Thalweg: the line following the deepest point of a watercourse, often the natural place to draw a boundary. Polder: a tract of land reclaimed from the sea and surrounded by dykes, lending its name to the Dutch poldermodel, a national tradition of consensus-based economic and social policy. Schwammerlparagraph: a law granting the absolute right to forage mushrooms in Bavarian forests.
The intricate vocabulary used to talk about land is one of the many pleasures of Land: How the Hunger for Ownership Shaped the Modern World by Simon Winchester, a geographer and journalist whose non-fiction has ranged in subject matter from the eruption of Krakatoa to the history of the Oxford English Dictionary. Yet the rich language — whether describing the physical attributes of terrain, or legal rights of ownership and access — also reflects the centrality of land to human societies.
The theme could not be more topical, with debates raging around the world over land reform and restitution, calls for conservation clashing with the demands of food security, and with climate change threatening the belief that land, if nothing else, is immutable.
Winchester opens his investigation by describing the thrill he felt on acquiring title to a modest tract of forested, New England mountainside — first settled by Mohicans and the related Schaghticoke tribe, then held in turn by Dutch stadtholders, English monarchs, farmers, hunters, charcoal makers and Sicilian immigrants, before passing into his ownership. The existence of the title deed was itself the result of centuries of laborious advances in measurement and mapping: as Winchester points out, “in order to own the land, you need to know where it is.”
He explains some of the ways in which boundaries have come about — from the Bronze Age origins of the English field system, to the mad exclaves of Indian and Bangladeshi territory nested within one another on the border drawn by a British lawyer before Partition.
Winchester admires the skill and sheer physical effort it took to calculate the size and shape of the Earth, with 19th-century surveyors, sponsored by the tsars, hefting vast instruments through the swamps and snowstorms of the Baltic to draw what is now known as the Struve Geodetic Arc.
These early geographers took pride in political neutrality, recounting grand international plans for a precise map of the globe — overtaken by the advent of civil aviation, which forced them to focus on more basic, but comprehensive maps of the skies. Land also recounts the heroic feats of engineering, with a gripping account of the vast Dutch endeavour to drain the 1.2m acres of the Zuider Zee.
The core of the book, though, is a sobering history of the many acts of dispossession that have led to gross economic inequalities and festering conflicts around the world.
Some chapters — on the many forms of coercion that deprived Native Americans of their traditional territory, Stalin’s persecution of the kulaks, the Scottish clearances, or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — cover well-trodden ground.
Winchester offers a mainstream account of these episodes, with some vivid portraits of their villains and victims. But other tragedies he covers — such as the plutonium pollution caused by lethal incompetence at the Rocky Flats factory on Denver’s outskirts, or the theft of land from Japanese farmers interned in California during the second world war — are smaller in scale and lesser known.
His overarching thesis — overstated but not by much — is that struggles over land, and human hunger to possess it, lie at the root of most human conflicts. Differing beliefs on the nature of ownership do not help: big proprietors once justified the enclosure of common land by claiming they would make it more efficient and productive, while to a Maori chief negotiating with British settlers, “the concept of individual land possession simply did not compute”.
Winchester favours the return of land to community ownership, through local trusts of a kind now being set up across the US, both for conservation and to provide affordable housing in urban areas.
But he makes it clear there are no easy answers when it comes to either conservation or land reform: America’s national parks preserve wilderness created by the clearance of Native Americans; community buyouts of landowners in Scotland are working in places, but deeply political; and the fashion for rewilding can lead to unlovely outcomes — such as the mass starvation of deer and cattle in a hard Dutch winter.
These are just some of the strands Winchester weaves into his narrative. When it comes to setting out an overarching thesis, the book is perhaps slightly less than the sum of its parts. But it packs in a wealth of ideas and human drama — and gives a fresh view of centuries of social conflict seen through a geographer’s lens.
Land: How the Hunger for Ownership Shaped the Modern World, by Simon Winchester, William Collins, RRP£25, 464 pages
Delphine Strauss is the FT’s economics correspondent
Join our online book group on Facebook at FT Books Café
Listen to our podcast, Culture Call, where FT editors and special guests discuss life and art in the time of coronavirus. Subscribe on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you listen