Land by Simon Winchester

Reviewed by Patricia Simms-Reeve

English/American author, Simon Winchester has written many fine non-fiction books, amongst them The Map that Changed the World and The Surgeon of Crowthorne. He presents facts and information in a way that engages readers and otherwise dry subjects are so discussed that his books are a pleasure to read.

In a stirring quotation by J.J. Rousseau at his latest book’s beginning, the philosopher states that imposing land ownership is the basis for crimes, wars, murders, miseries and horrors, and mankind is lost if it forgets that the earth belongs to all.

A history of attitudes to land follows and this explores the veracity of the statement above.

Winchester has recently bought land in New England and he relates the geography and zoology of the region. Then the impact of European settlement, bringing exclusion and illnesses to the native population ensued.  He is aware of the line of ownership of his land. Beginning with the Mohican Indians, it continues to Dutch “stadtholders”, to titles to various English monarchs, then followed a list of English, Dutch, German and Sicilian owners.

As Simon Winchester takes possession of his land, he is struck by the whole notion of owning land; and that many cultures around the world go to enormous lengths to ‘own’ an entity, which in reality, cannot be owned by anyone.

Four thousand years ago, cultivation of land began, he surmises, in England. Hunting was made easier by boundaries restricting the preys’ movement.  There are detailed descriptions of early cultivating with sharpened sticks, precursors of the plough.

One of the most fascinating sections of the book is the attempts made to determine the size of the earth.  Spurred on by Tsar Alexander 1, men, mostly astronomers, spent years to establish this.  It became one of the greatest scientific achievements of the age.

The map of the world, the next step, followed. Years of work resulted in over 800 pages of calculations, but sadly, was never completed.

Stabilising land borders for the countries of the world was a gigantic task, unsurprisingly. The most disastrous was the division of India which separated it and Pakistan.

Winchester’s chapter on Ordinance Survey maps is admiring of the accuracy, indeed, beauty of their execution which he believes should be studied for their appearance alone!

The Netherlands’ extended its borders by building and creating areas stretching into the North Sea, further evidence of this human preoccupation with territory.

The ‘polders’ established illustrates the guiding principle of ‘making land’ which is exclusive to the Netherlands. (although more recently, China, Hong Kong and Singapore have pursued this in various ways…)  There is exhaustive research into the polders construction, then the next section deals with the arrival of Europeans in North America.

Initially, the Spaniards in the sixteenth century, then the English, wrought havoc on the Native populations.  Murder and disease eradicated many. Some tribes were annihilated.  Land acquisition was complicated. Nonetheless, it accelerated. It was justified by the “divine Grace” of the King, and a ‘doctrine of discovery’, which dismissed the existence of the original inhabitants.

In the Chapter titled ‘Red Territory’ (the British red coat and bloodshed), there is a long account of the colonisation of what is now the U.S.  The details revealed are revelatory in their detail.

In the British Isles, a few landed gentry, titled and wielding great social power, own chunks of English land and half of Scotland.

He reminds the reader that land clearance has brought monumental destruction to life on the planet with far-reaching consequences. It is a contributing factor to climate change.  ‘Improvement’ is a tragedy.

The concept of trespass is discussed with reference to several countries. The Scandinavians allow complete freedom to access land, as now, does Scotland.

In America, Texas in particular, restrictions abound. The landowner’s rights are superior to the rambler or intruder….

The outstanding fact emerges that in the Korean de-militarised zone, “constellations of long-forgotten plants and animals have returned to live on this strip”.  It is one of the few places on earth guaranteed to be free from man’s presence.  The land around Chernobyl also has reverted to its previous wild state.

There is a Chapter on ‘Wisdom, Down Under’, highlighting the need to avoid the 2020 Bushfire catastrophe by learning and adopting the land management techniques of our First Nation people, who had, for millennia done this extremely well.

This comprehensive and exhaustive history of man’s relationship to land concluded with Tolstoy’s fable of Pakhom, who desired more and more land. It resulted in his exhaustion and death.

With the melting of the polar ice, and the rise of sea levels, man faces a reduction in land areas.

A work such as this exposes the wrongs and mistakes made in the past, and will, perhaps, lead to a dramatic change and to the preservation of our most invaluable resource.

Land is a serious, scholarly work, which may not appeal to the casual reader. It is highly significant and absorbing to those interested in history and the fate of the planet which is, ultimately, in our hands.

Land – How the Hunger for Ownership Shaped the Modern World


by Simon Winchester

Harper Collins

ISBN 9 780008 359126

446 pp; $34.99



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