For all the beasts of the forest are mine,
and so are the cattle upon a thousand hills.
I know all the birds upon the mountains,
and the wild beasts of the field are in my sight.
Our coming to this place from the city, where we had lived for over ten years, brought with it great surprises. Never mind living in a place where “the neighbours” were not “next door” - in fact, some of the neighbours, we discovered, lived right here.
In the country, however, even in these highly politicized times, even where we might seem to have set up our standards and pitched our tents, it is also humbling to get some glimpse, through those same lower orders, of our relative insignificance, while we think of ourselves as "masters of all we survey."
Long ago now, I remember being puzzled by a series of capital letters appearing on financial statements. The statements in question purported to tell the government exactly why it was that my wife and I were not making a larger contribution to the expensive business of running the country. I suspected, from the set of mysterious initials appearing after our names, that something else was being communicated as well. The problem was, that JTWROS seemed stubbornly to belong to some other, and definitely non-Indo-European, language.
One day, I happened to mention the vexing word to an accountant friend. He burst out laughing. “All that means is that if you or your wife should die the other will carry on without question of extra taxes.”
“JTWROS is an acronym,” he went on, “an abbreviation that takes the first letter of each word and puts them together. The whole phrase is nicely old-fashioned, implying that you and your wife have equal rights in property which you would have held from some feudal lord, so the death of one of you would not have allowed the lord to turf the survivor out. You are ‘Joint Tenants With Rights of Survivorship,’ even though now the term applies to any kind of property, including real estate or more abstract things like investments.”
The acronym and its interpretation somehow lodged in my brain, but it was only after we moved here that it began to take on a more global - or, at least, a less species-specific - meaning. It could describe a relationship that went back a long way, far back before the feudal system was even a gleam in some mediæval lawyer’s eye.
We came from the city where property was laid out so many feet this way and so many feet that way, and the neighbours and the neighbours kids, their friends and relations, were all more-or-less known, and a man’s home could be thought of as his castle. Granted it might be besieged at certain times of the year by aluminum storm-window salesmen or the property tax minions or tract-bearing souls anxious to let us know that Babylon the great had fallen long before the US government had decided to pick a bone with the descendants of the biblical city.
In the country, it seemed the situation was not as clear. The tax man was still likely to make his presence known, and Babylon was still falling. At least (apparently) it tended to collapse about the time the flowers were beginning to emerge in the spring and the driveway could be negotiated without too much adverse effect on a nicely-polished pair of shoes or a freshly-washed and polished automobile.
In the country we might be possessed of legal documents that testified not only to our ownership of our property but made it clear that anyone who wished to verify our ownership had but to turn to such-and-such a page in a book in some office somewhere hereabouts. There they could discover that we held what the lawyers call a ‘clear title’ to our seventy acres more or less that could be traced back practically to when Trojan Hector was a pup, long before Troy got into that unfortunate argument with the Greeks over the beautiful Helen.
There were others, though, who had never heard of Helen or of deeds of grant either, for whom thoughts of ownership never crossed their minds. They were, simply, here - ‘here’ in the most fundamental and concrete sense of the word.
I think it was the snake which first got me thinking about the wider implications of JTWROS. We had just added a piece to this house and had dragged a big flat stone to serve as a nicely-rustic threshold before the porch steps.
As it happened that stone was in a corner between new and old construction where the sun on a summer afternoon shone warmly. We who had put the stone there were too busy to take much notice of the fact but it was not long before it became clear that others who lived here had noticed. Where the snake had been soaking up sunlight before we put the stone in place I do not know. I met him (or her) enjoying “my” stone as I was dashing in from the yard to answer a phone.
In fact, the snake made better use of the stone than I did, but his presence reminded me of the mice in the cellar in the fall and the larder beetles inside bowls they could not climb out of in the spring and all the other, known and unknown, creatures whose place this is as well - all of us, in the most profound sense, Joint Tenants with Rights of Survivorship.
13 September 2005