There is a wonderful concept called ‘usufruct’ that relates to a right to enjoy the benefits of another’s property as long as that use is not to their detriment. It comes from Latin roughly as it sounds from ‘use’ and ‘fruit’. Strictly speaking it should be properly understood in a context of legal theory and history and doesn’t literally deal with actual fruit more so than any other derivable benefit from property. Nonetheless in my mind it captures the idea of a general community right to pick fruit hanging over other people’s fences. Like lemons.
It seems about as Australian in a garden as a ‘Hills hoist’ clothesline and a barbecue to have a lemon tree, often down by the back fence. And in older parts of towns where that fence backs onto a lane where once the outside toilet was accessible to the ‘dunny man’ who collected the contents, lemon trees often enough hang over into quiet parts of the public domain. There they are, neglected old trees producing more fruit than required for the residents’ occasional garnished drink or seafood dinner.
You don’t actually have a proper legal right to the lemon and it does remain technically the property of the landowner on the other side of the fence, let me make that clear. But what about a moral right? Where would a consensus view of our society sit on the idea of usufructuary rights to lemons over back fences? I would suggest that we are largely all for it and that we simply haven’t codified it in law because too few people care. Should you go around and knock on the door and ask? If it were me I’d prefer you exercised what strikes me as an obvious moral right rather than come around feeling sheepish while I felt interrupted.
You can tell the trees that are fair game, they will appear obviously neglected and/or unused; marred with scale insect damage, nutrient deficient signs of yellow, curled or sparse leaves, or look well overdue for a prune. Ironically those that may seem to have the most to share might actually suggest the least usufructuary entitlement because they are being well cared for to boost production that the owner has plans for. But you can also bet 19 times out of 20 that those ones aren’t hanging all blotched over the fence. With just a modicum of conscience you can generally look at the lemon tree, think about right and wrong, and if you feel it is right help yourself to a modest degree. But you should ask yourself every time to beat the urge to move all too easily from being a usufructuary to being a trespasser.
The reason this all comes up is because it is citrus time in Sydney and this week’s childcare day has consisted of hunting back lane lemons with the Boy en route to the zoo. I appreciate the irony of the fact that I consciously use these days to instil certain values and did so by cruising back alleys in search of opportunities technically on the shady side of the law. Perhaps the value is that sometimes it is better to do right by your own reckoning than to do simply as you are told.
Were I able to afford a house with a garden, and that garden did not have a lemon tree, I might even turn up at the auction with one to plant within a minute of a gavel slamming down in my favour [postcript: I do now own a house and a lemon did indeed get on it pretty promptly]. Until then, or perhaps when I have had one planted on the verge long enough to bear fruit for anyone, early winter will mean usufruct lemons (like early spring will be mulberries).