needs to be done.

What else can you do? You can make it serve wild creatures, increase its biodiversity by planting new plants and making habitats for those already here – maybe you can plant native plants to attract birds and pollinators, begin keeping bees, plant trees that offer food for wildlife, reduce speed limits to keep wild creatures from being run over, create wildlife corridors, get people to bell their cats to protect songbirds. You can grow food for wildlife, or food for humans so that wildlife can grow in rural places – or both – a pasture, a forest, a swamp can serve all of those purposes.

What else can you do? What about the people there. Do you know the inhabitants of your acre? Do you look in on elderly and disabled neighbors? Do you talk to each other? Do you have common needs and wants? Maybe you can start a neighborhood assocation, throw a block party, start an internet group for sharing or bartering, get together to save money on food or have a kids clothings swap. Maybe you can talk about neighborhood watch or community gardens or something else. Maybe you can carpool or pick up groceries for someone who doesn’t drive. Maybe you can offer a hand, trade work weekends with others, babysit so someone can go on a job interview, offer a helping hand – and accept one. Maybe you can share something, or offer techniques to reduce carbon or pollution emissions. Maybe you can just share space companionably.

What else can you do? Can you meet some need with what’s already in your acre? Maybe there’s someone who can fix shoes or who would be grateful for a little money to help you clean or do yard work or fix your roof. Can you keep your dollars local by supporting local businesses. If there aren’t businesses, how about supporting local kids? Can you trade your skill at piano teaching for your neighbors’ gift at mending? Can you grow a business, start a cottage industry, grow food that your neighbors need on your acre? Can you help someone else do so?

Most of all, you can learn to love it. You can watch it. Measure it. See how the seasons change. You can talk to the people inside of it and see the way the wild creatures live. So much of the damage we’ve done comes because we do not even know what lives nearby, upstream, and who we might hurt by our actions. Learning and seeing are just as much our challenges as doing.

You aren’t going to do all these things magically, instantly, immediately. That’s too much for just one person. But one person, taking responsibility for a piece of land can do a lot. And you can and should partner with others – those who can stake out other, overlapping acreage, or those who want to help you with yours.

It isn’t a magic bullet or a perfect solution, but a hundred people tending a hundred acres and talking about it with their neighbors could improve a hundred acres – reduce pollution and trash, make space for wild creatures, give clean food and a helping hand to neighbors, build stronger communities on a hundred acres… and that’s no small thing. Just a drop in the bucket, of course, compared to what we need, but who cares? Drops eventually fill buckets.

And a thousand people, on a thousand acres – now that’s something to be proud of – protecting and tending a thousand acres is something any conservationist would be proud of. And the bucket gets a bit fuller.

I don’t have any grand illusions that this can save the world. But so much of what has happened has come because we didn’t look carefully at what we had, assumed that others would protect the world, assumed that things were someone else’s responsiblity. Staking your acre is about taking responsibility – not because you own it, not because you have to, but because you want to.

How much should you do each week? As much as you can – for some people, that’s a lot. For some people that’s a little. For some that’s a lot. But report and tell us – where is your acre? What did you do this week? What are you planning on doing? Maybe try every week to do a little something that makes your acre cleaner for everyone, and something for the wild things and something for the humans in your acre.

If there’s someone out there who wants to make up a cool logo to post, that would be awesome. Even better, if there’s someone who wants to set up a cool mapping system so that you can mark your acre and see other people’s acres and who is near you, that would be even more awesome.

Again, it isn’t a magic bullet. But an acre, well, that’s something. I ran a CSA off an acre once. I lived a whole life in a city in just a few acres once. And drops in buckets eventually fill them up to overflowing.

14 Responses to “Stake Your Acre Challenge!”

  1. Emily says:

    I just talked to our school of public health about mentoring interns. I might mentor some gardening apprentices on my land, or at my Grange. If we build at the Grange, it’ll become a community garden! Food would get split between the apprentices and the food pantry.

  2. ceridwen says:

    A good idea – in fact its one I follow already. I’ve had my “acre staked” for a while now – and try to make sure my “territory” is kept in good order. So – I certainly agree with this one. So often space that is communal is always deemed to be “someone else’s responsibility” and the buck gets passed. So – if we all take responsibility for our little patch – then there will be many little patches that have someone keeping an eye out for them – and hopefully one of these fine days all these little patches will “join up” and there will be someone holding themselves responsible for every bit of land there is.

  3. Chile says:

    Sharon, that’s an interesting challenge. As you said, I’m rather preoccupied at the moment, but we do plan to try to make our place, and the surrounding area, better once we get out there. We saw few gardens in the neighborhood but hope to be a positive example in that respect. Our plans include getting to know the neighbors, learn what local resources are available (like the big pile of animal manure just around the corner), and share resources to start forming a community that can face the tough times ahead without immediately falling apart. We can’t do it all ourselves, but hope to be the pebble in the pond from which ripples go out.

  4. Angie says:

    I was fascinated to read this. While walking our dog in a different neighborhood last week, we cam across an extremely littered and overgrown area running between the main road and a creek.

    There was an old rusted out sign (from the style and condition, I am guessing it has been there a least 15 years) inviting people to call a number to claim a section to clear and tend. Since it is so overgrown and littered, I am guessing no one took the realtor up on the invitation. My fiance and I talked about it quite a bit.

    We are in the process of looking for a place to live, otherwise we would call the number to see if the offer is still good. Once we move, if there is no land, we plan to scout out local areas for the opportunity to use land that is otherwise just sitting there.

  5. Gene Green says:

    You have many good ideas for moving in the right direction. Putting a bell on a cat isn’t one of them and perpetuates a ubiquitous myth about outdoor cats. Outdoor cats cannot be rendered harmless to wildlife. A bell is nothing more than a cheap product that invites us to turn our backs on this fact. As many as a billion wild birds are killed every year by the human created scourge known as house cats. What does putting a bell on a cat do? Does a bird recognize that a bell means danger? Why would it? Did bells confer an evolutionary advantage over mllions of years to birds that understand them versus those that don’t? What about mice and lizards and snakes and toads (although I recognize we care even less about these ickier animals)? Are they also expected to flee at the sound of a bell? And what about baby birds in a nest, what exactly are they supposed to do when they hear that bell? Bells do nothing for birds but they do make people feel better. How lovely and only $2.99 at Walmart. Here are two questions. What do we suppose a bird feels when it is ripped into by the teeth and claws of a cat (here’s a hint, what does our beloved cat feel when it is ripped into by a coyote or a car)? Second, and applicable to so many more of our destructive ways, why is it that we just don’t care?

  6. Perhaps it is time for a global outcry by great numbers of people…….like Sharon and others on the surface of Earth are encouraging now.

    Many more people are going to have to speak out loudly, clearly and often about what is somehow true, as each of us sees what is real, so that the whole world can hear our voices. I do not believe that it is ever too late to do the right thing; but it is getting “late in the day” to make necessary changes away from soon to become patently unsustainable global human overproduction, overconsumption and overpopulation activities. Even though a colossal wreckage can be apprehended in the offing if silence prevails over speech-to-power, there is still enough daylight for us to see dimly that adequate space-time exists in which to move forward fast toward sustainability.

  7. Kat says:

    I’ve had my eye on several vacant acres across the street from our apartment building for a while now. A little wikipedia research reveals:

    A second development, the $125 million Rookwood Exchange, was planned on the southern edge of this area directly across the street from the Rookwood Pavilion. However, the area where Rookwood Exchange was to be built was already occupied by a small 11-acre (45,000 m2) neighborhood. The city, declaring the neighborhood of about 70 homes and businesses as “blighted”, attempted to use eminent domain to obtain the land from the property owners.

    Three remaining owners in the neighborhood fought Norwood’s use of eminent domain and refused to sell their property. The dispute eventually made national headlines when it was brought before the Ohio Supreme Court in Norwood, Ohio v. Horney. In 2006, the court ruled unanimously for the homeowners and city developers were forced to return ownership of the three properties to the homeowners. Currently, the site sits vacant and there are no future plans for development.

    We’re off to do some cleaning, maybe a little planting tonight. :)

  8. Mark N. says:

    My own acre takes up almost all my time. Actually, I care for the land behind my lot as well. In addition, I did recently give my brother 2 grafted black walnut trees to transplant to his place in PA. Also, the bluebird house that I put up at my sister’s house on the other side of town last fall is getting the attention of a pair of bluebirds. With any luck, I’ll be seeing the bluebirds on Sunday when I visit. I’m so relieved that she and her family don’t have a cat anymore.

  9. Jasmine Lamb says:

    I love this idea!

    I love the part about just getting to know a place and noticing what it may need and how we may support it. Not to save the world but to save ourselves!

    I admit, I long for an acre that I know I can tend for many years to come, but in the past few years I’ve had my hands in handfuls of gardens and acres and this has been a gift. I’ve fallen in love with these places and grieved when I left.

    I’m about to arrive at the acre where I grew up in a week and spend the season tending this. It probably won’t be where I’ll always live but it will always be home and I’m thrilled and eager to be in it and with it. To grow vegetables and see if I can beat back the Japanese Knotweed. And just to get to know it better and appreciate how live moves.

  10. Suz says:

    Great idea, Sharon.
    Jackie French, an Australian author, talks about ‘marrying our land’ – walking it, observing it, living in it, looking at its margins, learning its every intimate detail so that we can get to know the seasonal changes, the inhabitants (plant, animal and human) and so we can better judge its needs. This is a long-term relationship, just like marriage, which we work on improving all the time, just like marriage.
    I’m in.

  11. I don’t think I’ll be adopting a whole acre this year, but each year I add to the space I garden. Besides my own urban plot on which I’ll be planting a lot of veggies, I’ve been offered another city plot to garden on with a friend. I would have done this without your challenge because I’m excited about the space and potential. Your challenge has made me decide to adopt one empty lot in my neighbourhood. In spite of the “Private Property” and “No Trespassing” signs. First I’ll do a spring cleanup of the accumulated winter garbage that has blown in and then clear a small space for an excess cherry tree I’ve got in my own garden. Hopefully I can plant some carrots and squash or something nearby as well and if a homeless person finds and needs it, that’s great. Maybe they’ll be inspired to clear a few weeds and plant something of their own to tend.

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