The new book by prolific non fiction author Simon Winchester takes a sweeping look at the topic of land in a broad sense. Subtitled How the hunger for ownership shaped the modern world, the book’s opening introduces the author’s personal take on his ownership of a piece of land in northeastern USA, and in the process introduces the sorry history of the dispossession of the First Nations people in that corner of America.
Coming back to fundamentals, the author then tells the story of how the Earth was first measured; a tale of mathematics and precise instruments put to the task in the nineteenth century.
Then came the astonishing proposal to create a common map of the world – ‘a common map for a common humanity’ – put forward by Professor Albrecht Penck, an Austrian geographer. It was not surprising to learn that this project, embarked upon with such lofty idealism, was a fraught endeavour that eventually foundered on the rocks of divisions, rancour, rivalry and ineptitude after nearly a century of effort.
Winchester examines what makes borders; how human-created borders have resulted in absurdities and bloodshed; how in more recent times and with huge effort, the Dutch created land to live on and farm from the North Sea; the link between land and national identity and ways of doing things.
He returns to America to recount the brutal disgrace of settler land grabs and broken treaties in the westward movement of the nineteenth century; then explains the legacies of enclosure laws and clearances in England and Scotland; the effects of colonialism in various parts of the world including Australia, New Zealand, the African continent, India and Pakistan and the Middle East.
The book is full of startling snippets of information like this:
A quarter of the world’s population lives on land in which, though individual citizens may not know it, they exist in a notionally feudal relationship with the British Crown.
That quote alone should fire up the passions of supporters of the idea of Australia becoming a republic!
Almost every part of the world is included in the embrace of this book: from the Ukraine (Stalin’s disastrous and murderous ‘collectivisation’ of farms in the 1930’s), to the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII; the contradictions and confusions of the Treaty of Waitangi, struck with New Zealand’s Maoris; and the destruction caused by industrialisation and exploitation of the Earth’s resources across the globe.
Winchester argues that the once firmly held belief that ‘land is the only thing that lasts’ is no longer true, due to rising sea levels and encroachment on low lying regions and islands. He offers examples of changing attitudes and methods of managing and conserving land, including from my own part of the world, Australia: widespread catastrophic bushfires in the summer of 2019-20 have led to a re-think of fire management and a growing respect for traditional ‘cool burning’ methods practised here for thousands of years by First Nations people.
Land is an engrossing and thought provoking read. Readers who enjoy learning about history, geography, maps, as well as the contradictions of human behaviour, will enjoy the mix of anecdote and analysis with which Winchester packs a lot of information into a very readable package.
Land is published by William Collins, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, inJanuary 2021. My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.