top of page

Land: Book Review

Land: How the Hunger for Ownership Shaped the Modern World (2021), Simon Winchester. A series of diverse essays that have something to do with land and property. I had various levels of interest in them. Because I’m writing a book on food history, a level of crossover was expected. It proved to be minor, but there were enough important points the provide highlights. A few essays also related to MVG; consequently, a book review. A key point is the lust for land by developing civilization; however, other cultures did not see individual ownership as meaningful. It seems that communal ownership, according to Winchester, results in more ecological responsibility.


Chapter 1: Transaction. Winchester bought his own property for the first time, after coming from a family that never owned property.

Chapter 2: Foundation. Describing the geologic history of his land in New England.

Chapter 3. Population. The native Americans that lived in the area: Mohicans lived in longhouse villages, growing corn, squash, sunflowers, beans and berries. Plus hunting, fishing and gathering. With the white people came disease (smallpox and all the rest), then essentially driven out by the same white people. Soon the Dutch and English were writing deeds for land they “purchased” from the Indians.

Chapter 4: Exploitation. “The incentive for improvement, a virtue common to owners rather than to tenants, is systematically lacking when absentees hold the title” (p. 23). Then, on to mining iron ore; it started in Connecticut in 1731 and this became the first iron-making region (iron ore, lime, water, and fire initially from charcoal), initially ploughshares, penknives, hammers, nails, guns, teaspoons, ship anchors.

Chapter 5: Demarcation, Eviction, Possession. Title deeds started.

Chapter 6: Exploration. Bundle of Rights: “an aspect of land ownership recognized in law at least by most western societies. You have the right of possession; the right of control; the above-mentioned right of exclusion; the right of enjoyment; the right of disposition” (p. 35).

Part I: Borderlines.

Chapter 1: When the Worm Forgave the Plough. Cartography presumably came with agriculture and demarcation of land to establish boundaries. Field systems and field design developed independently in multiple locations. “Within an urban boundary there is usually the concept of jurisdiction, there is tax collection, there are powers of police and provision of services, there is the nuanced complexity of governance” (p. 47). “Boundaries between entire masses of national entities and ideologies and religions and outlooks” (p. 49); examples include Iron Curtain and Israel borders.

Chapter 2: The Size of All the Earth. Measuring the earth’s circumference; started with Eratosthenes about 200 BC based on the shadow of the sun at noon in two locations (he estimated it at 39,000 kilometers; actual is 40,007). This chapter concerns a later attempt.

Chapter 3: Just Where is Everything. Austrian Cartographer Albrecht Penck attempted to map the world at a scale of one to one million beginning in the 1890s. The French wanted to use Paris as the prime meridian, rather than the Greenwich meridian. Maps became a big deal at the Paris Peach Conference after World War I. The project was eventually done and now at the University of Wisconsin—37 billion acres (90 billion under the oceans).

Chapter 4: At the Edges of Worlds. There is an international land border between the US and Canada with 20 feet clear of people and trees for 5,525 miles, making it the longest in the world; with 105 roadways to legally pass. The chapter talks about many other borders across the world. Big problems in such places as the India-Pakistan border, with enclaves of villages trapped on the wrong side (borderline personality disorder).

Chapter 5: Drawing a Distinction. Ordnance survey maps used in the UK; Ordnance Survey started in 1791.

Part II. Annals of Acquisition. “The labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever then he removes out of the state that nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property” (John Locke, Second Treatise on Civil Government, 1689; quoted on p. 101). [Locke’s “contract theory” is both a rationale for ownership and a labor theory of value.]

Chapter 1: Up and Out and on the Level. New lands (e.g., new volcanic islands) don’t have legal ownership.

Chapter 2: Islands of the Damned. Netherlands manufactures new territory, then makes it privately owned; focus is mainly on reclaiming the Zuider Zee: state-directed project: “communalism firmly yoked to individualism” (p. 118). “Farmers would embark on the kind of intensive agriculture peculiar to the Netherlands, with nitrogen-fixing clover on the fallow fields, turnips for animal feed in winter, and then during the warm summer springs and summers, potatoes, beets, wheat, onions, and barley in abundance” (p. 119).

Chapter 3: Red Territory. Oklahoma land rush in 1889. Aboriginal US population now 2-20 million. “They were by all current accounts well-organized into bands and tribes of considerable sophistication, agriculturalists in the main, farmers who lived in or beside small towns” (p. 125). The “transfer” of land: “was a complicated and accelerating process that ranged from prudent exchange by way of cunning purchase to fits of outright theft” (p. 129). It started with the Virginia Co. and Massachusetts Bay Colony. Indian response: how can one man say it belongs to him? John Winthrop introduced Locke’s concept of improving the land. Royal charters claimed it was the duty to take the land in the king’s name; also based on the Doctrine of Discovery. “A lust for land was from now on part of the quintessential allure of America” (p. 133).

“The Native Americans had looked after their land. They tilled and fertilized it, they grew ample harvests of corn and squash, beans and cotton. They dug irrigation canals. They used fire—most bands had flint carriers who could set fires. … They built roadways and trading networks, and even the forests were culled to space out the trees so that bands of men in large numbers could move through them at speed. … They had tribal governments. They held ceremonies and councils and meted out justice and maintained discipline” (p. 134).

The Proclamation Line was issued by King George III in 1763 after the 7 Year’s War, prohibiting settlers west of the Appalachian Mountains. Washington as a surveyor claimed some of the land (32,000 acres). Some 66 million acres is set aside for Native Americans, some 2% of the land mass, decided by law, treaty and war. It was not until the Snyder Act of 1924 that Indians could apply for citizenship. Homestead Act of 1862 encouraged ownership. Land grants to railroads included 10-mile-wide strips on both sides of the tracks.

Chapter 4: The Land and the Gentry. A third (13 of 37 million acres) of England and Wales is owned by private firms or landed families. Census make with Domesday Book of 1086, described in Anglo-Saxon Chronicles.

Part III. Stewardship.

Chapter 1: The Tragedies of Improvement. Focus on limiting land use to make it “more efficient.” The first was enclosure, generally backed by the state to fence off land for individual use. The second, widely used in Scotland was clearance, removing tenants. “Both led to waves of migration: the hundreds of written enclosure acts persuaded millions to move from the countryside to live in towns, while the clearance compelled thousands to flee the wilds of Scotland and settle anew in the unrestricted emptiness of North America. … The clearance helped to create Canada” (p. 171). Parliament passed some 5,000 acts related to enclosure, starting early in the 17th century. Rulings started with Customary Law, even earlier than Common Law and varied from village to village. It usually included some forms of using land “in common:” like collect firewood from “wasteland.”

There were new and unsettling developments in farming techniques, the introduction of machinery and of four-crop rotation methods, which we in retrospect now recognize as the Agricultural Revolution. … Ownership become a known and formalized quantity, and there was paperwork and the drawing of maps and the making of deeds and the issuance of titles that would formalize … private ownership” (p. 174). Given the “commons,” ownership of commons, restricting land required approval by Parliament. The rationale was efficiency, more productive farming—expanding food production for a growing population. Karl Marx denounced enclosure because it turned peasant proprietors into wage laborers. One result was people poring into cities to work in the new factories.

“Between 1807 and 1821, agents working for … Lord Stafford … forcibly and cruelly removed thousands of crofters from the pitiful smallholdings and settled them, mulish and unwilling, scores of miles away from home” (p. 183). The entire estate was turned over to raising sheep, at the time more profitable. The sheep provided the wool for new factories and mutton for the workers. The Hudson Bay Co. would ship many to Canada, to settle by fur-trading settlements developing into what became Winnipeg.

Chapter 2: The Accumulators of Space. Who are the big landowners? Kings and absolute rulers, assorted aristocrats plus really rich people.

Chapter 3: Going Nowhere and Everywhere. The Bundle of Rights: “the right of possession, the right of control, the right of enjoyment, right of disposition, and right of exclusion. Trespass becomes a serious violation (but allowed in some countries in some circumstances). Western cattle led to feedlots, then barbed wire.

Chapter 4: The World Made Wild Again. The DMZ between the Koreas has no humans and therefore filled with animals of all kinds. There are multiple examples of “rewilding” existing properties, with or without human help (like vet care). [Multiple bird sanctuaries in the US and across the world.]

Chapter 5: On Wisdom, Down Under. European involvement with Australia started with James Cooke in 1770. Indigenous Australians practiced sustainable procedures, even controlled burning of underbrush.

Chapter 6: Parks, Recreation, and Plutonium. A area west of Denver is uninhabitable because it served as a plutonium processing plant (and violated safety protocols). The overriding point is that cities can be harmful to nature, including humans.

Part IV: Battlegrounds.

Chapter 1: The Dreary Steeples. Hatred can develop within a country, like Northern Ireland or Israel.

Chapter 2: The Unholy Land. Britain left Palestine in 1948; Israel declared itself a nation. Palestinians called it the Catastrophe and Israel immediately attacked by several Arab countries. Jew had used various means to buy land when under Ottoman control, resulting in a large population of landless Arabs. Large numbers of Jews came after Hitler came to power.

Chapter 3: Death on the Rich Black Earth. Stalin starved about 10 million Ukrainian peasants in 1932-3 as he moved them off their land into collectivized farms and then confiscated most of the wheat and other produce. The intent was to destroy the kulak class, relatively prosperous farmers owning small farms. Before collectivization about 20 million small farm families existed in the USSR. Deportations and summary executions were part of the process.

Chapter 4: Concentration and Confiscation. Japanese Americans in the west were sent to concentration camps, based on Executive Order 9066 in 1942. Prior to that they were primarily small farmers producing snap beans, celery, peppers and strawberries; plus asparagus, cabbage, cantaloupe, carrots, lettuce, onions and watermelons; grapes, plums, peaches, apricots, cherries, and almonds. Also flowers and raised chickens.

Part V. Annals of Restoration.

Chapter 1: Maori in Arcady. New Zealand was the first country to be a full democracy, giving Maori men the vote in 1867.

Chapter 2: Strangers in the Hebrides. Ulva, a Hebrides island, had a community buyout in 2018, based on 2003 legislation for communal ownership. Winchester called it a “quasi-uterine utopia.” As of 2020 almost 600 parcels were community-owned.

Chapter 3: Bringing Africa Home. “European greed for African land was a universal ill” (p. 365). Then there were the uprisings: Mahdi in Sudan, Zulu in Natal, Mau Mau in Kenya. Many countries like Nigeria and Rhodesia did not exist before the Europeans. Land ownership was a puzzling concept to most Africans. Chiefs usually gave rights of tenancy to tribesmen. Much of the land (500 million acres) remains uncultivated.

Chapter 4: Aliens in Wonderland. John Muir as a conservationist; too bad about the racism. The Yosemite Land Grant of 1864 preserved the valley.

Chapter 5. Trust is Everything. “We abuse land because we regard it as a community belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect” (Aldo Leopold, quoted on p.385). Rocky Narrows is the oldest privately run NFP land conservation trust in the US, from 1897. Frederick Law Olmsted handled the transfer. Then land gifted to help poor city people, more common in India. Then, the Kibbutz in Israel.

Epilogue: Yet Now the Land is Drowning. The problem of rising sea levels. Tolstoy’s story of Pakhom, dying to get more land.


bottom of page