The Face of Humanity

“My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together.”

Desmond Tutu (1931-2021; South African Anglican bishop and theologian, known for his work as an anti-apartheid and human rights activist.)

When I first moved to my retreat on the mountain where I still live, I was one of four families who lived here. One was an occasional weekender. One was a snowbird who lived in Arizona from November until May. The other lived at the bottom of the mountain, seldom seen.

It didn’t take long before “the mountain” became “my mountain.” I became territorial about my 20 acres. My territory seems far more expansive than it is because my property, on two sides, joins the George Washington National Forest that extends to the top of the mountain and beyond.

Where I live became THE MTN HOUSE, and the Jeep that I drive was tagged MTN PROF.

Over time, other people discovered the mountain’s charm, built homes, and moved here. All of us get along well together because we all love living in the woods–even as the woods that we all love continue to diminish with every new build.

As it turns out, I am the oldest in our mountain community, and I have lived here the longest. In my mind, those two facts reinforce my belief that the mountain is still my mountain just as my home is still the MTN HOUSE and just as the Jeep continues to be tagged MTN PROF.

But things change. During the summer of 2022, the lot adjoining mine on the lower side went on the market and sold quickly. Not long after, I stopped and welcomed to my mountain the new owner, a young man in his twenties. He hopped off his tractor and stopped his driveway-excavation work. We chatted for a long, long spell about my mountain and about his building plans. He seemed grounded. It struck me as special that at his young age he was striking out on a new home venture in the woods. It was a first for him.

I saw Kevin once or twice afterwards. Several months passed, and I didn’t see him, and I didn’t see any action on his land either.

Then, all of a sudden, it all started. The bulldozer arrived. The backhoe arrived. The trees fell. The lot looked lean and showed contours that I had not seen before. Suddenly, the lot looked bigger. I was impressed.

I was surprised that I never saw Kevin in any of the action. From time to time, I saw several pickup trucks and an older couple. I also saw a Weber grill in the middle of the clearing, just inside the newly excavated and heavily graveled road that curved softly through the lot.

Maybe Kevin had sold the lot. Maybe I had new neighbors without even knowing it.

Then one day something magical seemed to happen. When I drove off my mountain, everything looked exactly as it had looked the day before and the day before that. However, when I drove back up several hours later, there beside the road on the recently cleared lot was a small prefab shed. How the hell had it gotten there–situated in place and leveled–so quickly? And why the hell was it so close to the road? And why the hell was it so close to my property line?

I drove past in slow-mo, determined to take it all in. I immediately started to wonder whether this “shed” had been offset from the road and my property in accordance with the mountain community’s code.

When I turned into my drive and stepped out of my Jeep, I turned and looked down my mountain to see whether I could see the shed. I could. “No big deal,” I thought. “When spring comes, new growth will hide it all.”

But it must have been a big deal because it became the focus of my next conversation with my two oldest sisters.

And not long after that, I drove past to discover an excavated area smackdab next to my property, maybe encroaching on it by a foot or three.

I was not too happy as I drove homeward up my mountain. Actually, I was more than a little agitated.

A few days later, I walked down to one of my lower gardens to cut some magnolia for Christmas decorations.

As I did, I could hear the revved-up tractor pushing hard against the hard-frozen ground. I could see the driver, but the capped and tilted head kept me from getting a clear view of the face. It was just a shape, nothing more than a shape.

I didn’t know who was operating the tractor, but I resolved to stop and talk about the shed and about my property line when I went off my mountain to the store a little later.

And that’s just what I did.

As it turned out, the shape turned out to be Kevin.

As I pulled to the side of the road, he jumped off his tractor, rushed over, and gave me a hearty handshake. His beaming chestnut eyes were beaming more than usual and his usual wide smile was smiling wider than usual.

Hey, Kevin. It’s great to see you.

You, too. It’s been a while. Things are shaping up real good, don’t you think? It’s all muddy but let me show you around.

And show me around he did, starting with the shed that made him beam even brighter and smile even wider. And then we walked over to where his home would be. His home. He was ecstatic when I told him that one side of his property faced the George Washington National Forest, just as mine does. He was even more elated when I described the way the moon climbs up the mountain whose views we both share. Our mountain.

Maybe I should put my bedroom on that side of the house?

Yeah, that would be great. Maybe with lots of windows so you can watch the moon as you fall asleep. What you’ve done looks superb! You should be proud, really proud.

As we walked back towards my Jeep, our eyes landed on the excavated area encroaching my property.

So what’s going on there?

Oh. That’s where my well will be.

You do know where the property line is, right?

Kevin laughed and explained that the well would be well within his property line but that the company needed space to maneuver its drilling equipment.

No problem. I just wanted to check. I have a well already. I don’t need another one.

We both shared a hearty and heartfelt laugh.

I knew, standing there, looking into Kevin’s face, deliberately teasing him and deliberately giving him a hard time, that I would neither say nor do anything to diminish his joy.

I knew, standing there, looking into Kevin’s face, that I would neither say nor do anything to diminish his hopes.

I knew, standing there, looking into Kevin’s face, that I would neither say nor do anything to diminish his dreams.

Suddenly, the shed so close to the road did not matter.

Suddenly, the excavation abutting my property did not matter.

All that mattered was that in Kevin’s face I saw the face of all humanity, and I was reminded of our inherent goodness.