Casaubon's Book

Stake Your Acre Challenge

stake acre.jpg

I’m not the challenge queen – that title could go to her Crunchiness , with whom you can freeze your buns, change your menstrual supplies and do a host of other moderately sexualized activities for fun and ecological profit or to Chile, who is currently preoccupied with moving house but regularly gets folks using their sun ovens, eating more locally and moving more. In all these years, I’ve only done the one, my Independence Days Challenge, now in its third year.

But I feel it may be time to diversify – I’ve been mulling over other possible challenges for a bit, and finally one came to me that feels right. I’m calling it the “stake your acre” challenge. And the sum of it is this – I want everyone who can to find an acre of land and tend it. There are so many profound pressures on the land and people around us – our places need us to take more responsibility for them, for keeping them safe, clean, humane, wild….

But, you argue, I don’t own an acre of land. And that, my dear friends, is precisely the point. This is not about private ownership – the only and best way to tend what is damaged on the planet is not to own things privately. That is a luxury for those of us who are either fortunate enough to live in rural areas where land is cheap, or lucky enough to be rich or have family connections to land. Not all of us have the power of ownership, but that’s ok – this is about taking responsibility for your acre, and the living things within it – plant, animal, human, wild. You don’t need a contract to do that. Maybe you can’t do anything about your neighbor’s acres – or maybe you can do something by getting involved, by modelling, by talking, by offering to help, by being a better neighbor, or simply by caring about a place that no one has ever looked at as a whole before.

In fact, even if, like me, you own land measured in acreage, I’d encourage you to stake an acre that isn’t fully your own – one that your road runs through, one that encompasses at least one neighbor if you can. Or one that at least makes good habitat for wildlife. This is not about possession, but about finding a manageable space and making it better. It isn’t about permanence – that is, if you move or change acres, go home from school or lose your home, just pick a new acre – there are more than enough that need someone to love them. Don’t pick the prettiest, best, already best cared for spot, if you can avoid it – the ugliest, dirtiest spots and the ones that need us most.

You can use google maps or pace it out, estimate or count city blocks, but choose an acre that surrounds you, is connected to your home, apartment, dorm room, and claim it. Make it yours, Stake your space (you need to plant a flag claiming it in the name of Mars, but I won’t stop you if you want to). Does it have to be an exact acre? Nope. And if you live in midtown Manhattan, maybe that’s too much – it can be half or a third. The point, however is a space beyond our private property, one large enough to offer some variety of people or creatures that live on it, and to offer some need.

Now what? What do we do after we’ve paced out our acre? Well, in the simplest terms, make it a better place. All of us have a limited amount of time and energy and resources, but each of us, adopting a manageable space as our own home can do something to improve it.

What can you do? Well, a lot of things. Clean it up, for starts – perhaps your acre needs someone to pick up trash or call a meeting to help neighbors learn about low-toxicity ways to treat lawns. Maybe it covered mostly with asphalt and needs some green to reduce the heat island effect and clean the air – maybe you can pass out potted tomatoes to neighbors, get the city to plant more trees, start a neighborhood garden or throw seedballs into the vacant lot. Maybe you can get your neighbor to reduce his spraying, or you can cut back on yours, and the chemicals you are putting into the groundwater – and talk about the benefits. Maybe you can learn about soil remediation and clean up heavy metal contamination on vacant lots, or make sure that the local kids aren’t playing on a lead-contaminated playground. Maybe you can make sure your animals aren’t contaminating the creek. Maybe you need to know more about the local ecology, and can talk to local resources, learn about water quality and plant life. Maybe it is time to walk your neighborhood, and see what needs to be done.

What else can you do? You can make it serve wild creatures, increase its biodiversity by planting new plants and making habitats for those already here – maybe you can plant native plants to attract birds and pollinators, begin keeping bees, plant trees that offer food for wildlife, reduce speed limits to keep wild creatures from being run over, create wildlife corridors, get people to bell their cats to protect songbirds. You can grow food for wildlife, or food for humans so that wildlife can grow in rural places – or both – a pasture, a forest, a swamp can serve all of those purposes.

What else can you do? What about the people there. Do you know the inhabitants of your acre? Do you look in on elderly and disabled neighbors? Do you talk to each other? Do you have common needs and wants? Maybe you can start a neighborhood assocation, throw a block party, start an internet group for sharing or bartering, get together to save money on food or have a kids clothings swap. Maybe you can talk about neighborhood watch or community gardens or something else. Maybe you can carpool or pick up groceries for someone who doesn’t drive. Maybe you can offer a hand, trade work weekends with others, babysit so someone can go on a job interview, offer a helping hand – and accept one. Maybe you can share something, or offer techniques to reduce carbon or pollution emissions. Maybe you can just share space companionably.

What else can you do? Can you meet some need with what’s already in your acre? Maybe there’s someone who can fix shoes or who would be grateful for a little money to help you clean or do yard work or fix your roof. Can you keep your dollars local by supporting local businesses. If there aren’t businesses, how about supporting local kids? Can you trade your skill at piano teaching for your neighbors’ gift at mending? Can you grow a business, start a cottage industry, grow food that your neighbors need on your acre? Can you help someone else do so?

Most of all, you can learn to love it. You can watch it. Measure it. See how the seasons change. You can talk to the people inside of it and see the way the wild creatures live. So much of the damage we’ve done comes because we do not even know what lives nearby, upstream, and who we might hurt by our actions. Learning and seeing are just as much our challenges as doing.

You aren’t going to do all these things magically, instantly, immediately. That’s too much for just one person. But one person, taking responsibility for a piece of land can do a lot. And you can and should partner with others – those who can stake out other, overlapping acreage, or those who want to help you with yours.

It isn’t a magic bullet or a perfect solution, but a hundred people tending a hundred acres and talking about it with their neighbors could improve a hundred acres – reduce pollution and trash, make space for wild creatures, give clean food and a helping hand to neighbors, build stronger communities on a hundred acres… and that’s no small thing. Just a drop in the bucket, of course, compared to what we need, but who cares? Drops eventually fill buckets.

And a thousand people, on a thousand acres – now that’s something to be proud of – protecting and tending a thousand acres is something any conservationist would be proud of. And the bucket gets a bit fuller.

I don’t have any grand illusions that this can save the world. But so much of what has happened has come because we didn’t look carefully at what we had, assumed that others would protect the world, assumed that things were someone else’s responsiblity. Staking your acre is about taking responsibility – not because you own it, not because you have to, but because you want to.

How much should you do each week? As much as you can – for some people, that’s a lot. For some people that’s a little. For some that’s a lot. But report and tell us – where is your acre? What did you do this week? What are you planning on doing? Maybe try every week to do a little something that makes your acre cleaner for everyone, and something for the wild things and something for the humans in your acre.

If there’s someone out there who wants to make up a cool logo to post, that would be awesome. Even better, if there’s someone who wants to set up a cool mapping system so that you can mark your acre and see other people’s acres and who is near you, that would be even more awesome.

Again, it isn’t a magic bullet. But an acre, well, that’s something. I ran a CSA off an acre once. I lived a whole life in a city in just a few acres once. And drops in buckets eventually fill them up to overflowing.


  1. #2 vera
    March 25, 2010

    Neat! I have already been caring for a bit of woods nearby where campers leave crap around sometimes. I think I am going to turn this into a more ambitious undertaking. Thanks Sharon. Wonderful idea. I hope it flies.

  2. #3 Lynne
    March 25, 2010

    Oh wow, this is great. And I know just the spot and have been thinking about this for a while. Right nearby (like 50 feet away) lies some town land that is one part utterly bare slope, and so erodes like crazy every year with the town attempting to control the erosion with enormous concrete-block-eyesores and spray lawn, neither of which is really working. And the other part of the land that does have vegetation has some trees but a uniform understory of invasive policeman’s helmet that has choked absolutely everything else out and is spreading fast. But I’ve hemmed and hawed about removing the weed because it is all that seems to be holding the soil…

    This is quite a challenge. We have already spoken with the town and asked if we could remove invasive weeds where we see them and they said “be my guest!” as they don’t have the budget. But we’d have to do more – maybe guerilla garden with local native species or something for erosion control. Cool.

  3. #4 dewey
    March 25, 2010

    Wow, that is an inspiring concept indeed. I will have to seriously consider whether I might be able to join in, and how. (How big is an acre anyway? As a city kid, I don’t really have a clear mental image of it.

    Just one quibble: “you need to plant a flag claiming it in the name of Mars…”

    I hope you meant “don’t need” – my neighbors aren’t gonna go for that… 😉

  4. #5 dewey
    March 25, 2010

    Okay, answering my own question – an acre equals 43,560 square feet; the initial standard acre was 660 by 66 sq ft, and Wikipedia gives the alternative of a square about 208 feet and 9 inches per side. So my yard that I am lovingly and exhaustingly cultivating turns out to be about 1/22 of an acre. Hmm, I wonder if 21 of my neighbors would like me to start messing with their yards too. 😉

  5. #6 Kristen
    March 25, 2010

    We live right on the edge of a bike path, creek, and park. Lots of kids like to play down by the creek, but because it’s in a high traffic area, near a bus stop, and so forth, the creek & surrounds gets cluttered with trash. Last year, my “significant other” and I pulled over 10 large trash bags full of garbage (plastic bottles, plastic bags, candy wrappers, aluminum cans…) out of that creek and its banks. It’s a lot of fun – I find a stick that I then use as my “fishing pole” for skewering and lifting garbage, and it almost becomes a contest for the biggest “catch.” I get further satisfaction when I hear kids playing down there, or even when I take the dogs down to wade in the creek, because I know at least this part of the creek is as “pristine” as I can get it without addressing water purity and so forth (wow, another huge issue, but I won’t go there). And I think bicyclists buzzing by also notice and appreciate the work.

  6. #7 Ria Baeck
    March 25, 2010

    I started throwing cut back branches on a heap at the end of the garden, which is already a not-done thing in this suburbian neighborhood. Everyone puts them out on Saturday and on Sunday they are picked up by the city!
    But I want to leave them in the garden where they lived, and I noticed on of the neighbours, at the other side of the fence, followed my example!
    Some little animals will like it!

  7. #8 Greenpa
    March 25, 2010

    I like it! Actually, I’ve been looking for some nice (nearby) person to adopt an acre of mine- our vegetable garden. We are so buried in other urgencies that it really suffers, and I’d be so tickled if we could find some landless person pining for a garden to work it for us, on shares or something.

    I like the inclusiveness of your challenge though. I think this one could have legs.

  8. #9 Lora
    March 25, 2010

    Flag appropriate for claiming an acre of garden, second from top:

    I used to think Roger Swain was such a brilliant gardener because he was a Garden Gnome come to life.

  9. #10 Sophia Katt
    March 25, 2010

    This is now what Sharon describes is going down in Seattle:

  10. #11 jerah
    March 25, 2010

    so does signing on to be garden co-coordinator for your 1/4 acre community garden in brooklyn count? 🙂

    it’s only my third year growing anything at all, but apparently my youthful enthusiasm and pickling classes convinced all the other members that i would be a good coordinator.

    now all i have to do is learn about pruning trees (did you know you can cut pussy willows and butterfly bushes down to almost stumps every year and they’ll grow back? learn something new every day…) and develop a stomach for dealing with the mice that infest our compost pile, and i’m good to go!

    and, good news, it’s going to be a busy season, this is only the second year in the history of the garden that we have a waiting list for individual (4 by 3 feet) plots…

    ps: does anybody have any idea for putting HUGE quantities of cow parsnip (aka hogweed) to good use? it has totally invaded half of the garden… sigh.

  11. #12 Zuska
    March 26, 2010

    Sharon, this is a really brilliant post (and idea). If I get half a minute tomorrow I will link to something I want to write on my blog inspired by a visit home and time spent with my Aunt Betty who, I think, staked her town as her acre and has been cultivating it for the past half century.

  12. #13 ian
    March 26, 2010

    I’ve had a similar thought recently. Almost exactly the same. What’s that called when similar ideas pop-up simultaneously? It was: We should all become ecologists, assigned an acre of land and monitor it. Listen, observe, and improve it. So that we once again become part of gaia’s intelligence network.

    In my own neighborhood (in the Bronx) I have thrown some seedbombs, offered to cut up a neighbor’s tree which has fallen across their driveway. I am digging a compost/biochar pit in my small backyard where I plan on collecting as much compostable material I can. I also do humanure composting. I have been distributing CD’s I have compiled from various podcasts/interviews which describe the dilemmas of climate change, peak oil, collapse, and local food. I am building a raised bed where I can plant a polyculture of ivy, morning glory, beans, etc. to cover an atrocious wall while at the same time offering nectar and shelter for insects and food for birds and humans. I am demolishing an old garage foundation (part of the biochar pit) with a sledgehammer and digging bar to increase the growing space of our backyard to plant to rhododendrens and mushrooms.

    I am thinking about rooftop farming on nearby shops, but I’ll give that some time. I am also thinking about a mycoremediation filter to cleanse the runoff from our asphault roof. The water then running into a small bathtub pond or the like. (Permaculture and lots of free time to daydream help out a lot with this kind of stuff.) The beekeeping and backyard chickens will have to wait. The experiment with guinea pig husbandry worked, but 3 guinea pigs overgraze 1/8 of an acre pretty quickly. Stenciling keywords like “COMPOST!, ECOCIDE” on walls throughout the city…. It’s really an infinite list. I may have to reconfigure my blog.

  13. #14 darwinsdog
    March 26, 2010

    Well, I have the the five acres I own, or that owns me, that I manage. My primary management goal is wildlife habitat altho I harvest firewood off the property, have a garden & keep poultry, etc., on it too. Nothing I can do to “improve” the place, besides leave it alone, which I can’t totally afford to do. Have to eat & heat the house, after all. But there are plenty of untouched Rhus & Forestiera thickets on the place also. I also take care of land at work. Not all the management decisions are mine alone to make here, but I strive to leave things as undisturbed as possible, given that this is a farm. Does this qualify, or must I find another acre somewhere to look after?

  14. #15 Claire
    March 27, 2010

    I’ve got a few plots other than the acre my DH and I own that I’ve been tending or helping someone else to tend. In one case I help my neighbor make her property more productive and beautiful. I give her veggie seedlings and help her plant them, and have also given her herb seedlings and cuttings for her herb garden and extra raspberry plants and fruit tree seedlings. I and the two Stream Teams I belong to are also attempting to keep the sites we monitor free of litter (a task that seems hopeless; every time the streams flood more litter washes to our sites) and use the results we obtain from volunteer water quality monitoring to improve the streams as a whole.

  15. #16 Laney
    March 27, 2010

    I love the idea! My family and I live on 2 1/2 acres, and I work it around the edges of my regular job and mothering. I often think of my tending the place as “holding” it. Anne McCaffrey uses that term in her Pern novels: no one owns land, they Hold it, and they can only Hold as much as they can protect from the invasive Thread that fall from the sky every hundred years or so — kind of like Bermuda grass, I think. Some days I think I’m doing a pretty good job of Holding, but there’s always another project or three bubbling on the back burner.

    Anyway, my first response to your challenge was a frustrated “I can’t take on anything else — I can’t even handle what I have!” But then I thought of the courtyard at work. It’s not an acre, but it the sorely neglected central green space at our local high school. It’s time to reclaim it, I think.

  16. #17 vertalio
    March 27, 2010

    Neat. Many towns and states have conservation areas or preserves with, as noted by others, usage issues…litter removal is positive and noticeable; calling the police to curb ATV use, where prohibited, keeps damage and erosion down; just walking the trails and noticing the seasons, the wildlife and it’s ebb and flow, meeting similar folk, learning it’s strengths and weaknesses, will lead to thoughts on how to proceed.

    I suggest caution: good human intentions have a long history of blowback. Pick up the litter, tug out invasives within reason (some like multiflora rose seem to have a home here now, providing food and thorny shelter for endangered native critters, for instance), scatter native seeds for erosion control; but the big gain seems to me just intimate knowledge of the acre. By exposure to the wild world, even in it’s current degraded state, we’ll be wiser to the rest of life and act with more respect and restraint.

    The goal ought not be control, but stewardship; assistance in the acre regenerating itself as it will. Though I love the idea of seeding with native flora that once lived there.

  17. #18 Tammy and Parker
    March 27, 2010

    I used to wonder why in the world my parents wanted to build an 8,000 sq. foot home on 6 acres of land for their retirement home. That’s a lot of area for a couple in their (now) late 60’s and early 70’s to maintain.

    Finally, my Dad, who in his former life was responsible for briefing the President in matters of intelligence that came over satellite, sat me down and explained the he believed that things would only be getting harder.

    As an only child, I’ll be sole inheritor. My Dad couldn’t care less about what I do with his ‘stuff’ after he is gone.

    However my parent’s one stipulation is that their house and land never be sold to anyone outside of the family. It was designed to house more than one family comfortably.

    My Dad believes that a time will come when families are going to have to pull together (and live together) in order to keep body and soul together.

    This house is his attempt to pre-plan for that day.

    My husband and older sons worked together to finish off most of the basement this last year. There are bedrooms on both ends of the home, with a large common area and kitchens on both levels. The food storage room alone is bigger than my kitchen/dining/and laundry room.

    My parents are accumulating the items needed to keep this small plot of land going. Both the items that require gasoline as well as items to work it by hand.

    My parents aren’t rich by any means. They have made saving money a huge priority. By the time they sold their home in Northern Virgina,it’s value had skyrocketed. That went a long way in being able to buy the land and build almost in cash.

    My Dad grew up in an orphanage where they grew all of their own food. If they didn’t raise it, grow it and slaughter it, they didn’t eat it.

    Both my Dad and Mom grew up dirt poor. Literally. My Mom remembers picking cotton with HER Mom. If it hadn’t been for flower sacks my Mom would have gone naked much of her life.

    My Dad has worked to build a small orchard, a large area for berries, and a giant garden plot.

    This year Reed and I are taking over a plot to plant nut trees on. We’ll purchase the trees a few a year and it will be our job to keep that area going.

    It won’t be an whole acre. But we don’t own it and we’ll be taking care of it. Does that kinda count? 😀

  18. #19 Adrian
    April 1, 2010

    What a great name for something that must be in the zeitgeist, judging by the responses.

    I came to the concept, but not the great name when I realized that I’m really a city girl and would most likely never buy actual acreage. So, volunteering in a local forest preserve, growing native plants, getting neighbors involved to attract hummingbirds, teaching others about sustainable gardening? I’m on it!

    Also, in my town we have something we call “green blocks” where groups of neighbors get together to figure out how to be more sustainable. Something very similar to staking an acre, I think.

    I love the fact that your post explicitely moves past the concept of private ownership into something that Native Americans might have recognized as appropriate relationship to the land and community. At least as far as I know from reading and conversation with others.

  19. #20 ana
    September 12, 2010

    i found a new spececis of frog in india(gujrat).but how can i get more information through internet?and by which site?

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