This Land is Mine

‘LAND: How the Hunger for Ownership Shaped the Modern World’

Simon Winchester is a prolific writer (33 listed in this, his latest book), whose schtick is to explain the world in an engaging story-telling way. Originally trained as a geologist, inveterately curious, he loves maps, and likes to explore the planet for himself. In this case, to check out various human relationships with its land surface. 

Beginning with his acquisition of a parcel of land in upstate New York, its geological formation and previous Mohican occupants, he quickly traces the European settlement and recent history of alienation of those tribal commons.

We take for granted our private, exclusive ‘ownership’ of sections of the earth’s surface, that originally belonged to all of us, and on which we all literally depend for our existence*. Modern land ownership is an historically recent English invention, which spread like a pandemic to the rest of the world. 

The author’s discussion of the commons is insufficient, in my view. A reviewer, Gregory Day, considers that the author’s ‘very perspectival DNA is suffused with his inheritance of the cultural ratios of British imperialism.’ Day reminds us that ‘as First Nations peoples across the planet have always known, the land, along with its kin the ocean, sky, space, moon and stars, exists with us in a symbiotic network of relation.’ As opposed to ‘parcelled out, packaged and buyable landscape’.

Winchester supports the theory that settled agriculture probably resulted in the first division of our commons, between my efforts at growing food over here and your meagre results over there, with furrow ploughs enabling such boundaries to be drawn.

The English were, of course, champions of alienating the commons, from the sixteenth century onwards enacting enclosure laws to evict Scottish highlanders, who then, ironically, set out for the New World, where they then appropriated the commons of Indian inhabitants.

Winchester doesn’t really deliver on the promise of his subtitle, but goes for a literary (and literal) wander around the globe to satisfy that quirky curiosity, and return with insights aplenty. 

The result is an entertaining smorgasbord of short histories of lands and their cultural markers: of Dutch land reclamation, the partition of India and Pakistan, Israel & Palestine, the Okhaloma land rushes, barbed wire, colonisation of Australia and New Zealand, indigenous fire management, decolonisation in Africa, and much more. 

As another reviewer, James Boyce, writes: “The author or his editors heroically try to maintain some sense of unity through this eclectic wonderland by dividing the book into thematic sections. But their endeavours are futile. The book is best considered, and enjoyed, as a series of essays.” 

In the chapter ‘The Accumulators of Space’, we learn that our Gina Rinehart ‘appears to be currently the largest private landowner in the world, with 29 million acres under her various companies’ ownership and control’. Marginally smaller than England, but with a sheet load more iron ore!

The final chapters briefly canvass the nascent movements of community land trusts in the US and elsewhere, as alternative models of common ownership; and the new impermanence of land, as climate change raises sea levels.

Simon’s son Rupert is thanked for helping with all his books, and one wonders whether this silent collaboration will become joint authorship one day, Winchester père et fils, or will there be an orderly transition? Like Tom and Meg Keneally.

Overall, I recommend the book as an informative and stimulating collection of short reads.

The unsolicited ‘why’ of its subtitle, rather than the ‘how’, can be answered eloquently and succinctly, by Gandhi, as always: “Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need, but not every man’s greed”.

And also by Tolstoy, in his short story ‘How Much Land Does a Man Need’, in which the peasant Pahom (or Pakhom) is tempted by an offer to acquire all the land that he can walk around in a day, providing that he return to his starting point before sunset. Obviously greed prevails, and it doesn’t end well for him!

* “This land is your land and this land is my land….this land is made for you and me”

(Woody Guthrie)


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