It’s that time of year again: the Wallingford Orchards are hanging heavy and sweet with fruit: plump plums, crunchy apples, badonka donk pears, all within reach.
But should you reach for them? Therein lies the conundrum: is fruit that grows from a tree planted by a private citizen but hanging over a city-owned sidewalk community property or private property? Are the property rights of a plum derived from its roots or its airspace? What about fruit growing from a tree planted in a parking strip? The City of Seattle technically owns the area between the sidewalk and the street, not the homeowner the land fronts.
Allow us to channel Chuck Closterman, author of the The Ethicist column for the New York Times.*
Dear Wallyhood Ethicist (we write to ourselves):
My neighborhood is filled with ripe fruit that is falling to the ground and rotting. These seem to belong to my neighbor, as they grow from a tree he planted in the parking strip in front of his house, but he doesn’t seem to care for them. Indeed, is it not a crime to let food go to waste with the world in the state it is. Is it OK for me to eat from his tree?
– J.S., Wallingford
It is not a crime to let the fruit go to waste. A crying shame, yes. An affront to decency, perhaps. A crime, no.
Whether it is a crime to eat the fruit of your neighbor in these circumstances, we’re not sure. Given that it is not growing on your neighbor’s property (the parking strip belongs to the city) nor is it hanging over your neighbor’s property, it doesn’t seem like it belongs to your neighbor.
However, we would all agree that if your neighbor had placed a tree in a bucket on the parking strip while he loaded it into his car, and you stripped it of its fruit, that would be stealing. Thus, it is not simply the location of the tree that determines property ownership, but historical ownership. If your neighbor purchased the tree and placed it on public property, even submerging its roots beneath ground, that is not necessarily waiving their rights of ownership.
Perhaps a real lawyer should weigh in on this issue, as there are no lawyers on staff at Wallyhood. There’s barely a staff, honestly.
Instead, let’s look at what is arguably the more important question: ought you eat your neighbor’s fruit?
The simplest resolution here is to ask: knock on their door, ask if it’s alright if you pick their fruit. If they say no, then you shouldn’t. If they say yes, have at it. Not so hard, right?
But what if they’re not home? What if it’s late at night and that one plum is singing out to you, begging you to pluck it?
Here, we shall take what is likely to be an unpopular position in some quarters: eat it. It’s fine. It’s a plum, it’s an apple. What’s the big deal? If there are only a few, and they’re not ripe, please leave them alone, but if the tree is heavy and the ground mushy with windfall, it’s obvious that you are denying nothing to anyone by taking the fruit for yourself.
But you know what would make this easier? If the fruit owners would make their wishes known proactively. Fruit tree owners, hang a note from your tree: “Eat me! Pluck me! Pop me in your mouth!” We did exactly this with our Sweet Million cherry tomato plant that we grew next to our walkway by the sidewalk, and it seems to have worked quite well. Our usually overabundance of tomatoes, impossible to keep up with, has been thinned to a satisfying bushel and we’ve heard more than couple thank yous from grateful passersby. We’d like to offer a big thank you in turn to the folks who put their pears out in a box by Sunnyside and 42nd: we ate around the bad parts, and they were tasty!
But what about all those apples on 42nd? We’ve been here for years and know they’ll never be harvested, they’ll rot on the ground. So…pick or pass?
* We prefer to channel Chuck than Randy Cohen, his predecessor, who we found too cutesy even for our taste. I know, right?