Perpetuity

By Amy Knight

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The House We Live In: A Series on Building the Sustainable Home in Tucson, Arizona

 

I am in the process of purchasing a piece of land. It is just over 9,000 square feet. It has an address. It has a mesquite tree that is probably older than I am. And with some luck and some further logistical wrangling, i-dotting and t-crossing, in a big book in a government office in downtown Tucson, it will be recorded as officially belonging to me.

I visited the lot this weekend for the first time since the prospect of owning it became real. I ran its rocky soil through my hands. I imprinted the bottoms of my sandals into its dirt and tried to picture the house that might stand here in a year or two. I watched the colony of ants hard at work. I listened to the sound of the water in the wash nearby, and to the dog barking on the other side of the street.

I also spent some time this week looking at deeds. The language of a deed says that the seller “does hereby convey” the land, as described by reference to a particular map that the county uses to divide the city into bite-sized chunks. Of course the concept of owning property is not unfamiliar. But much like an everyday word that becomes strange if you repeat it enough times, pulling apart the sounds until the meaning detaches from form, the concept that this square of earth is, by agreement, owned by one person, likely soon to be me, feels insane.

I am an attorney. I have, in the past, had a job that involved negotiating the price, in dollars, to be paid for the loss of a 19-year-old boy’s ability to walk and for a catastrophic brain injury suffered by an eight-year-old girl who was struck by a bus. I am no stranger to putting price tags on things that can’t be quantified. But standing in the middle of this empty lot, the thought of buying it is hard to swallow.

It’s different from buying a house. A house, although of course it comes with the land on which it sits, fits more neatly into a simple understanding of value: someone did the work of building, for which he had to be compensated; there are materials that had to be sourced, manufactured, purchased. The money is paid for work done by other human beings, which makes the work worth doing in the first place. Now, I am paying money for empty land, for a square of earth. The only ones doing work here are the ants.

 

My first-year law school class in property nearly killed me. Among its horrors was a beast that will be familiar to any reader who has taken a bar exam and gibberish to anyone else: the Rule Against Perpetuities. What it is, in a non-legal nutshell, is a rule that prevents you from putting restrictions on the use and sale of your land that will last too far into the future. It’s ridiculously complicated to apply properly and I know a lot of lawyers who still break a sweat at the mention.

But—fellow lawyers, forgive me—I have a soft spot for it. Property law is deeply rooted in economics; most of the legal rules we have in this area are designed to promote investment and exchange. The RAP, as we called it on our flash cards, of course has these motivations; it keeps land available to the marketplace, so it can be sold and traded and used in productive ways by its current owners. But I like to think that its motivation runs deeper than economics. For all its arcane twists (one famous law school hypothetical is called “the fertile octogenarian,”) the Rule Against Perpetuities recognizes that we are only here for a short while. We can create a system to decide who gets to do what on which parts of the surface of our planet, to allow us to peacefully coexist and prosper, but to pretend that those systems are going to last forever is folly. I will live and die—our whole species will live and die—and this 9,000-square-foot spot will be there, with whatever creatures might live and work on it, unaware of the reams of paperwork we once did to keep track, down to the inch, of who owned what, once, for a couple of hundred years, back when there was a city here that its inhabitants called Tucson.

 

 

Amy Knight is the fiction editor for Terrain.org. In this weekly blog series, she chronicles the process of designing and building an eco-friendly house in Tucson, Arizona. The series will explore both how it’s done and what it means, from the perspective of someone who wants to do the right thing but knows almost nothing about sustainable building. Look for new posts every Monday. You can email Amy at [email protected] or leave a comment here.

Terrain.org is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, artwork, case studies, and more since 1997.