There aren't very many scandals in Jackson, Maine, so when one does come along it justifies considerable time spent discussing it over coffee. "Small town talk," my Father-in-law said to me, "You'll have to get used to this." Perhaps so; I think he expected my eyes to glaze over, but I found myself listening intently -- and learning. The uproar was over some brush-clearing that the town had undertaken to do on our own Hadley Mill Road, which is (to set the scene) paved for about half its length, curvy, unlit, and quite neighborly. My mother- in-law made a little money a while back by selling her surplus lilies for a dollar a stem out by the road, on the honor system. She left water, paper to wrap them in, and a jar for payment.
The brush-clearing was done in a more overbearing way, though: trees and brush were cut fully sixteen feet back from the roadside. Trees that were saleable for pulp were disposed of in that fashion, to defray some of the cost of this project to the Jackson taxpayers -- but without the consent of the owners of those trees! Then, the valueless small brush was left to wither by the roadside, making for clear lines of sight, sure, but who wants a clear view of a half-mile of tangled brush! Residents seemed to prefer low visibility to this affront.
The general consensus seemed to be that the contractors had gone too far, what they did was almost certainly illegal, nobody would ever take them to court over it, and it was just plain rude not to clean up the mess, at least. Whose trees and brush would they cut next? Are emergency meetings required?
Had I been foolish enough to try to join in this conversation, I might have asked what the big deal was. After all, the stumpage couldn't have been worth much, and we did sorta need better visibility along those curves -- why all this passionate talk about "takings" and such? But I kept my trap shut for a few minutes longer, and it dawned on me. Folks were upset because things were being done to their land, without their permission. It wasn't just road-shoulder clearing, mind you, it was the actual selling of stumpage.
Now, does anyone think those landowners did not know their stumpage was valuable? Ho! Think again. They knew, and they had absolutely no intention of cutting any tree that separated them from the roadway -- for pulp! Perhaps, someday, once the trees were a lot bigger, they might cut them for firewood, but not until their family was damn close to freezing. Maybe a couple of the trailer-dwellers in the neighborhood had a mind for their children to cut those trees, some day, for lumber.
There is an odd kind of economic relativity at work around here. It's tough on citified economists until they begin to see that any useful product that can be gotten from your own land is worth more to you than its value on the market. And furthermore, if a household can manage to coax any surplus from its own land, the stuff for which that surplus can be exchanged is highly prized. Hence my mother-in-law's delight at her lily sales, for she works very hard indeed, growing flowers to sell at farmer's markets. Many of our neighbors have lilies in their own gardens - - they grow quite prolifically for a short season here -- and yet people stopped to buy hers. This morning I passed by a household that was selling extra squash off an honor-system roadside table. I'm sure they will be just as thrilled with the buck-two-ninety- eight that'll end up in their coffee can.
There are a few well-off people living along the curvy, hilly roads around Jackson (there is even a golf course nearby that seems to find business, though I haven't been here long enough to know where from). The vast majority are folks who are prepared to work very hard -- some might say ridiculously hard - - for livings that are modest at best, and often very meager. They endure the subtle robberies of the tax system. But take fifteen dollars worth of scrub wood off of their roadside right- of-way without telling them and they are fit to be tied! Why? Because it is their land! Money comes and goes, there's never much of it anyway, and it certainly won't keep you warm.
I have a t-shirt, made by a group of enthusiastic advocates of Henry George's economic philosophy, that quotes Mr. George thus: "Private property in land is a bold, bare, enormous wrong, like to that of chattel slavery." It occurred to me early on that this would not be a good shirt to wear here in Jackson, Maine. For what in the world is wrong, around here, with the private ownership of land? No, I would have to temper my advocacy with another quote from George: "It is not necessary to confiscate land; it is only necessary to confiscate rent."
But even that idea probably won't be easy to sell to my neighbors. "You want to tax away the value of my land!?" Somehow I would have to explain that the rental value I am interested in has to do with the price that Scott Paper, or Nokkemded Development Corp., would pay for your land. For when it comes down to real life, what in the world does that "price" have to do with amount of your own sweat and toil that you are willing to invest in your own place? Along Hadley Mill Road, the houses people build -- and the lilies they grow -- are worth a damn sight more than the "rent".
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