If you drive by a field in Galicia and see two people talking heatedly and one of them swinging a hoe, they're probably arguing over the stone that marks the boundary between their two fields. And the hoe is about to get used for something other then hoeing.

There are passions in village life. One of them is the boundaries between properties. You may go to a bar any night during soccer season and set up a heated debate about which team has the best players, but no one will start a fistfight over that. There are soccer fanatics everywhere, but only hooligans in the big cities get physical over it; village people are smarter. But now, walk into a bar on Saturday night and start discussing whether a stone marker was moved, and someone better call the cops. Things are about to get serious. If someone suggests a marker was moved either way, all the lowest things a family has ever done will be raked up and brought into the sunlight like wriggling worms. "What do you mean I moved the marker half a meter! Your family has always stretched the truth! That marker has been there for the past fifty years!" "No, you moved it! I used to be able to plant ten rows of corn and now I can only fit in nine in that field! You and your kind have always wanted what others have!" That row of corn will signify an expensive trip to the notary to measure each field and compare the measurements with the ones on the property titles. God help the owner that ends up having more than he inherited or bought.

Property is something beyond sacred in the northwest, in Galicia, land of tiny holdings scattered throughout the villages. Here, everyone owns land. Everyone will own a small field where to plant a kitchen garden or corn or potatoes. Or to let it be overgrown with brambles and ferns. Land was (and sometimes still is) the only riches that a familiy had to hand down to their children and grandchildren. Fields are growing smaller, though, because land is always equally handed to the children. If a family has three children and one field, that field will be divided in three sections, one for each child. Each section will have its boundaries marked with a stone marker at each corner. That doesn't happen as much anymore, though. Some fields are too tiny to divide, children grow up and move away and can't be bothered with land they can't take care of, others simply don't want to work the land anymore. Still, don't take away an inch of someone's field, whether they work it or not; you're risking life and limb. Seriously. In 2009 a man took an ax to his neighbor over an inherited field, and in October of last year a man in another part of Galicia shot a neighbor in the back in an argument over land boundaries. Both victims escaped with their lives but learned the hard way about the ancestral holiness of a mound of dirt. Those were only two examples that made their way to the newspapers, but one wonders how many others there may be out there. Over the years surely other confrontations have occurred, only the victims keep quiet out of fear, knowing that they have to live with their neighbors afterwards.

My husband's family had a problem over boundaries a few years ago. This was between a patch of woods my in-laws owned and an adjoining patch a neighbor owned. My husband and I ended up taking photos of a tape measure stretched out between the moved marker and the hole where it had been before. Both families went to a notary to hammer out the differences. I forget how it finished since neither my husband nor I are so keen on whether or not a foot of land disappears. We will be neither poorer nor richer for that foot of land. But customs die hard and don't try explaining that to older villagers.

So, every spring when the planting begins and fields are prepared to receive potato sets or corn seeds, someone will play Hercules and start moving stone markers. Sometimes back to where they were the previous year, but sometimes just to earn an extra row of corn or potatoes. The old American Indian belief that we belong to the land and not the other way around would be greeted with hoots of derision here.


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