Living on the Land: ‘The Earth Itself to Nobody’
by Carla Paton

Dog“How can you buy or sell the sky—the warmth of the land? The idea is strange to us. We do not own the freshness of the air or the sparkle of the water. How can you buy them from us?”

—Duwamish chief Sealth, (in Turtle Island Alphabet)


“The first man who had fenced in a piece of land, said ‘This is mine,’ and found people naïve enough to believe him, that man was the true founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars, and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows: Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody.”

— Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on Inequality


I think often these days of fences. On our 130 acres of property on the Eastern Plains of Colorado, we have a simple four-strand barbed wire fence that surrounds our land and separates it from our neighboring ranchers. That fencing is again “cross-fenced” into smaller internal areas designed to move cattle from and to different grazing zones. There is also a smaller fenced area of about an acre that surrounds the house designed to keep the dogs (two) from straying too far afield. This smaller fenced area has a manual gate that must be religiously opened and closed when leaving the house grounds with a vehicle or on foot, while the larger outer fence has an automatic gate with a code and a security camera designed to keep out intruders.

The interior manual gate has been especially on my mind because when coming home to unload groceries, I have forgotten to close it three times. The last time, an unfortunate porcupine wandered into the backyard and was promptly eaten whole by our Siberian Husky, who had not yet been instructed in the way of sharp quills. After eating said porcupine, the Husky (aptly named, Loki, the Norse god of mischief) then wandered out the gate to explore the wider world and to sniff out more tasty game. (photo of dog)

Fences, of course, imply property and the concept and law of land ownership. This behavior of owning land and erecting fences to protect it in turn presumes that humans can “own” a part of the earth, that we can entrap nature and call it “ours,” and that it can belong to any one, or group of people, and not the whole, or simply not be owned at all. If we look behind the veil of this fencing and property ownership behavior, we can “see through” in a way Hillman described as psychologizing, which allows the soul to “reflect upon its nature, structure, and purpose” (p. 117). In a further elaboration of psychologizing, Hillman said:

Psychologizing goes on whenever reflection takes place in terms other than those presented. It suspects an interior, not evident intention; it searches for a hidden clockwork, a ghost in the machine, an etymological root, something more than meets the eye; or it sees with another eye. It goes on whenever we move to deeper level. (p. 134-135) (photo of deer).

In this essay, I will be looking through to this “deeper level” and exploring the behavior of fencing and property ownership using Hillman’s idea of psychologizing which I will explain in more detail shortly, as well as his other moves or methods of personifying, pathologizing, and dehumanizing, as outlined in his 1975 work, Re-Visioning Psychology.

The Great Promise

“The Nation behaves well if it treats the natural resources as assets which it must turn over to the next generation increased and not impaired in value; and behaves badly if it leaves the land poorer to those who come after it.

That is what I mean by the phrase, conservation of natural resources. Use them; but use them so that as far as possible our children will be richer, and not poorer because we have lived.”
—Theodore Roosevelt,


The New Nationalism

Our 130 acres of our property was once part of a larger 8,000 acre tract homesteaded in the 1800s by German immigrants whose descendants still live adjacent to us. Having always lived in the suburbs prior to our move to the country, I have learned a few lessons. The first time I drove the rough dirt road to our house at night, I had to slam on my truck brakes to avoid hitting four cattle at once that were lying in the middle of the road. Unbeknownst to me (a “city girl”) I had crossed a cattle guard and was in “open range.” I was aware that I had crossed the cattle guard of course, but knew nothing of their greater meaning. My husband later found great mirth in informing me that in the land between two cattle guards; the cattle roam free, without the normal fencing along the road side. Henceforth, I have become much more conscious of fences and cattle—not to mention the deer, antelope, coyotes, and occasional flock of wild turkeys. Driving at night is an especially perilous adventure.

The Homestead Act of 1862 opened the American West to settlers who were given 160 acre plots in return for residing on the land for five years, cultivating portions of it and paying the filing fees. Other homestead laws soon followed such as the Desert Lands Act of 1877 and the Stock-Raising Homestead Act of 1916 . These acts were the enablers of the hope of Manifest Destiny and the great myth of progress. According to Fromm :

The Great Promise of Unlimited Progress [was] the promise of domination of nature, of material abundance, of the greatest happiness for the greatest number, and of unimpeded personal freedom. . .With industrial progress, from the substitution of mechanical and then nuclear energy for animal and human energy to the substitution of the computer for the human mind, we could feel that we were on our way to unlimited production and, hence, unlimited consumption. . .[and] the trinity of unlimited production, absolute freedom, and unrestricted happiness formed the nucleus of a new religion, Progress. (quoted in, Kassiola, 2003, p. 29)

Additionally, Hillman (1971) considered progress to be a monotheistic principle, on that valued a single god image above all else. This process clearly lends itself hierarchical structure, on that is antithetical to the psyche which values a polytheistic worldview. More, he believed, monotheisim can not avoid religious overtones given the structure of current core monotheistic religions around the world, including Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. Hillman articulated his opposing belief quite strongly that the psyche has “non-growth, non-upward and non-ordered components,” and that with more room given for variance, we might be more aligned to psyche’s natural way of functioning.

Through the myths of Manifest Destiny and progress, we can psychologize or see through to the basic assumptions that are infrequently examined. The American colonists consisted mainly of European settlers who arrived from cramped and polluted industrial cities. With them, they brought both economic imperialism and a Romantic yearning for a return to an Edenic pastoral landscape and lifestyle. Further, and perhaps more insidious, came the assumption that nature (and land) can be owned. With this ownership mindset also comes the hubris that nature is at the mercy of the owner to be regarded and used as resource for whatever may be the needs of the day.

Coupled with the myth of progress and a pastoral longing was the support of science and technology. The rational science of physics and Darwin; of ordering, classifying, and naming gave and gives the illusion that science can reveal the true and only nature of nature. According to McLaughlin (2003) this nature is a “lifeless matter in motion” that serves as a nothing more than resources. The other assumption that comes with the provision of science is that we are able to control nature. This idea also presumes that we are not a part of nature; that we are instead outsiders manipulating an experiment; that we are objective Faustian operators willing to make deal with the devil in order to reap the bounty of our supreme knowledge. These myths leave “nothing in our understanding of nature that places cultural barriers to the exploitation of nature. We have collectively lost any sense of the sacred in the natural world. Even the depth of this loss of the sacred is often unnoticed.”

As for the cattle and the fences, as humans, they have enabled us to contain the chaos of the land. Where immune, hardy, disease-resistant native buffalo once roamed free and wide in the millions, we have decimated a species and the indigenous people who honored its essence and presence. Collectively, we have instead crowded public and private lands by overgrazing cattle that need antibiotics and hormones to resist all manner of infections that threaten their young weak immune systems. Buffalo or American bison are also not sympathetic to weak cattle fencing. They are mighty, huge, strong, and wild. They will just as soon follow their muzzles into the next rancher’s land as stay in their own designated pasture. The barbed wire only serves as a convenience for scratching their tough hides. A different breed of taller and sturdier fencing is in order for bison, but here, we are not speaking of purely wild animals, but those semi-domesticated as resources, for consumption.


The Fantasy

“You run like a herd of luminous deer
and I am dark, I am forest.
You are a wheel at which I stand,
whose dark spokes sometimes catch me up,
revolve me nearer to the center.”
—Rilke, The Book of Hours

Psychologically, a fence acts like ego protection. The fence is a “de-fense,” a persona, a container. It delineates what is on the inside and what is out. It is meant to define and announce boundaries. It stands silent and still, but speaks loudly for the landowner even in the owner’s absence. A fence assumes a “we” and a “them”; an “inside” and an “outside.” It acts as a symbol for the maternal: all things inside the fence belong to the motherland, while those outside are children of a different mother—not our concern, not our problem. Raise them as you will, the fence declares, I have authority and responsibility over what’s inside my own confines. Nature however does not understand lawful boundaries.

Deer are particularly indifferent to fences. A small herd of mule deer roam our property. They leap over the short barbed wire fences with ease. Our grass and alfalfa hay is as good as the neighbors’. Unlike the cattle, they are indeed wild creatures. Like psyche, like soul, the deer are autonomous, unpredictable beings that take flight like a startled dream, or which bed down when there is safe space for a deepening connection: an Eros of earth. These deer remind us of the “imaginative possibility in our natures.” In speaking of soul, Hillman said:

First, ‘soul’ refers to the deepening of events into experiences; second, the significance soul makes possible, whether in love or in religious concern, derives from its special relation with death. And third, by ‘soul’ I mean the imaginative possibility in our natures, the experiencing through reflective speculation, dream, image, and fantasy—that mode which recognizes all realities as primarily symbolic or metaphorical. (p. xvi)

One morning, at dawn, I gazed out on our front yard and saw the small herd grazing. Some were still adolescents, staying with their mothers. I looked away for a moment to make tea and later turned back to see our Husky on top of one of the small deer at the interior fence line. I rushed outside screaming at the dogs to back away from the young male who lay at an awkward angle against a fence post. I could detect no blood, but soon determined that the dog, having run down the hill at top speed, had run into the animal, slamming it into the post and breaking its neck. I had never been with an animal as it was dying, let alone such a creature of beauty and perfection. He had been too small and too slow to leap over the fence as his family had. They still stood outside the fence, waiting on their brother. I watched with anguish as they, one by one, disappeared into the trees, leaving their fallen comrade behind. I stroked and covered the small buck with a blanket; completely helpless to save its life. For the first time, I felt the powerlessness of my ego where nature is concerned. No phone call to the vet, no 911, no miracle cure of science to mend a broken neck. Only the buck’s pitiful cries and my own weeping accompanied me as I leaned against the fence post, the dying deer in my arms.

The deer know no property lines, no “ownership.” They know only the earth as it always had been: open, expansive, gentle, and fierce. Yet the land shrinks, is fenced and fragmented, is desolated, is owned, is bought and sold without a care for soul or for the imagination roaming free. To imagine the fence as ego or the deer as soul is to employ Hillman’s (1975) move of personifying or imagining things. “Personifying [is] to signify the basic psychological activity—the spontaneous experiencing, envisioning and speaking of the configurations of existence of psychic presences” . To psyche, the deer are images, a sensuous “connection with fantasy. To be in soul is to experience the fantasy in all realities and the basic reality of fantasy” . According to Abraham the deer’s graceful caution, elegant leaps, sudden appearances and swift vanishings link it to the alchemical Mercurius, the transformative intermediary soul substance, as well as to pilgrimage or initiation paths that are circuitous, indirect, constantly shifting direction or, like the deer, disappear altogether.

The Tragedy

“The outstanding scientific discovery of the twentieth century is not television, or radio, but rather the complexity of the land organism. Only those who know the most about it can appreciate how little is known about it….If the biota, in the course of aeons, has built something we like but do not understand, then who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts? To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.”
—Aldo Leopold, Essays on Conservation from Round River

The idea of land ownership and its requisite fencing implies an established order and, more to the point, maintaining ownership. Property is bought and sold with the aid of good credit, banks, contracts, and laws. Hillman called such an authoritative system a Senex structure. According to Slater:

Senex and puer are Latin terms for ‘old man’ and ‘young man,’ and personify the poles of tradition, stasis, structure, and authority on one side, and immediacy, wandering, invention and idealism on the other. The senex consolidates, grounds and disciplines, the puer flashes with insight and thrives on fantasy and creativity. These diverging, conflicting tendencies are ultimately interdependent, forming two faces of the one configuration, each face never far from the other. ‘Old’ and ‘new’ maybe the most direct terms for the pair. They represent two very different ways of entering the world, but are oddly dependent on one another. (p. x)

Ownership of the land requires survey lines to be marked and recorded, creating boundary lines that are fixed in space. Fence posts are stuck in the ground, cemented in place. Keys are handed over at a ritual “closing.” There is finality to one’s name on a deed and a grip of responsibility that inexorably weaves one into the matrix of the economic system.

From the viewpoint of the land, this senex perspective speaks of grounding. One is tied to a place. One puts down roots; remains fixed in place. A nest is built from which the young, the pueri, fly. This rootedness can be a positive boon for the earth. With a strong connection to a place, a fondness and appreciation is nurtured. With stillness and time, one can come to know the history and needs of land that requires remembrance and tending. The erosion of forgetfulness and apathy can be stanched. However, a stasis can also mean being stuck in ways that may need modification. Traditions may need the spark of new knowledge and blood to regenerate like the spring and not to remain frozen underground.

On the drought-ridden Eastern Colorado Plains, one tradition is the time-honored, Western mythic image of cattle ranching. It is not questioned, but handed down to each generation in both expectation and image. An idylic myth supported by stock shows, rodeo, film, literature, advertisements, the cattleman’s association, and the Beef Council. Yet cattle are a poor choice for poor soil. They tear the grass plant up whole by the roots instead of bison that nibble the top part of the plant and move on. Bison are also hardier and better adapted to the Great Plains than cattle because it is where they evolved.

Without delving further into a scientific animal husbandry discussion, there are many sides to this senex and puer debate. Additionally, some on the side of the American bison would go further and suggest the reinstatement of a “Buffalo Commons,” a move that would create a vast nature preserve by returning 139,000 square miles of land to native prairie. Some would call this a puerile utopian dream, but the point here is the change (for prairie sustainability) is much needed and that our senex ideas of property and ownership need substantial modification to include all parts of the ecological and economic systems.

Perhaps, as Hillman (2005) suggested, we are in need of the “beady snake-eyes of Mercurius” (p. 109) to take advantage of seeing the necessity of opposites. While we are aware of the unsustainability of most of our wide-scale agricultural practices, we have a window of opportunity to see the between space. Hillman called this the “mercurial space” that allows a chance for kairos, an opportune or supreme moment. This is a small space “where grand visions do not fit. By seeing with the beady snake-eyes of Mercurius, we make possible the appearance of Mercurius and of a hermetic significance in any situation. Puer consciousness may indeed act as psychopompos” . This mercurial space serves as an alchemical vessel, then, in which new understanding can enable us to move between perspectives and transcend worlds.

The tragedy that has led to the Dust Bowl, to short and tall grass prairie habitat loss, and to human population decline in these rural areas, has stemmed in part from a lack of ecological understanding and to what Hardin called in his essay, “The Tragedy of the Commons.” In this essay, Garret Hardin (1968) explored the dynamic that happens when an area of land (or other common holding) is used by many but for which no one person owns responsibility. In the example of cattle ranching, which occurs on the public lands owned by the United States Government and managed by the Bureau of Land Management, a single rancher may not be concerned about adding more cattle for grazing because that one individual rancher does not bear the cost burden of maintaining the grazing land in question. This is true also for other ranchers that have access use to the same land (by permits.) Therefore, singly, no one rancher bears the cost, but they each benefit. But the land “in common” does bear the cost, and overall, all the ranchers eventually suffer the degradation of the land.

Hardin’s essay was a major impetus for the move to privatize lands held in the public trust because it was believed to show that private land owners would take better care of their property. Freyfogle, however, argued that by privatizing these large tracts of land, they would be broken up and fenced into small sections, and that this would lead to a “Tragedy of Fragmentation.”

Freyfogle’s (2002) thesis (if you bracket out the impact of erecting more fencing and barriers to nature’s ebb and flow of migration, habitat, and herd size) is that the problem is one of “dividing land into smaller units of governance in the situation where a government body has power to control land uses” (p. 325). Such greater governmental power is needed to oversee such larger landscape issues such as urban sprawl and habitat protection that cannot be managed by individual owners.

Freyfogle (2002) sums up his argument by seeing through, or in Hillman’s term, psychologizing the situation:

Fragmentation is a common byproduct of individualism and a love of individual liberty, and the United States embraces liberty and individualism more zealously than any other country in the world. But the nation has got itself into a bind. We need to back up a bit, drawing upon alternative strands in our cultural heritage, strands that honor cooperation rather than competition, that look to the benefits of shared action rather than rugged individualism, that see the benefits to all in promoting, not our individual wants alone, but also jointly developed visions of the common good. (pp. 336-7)

Fragmentation is an apt word for what Hillman deems “falling apart,” or pathologizing. Pathologizing is “the psyche’s autonomous ability to create illness, morbidity, disorder, abnormality, and suffering in any aspect of its behavior and to experience and imagine life through this deformed and afflicted perspective” . The tragedy of the commons and of fragmentation can be thought of as a pathology of the land. Specifically, the rugged individualism of the American West, Manifest Destiny, and “progress” have taken little care or concern for the earth or its indigenous peoples, and the deep suffering is apparent in both.



Abraham, L. (1998). A dictionary of alchemical imagery. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Freyfogle, E. T. (2002). The Tragedy of Fragmentation. Val. U. L. Rev., 36, 307. Retrieved from

Hardin, G. (1968). The Tragedy of the Commons. Science, 162 (3859), pp. 1243-1248.

Hillman, J. (1971). Psychology: Monotheistic or polytheistic? Spring, 193-208.

Hillman, J. (1975). Revisioning psychology. San Francisco, CA: Harper.

Hillman, J. (2005). An aspect of the historical and psychological present. In G.

Slater (Ed.), Senex and puer (pp. 30-70). Putnam, CT: Spring Publications.

Hillman, J. (2005). Notes on opportunism. In G. Slater (Ed.), Senex and puer (pp. 96-112). Putnam, CT: Spring Publications.

Kassiola, J. J. (2003). Explorations in environmental political theory: Thinking about what we value. New York, NY: M. E. Sharpe.

Klein, C. A., Cheever, F., & Birdsong, B. C. (2005). Natural resources law: a place-based book of problems and cases. New York, NY: Aspen Publishers.

McLaughlin, A. (2003). Industrialism and deep ecology. In J. J. Kassiola, Explorations in environmental political theory: Thinking about what we value (pp. 104-127). New York: M. E. Sharpe.

Slater, G. (2005). Introduction. In J. Hillman, & G. Slater (Ed.), Senex and puer (pp. VIV – XXVII). Putnam, CT: Spring Publications.

Carla Paton is a Ph.D. student in the Depth Psychology program with an Emphasis in Jungian and Archetypal Studies at Pacifica Graduate Institute. She resides in Colorado and is a database administrator with 20 years of corporate experience. Her interests include using image in the creative process, the archetype of place, the dark goddess, cyborgs, and the intersection of the feminine and technology.