Private Property: Please Trespass!
Shortly after we met 11 years ago, Kristin and I traveled through California. One sign, “Private Property — No Trespassing” shocked Kristin. These signs are everywhere in California, whether you’re in a dense residential area in San Francisco, or in the middle of the desert with no sign of humans in sight. Conversely, on my first hiking trip in Norway, it shocked me when we walked casually next to a farmer’s house on our way to a mountain lake. Indeed, one of the biggest cultural differences between Norwegians and Americans is around the concept of “Private Property.”
In Norway and a few other Nordic countries, there is a very old tradition called “allemannsrett”, which translates to “all man’s right.” It means you can hike through, forage, and camp at someone’s private land, and you don’t have to ask for permission. It’s not just a cultural practice. It is the law. In fact, it is against the law to build fences around unused land. Of course, some common sense restrictions apply. But for the most part, all man’s right is broad.
In the US, private property is sacrosanct. In many states, a land owner can shoot a trespasser without getting into too much trouble. In Texas, the law says that land owner can shoot a trespasser “if the landowner reasonably believes the land or property cannot be protected or recovered by any other means.” The key phrase is “if the landowner reasonably believes”.
The beach situation on the east coast of the US is mind boggling to a Norwegian. You can drive along the ocean front for hours before you come across a piece of sand that you’re allowed to put your feet on. Beaches, strictly speaking, are tidal zones and part of the ocean, thus they cannot be privately owned. But towns adopted laws that essentially seal off access to the beaches through parking laws, zoning, fences, wild-life protection, etc., because they know once you’re on the beach, you can’t be legally told to leave.
Here on Rødøy, I’ve hiked everywhere. Never did I worry about whether the land I’m hiking through is private. Once I hiked to a small beach called Risvika. Along the well-marked trail stood someone’s vacation cottage, and around it wild raspberry bushes stretched as far as I could see. I love wild raspberries – in my view the tastiest wild berries here. Before I reached out to nip off a few berries, my America-trained instincts made me hesitate. Have you ever tried to pick the fabled wild blueberries in Maine? If you’re in a national or state park, good luck finding them! Or you can pull off the road when you see a patch, either confronted with a “Private Property” sign, or picking berries while constantly worried about Dick Cheney coming up to you with two barrells of lead. Anyway, allemannsrett quickly overran my hesitation. Not only did I eat a lot of berries there, I took 2 bags of this delicious stuff home.
Which world do you want to live in? Do you want to live in a world where you can own a beach front house when you’re 55, and completely assured of your solitude and privacy, or do you want to live in a world where you have access to all the beautiful places, but when you’re 55 and have enough money for your own beach house, a foreigner might pick berries on your land?