LAND, from the prolific Simon Winchester

Simon Winchester has taught me a great deal. Including: in any given used bookshop, there will always be at least one nonfiction book by Simon Winchester that I have not read before. Past encounters, each one a pleasure, include: Outposts: Journeys to the Surviving Relics of the British Empire; Hong Kong: Here Be Dragons; Korea: A Walk Through the Land of Miracles; Pacific Rising; The Map that Changed the World, or was it A Crack at the Edge of the World; Atlantic (or, maybe, Pacific); Oxford; and probably several more. I believe The Map That Changed the World and The Professor and the Madman are patiently waiting for my attention.

So why another? And why this book? Mostly, because he’s interested, and, as a rule, if Simon Winchester is interested, then I am, too. The new book is called LAND: How the Hunger for Ownership Shaped the Modern World. If my count is correct, this is his 33rd book, but even the publisher is reluctant to name a number (“the acclaimed author of many books).

His fascination begins with his own land, formerly owned by “a plumber named Ceasare,” a “second-generation Sicilian-American.” The tract is “123 1/4 acres of forested and rocky mountainside, located in the hamlet of Wassaic, in the village of Amenia, the town of Dover, the County of Duchess, in the state of New York.” That’s quite a lot to unpack, a string of political decisions organized, in part, to claim title to land that once belonged to nobody, but was certainly taken, in a series of shameful acts, from the natives who once relied upon the area for sustenance. Before British royalty determined that their might gave them the right, long before, there was a long history, dating back over hundreds of millions of years–“geological turmoil executed on a titanic scale…a tortured and spectacular history that begins with volcanic land formation, and is given over to eons of sudden fracturing, splitting, compressing, heating, pummeling, twisting, folding, and breaking, followed by millions more years of inundations by tropical seas…” (you get the idea).

The author is British but based in the United States, and so, there is a lengthy discussion about North American natives and how they were stripped of their land. Happily, Winchester’s view is global. And one of the most important questions about global land use is just how much of it exists–and how it might be measured. And mapped. The mapping of the earth is a very complicated project, a crazy idea promoted by glacier expert Professor Albrecht Penck, who nearly succeeded in mapping the entire planet at a scale of one to one million. Penck’s design would have resulted in a scale model about the size of a house. And it would have disallowed the likes of Terra Incognito, or Here Be Dragons. But there were fierce arguments between governments that would need to cooperate–the French, for example, insisted upon the Metric System, and the English refused to go in that direction. Remarkably, the project moved ahead, albeit nearly two decades later than planned. Remnants remain, including the use of Greenwich (Prime) Meridian), and an abundance of really good maps–“France mapped much of francophone Africa. Germany made maps of all German-speaking countries in Europe. The entirety of the Roman Empire was mapped.” There was a fifty-sheet series on Brazil, and 107 sheets on Hispanic America, and more. It took eight years of trekking and wandering to map Mongolia and Chinese Turkestan; it was done by forty scientists from six countries protected by thirty infantrymen and more than three hundred camels, plus a large number of local helpers. Mapping 37 billion acres of land, without much technology, was an amazing accomplishment, but the job was completed. Still, the project remained alive, if on life support, until December, 1986. By that time, airline maps (which were simpler, easier to produce and update) served global needs.

As I learned this morning, there is still quite a bit that I don’t know about the distinction between, say, a republic and a nation, or a nation and a country. All the same thing? Although the author does not address the question directly, he did cause me to look more closely at Apple’s Maps application when I was speaking with a colleague in Armenia. Yes, Armenia is a country, because it is a nation with its own government which occupies a particular territory. The part about a nation is related to people with common interests, and this is certainly true of Armenia. It’s a republic. It’s located west of Azerbaijan, which is also a republic–but part of Azerbaijan is separated by the rest. That is, Armenia is both east and west of Azerbaijan. Armenia also borders Iran, Georgia, and Turkey. But if you look just a bit further north, you’ll find a bunch of republics with unfamiliar names: the Kabardino-Balkarian Republic; the Republic of Karachi-Cherkessia, The Republic, of Adygeya, The Republic of North Osetia-Alania, and the Republic of Dagestan. There’s also the Republic of Chechnya, which is familiar. CIA Factbook to the rescue: “46 provinces (oblasti, singular – oblast), 21 republics (respubliki, singular – respublika), 4 autonomous okrugs (avtonomnyye okrugi, singular – avtonomnyy okrug), 9 krays (kraya, singular – kray), 2 federal cities (goroda, singular – gorod), and 1 autonomous oblast (avtonomnaya oblast’) Ah, but just what is a republic? Wikipedia’s definition: “Kabardino-Balkariya is a ‘Federal subject’ of Russia.” As Winchester points out, there are often stories that explain what happened and how we found ourselves in the present situation, but there are so many conceptions of land, ownership, colonization, nations, and so on, with such a long and twisted history, not much of it is guided by reason or consistent practice. This is unfortunate for social studies teachers who are already overburdened, and fortunate for those of who live in 2021 because there are online resources that can, at least, clarify these stunningly complicated ways to say, “this is my land” or, perhaps as often, “this is not your land.”

If you begin with the assumption that nothing makes sense except power, it’s easier to navigate the strange story of Japanese farmers in California who made unproductive land productive, but were then chased from their land because of World War II paranoia, never to return. Or the complexities associated with Scotland’s potential as a new country, independent from the British Empire after all of these years. Or, perhaps this book provides the framework to comprehend the ways in which colonists redesigned Africa’s borders to form countries whose borders still exist, but rarely make sense. And then, there’s climate change and the potential for natural borders to wash away, for productive land to become useless, for icebound land to become productive.

The book is filled with stories, some familiar, some astonishing, all useful in gaining a contextual understanding of how humans interact with land. The book is, in essence, a really good course in global social studies, written for adults who really ought to know enough about the subject to teach our children. Most of us cannot do that. I know a lot about geography and I cannot do that. Simon Winchester can, did, and I hope he’ll do it again. I want to read Land: The Saga Continues or whatever he decides to call his second book on the subject. If he’s not working on this book just yet, perhaps we can encourage him to do so.

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