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Inside the compulsion to own land — and to keep others out

Review of ‘Land: How the Hunger for Ownership Shaped the Modern World’ by Simon Winchester

Indian Border Security Force (BSF) soldiers perform during the daily Beating the Retreat ceremony on New Year's Eve at the India-Pakistan Wagah Border Post, on December 31, 2020. (Narinder Nanu/AFP via Getty Images)

LAND: How the Hunger for Ownership Shaped the Modern World

By Simon Winchester. Harper. 446 pp. $29.99

Spend some time with Simon Winchester, and you will sail oceans, survive earthquakes, peer into volcanoes, pore over maps, mine the origins of language and measure the immeasurable world. So it’s fitting that, in his latest book, the author-geologist sets out to chart even more of our planet, claiming as his subject all the earth visible upon the Earth. Yet “Land” is more than a travelogue or popular history or geographic exploration — it is a political work, a chronicle of human efforts to possess, restrict, exploit and improve our lands, all while, ideally, not destroying them. Above all, it’s a critique of the very notion of land ownership, of “the mystery of why any man could think of himself as actually owning a piece of what, in essence, eternally belongs to Nature.”

The tale begins with Winchester’s own first such experience with possession, when he handed over a cashier’s check during the final days of the 20th century in exchange for 123 and 1/4 acres of “forested and rocky mountainside” in Wassaic, N.Y. “I had just purchased a piece of the United States of America,” he writes with awe, noting that his ancestors had always been tenants, never landowners themselves. “I would walk the forest — my forest now! — as often as I could.”

With that purchase, Winchester also acquired a bundle of new rights, including the rights of possession, control, exclusion and enjoyment of the territory to which he now held title. “Land” chronicles the battle over such rights throughout history, showing how ideology, greed, conflict, science and altruism have all sought to plant their flags. Though the land is his landscape, it is people — conquerors and cartographers, collectivists and capitalists — who cast their shadows over it, usually at the expense of the land itself and of the native populations who first exerted dominion.

“In order to own the land, you need to know where it is,” Winchester writes simply. The demarcation of land began in the Bronze Age, he recounts, when animal husbandry and settled agriculture were beginning, and the “point of unconformity” — say, differences in terrain or disparate farming techniques — between two pieces of farmland created natural boundaries. “That would lead in time to the making of borders not just between individual people, but between villages, between towns, between counties and prefectures, between states, between nations,” Winchester writes. It would also lead to land surveys and, of course, to maps.

Winchester, whose 2001 book, “The Map That Changed the World,” describes the creation of the first geological map of England, is on familiar footing here. Among his heroes in “Land” is astronomer Friedrich von Struve, who, living in the then-Russian possession of Estonia, “decided that, for the glory of his empire, it would fall to him to measure the world properly.” It took him four decades, travels between Norway and the Black Sea, and a good deal of geometry to measure one of the planet’s meridians, completing his work in 1855. (His subsequent calculation of the Earth’s circumference, at 40,008,696 meters, was only slightly off NASA’s latest satellite-enabled measurement of 40,007,017 meters.)

Another sage is Albrecht Penck, a German cartographer who persuaded the Fifth International Geographical Congress in 1891 to embark upon the creation of an International Map of the World, at a scale of just under 16 inches to the mile, so that if all the map’s sheets were stitched together they would “form themselves into a gigantic sphere exactly one-millionth the size of Planet Earth.” It took decades to launch the transnational effort, which collapsed, unfinished, nearly a century later.

The remaining stone markers of the Struve Geodetic Arc were declared a World Heritage Site in 2005, whereas the completed portions of the International Map of the World are housed in the cartographic library at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee. Such are the disparate fates of those who measure and map our planet.

Of course, mapping the world is one thing, hashing out its borders quite another. There are 317 international borders today, Winchester reports, many formed by natural divides such as mountains or bodies of water, but most from “the seemingly random apportionment of the hinterlands by politicians, generals, or faraway officials.” Winchester’s account stretches back to the earliest known and mutually agreed-upon border — the 70-mile stretch between Andorra and France, established in 1278 — but dwells on the arbitrary imposition of borders and partitions resulting from Europe’s imperialism. His treatment of India’s partition is deservedly harsh on his fellow Britons, particularly Louis Mountbatten, who served as the final viceroy, and Sir Cyril Radcliffe, who drew the lines himself despite never having visited the region until taking on the assignment. “This Bloody Line,” Radcliffe later dubbed the border, with the bitterness of one who recognizes his place in infamy.

However well-known this tragic history, Winchester still delivers a poignant description of the nightly gate-closing ceremony at the Wagah crossing point between India and Pakistan, where soldiers from both sides, selected for their height and marching skills, advance until they are almost face to face, breathing angrily upon one another while crowds cheer on either side. The flags are slowly lowered, the gates shut with a dutiful handshake, the crowds recede, “and the border falls quiet, just a line of orange lights and a million land mines and thousands of soldiers on perpetual alert, waiting for the next outbreak of unpleasantness.”

For many immigrants, family separation happens long before the border

Winchester is good at this, adding dashes of drama, narrative, indignation and, above all, connection to disparate historical accounts. He does the same with the brutal dispossession of native populations in North America, cast out by the “improvident glee” of new Americans overrunning the West; and with the genocidal famine that Stalinist Russia, bent on the collectivization of land, inflicted on the Ukrainian peasantry. “That the land itself survives, and is now so fertile, is a savage irony,” he writes, “considering how many millions who once lived on it and farmed it with such evident and placid contentment died so horribly.”

Given the scope of his project, portions of “Land” are inevitably fleeting — quick visits to multiple regions and countries and conflicts, and a tendency to reduce everything to a dispute over the soil rather than, say, the soul. “The fundamental argument that rages within today’s Israel concerns the ownership of the land,” Winchester writes. “It is an argument that pits Palestinian against Jew in much the same way as the very same question pits Catholic against Protestant in Northern Ireland.” And off to the next chapter, and the next patch.

Yet there is soul in this book. It is found in the marches for land rights by Maori activist Whina Cooper in New Zealand in the 1970s, contesting the legacy of the Treaty of Waitangi of 1840, which established British sovereignty over the island. “The passionate intensity that underpinned the Maori attitude toward their land — it could not be for sale because it was not owned by anyone — was all part of the subtleties of another culture that seemingly so often eluded the Britons’ understanding,” Winchester laments. Soul is even found in the determined, inventive effort by Dutch engineers to erect dams that surfaced new territories for their nation from the sea, fighting off the relentless assault of the waters. “Seldom has the mundane matter of drainage assumed such a heroic role in any nation’s history,” Winchester writes of the Netherlands.

Just beneath the surface of “Land” is a tension between the benevolent stewardship of land for the enjoyment of all — Winchester hails those nations that limit the notion of trespass, calling the right to roam across a landscape an “inalienable part of human existence” — and the compulsion to possess and enclose, to clear and exclude. In this world of don’t fence me in vs. get off my lawn, Winchester wonders if the threat of climate change may move us toward the former impulse over the latter. “Might the very fact of land’s newly realized impermanence not suggest to some that this could be the time to consider what has for so very long been well beyond consideration — the notion of sharing land, rather than merely owning it, outright?” he asks.

The politics of “Land” provides a stirring call for communal imperatives, even if its history recounts the constant allure of private ownership. The allure is powerful, and new scarcity may render us even more covetous. Don’t forget Winchester’s awe at finally owning a piece for himself. “My forest now,” he called it.

Carlos Lozada is the Post’s nonfiction book critic and the author of “What Were We Thinking: A Brief Intellectual History of the Trump Era.” Follow him on Twitter and read his latest book reviews, including:

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