At the end of the last century, Simon Winchester bought 123 acres of wooded mountainside in the hamlet of Wassaic, the village of Armenia, the town of Dover, the country of Dutchess, the state of New York, the country of America. His land had originally been inhabited by the Mohicans, who grew corn and squash and beans until they were expelled by the Dutch. It was then owned, in the titular sense, by Charles II, James II, Mary II, William III and Georges I, II and III, and had passed through the hands of a series of farmers, charcoal-makers and Sicilian immigrants before Winchester became its custodian.
Despite having written a great deal about land in books such as The Map that Changed the World, A Crack in the Edge of the World and Outposts, this was the first time that Winchester had ever owned any. He would now, he realised, be entitled to put up signs saying ‘Trespassers will be prosecuted’. A native Englishman with US citizenship, he has spent his time as a landowner reflecting on the injustices of private ownership, and on the irony that his English forebears, dispossessed of their own land by the enclosures of the 17th and 18th centuries, also relocated to America where they, in turn, dispossessed the indigenous people of their land. What is it about land, Winchester asks, ‘an entity which, in truth, cannot possibly be owned, by anyone, ever’, that generates such greed and passion? What does it mean to ‘love’ the land, to lose your land, to respect the land, to ‘rewild’ the land, to parcel land up and put hedges around it, or to have a community buy-out of land, as recently happened to the 4,500 acres of the Scottish island of Ulva?
These questions form the heart of this vast and idiosyncratic survey, which is part encyclopaedia, part manifesto for fairer distribution, part elegy for a drowning planet and part an exploration of universal lust. In his circumnavigation of the globe, Winchester takes in Latvia, Ukraine, Africa, New Zealand, Australia (the world’s largest landowner, with 29 million acres to play with, is Australia’s Gina Rinehart), England, Ireland, Scotland, India and Japan. But it is with America that the book, dedicated to Standing Bear, the Ponca chief and Native American civil rights leader, begins and ends.
Having studied geology at university, Winchester sees land as more than that which covers the surface of things. He is always aware of the deeper story: the volcanic fracturing, splitting, pummelling, heating and moving of plates. Land formation is both hundreds of millions of years old and also ongoing: the 600-acre island of Surtsey, off the south coast of Iceland, was born out of the sea in November 1963, and Hunga Tonga in the South Pacific appeared after a volcanic eruption in the 1990s.
Having written, in The Surgeon of Crowthorne, about the making of the Oxford English Dictionary, it is to be expected that Winchester will reflect on the layers beneath the title of his book. First recorded in the tenth century, ‘land’ is one of the oldest words in the lexicon. It is a good deal older than ‘sea’, which is curious, because Earth has more sea than land; we should really, Winchester says, call our planet ‘Ocean’, not least because of the rapidity with which we are sinking. The horror of global warming, which hovers over every page, undermines the argument that land is the only thing of value that can ever really last.
Land, of course, means borders: and borders are usually the result, or cause, of conflict. Some borders are ancient and natural, such as the Himalayas, but most are manmade and fashioned in the 19th and 20th centuries. Winchester is good at number-crunching: 50,000 miles of extra borders were agreed upon in the first two decades of the 20th century; there are currently 317 land borders in the world, covering something like 154,000 miles; the longest — at 5,525 miles — is between Canada and the United States.
Facts about the earth are balanced with the championing of ordinary lives. Winchester tells us about Akira Aramaki, a second-generation Japanese strawberry farmer who was incarcerated in a concentration camp following Pearl Harbor and returned home to Bellevue, Seattle in 1944 to discover that his fields had been taken away from him. It is a tribute to one man’s struggle for justice that Aramaki is given an entire chapter to himself.
The best of the book’s many pertinent quotations and anecdotes is a remark made by the Duke of Edinburgh. Should he ever be reincarnated, the Prince once said, he would like to return as a deadly pathogen — ‘one that might solve human overpopulation and the harm it has persisted in visiting on the natural, God-given landscape’. Be careful what you wish for.