Fee Simple Absolute
After losing his son, a father questions whether there is anything we can ever truly possess.
By Ted Gup
“Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though …”
— Robert Frost, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”
This summer I often think of these lines from Frost as I glide in my kayak past the acres of green woods we own along the shore of Jacob Buck Pond. We bought them in 2003, a log cabin and five acres of dense white pine, cedar, and spruce. “Whose woods these are I think I know.” Of course I know. They are mine — my wife’s and mine. We own them outright, no debt, no cloud on title. “Fee simple absolute,” the lawyers say. And, if I am able, I intend to pass them along to my son, Matt.
That I rarely venture into these woods is another matter. So many fallen logs, hidden depressions, and snags all threaten my sixty-one-year-old ankles. Skeeters, ticks, deer flies, spiders, field mice, chirpy squirrels, huge raccoons, skunks, turkeys, eagles, whitetails — they, too, own it, at least as much as I do.
But what does ownership of a swath of forest really mean? That is what unsettles me as I paddle my kayak along the shoreline, my shoreline. I ask as a father who nine months ago lost a twenty-one-year-old son. The time it takes to give birth is hardly adequate to say goodbye.
And like the owner in Frost’s poem, I, too, live in town — Boston, some four-and-a-half hours south and a world away. I think upon the lines, the word “whose” conveying a sense of ownership, and stumble over the word as I would a stump or crag. In what sense do I “own” these woods? Do they recognize my authority? Do they grant me title and bend their boughs to my will? Or do I belong to them? Any court would recognize the legitimacy of my claim, but how does one possess such a thing? I cannot. I knew it before my son’s death.
I know it even more now.
Ownership is a myth, a denial of mortality. The “absolute” in “fee simple” merely conveys the superiority of my claim over others of my species, a claim to which the woods are oblivious. The “absolute” confers an illusion that anything could be absolute, immutable. Lose a son and tell me what is absolute, other than pain.
Frost, himself no stranger to loss, expresses uncertainty about who owns the land — “I think I know,” he says, the hedge perhaps going to more than mere title. Does he hint that ownership itself is a more slippery concept than we care to acknowledge? We would put our hooks into the ground, moor ourselves with deeds, ignoring that the mortgage — a word that comes from “dead pledge” — can never truly be paid off. I am forever in debt and when all debts are ultimately settled, so, too, am I.
Yes, I own these woods, if by that I mean that I can prosecute trespassers, bring down a fir or two — so long as I honor the county’s setback provisions and stay within the confines of the code. I can shoo away others, lord my title over them, and plant a flag declaring my ownership. By will or intestacy, I can pass it along to my surviving son, or even, I suppose, my Lab, who, in the end, best understands its true worth.
The property is mine. The surveyor has circumscribed the width and length of my domain, long ago posted stakes and fluttering flags to tell one and all that it belongs to me. By ownership, all that I mean is that I have the power to exclude others, to deprive them of whatever joy first drew me to this place with the idea that it would be a sanctuary from the world, a place where family could build memories.
It is an odd form of power I possess. I came here to find a sense of inclusion whose expression on paper was the right to ward off others in search of the same. That is the meaning of property.
But what I really want is to belong to it, to find within its shadows and within my own a peace that only comes from letting go of rights and deeds and all the artifice we conjure up to fend off the fear that someone else holds title to it all. There is no ownership, no grasp so tight that the fingers will not finally let go. We can hold on to nothing, least of all a forest or a son. If we are lucky, we can hope for a time to belong to them. That is enough. It has to be.
“Whose woods these are, I think I know…” Yes, I do.
Ted Gup is the author of the bestseller The Book of Honor: Covert Lives and Classified Deaths at the CIA, and a former investigative reporter for the Washington Post. He has been professor and chair of the journalism department at Emerson College in Boston since 2009.