Fifteen years ago, a reader from Cypress, California, wrote that on her regular walk to her local liquor store to buy a lottery ticket, she happened upon a lemon tree whose branches extended beyond the tree owner’s yard and across the sidewalk directly in her path.
“Those luscious lemons just call out to me at times,” she wrote. But she worried that picking one of the lemons directly in her path would be stealing. I responded that if the fruited branches indeed crossed her path, she would likely be in the clear since the owner had allowed his tree to grow into a public area. In fact, based on ordinances at the time in Cypress, the owner might have been in danger of being cited for allowing his tree to impede pedestrians’ ability to walk on a public sidewalk.
Nevertheless, I advised the reader that, even if it wasn’t illegal to pick lemons from the sprawling tree, the right thing might be to ask the owner.
The response to that column from some readers was that I’d bungled my advice. She had every right to pick those lemons if they crossed her path, they wrote. “The legal right of a tree owner extends to the edge of his property and no further,” one wrote. That actually was the point I was making, that the woman had a legal right to pick the overhanging fruit, but the right thing ethically would still be to let the tree owner know.
Last week, I received a question from a reader about a similar issue, but here the line between right and wrong is a bit clearer.
The reader we’re calling Rosemary wrote that a neighbor a few blocks up the street from her is growing sage, among other things, in a small border of his yard that directly abuts the public sidewalk. Rosemary noted that the first frost of the season has already hit her New England neighborhood and that it’s a matter of time before the sage dies off.
“Since it’s going to die soon anyway, is there anything wrong with picking some of the sage?” asked Rosemary.
Unless the sage has grown so wildly that it has overtaken the sidewalk, Rosemary would be wrong to simply clip some sage without asking. That it will soon die is no more justification than cutting some annual flowers since they too won’t make it through the winter. Even if it had overtaken the sidewalk and Rosemary might have more legal standing to clip a few leaves, I still believe she should ask the neighbor.
Instead of clipping away with abandon, Rosemary should take the time to do the right thing and ask her neighbor if it is OK to cut some sage from his garden. Or she can parse her words carefully to indicate that if he plans to cut the sage soon, she’d enjoy taking a few leaves. In a perfect world, the owner might offer the bounty of sage to neighbors without them having to ask. But until he does, Rosemary and her neighbors should remember him as the one who lives there.
Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of "The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice," is a senior lecturer in public policy, emeritus, at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of www.jeffreyseglin.com, a blog focused on ethical issues.
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