Saturday, 5 April 2014

The Right to Privacy

Fences.  What does this call to mind?  White pickets, purely symbolical (but they do block access). Chain link?  Very institutional.  A brick wall -- how high can you afford to build one.. knee high maybe.  Hardwood, colourbond [an Australian corrugated metal product], willow screen, a vine on a lattice.  A swimming pool fence of metal grids and bars.  Anything else?

Actually sometimes when you drive down a country lane you will see that some one, a long time ago has taken the trouble to construct (plant) a hedge.  Generally associations to this are pretty positive.  It's a bit quaint, attractive, perhaps a twinge of envy passes over us, or wistfulness.  And then you drive past.  It's a blur.  The next fence that comes up is a blight on the landscape.  Barbed wire.  Multi-strands of metal wire and star pickets.  Sometimes rusty.  Well, they have to keep their cows in somehow, you say to yourself without thinking.

Cows have been domesticated a lot longer than there has been wire -- barbed or otherwise. Traditionally, thorny barriers were used to delineate one's personal space, keeping unwanted wanderers out and precious beasts in.  But despite years of so-called permaculture involvement and spare time spent in the garden, I would be hard-pressed to name more than a few suitable hedge species.  There must be thousands!

When we think of planting a suitably deep, wide and long hedge around our land (if you have one hectare, that's 100m x 100m so the perimeter is 400m) -- doesn't the cost stop you in your tracks?

Well here's an idea.  All plants of a large enough size to make a hedge produce flowers (if they are angiosperms) and all plants produce seeds (including gymnosperms -- the pines for example). What we need to do is collect a suitable quantity of seeds to go all the way around. And lots of time of course, to wait for the things to grow into hedges.  That is lacking if we are paying rent, don't know where well be living in a year or so, or see the property as an investment (because of mortgage or equity).

Still the choice will always be there -- as long as we live on some land.  Why the emphasis on hedges?  This vision is for the long term.  If our aim is to keep the children on the land (with us and after we're gone)  we would be wise, considerate and well-advised to not leave too much fragile infrastructure around that requires expensive maintenance.  Even a hardwood fence after 20 years or so will start to show signs of decrepitude and need to be re-done.  Children are no fools.  They can can tell the difference between living and non-living things.  Non-living things always tend toward decay (cars for example!).  Horses and hedges also have a life-span (as individual entities) but have the distinct advantage of being self-perpetuating.

So an individual hedge plant or horse may not exist 30 years later, but the pattern of the horse (embodied in its offspring) and of the hedge lives on.. forever potentially.  Here we have the perm in permaculture and the sust- in sustainability.  (Also living things are more likely to give us hugs).

Other benefits of hedgerows -- they may themselves provide a source of food -- berries and apples -- habitat for animals, and of course a source of new hedgerow plants.

Choice of species need not be limited to the conventional -- why not try natives, pines, or so-called noxious weeds.  These are quite prolific and seem to create their own natural hedges.

       For example, holly (Ilex aquifolium, shown right).  After reading Peter Andrews two books, I am convinced -- if it's green it's good!

Why am I telling you this?  Because I am interested in things that affect quality of life -- the degree of privacy is one of those.  It is something we all want when we are at home, and yet what do we actually do about it?

If you look at modern housing, suburban housing developments put one in a rather compromised position privacy-wise.

I've often noted the norm is to ignore what is happening on the next property -- not to even acknowledge some one who is in close proximity and clearly visible!  Well, we are only fooling ourselves.  To act as if we cannot be seen when we can, and to act as if we do not see when we do -- there is something rather distorted and even schizophrenic in this behaviour.  To shrink our world to the point where barriers don't exist but we pretend they do -- is the stuff of fantasy and pantomime!

How absurd, yet how commonplace.  (We might think we are attired in beautiful fine clothing -- but the neighbours know otherwise.-- there's nothing on!)

What concerns me in all this is it interferes with our basic human freedom to think and act, well, freely.  At some level, we know there is no privacy and we limit our behaviour accordingly.  Even though neighbours pretend not to see, they are busy taking note of our actions.  Anything out of the ordinary will duly be reported -- to their friends, family -- or back to us in some cases.

How do we know this?  Because we are busy doing it too.  Why am I concerned by it?  Because anything that limits our behaviour also limits our thoughts and vice versa.  Anything that limits these two things then prevents us from being fully human.  And we need to explore this.

Since privacy is a personal matter, I will get personal with you.  I am not in an ideal situation regarding privacy.  Before I tell you anything you don't want to know, I will say this.  We all have a long way to go. Here is my story.  Renting one hectare, but it is shared -- with other tenants in a nearby building and a landlord who has installed a caravan for fortnightly visits.  Our domain is virtual -- there is no privacy hedge and territory is what is dictated or limited by common decency.

I understand that isolation has its drawbacks.  Cloistering oneself in an ivory tower really contributes little to society.  We live in an era of transparency and accountability -- if I am using a scythe to mow my lawn -- it is my neighbours' right to know (and they do).  Perhaps they can benefit from seeing an alternative to ride-on lawnmower-hood.  (It does not really take the power of twenty horses to cut a blade of grass.)

However, what if I do not wish to be made aware of their activities, and I am?  Somewhere we must draw the line.  I feel it is possible to remain active and engaged in society whilst still enjoying visual and auditory privacy and a cushion of real and tangible space between me and the next denizen of earth.  Without good fences, where are the good neighbours?

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