It's been a long summer filled with gardening, felling trees, removing old brush and debris from corners of the property, and keeping up with livestock, but it's been fun. On our property which we purchased a few months ago we have found all manners of old junk in hidden piles tucked away on the back corners of the acreage. Everything from rusty old bicycles to engine parts and anything in between has been found, pondered, and eventually yelled at for being there with no reason or justification. Now that we've accomplished the large task of tidying up we can survey the land and make further plans for the future.
But there's just one thing ... the neighbor.
You know the type - that guy or gal who seems to stop by when you're in the middle of something important, or worse, when you're having a temper tantrum about one of those pieces of rusty metal you just found and realized you have no possible way to get rid of without the help of a piece of industrial equipment. We've all had experiences with these types of neighbors and I think we can all agree that sometimes we just wish we could snap our fingers and make them disappear. Well, that's what we're dealing with right now and we're learning life lessons right and left with this one.
First of all, let me say that this neighbor is a great one, nice and friendly, offering to help or lend materials and equipment if needed, but that comes into play later, as we begrudgingly found out.
Second of all, there are the neighbor's animals, a horse and a cow. They are beautiful animals, don't get me wrong, but they also come into play in such a way that we are utterly befuddled.
Finally, you have us, a young couple eking out a living on our land, enjoying the fruits of our labors and the peace and serenity that come with working the land all around us.
You see, when we eyed the property months and months ago we saw that it was perfectly suited to our wants and needs. There is abundant water, fertile soil, plenty of trees and vegetation which provides us privacy and beauty, and the air is clean. A lack of traffic and noise is an added bonus, having endured the city life for several years.
Once we got onto the property and tallied up all of the various tasks we wanted to complete, our big picture suddenly snapped into focus and we got busier than ever. That is, until one day when, cussing at a pile of debris from the previous owner, I looked over and realized that a barbed wire fence which went through the middle of our property was actually blocking my easy access to over half of our acreage. Not only that, there was a horse and a cow grazing on the other side of the fence and they seemed to have free access to our land which I had little control over. On any other day this would have simply been something to look at during a break for some water in between chores but on this day, maybe sensing some strange form of disrespect aimed unintended at me, I became enraged. "Why are there two animals on our property grazing?” I asked my wife. I started to notice more detail in the image in front of me.
"Why is that fence bent almost completely to the ground? Why is half of our property on the other side of that fence? Who did that? Why did they do that? When!? And just who do they think they are!?"
Of course, more cursing came and I probably looked like a toddler out there coming face-to-face with what I felt was an immediate threat. Thoughts of squatters came to mind; the dreaded concept of "open and notorious" entitlement or dispossession ran through me like a cold shudder. "We have to do something about this!"
It turns out that years ago, before we ever even knew about this property, the owner had given permission to a neighbor to run his livestock on a few acres. At some point a fence was erected and a gate installed allowing access from one property to the other. Fine. "Completely fine,” I told myself to keep my sanity. But it didn't stop irritating me. I had to have those animals off the property and soon!
This is where things became tricky. You see, when we purchased the property we made arrangements in the contract that the fence be removed, the gates closed, locked, and secured, and any livestock be removed before we would complete the purchase. To our knowledge this was done, but of course when we arrived it hadn't been done. "No matter,” we thought. “We'll take care of it soon enough. It's not that much of a burden.”
Well, that's where we got ourselves into trouble. By not having that done beforehand we immediately put ourselves in an awkward position. If we said nothing then we were ultimately saying, without actually admitting to it, that we were okay with someone else using our land as if it was their own. But if we piped up and said, "Get your dirty stinking animals off of our property!", then we would be awful neighbors already starting off on the wrong foot with everyone in the area.
Since we are younger than the people who live around us we knew we couldn't simply act as if we belonged. There is a certain amount of time, a test of your worth, that must occur in order to be fully accepted in a community, at least in our opinion, and we weren't about to upset that natural balance although we had no idea how to accomplish our goal, which was to get the animals away, tear down the fence, and start working on cleaning up the other part of our property.
Enter the neighbor.
Upon the first encounter we were excited to meet and get to know each other. The fence and the livestock were the last thought on our minds but it became apparent very quickly that it was the first thing on the neighbor's mind. "Those are my animals over there. I brush-hog that land so I can let those animals graze over there."
Being afraid of awkward confrontation I said nothing and my wife looked to me for direction. She got nothing. So we let him continue.
"You can't mow that because it's too tall so I do it. That's the deal."
A week or two later he was back, only this time it was to explain the importance of the two animals. They were old, seriously old, like over twenty years old; at least that is what he told us. "They're basically going to die anytime now." Odd, but okay.
We only talked a little about the idea of telling him to go ahead and remove them from our property between his visits but again we didn't feel that it was appropriate to say anything too abruptly or without warning because, as we came to feel, that time had come and gone. The chance for a friendly exchange of terms had expired. Anything said now would be taken with a little more affront and responded to a little more defensively. After all, nobody had stated for the record what was and wasn’t going to happen.
Then one day the power went out. It wasn't a big ordeal and since I was enjoying the nice weather I decided that I would get out the push mower and take a stroll over the fence with it to mow over what I thought were shallow ditches from the lateral lines from our septic system. In all honesty, it was my excuse for checking out what the soil looked like where those animals had been grazing to see if that piece of land offered anything that I could use immediately. It wasn't more than five minutes before the neighbor came flying down the drive and bolted out of his truck. "What are you doing!?"
"Well, I'm mowing my grass, if you must know. I'm checking out what lies on this side of the fence."
His response didn't register with me until after he left. He said, "You can't mow this with that. You have to have a brush-hog and you don't have one, but I do. I've always taken care of this land so I can let my animals graze there. Why are you mowing if you don't have a brush hog?” and so on and so on. He didn't seem to realize that I could sense the anger in his voice, the condescension in his statements, or the rudeness in his assumption that he held some right to my property. So, feeling completely embarrassed for having been talked down to like a child, I changed the subject, trying to move things to a mutual area of interest, like pests and rodents, gardening, chickens, and so forth.
What I found is that he really didn't offer much in the form of positivity when he spoke to me and perhaps this was due to my mowing the grass. I found, in just thirty minutes of conversation with this neighbor, that I was doing so many things so wrong and I was unaware of it all. For one, I wasn't raising my chickens right, I had bad plans for a garden, I didn't know how to take care of my lawn, and on and on. I took this to be an insult as no sane person would berate another like that and claim it was all in good humor. Then he started offering materials and services. Big things, too. He offered to give me lots of things but in the end and only after he left did I realize that those offers were to lull me into allowing him to continue using my land for his wants and needs. I felt stupid. I was essentially told that I could have use of certain help or materials but in accepting them I would be silently agreeing to continued usage of my land by the neighbor. Even if it wasn’t said aloud, I knew that if I was to take up his offer for something like sheet metal for a barn that he could very well throw that back at me down the line when I told him to get his animals off of my property.
Keep in mind that during all of this my wife and I are still trying to come up with the right way to say what needs to be said and I am trying to find that sweet spot in the conversation, that silence which is just long enough for us both to know that I’m about to say something that needs attention to be paid to it. As soon as I see my chance I’ll be ready to alert the neighbor to the fact that things are going to change now that we own the property. And if I can find that sweet spot in the conversation I will be able to do it tactfully and without altercation, just the way we would prefer it to be done. That moment never presented itself and the conversation developed into more of one man spilling his own sentiments onto another man, assuming that the old adage of seniority being the first to the punch still applied.
Now, not only had I taken a chewing out by a near stranger but I had given way to him, making it easier for him to continue doing what he was doing, but also making it more difficult when I actually had to confront the issue of his animals and my property.
That brings us to present day. Recently, we locked the gate in an attempt to comply with something the previous owners told us about “that gate being closed sends the message that the animals are no longer allowed on the property; no questions, no problems.” But his animals mysteriously found a small hole in the fence that they can climb over, so we haven't accomplished much.
We've contemplated how to go about breaking the news to him, but in our efforts we've only come to feel more anxious and uncomfortable about the whole thing.
Do we simply start ripping out the fence then deal with his angry outbursts when he sees what we're doing, as he did with my lawn mowing? Or do we go over and have a sit-down with him, man-man or family-to-family, and then listen to his angry comments and questions, having to somehow explain and justify why we want to do what we want with our land? The answer is simple: We do what we want and when he asks we tell him if we see fit to tell him. We own the property and don’t owe any explanations for our actions. But it's much more complicated than that. How do we keep neighborly relations with this man in spite of what we aim to do with our land?
I've argued it over several times with myself and my wife, with family and friends. The fact is, we own this land and he does not. Legally, technically, honestly, there's no need to get worried about what he thinks, says, or does. But when it comes down to it, the awkwardness and the confrontation just don't seem worth dealing with. We beg of our circumstances to allow that we can handle this matter in a mature manner and still maintain friendships. On the other hand, essentially giving him some of our land due to our inability to tell him to get off of it is ludicrous, to say the least.
So, that lands us smack in the middle of the situation we’re in right now – a situation that shouldn’t have ever come to be, a situation that has many easy solutions and all of them ending most likely with resentment from our neighbor toward us or, depending on his reaction to our decision, resentment from us toward him.
We’ve learned already that whatever it is in the future, whether it’s simply a dog on our property bothering a hen or something as serious as someone cutting trees down onto our land, that we absolutely must deal with it swiftly and confidently, no matter the outcome, because in the end we will be the ones living here for the rest of our lives, making this our home, and no amount of unhappiness is worth sitting idly by as someone else enjoys your land at your expense.
As it stands, we plan to meet with the neighbor, whether we pay a visit to his home or I simply go turn the mower on across the fence to get his attention. Then we will state our desires and let what happens happen.
And to think, all of this could have been avoided with one simple, “No, thanks. We would prefer you move your animals back to your property.”
Stay tuned for the outcome as I chronicle our experiences of homesteading, from city-dwelling to country living.