top view photo of cropland

The Stone of Clarity

When I was a kid, I used to live on a farm with my parents and grandparents. My grandfather worked the fields. Every day he left early in the morning only to come back when the sun was setting.

My grandfather had lived through the hardness of World War II. He had to leave his house in Sicily during the conflict and relocated to the north of Italy, where he worked as a farmhand until he saved up enough money to own his land and moved in with his family.

He was a peaceful man. He never had arguments with others. He never got himself in trouble. The difficulty of the war made him a generous person, always available to open his door to the next one who was asking for food or shelter.

One of our neighbors was quite the opposite. Ha had arguments with pretty much everybody in town. He owned land, but he was not a farmer. He inherited that land from his family, and for a long time, he tried to make money out of it in ways not just about sowing and reaping.

He tried to make his little lot into a trailer park, but the business did not pick up. 

Going against the local regulations, he decided to dig a big hole in the middle of his, and naturally, the hole filled up with water. After that, he planned to make a little sport fishing facility.  

The local government went into litigation, and soon enough, he had to fill up his pond, besides paying hefty fines.

One day, my grandfather came home early, and he was very unsettled. He sat in the kitchen and revealed the cause of his being upset. Our neighbor had stuck a pole five feet into our property with a sign on it.

The sign said that we were stealing his land. He claimed that the ditch was maliciously pushed towards his side over the years. His heroic act of sticking a wooden pole in the ground was a reaction to that.

Now imagine two men in their seventies, arguing around a wooden pole in the ground. It got ugly.

They went from yelling at each other across the fields to sending letters. In their minds, it was probably a more sophisticated form of quarreling, but it was upsetting for everyone nevertheless. They didn’t use regular mail, though. Instead, they started sneaking out of their houses at night, delivering their messages directly to the other one’s mailbox. It was funny if we forget the dramatic consequences of such a situation.

Both litigants had heart conditions, and the arguments that went on for weeks made us all concerned about our old man’s health. Then, finally, his doctor stepped in to make him understand he had to let go, but with little to no success.

We were all tired of the situation, and someone had to intervene. My dad was the man for the job.

He picked up a spade from the barn on a Sunday morning and went to the disputed ditch. He started digging, and two hours later, he had made a hole in the ground so big that he could hide a car in it. At some point, the digging stopped, and he yelled: “found!”

I peeked into the hole, and there he was, my father completely covered in dust, brushing up the top of what looked like a small tombstone. What was he doing? I had no idea.

When the county divided the land after the war and assigned it to farmers, they embedded milestones at every property’s border. It was usually unnecessary to resort to digging them up because there was no actual value in that land that would justify disputes about the boundaries. But two seniors who had spent their weeks yelling at each other was good enough of a reason to give that milestone a breath of air.

A little crowd gathered around the hole and gave a good look at my father’s finding, including the two litigants. Then, they stood in silence for a few minutes, and without even looking at each other, went back inside their houses for Sunday lunch.

A few days later, a new ditch lined up with the milestone, which, by the way, was actually a couple of feet into our neighbor’s not-his-anymore land.

Nightly letters ceased, our neighbor’s requests vanished into thin air, and my grandfather’s concerns too.

There are three elements for a conflict: disagreement, scarcity, and disputed property rights. If any of the three disappears, so does the fighting.

When my father found the milestone and the crowd had a look at it, it removed the third element from the equation: there was no more disputed property right as everyone agreed where the line was rightfully supposed to be.

Thanks to Letizia, Paolo, and Trisha for the review to this essay.





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