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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Commentary: Valuing Land

Air Date: Week of July 31, 1998

Commentator Jane Brox has taken over the management of her family's farm. Sifting through some old papers recently, she came across the original deeds to the land. The experience got her thinking about the different ways land has been described and valued through the centuries.

Transcript

CURWOOD: Commentator Jane Brox has taken over the management of her family's farm. Sifting through some old papers recently, she came across the original deeds to the land. The incident got her thinking about the different ways land has been described and valued through the centuries.

BROX: When I pore over old deeds of the farm, I feel as if I am gazing into another world--one in which the contents of the barns and sheds were considered more valuable than the land itself. In 1901, the nails, the feed bags, the harnesses and hose, the hens and chickens and blind horse, were painstakingly accounted for, while the acreage was only vaguely marked by stones and trees and by fences that then stood. The low-lying fields that stretch southward from the road are called "tillage land" in those papers, and are said to contain "15 acres, more or less."

Now that the barn contents have cracked and dried and the land itself is valued beyond belief, there are many words in the older deeds that no longer apply. "More or less" hardly fits modern requirements for exactitude, and the term "tillage" can't exist alongside the current concept of highest and best use, where for final worth the assessors reimagine fields and orchards and woods as house lots of one acre, no less.

Perhaps least applicable of all to our time is the term "vacant land," which you sometimes see on the old assessors' records, and which marks woods inaccessible by road. It's land that had once been the poorer pasture let go to pines. Land that has largely been ignored all down this century.

What does it mean, vacant? As if of no worth, abandoned, empty? Or free? Whatever it means, this vacant land has recently come to light as some of the last open space in town. Realtors and developers tireless, their voices bright with desire, are inquiring about rights of way to these interior woods, which they call "land-locked properties."
"Land-locked," meaning hemmed in, limited, hindered places. These woods that have grown again from a handful of seeds that were buried or blown in or dropped by migrating birds to become the dark sway of pines.

Listen closely and you can still hear the call of the owl, that rounded and hollow, night-haunted sound that's older than the first name this place ever had. Augumtoocooke, the Pawtuckets called it, for who knows how long? Augumtoocooke, which the English took the mean the wilderness north of the Merrimack. A place apart. A place for all kinds of imaginings.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Commentator Jane Brox lives in Dracut, Massachusetts.

 

 

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