I dwell in Possibility —
A fairer House than Prose —
More numerous of Windows —
Superior — for Doors —
There is a well-known poem by Emily Dickinson that begins “I dwell in Possibility — / A fairer House than Prose.” Possibility, in this case, is poetry, which according to the speaker of the poem, provides “More numerous of Windows / Superior – for Doors –”. Since completing my English literature degree—where I focused on poetry—and moving to the study of Canadian common and civil law, I have often found myself missing this world of Possibility. I don’t only wish to express my dissatisfaction with the often prosaic, dry writing of legal text—I also mean the prosaic restrictions of Western law that pushes against the progress towards more just and sustainable societies.
As someone who has been involved in environmental and climate work since high school, I am especially concerned about the law’s understanding and treatment of living and natural entities that are not human. Although the belief that the Earth is at the center of the solar system has been debunked, Western laws still insist on the central significance of humans (especially humans with power) and the peripheral, inferior significance of every other entity. Of course, not all Western law is backward, and many Western laws have progressed in a positive direction (for example, the enactment of the Canadian Environmental Protection Act in 1999 strengthened toxic pollution prevention measures, amongst other matters). But given the anthropocentric axioms of Western law, it is not simply enough to edit the contents of the law in order to combat environmental exploitation—the very form must be re-considered, re-envisioned.
In my great fortune, I had the chance to try my hands at this latter practice during my summer internship with the Earth Law Center (ELC). ELC is a non-profit based in Colorado that advocates and advances eco-centric laws—laws that protect, restore, and stabilize the functional interdependency of Earth’s life and life-support systems. During my time with ELC, I was introduced to knowledge and legal systems that invigorated my sense of the possibility of law. As I continue to use Emily Dickinson’s poem as a guide, I will explain, in broad strokes, three projects I contributed to and how they seek to re-envision and/or improve Western laws and systems that lack an eco-centric perspective.
Of Chambers as the Cedars —
Impregnable of eye —
For much of the summer I supported ELC’s development of their Nature Governance services, which seeks to bring Nature consciousness into human systems of governance. One such example is our Nature on the Board project (NOTB), which seeks to help organizations appoint a human proxy to represent the voice of Nature on their boards. By giving “Nature” a seat on the board, Nature is better able to have a voice and vote on company-wide decisions (see the example of Faith in Nature).
In the context of a for-profit organization, and considering that the basic legal duties of board members revolve around responsibility towards the organization’s best interest, a Nature proxy challenges and expands this traditional duty of loyalty by necessitating a board to consider not only what is in the best interest of the company’s financial stability and growth, but also in the best interest of the Nature their activities impact. Ultimately, a framework like Nature Governance seeks to demonstrates that the interests of corporation are always inextricably tied to Nature, because Nature provides all basic living functions. From this perspective, the lines “Chambers as the Cedars — / Impregnable of eye —” aptly expresses the idea that our chambers of commerce would benefit from learning nature’s way of being, and that the best interests of an organization are not as simply clear-sighted as maximum growth and profit.
And for an everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky —
Alongside my work on corporate governance, I researched innovative land access models for a future legal café series; this involved finding legal initiatives that advanced the return and/or reunification of land to Indigenous peoples and other peoples dispossessed of land. Western property system reduces anything that is not human to an “object”—thus land is an “object” that is meant to be dominated and ultimately owned through possession. As I researched innovative land access models, I was pleasantly surprised to read about different legal mechanisms and strategies promoting land access that valued the wellbeing of both humans and the other entities of the land in question.
For example, the Agrarian Trust is a US-based organization that promulgates the Agrarian Commons Model. This model creates a local government-like structure where members of the commons hold, manage and make decisions regarding the land. This process allows for affordable leases for commons members to access land and address dispossession and economic injustice. The first Agrarian commons, the Puget Sound Washington Agrarian Commons, is held on donated farmland, and is now a place to demonstrate restorative agroecology practices and allow the next generation of farmers to launch their farm-based businesses. Through such models, the “everlasting Roof” of property transforms in “The Gambrels of the Sky”—an expansive, collective vision of living.
Of Visitors — the fairest —
For Occupation – This –
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise –
A final project I was apart of involved helping a community1 articulate their relationship with their local river through legal and political means. By learning more about the community’s (physical, spiritual, cultural) reliance and responsibility towards water and rivers, as well as reading existing declarations and legislation on rights of nature, I drafted a unilateral declaration on the living entity that is the river, to support the community’s ongoing efforts to protect the river from further environmental damage.
It is no surprise that in the “fairer House” of Possibility, we find visitors who are the “fairest.” The Possibility that an ecocentric perspective of the world brings forth is a more beautiful and fairer understanding of the life and lives that populate our Earth. As I learned from Elder Harry Bone and Grandmother Sherry Copenance during my participation in McGill’s Anishinaabe Law Field School in 2022, as humans we are not above or below a blade of grass.
And thus, after these months of “spreading wide my narrow Hands / To gather Paradise —” I leave my internship at Earth Law Center feeling inspired, concerned, hopeful and determined. Having experienced the realm of Possibility I can no longer return to plain prose; having been touched by poetry I open these new windows and doors to touch more of this real, living world.
- For the sake of confidentiality I cannot name the community in question or provide identifying details of the project. ↩︎