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Land: How the Hunger for Ownership Shaped the Modern World – Book Review

Simon Winchester begins his new book, “Land: How the Hunger for Ownership Shaped the Modern World” by giving the history of the first land parcel he ever bought -123 acres of a forested and rocky mountainside in rural New York.  When English explorer Henry Hudson first visited the area in 1609, it was inhabited by thousands of members of the Mohican tribe who were living in settlements and who were, at first, welcoming of strangers.  But, eventually the European arrivals began ordering those Mohicans who survived imported diseases to abandon their lands, leading them to make new homes in Wisconsin and Canada.

After a tribal remnant refused to sell the particular acreage that included the parcel that Winchester eventually came to possess, it was taken from them in exchange for $300. This became the private fiefdom of a Dutch family that eventually switched their loyalty to the British crown following a war-time surrender.  The land was confiscated by Americans during the Revolutionary War, the estate was divided into some two hundred parcels, and the first title deeds were written. A family of charcoal makers was the first to take title to Winchester’s acreage, and in the 20th century it was owned by a series of hunters until Winchester took possession in 1999.

Upon taking possession of this acreage, Winchester became fascinated by the notion of landownership and how such a thing could exist, and with why so many people world-wide went to such great lengths to acquire it. In exploring these questions, he begins by recounting the history of land demarcations, the first step in establishing the concept of land ownership. Demarcation of land began with the adoption of agriculture, specifically through the discontinuity of adjacent farmers’ plowing patterns due to the contours of the landscape. These informal demarcations eventually became formalized, establishing the basis of land possession.

Winchester then skips ahead several millennia to begin telling depressing accounts of displacement, including the European settlement of indigenous land around the world, the enclosure and clearance movements that began in the 18th century, and the displacements that resulted from the conflicts in Ireland, Israel, and the Soviet Union.

However, Winchester concludes his book by describing several hopeful practices.  These include “the right to roam” that now exists in Scandinavia, Scotland and other European countries, which essentially eliminates the concept of trespassing by allowing everyone to wander over any parcel of land – whether privately held or not – as long as nothing is disturbed or destroyed.

Finally, Winchester recounts the history of the land trust movement that began around the turn of the 20th century and that, he says, generated enthusiasm among followers of Henry George. Winchester praises the land trust approach as one that has been created informally, organically, and without the use of force.  “If properly and fairly apportioned,” Winchester writes, “land can be the key to so many possibilities, all of them for the general benefit of those of us who live and work and have our being upon it” 

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