Few authors of narrative nonfiction have ranged across the global landscape more widely than Simon Winchester, whether exploring the oceans (“Atlantic” and “Pacific”), earthquakes (“A Crack in the Edge of the World”), the Yangtze River (“The River at the Center of the World”), the Balkans (“The Fracture Zone”), or “Krakatoa.” In his latest engrossing voyage, the author turns to the land itself, covering a sizable portion of the 37 billion acres that compose the Earth.
With his unique blend of wide-eyed curiosity, meticulous research, and erudite analysis, Winchester weaves a tapestry that encompasses nearly every element involved in the concept of “land,” including geology, cartography, anthropology, flora and fauna, agriculture, ownership, acquisition, zoning laws, migration, conservation, and — sadly but inevitably — forced removal, theft, famine, and genocide. Of course, this being Winchester, “Land” abounds with dozens of eye-opening factoids to please any fan of popular history — e.g., that China contains more than 100 cities with populations of at least 1 million; in Norway, “you may cross cultivated land, but only when it is covered with snow”; in the United States, the top 100 landowners control “as much land as the entire state of Florida”; the much-revered John Muir “was a confirmed eugenicist.”
But this is no mere bathroom book packed with intriguing facts. His storytelling talents on full display, Winchester convincingly demonstrates that, as the subtitle notes, land and ownership have indeed “shaped the modern world.” Those kinds of sweeping pronouncements are an unfortunately bombastic, exaggerated element of countless nonfiction subtitles but, in this case, it holds true.
Dividing the book into five sections — borders, acquisition, stewardship, battlegrounds, and restoration — the author begins personally, with an account of his purchase of 123 acres of forested land in Dutchess County, a couple of hours outside of New York City. As best he can, the author traces 5,000 years of his land’s “populated existence,” from the Mohican inhabitants to his current title, a bit of historical excavation that leads naturally into his discussions of European exploration and the concomitant exploitation that resulted.
Most readers will be familiar with Winchester’s history of early America, when European settlers descended voraciously upon the land, “sustained by an unshakably confident belief that they, simply for being white men, were superior in the world to all else.” (Recent events at the US Capitol are a depressing reminder of how little has changed in four centuries.) Sadly, a similar theme characterizes many of the other mini-histories that populate the book, including sharp, sometimes moving accounts of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, the Trail of Tears, massive purges and widespread famine in Stalin’s Russia, the 20th-century Japanese internment in the United States, and the 19th-century “scramble for Africa,” either for religious or resource-extraction purposes.
Though relevant, Winchester’s examination of the disruptive enclosure and clearance movements in rural England and Scotland is probably the book’s least interesting section. However, it’s a rare dull moment in an otherwise entertaining book, exemplified in three standout chapters.
First is the fascinating, little-known story of the Struve Geodetic Arc, a land survey undertaken by astronomer Friedrich Georg Wilhelm Struve in the 19th century. Struve spent four decades on a series of triangulations in an effort to calculate “the length of a quarter meridian, pole to equator.” With markers that pass through 10 countries, from Arctic Norway down into Ukraine, the survey was instrumental in determining the size and shape of the Earth. “It was,” writes Winchester, “staggeringly accurate,” citing a figure recently calculated by NASA.
The chapter on the India-Pakistan border, arguably the most dangerous in the world, is illuminating if disheartening. In addition to providing an acute portrait of Sir Mortimer Durand and his infamous, eponymous Line, Winchester digs into the history and culture behind the heavily militarized zone, which, due to the blinding arc lights, is “entirely visible from the International Space Station.” And it’s not just the lights and barbed wire: At the main gate, every evening brings “a bizarre theatrical performance, with soldiers from each side trying to impress crowds and whip them into frenzies of mutual hostility.”
In the most absorbing section of the book, Winchester turns his attention to one nation’s border battle with Mother Nature. Pitted against the ravenous North Sea, the Netherlands “has spent much of its recent existence manufacturing new territory for itself.” Winchester’s page-turning account of the Zuiderzee Works, begun in 1927 and not fully completed until the 1980s, will be catnip for anyone with even a passing interest in civil engineering and massive public works projects. Due to this remarkably impressive feat of human ingenuity, the new land is now home to towns, farms, railways, highways, and more than 400,000 people.
Though Winchester gives relatively short shrift to climate change and environmental destruction, he does provide a glimpse at the rewilding movement, spearheaded by Charlie Burrell and Isabella Tree in England. (For those seeking further information, Tree’s memoir, “Wilding,” is a must-read.)
Winchester’s colorfully rendered capsule biographies help to convey the gravity of certain historical milestones, and nearly 60 illustrations and photographs add to the experience. In many ways, “Land” combines bits and pieces of many of Winchester’s previous books into a satisfying, globe-trotting whole. While much of the information has been covered in greater depth by other scholars, it’s appealing to have it all in one place, and Winchester is, once again, a consummate guide.
Eric Liebetrau is the nonfiction and managing editor at Kirkus Reviews.
LAND: How the Hunger for Ownership Shaped the Modern World
Harper, 464 pages, $29.99