Wednesday, June 23, 2021

#174 / Not Your Trail


Students enrolled in my UCSC class, "Property and the Law," were assigned to read an article by Dr. Jonathan Severy. Severy is an emergency medicine physician and a serious runner. His article was entitled "This Trail Is Not Your Trail." The article outlined the problems that Dr. Severy had with a few of his neighbors because the doctor did his running on trails that crossed his neighbors' properties. The subtitle on the article reads: "On trail running, trespassing, and what your neighbors do or don't owe you." It's kind of a fun article, and you can click the link if you'd like to read it for yourself.
As my students had already learned, before reading the article, one of the "rights" that accompany property ownership is the "right to exclude others." Severy didn't think it was very "nice," or "neighborly," for his property-owning neighbors to stop him from running on a trail that also crossed Severy's own property, but then did continue on to cross the properties of others, as well. Severt wasn't hurting anyone, and wasn't really disturbing any of the neighbors, either - these trails didn't run right by their front door, or anything like that. Why couldn't they just let it go?
Those neighbors who "couldn't" let it go didn't "want" to let it go. In fact, while only a few of the neighboring property owners sought to stop Severy's use of the trails on their properties, every one of them had a legal right to do so. It's hard not to sympathize with Severy, but it is also pretty hard not to sympathize with the neighbors who objected. They had moved to a rural area to get away from other people, and they had paid good money for their right to insist that they would have complete privacy on their property. What's unfair about that?

Actually, nothing is really unfair about that, though a few of the objecting neighbors did demonstrate more hostility than was strictly necessary, one of them implicitly threatening to shoot Severy if he ever came back.

The article that Severy wrote, to document his experience, didn't really report any resolution of the conflict. No legal actions were apparently undertaken by either Severy or any of the objecting neighbors, and Severy wasn't gunned down, either, since he lived to write the article. 
At the end, Severy philosophized about the situation in which he found himself, calling upon his experience as a medical doctor as he did so:

Undoubtedly, there will be tensions between neighbors, and people will be difficult, but we need each other to exist. Relationships give value to our lives. This is even more apparent now, in the midst of a pandemic. A crisis like this risks exacerbating our worst inclinations. Fear, mistrust, selfishness, and entitlement are as dangerous and contagious as a virus.
More than ever, we need to remember that we are all in this together, vulnerable neighbors on a vulnerable planet, all sharing the same basic needs—food, livelihood, dignity, toilet paper, access to medical care, and compassion. We are going to be forced to carefully consider our own mortality as others around us get sick and some die. We are going to be forced to reexamine our values. Such dire circumstances tend to reveal one’s true character. What can we hope to learn about ourselves? What is our responsibility to one another? Who are we if we succumb to fear and panicked self-preservation? Where will we find meaning when we are at risk of losing everything? 
As we look into ourselves during these trying times, I can only hope that we will find the answers in each other. If you can’t, well, keep running. Tell the ravens about it. 
Look carefully enough, however, and you will see yourself in your neighbor. All alone together, quarantined here on earth (emphasis added).
This rather poetic summation speaks to me. It utilizes one of my favorite phrases, frequently found in these blog postings ("we are all in this together"). However, poetic though it is, Severy's summation avoids the "legal" issue, with respect to which Severy is clearly on the wrong side of the law. An appeal to human solidarity is terrific, but is there some "legal" way to let trailrunners have access to trails that cross properties owned by other individuals? 

One possibility that comes to my mind is what England has done with its National Trail system, which provides legal access to members of the public to use trails that are not always on public lands, but that cross private lands, too. Click right here to read about The Cottswold Way. I have personally hiked in the Cottswolds, and the trails I followed went, sometimes, right through the middle of a farmer's private land, right by his barns and stables. Through collective action, England has made "legal" the kind of "neighborly" responsiveness that Severy has been hoping for. In taking that action, England has demonstrated a "legal" recognition of the point that Severy insists upon: "We are all in this together, vulnerable neighbors on a vulnerable planet."

Finding ways to make that principle apply - with respect to trails and everything else - is a task worth undertaking. 

AND PS: I really do recommend a multi-day hike through the Cotswolds!

The Cotswolds

Image Credit:
(1) -
(2) -

No comments:

Post a Comment

Thanks for your comment!