For most of us, land is our largest financial investment. All that effort looking at the real estate pages. Going along to auctions. Working out how to get an edge in the bidding. Or cowering inside while some agent you’re not too sure about sells your house. All those years paying off the mortgage.
It is a very modern idea that we own land. In the middle ages it was held from one’s lord, who held it from the king, who held it from God. In old testament times, the jubilee every fifty years required returning any land you had acquired, so that there was a constant evenness of distribution.
Forty years ago in the infamous Milirrpum v Nabalco case, concerning the ownership of Nhulunbuy in Arnhem Land, it was held by the courts, (before Mabo) that Aborigines could not be said to have owned land because they could not alienate it. They could not sell it. Remarkably, judges held that if your attachment to the land was so great that you had no concept of getting rid of it, you did not own the land.But does anyone own land? Can we take it anywhere? Did we make it?
The land has been here for ages before we were born – indeed for ages before any human existed. We will, whether buried or cremated, end up resting in the land – not the other way round. Our so-called ownership will be a mere shrug in the memory of the land.
To speak of owning land does not honour those who will use the land after us. We are but the custodians of our land – whether it be our suburban block or the country as a whole.
Many spiritual traditions refer to "Mother Earth". If we are not parents we still have a stake in the generations to come. And all of us are children of parents. If we are disconnected from our parents we can pay a price all our lives, and it is the same if we are disconnected from the land. And the disconnectedness of the community affects each one of us as members of that community.
To claim ownership of land is to claim something more than the reality. We may look after land. Other people may acknowledge certain rights we can exercise in relation to land. But in the end, whatever our rights, we are merely trustees. We depend on the land - not the other way around.