David Lidstone, age 81, is one of those delightfully eccentric characters who makes us more conventional folks question our cherished assumptions about life, especially as they relate to land ownership, humanity and nature.

For 27 years, Lidstone lived self-sufficiently — growing his own food, cutting firewood, and raising chickens and cats — in a small cabin in New Hampshire along the Merrimack River on a woodlot he neither owned nor leased. In other words, he was a squatter.

He made the news earlier this month after being jailed on July 15 as a civil contempt sanction for his refusal to leave the property despite the insistence of the land’s owner, who wanted to tear down his cabin, and the issuance of a court order requiring him to vacate. The judge was sympathetic to Lidstone, agreeing that he wasn’t hurting anyone, but held that the law was clear he had to go.

With a long white beard, checkered flannel shirt and cloth bucket cap, Lidstone, in his news photo, looks like a diminutive backwoods version of Santa Claus. I’d label him a hermit, except that he’s been, by all accounts, friendly and garrulous, always happy to swap stories with passersby.

Lidstone’s sojourn in the woods reminded me of that of another New Englander, Henry David Thoreau, a Harvard-educated naturalist, philosopher and writer who spent two years between 1845 and 1847 living a Spartan existence at Walden Pond in Massachusetts. “I went to the woods, he later wrote in his classic book about the experience, ‘”because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach. …”

Lidstone is not in the same league as Thoreau, who belonged to a luminary group of early American intellectuals and social activists centered in Concord, Massachusetts, which included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Ellery Channing, Bronson Alcott and Nathaniel Hawthorne. But in his desire to return to the basics of life and his resistance to authority and social convention, I see similarities.

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Thoreau famously spent a night in jail because of his refusal to pay poll taxes to a government which offended his moral sensibilities by permitting slavery and waging the Mexican-American War. When his friend, Emerson, came to bail him out, he asked, “Henry, what are you doing in there?” Hawthorne replied, “Ralph, what are you doing out there?”

Lidstone told the judge who advised him he’d be released if he agreed to comply with the court’s order, “You came with your guns, you arrested me, brought me in here, you’ve got all my possessions. You keep ’em. I’ll sit here with your uniform on until I rot, sir.” It was a sentiment that resonated with New Hampshire’s state slogan, “Live free or die.”

At a deeper level, people like Lidstone force us to ask the question: Does any single person or, for that matter, any nation, really have the right to exercise absolute dominion over land to the exclusion of all others?

It’s a question that’s been explored by geologist and historian Simon Winchester in his recently published book entitled, “Land: How the Hunger for Ownership Shaped the Modern World.”

Land ownership today is considered to consist of a bundle of rights: the right to occupy, build on, log, mine, subdivide, sell, bequeath, mortgage and, above all, deny anyone else access to, a tract of earth. The complete bundle is known in Anglo-American real estate law as ownership in “fee simple.” At a national level, it’s known as sovereignty.

Winchester’s book invites the reader to consider a host of issues relating to land that run counter to generally accepted notions of private ownership and national sovereignty.

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Is land ownership a force for stability or upheaval? Winchester points out that most of the world’s armed struggles are over land and its resources rather than over intrinsic differences between people. For instance, North Ireland’s Protestants and Catholics, bitter enemies for decades while living side-by-side on the same turf, have often gotten along just fine after emigrating abroad. As a trial lawyer who has handled many land disputes, I can attest to the fact that real estate litigation gives rise to some of the most ferociously contested court cases between otherwise decent, reasonable people.

What are the rights of populations who’ve been driven off lands they’ve historically occupied, hunted, fished and farmed, such as Native Americans during three centuries of European colonization and America’s Westward expansion? Should they be compensated for the cumulative economic losses they’ve suffered over the time of that deprivation?

What are the duties of sovereign nations to let down their border barriers to admit refugees who’ve been endangered by civil war, political persecution, criminal violence, drought, food shortages and natural disasters? That’s a controversy which has been roiling the politics of the U.S. and Europe.

And most importantly, what are the obligations of landholders to respect the natural environment in the face of habitat degradation and species extinction? This concern has given rise not only to governmental regulation of land development but to voluntary actions, such as the creation of land trusts, environmental easements, and “wilding” (which seeks to restore land to its natural state and eliminate all human intervention).

Land ownership, in the modern sense, didn’t even come into existence until the Bronze Age, about 5,000 years ago, when the pursuit of agriculture, animal husbandry, settled communities and organized states largely replaced nomadic bands of hunter-gatherers and pastoralists. But it has since taken hold with a vengeance.

Today there are few patches of dirt isolated or inhospitable enough to have escaped claims of ownership. Given the size of the earth’s human population and the reach of its technology, the David Lidstones of the world are unlikely to find many places they can squat without interference.

But perhaps in time we will come to rethink the obligations of owners of land to both humanity and nature and conclude that they must relinquish at least some of their dominion and share its blessings with others.

Elliott Epstein is a trial lawyer with Andrucki & King in Lewiston. His Rearview Mirror column, which has appeared in the Sun Journal for 10 years, analyzes current events in an historical context. He is also the author of “Lucifer’s Child,” a book about the notorious 1984 child murder of Angela Palmer. He may be contacted at [email protected]


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