"Land," | Reviewed by Bill Schwab
After purchasing 123-forested acres in New York's Berkshire Mountains, Simon Winchester contemplates the meaning of land ownership. At the basic level, it “means you have the right to call the police to throw anyone else off what the title documents say belongs to you.”
“Land” is a record of humans who mapped it, owned it, squatted on it, cared for it, fought for it and sometimes returned it to those they conquered.
Simple boundaries were first designated by Bronze Age farmers, but soon greed and the invention of elementary measurement instruments resulted in establishing more precise boundary lines. In due course, charts and maps were drawn that established highly coveted borders between nations.
Historically, the human desire for land has typically outstripped the desire for money. Winchester recounts the mass acquisition and theft of land from Native Americans to Whites, from Arab Palestinians to Jewish immigrants, and from Africans to colonizing Europeans.
In 1889, thousands of land-hungry pioneers rushed south from the Kansas and Arkansas state lines to stake claims on countless acres of free land. During the 20th century, the Netherlands dammed and drained the shores of the North Sea to establish the new province of Flevoland.
More recently, U.S. land billionaires have increased their properties by 50% since 2007. The top 100 U.S. landowners own territory equal to the size of Florida. Australian Gina Rinehart, the world's largest landowner, has 29 million acres under her control, most originally stolen from the aborigines. The desire for land has typically outstripped the desire for money.
The study of 20th century accounts of the Stalin-ordered famine in Ukraine, and the detention camps for Japanese Americans, along with the confiscation of their property, make for hard reading but serve as reminders of humanity's shameful acts related to land acquisition.
Winchester’s final chapters address climate change and the gradual, but continual disappearance of land due to increasing air temperatures, the melting of ice, and the concomitant rising of the seas.
“Land” is a first-rate global study of the importance of land ownership to its inhabitants. People more often than not take the land for granted, but Winchester makes his readers think deeply about their ever-evolving relationship with terra firma. Ultimately, Winchester confronts readers with the question: “Who actually owns the world's land—and why does it matter?”
About the author: Simon Winchester is the acclaimed author of many books including “The Men Who United the States” and “The Map that Changed the World.” Six of his books have made the “New York Times” bestseller list. “Land” is 416-pages with 50 illustrations throughout.