Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Everyman's Rights

Where I grew up in rural north Georgia, it often seemed to us locals that when “outside” people bought land in the county, the first thing they did was put up “Posted” or “No Trespassing” signs all along the perimeter of their property.

Now, maybe that’s not being completely fair, but that was the impression in my family. We – admittedly with a possible dose of hillbilly chauvinism – saw this practice as an example of city-dweller paranoia. Folks moving to the country from Atlanta often seemed to instantly suspect that the yokels that they had decided to live among were all itching to step foot on their newly acquired parcel of country paradise. They were, as we saw it, importing a “city” mentality into the countryside.

To be sure, not all newcomers were like that. And there were also some county natives well known locally for posting their woods. They were also locally famous for being unusually ornery characters, and not especially friendly.

In any case, it’s not as though most people where I grew up necessarily made a point of traipsing across other people’s land, though in my youth we sometimes did that.

As kids, we often roamed through the woods that surrounded our home situated below the 2000-foot Appalachian foothill that we partly owned. And when I say “woods”, I am talking about some pretty big tracts. Heading more or less due north, we could have walked from the barn behind my parents’ house all the way to Tennessee, over 15 miles away as a crow flies, without encountering another building or paved road. This was because what mostly stood between our place and the Volunteer State was the Cohutta Mountains, home to the largest federal wilderness area in the Southern Appalachians.

As a protected area, the 36,977-acre portion of the Cohuttas that made up the federally designated wilderness is public land. But nearer to our house, the woods on the backside of our little mountain were private. I think I know whose woods those were, but his house was nowhere near. Not in a village though. In fact, he was a local farmer who had quite a bit of land, and I’m sure he would not have been bothered by us kids crossing his property line to wander around a small part of it.

Part of the Chattahoochee National Forest,
where I roamed in my youth.

It’s not as though local people didn’t take property lines seriously enough in most cases. After my parents built their first house, the one I grew up in, my father had built a dog lot for our beloved English setter, named Rock. Like our later home at the foot of the mountain, the neighboring land on the backside of this property was unoccupied woods. Still, at some point the owner of that land noticed that, by accident, my father had built the dog lot about a foot or less over the mostly unmarked property line.

My father apologized. And, he felt it was a serious enough transgression that he offered to give Rock to the man as compensation. The neighbor didn’t want the dog, and he didn’t even want the lot changed, as I recall. He just wanted to make sure that the breach of property rights had been noticed, I guess in case there was ever any future disputes.

So, we were certainly conscious of property rights. I remember once, when fishing on a creek that passed right in front of someone’s house, we made sure to keep well on the far side of midstream, since it was well known (so we understood) that a landowner’s rights extended halfway across a waterway. (Though, if the house hadn’t been right there we probably wouldn’t have worried about it.)

And there were times when we did hunt or fish on private land, but I’m sure that was with prior permission or as part of a standing agreement my father had with the landowner.

Usually when we hunted or fished, however, it was on public land. Our house was just within the boundaries of the Chattahoochee National Forest, which covers a big swath of northernmost Georgia. It’s not all public land, by any means. Our home wasn’t.

Still, with at least 600,000 acres (almost a quarter-million hectares) of mountain land open to the general public for hunting, fishing, hiking, whatever floats your boat, my part of Georgia – especially compared to the rest of the state or, for that matter, the rest of the eastern US – did offer quite a bit of territory for free ranging recreation.

This was a fact much appreciated by my father, who used to talk about how these public lands provided an opportunity to enjoy the great outdoors for “the little guy”, you might even say for the “everyman”. Which brings me to Finland.

One of the things I truly value about life in this country is jokamiehen- oikeus (Everyman’s Rights). Basically, this is the legal right, based on ancient custom that allows anyone to cross anyone else’s land, kind of like forest without borders. It essentially means no one can post their land. For conservatives in the US, this probably would sound like a socialist nightmare. I think it's great.

As with all legal rights, there are some limits. While you may walk (or ski) across anyone’s land at will, you cannot do so in the immediate vicinity of a house. You can’t be destructive, so no cutting trees, littering, driving off-road, damaging property, wading through grain fields, etc. You cannot disturb wildlife or nesting birds. You can swim in private lakes and camp on private land, but not build fires or hunt without permission.

What you can also do – and this is why jokamiehenoikeus is so important to the Finnish way of life – is pick berries and mushrooms. Notably, collecting lichen and moss is not allowed – but other than my wife (who has studied bryophytes, among other forest life forms), I don’t know many people who would do that anyway.

Chantarelle, a prized takeaway from the Finnish forest.
Credit: Phobulos

While Finns, the most ardent nature-lovers you can imagine, don’t need much of an excuse to wander the forest, the gathering of berries and mushrooms does provide additional, even fruitful, motivation to get outdoors. Especially, this time of the year.

Along a winding country road that I’ve been driving frequently, I’ve seen cars parked lately at practically every turnout, indicating that mushroom hunters are somewhere out there scouring the woods. I’m sure none of them has a clue whom the woods belong to, and it doesn’t matter. The mushrooms (and berries) growing there belong to everyone.

I think this is an enlightened attitude, and not something you’d find in most other countries, though it’s not entirely unique to Finland. Similar rights to roam exist in other Nordic countries, and apparently also in Estonia. And I think Switzerland has a somewhat similar approach to common land use.

I was hiking once with my Swiss brother-in-law above the village of Disentis when he pointed out the irony of the sheep grazing around us. As someone with strong leftist sensibilities, he was amused how the villagers in the valley below, no doubt otherwise right-thinking capitalists, saw nothing inconsistent about grazing their sheep and cows on a common Alpine pasture, owned by no one and used by the whole community according to an ageless arrangement.

Finland’s Everyman’s Rights is an equally “ageless arrangement”, but has in recent years developed a thoroughly modern wrinkle.

Because the blueberries carpeting the forests here are free to be by anyone and sold tax-free, it does represent a business opportunity for folks willing to spend hours combing (almost literally “combing”, using special handheld berry scoopers) the forest floor.

Most Finnish berry pickers don’t bother, collecting instead only enough fruit for their own use. Starting around ten years ago, however, a new type of berry picker began appearing in the forests, seasonal workers from outside Finland, in fact from a country not normally associated with blueberries at all – Thailand.

A typical scooper for harvesting blueberries.
I’m not sure how picking wild berries in Finland became a niche for Thai seasonal workers. I suspect the practice spilled over from Sweden, where it seems years ago Thais started coming to harvest the vilda blåbär there.

Nowadays, three or four thousand Thais arrive in Finland every summer on tourist visas to pick berries, recruited by Finnish berry processors or middlemen who arrange food, lodging and transportation, at a cost, of course. It is by all accounts very hard physical work, with long exhausting days, but potentially rewarding – if it’s a good berry season.

While there are plenty of berries to go around for the most part (an estimated 90% go unpicked nationwide), the influx of south-east Asian harvesters hasn’t been without some friction or complications.

There have been complaints by locals of over-picking in some areas or litter left behind, but also concerns over the welfare and possible exploitation of the seasonal workers themselves, who often take on large loans in Thailand in order to travel to Finland. They are currently not covered under union agreements. The visiting Thais are not officially seen as independent entrepreneurs and, perhaps partly because the berries they pick are wild, free to everyone and not taxed, neither are they considered to be employees like the seasonal migrants (most from Ukraine) who work on Finland’s commercial berry farms.

That might be changing. In line with a recent EU directive on seasonal labor, the Finnish government is working to clarify the berry pickers’ status, hopefully providing more protections for next season’s legion of foreign pickers exercising an ancient right by foraging in the Finnish woods.

1 comment:

  1. And speaking of your parents, I also recall going ramp-picking with your mom and dad on Grassy Mountain right there in the Cohuttas. And once when I arrived at your place you guys had gallons and gallons of berries picked. So many that your mom told me to take one of the carved milk jugs full of them and eat as many as I wanted. (And I did just that.)

    Some friends of mine went hiking with a European fellow (I've forgotten what nationality, but I think he was Norwegian), and they were hiking in Du Pont State Forest here in NC looking at the amazing waterfalls there. One of the women in the group ended up falling and getting a mild concussion so they decided to walk on a road to get out to the main parking lot as quickly as possible. However, that road skirts a section of the property that is still privately owned by the Dupont Corporation (until they can clean it up--some type of hazardous chemical). A guard employed by Dupont noticed them and tried to stop the party from crossing the tiny bit of Dupont property to get to the parking area. The Norwegian fellow was horrified and could not believe it. Not merely because of the nastiness of denying an injured woman access to care, but over the fact that where he was from if there is a road then anyone can use it, whether it crosses into private property or not. The guard ended up allowing them to walk across the property line but he was not happy about it and let them know it. The European fellow left thinking we're idiots and assholes.

    My dad was rabid about not crossing posted property. He didn't mind people walking across OUR property, but if he saw a "Keep Out" sign he would not go beyond it--not for any reason. For years I thought that it was something peculiar to my dad, but then I read a non-fiction book by Harry Crews who grew up in the very same south Georgia county where my dad was from and he explained how it was with those folk. A man's property was--for want of a better word--sacrosanct. There (Tift County and environs), one just did not cross property and if there was any kind of disagreement on the wrong side of a property line...well, the law would side with the property owner.

    So that tendency you saw in those flatlanders coming into Gilmer County may have originated from points south of Atlanta. Those dirt farmers from the coastal plains are just freaking weird about their "private property". (To this day, I will not cross a posted property line. It was one of the first rules my dad taught me when we would go wandering through the woods looking for animals and Indian relics.)