Only Earth and Sky Last Forever

Recently there’s been some hollering in my town about a muddy lot full of tents. It’s not the Occupy movement—haven’t heard much from them lately—it’s a tent city called Nickelsville.

Much like the Hoovervilles of the Great Depression, Nickelsville was named after a political leader—former Seattle mayor Greg Nickels—who failed to solve the problem of poverty and homelessness. This seems unfair as it’s a mighty difficult problem to solve, but the name has stuck.

Nickelsville is actually a well-organized and sensible (from the participants’ viewpoint) response to homelessness. There’s even a website: While Seattle has shelters for homeless people, there are not enough of them and they have some major downsides. Many homeless people consider sleeping in shelters to be more dangerous than sleeping in doorways or under the freeway bridge. Shelters for families are especially hard to come by. Most of all, shelters are not homes. You have to leave the shelter early in the morning and take all of your stuff with you, and there’s no guarantee you will get to stay there again the next night. In contrast, if you pitch a tent in Nickelsville, you have a home, however crude.

The problem, of course, is that the residents of the tents don’t own the land they are using. The city owns it and so far tolerates the tent dwellers. The neighbors are Not. Amused. Even though Nickelsville is located in an industrial urban area, not in the midst of middle class suburbia, the nearby business owners want it gone. Yesterday.

And this is what strikes me. In this country it is actually illegal to exist if you don’t own a piece of land or have the money to rent one. You are trespassing everywhere you go. And that’s pretty weird, if you think about it, that every inch of ground belongs to somebody. It makes me wonder about the initial instance of ownership. Every single acre was stolen, since no one initially had any particular right to claim it as their own.

A few months ago I read The Man Who Quit Money, a true story about Daniel Suelo, who made a philosophical decision to live without money. He sleeps in caves in the Utah desert, which is illegal, but he only gets rousted once in a while. He forages and scavenges for food. He owns very little and freely gives it to others. Suelo, a deeply religious man, has rejected the precepts of our economic system and lives outside of it.

Indeed, the foundational precept—that we live in a world of scarcity—is highly suspect. We live in a world of abundance and we create scarcity through our economic activities. There are more vacant houses than homeless people in this country. Furthermore, the precept that everyone must work at a money-producing job (or enter a dependent relationship with someone who works at a money-producing job) in order to justify their existence is suspect. We create scarcity and we invent busy work to perpetuate our economic system.

I’ve also been reading some books about the Native Americans who lived on the plains. The nomadic tribes pitched their tipis in their own tent cities anywhere they wanted to and lived by hunting and foraging. Land ownership was not a thing they did. And because they owned nothing, they owned everything. In Lakota Woman, written in the late 20th century, Mary Crow Dog describes some of the long-term repercussions of taking people who lived without money, “giving” them some land to own, and expecting them to simply assimilate into a culture and economic milieu so totally foreign to them.

Crow Dog describes her years as a reservation youth. Bands of aimless young people roamed around the Dakotas in beat-up jalopies, stealing food from the over-priced stores and drinking themselves blind. She didn’t draw the connection between her roaming and foraging ancestors, but it seemed like a modern-day version to me.

The Sioux tribes of the 19th century would have understood the tent city in Seattle. They would not have understood that anyone had the right to force those people to move because the land wasn’t theirs. They would not have understood that there is no place—no place—that those people are allowed to live. What could they have done to deserve that kind of shunning?