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A Small Piece of Land, Surrounded by Legislation

The post title is an oft-quoted phrase describing a croft, which I encountered for the first time in David Owen’s piece on a remote and ancient golf course in Scotland, “The Ghost Course,” which appears in this week’s The New Yorker.  I’ll skip the link, since the piece is behind the magazine’s paywall, but I recommend it for anyone interested in small, narrative case studies of property customs and communities, and for those interested in the origins of place-dependent recreation, like golf.  (Much has been written about crofting, but reading Owen’s essay reminded me immediately of John McPhee’s wonderful The Crofter and the Laird, which has nothing to do with golf.)  The undulations of modern golf courses echo the natural undulations and grazing patterns found on linksland in Britain and Ireland.

The major design elements of a modern golf course are the synthetic analogues of various existing features of those early Scottish playing fields, and the fact that golf aroses so directly from a particular landscape helps explain why, more than any other mainstream sport, it remains a game with a Jerusalem: it was permanently shaped by the ground on which it was invented.

Crofting may frame an anticommons that is symbolically but not agriculturally productive :

The land on South Uist is so marginal and the plots are so small–an average of forty or fifty acres–that no one on the island today makes a living from crofting alone, despite substantial government grants and subsidies, and legally protected rents of less than a pound an acre.  The system successfully preserves a sanitized form of medieval land tenancy, but it makes cost-effective agriculture impossible, since it divides the land among far too many tenants.

Combined, the two chords prompt a fascinating mental contrast with baseball, another place-bound sport that likewise deals in the tension between an idealized, particular and natural place and time, on the one hand, and the reality of a naturalized but acutely manufactured place and time, on the other hand.  In golf’s ancient past, community and property are interleaved with the course and the players.  In baseball’s modern future, the game is played in a park, carefully negotiated in proximity to but at a distance from the rules and customs that govern outside. 

In Pittsburgh on Monday afternoon, I sat not far from home plate at the home opener as the Pirates teased local fans by dispatching the Astros, 7-0.  The modest euphoria faded as we exited PNC Park.  Baseball, like golf, is designed to break your heart.  The Pirates seem fated to a 17th straight losing season.  By late last night, all of Pittsburgh had turned instead to the Penguins and their playoff series against the hated Flyers.  Owner and former Pens superstar Mario Lemieux is, I understand, quite a golfer.

4 thoughts on “A Small Piece of Land, Surrounded by Legislation”

  1. Mike —

    Notes on a Geography of play spaces?

    Haven’t read the New Yorker essay yet, but I’m fascinated by the whole question of playing fields in terms of how they function as property/jurisdiction.

    You can work your comments above into some interesting riffs on the professional/amateur divide in both sports and IP (professionals are sealed off hermetically from the audience), as well as the question of how play/spectacle/art does or does not allow public easements and interactions (e.g. derivative works).

    Tying this into tech law & cyberspace, we can ask how the architecture of virtual play spaces influences the form of society within them. Espen Aarseth has written some interesting things about the geography of virtual play spaces in games. For instance, he says in a recent book chapter that in World of Warcraft the environment is presented as a world to the player, but functions as a Disneyesque theme park.

    Some of my thoughts on virtual space & play here:

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