Land is something many of us take for granted. It’s here, under our feet, grounding us and giving us a sense of home. But as Simon Winchester (The Map That Changed the World) elucidates in his comprehensive new book, Land: How the Hunger for Ownership Shaped the Modern World, it’s actually a precarious, ever-changing reality that has been stolen, purchased, defended and damaged by human activities.
Weaving together elements of history, geography, geology and science, Winchester paints a raw, in-depth picture of the land that encircles our glorious planet, which is in crisis due to the looming effects of human-induced climate change. He touches on a vast number of topics that have impacted the land since the dawn of civilization, dividing the book into sections that focus on borders, ownership, stewardship, war and restoration.
For example, in terms of land’s borders, things aren’t always what they appear to be. The “longest undefended border in the world,” over 5,000 miles between the U.S. and Canada, isn’t really undefended since there is “an array of unseen and unseeable electronic gadgetry” that guards the U.S. Other borders have been the cause of great pain and suffering, such as the Radcliffe Line drawn by British lawyer Sir Cyril Radcliffe in 1947, fracturing India and Pakistan.
Land has also played a big role in cultural clashes, and Winchester does not mince words as he describes such social injustices as the horrendous treatment of Native Americans by Europeans. These injustices include land theft, cruel policies like “Indian removal” and the infamous westward passage known as the Trail of Tears.
But Winchester also discusses plenty of positive and beneficial ventures related to land, such as the huge task of mapping and sizing the world, as well as amazing engineering projects such as the Zuiderzee Works in the Netherlands, one of the most impressive hydraulic engineering projects on Earth. Ultimately Land is a truthful, revealing exposé, paying tribute to the territory we all share.