'Land' cover

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These days, you are very well-grounded.

Yep, two feet firmly planted on terra-firma and it’s all yours. Corner to corner, front to back, you’re a landowner, caretaker of lawn and loam, holder of an estate of some small measure. It’s the American dream, and in “Land” by Simon Winchester, find out why we yearn for a few hundred yards of dirt.

Up until relatively recently in history, humans blithely went where they were going with nary a thought about who might feel possessive of the sod on which they trod. The idea that someone might lay claim to the land was absurd; no, it was a wide-open world, and it belonged to everybody.

Back then, the Earth looked quite different than it did now, says Winchester. Islands came and went. Shores extended out farther. There was more flora and fauna, no concrete or condos, no problems until white European explorers arrived in North America and decided that the people who’d lived here for millennia really needed to go. For their model, the explorers looked back home: Great Britain and Europe had been held in ownership by someone for generations.

But before land could be held completely, everyone needed to know its boundaries and borders, whether local or national, and that meant knowing the size of the planet itself. Land had to be platted and mapped as precisely as possible and governments had to be ready to defend its perimeters; even island residents needed to know where their maritime edges lay. Judging by peculiarities in boundary-making, some of that official measurement, Winchester guesses, was done with the help of an adult beverage.

Land can erode. It can be created by moving other land or even trash. It can be improved and destroyed, seized, sold, shared, stockpiled, struggled on, surrounded by fence, and stolen from people who’ve lived on it for centuries.

And if we leave it be, says Winchester, it might just save itself.

Conventional wisdom says that one should invest in land because it’s the only thing that lasts, the only thing that stays put, but author Simon Winchester shows how that’s not entirely true now, if it ever was. The one thing that can be stated, and proven inside “Land,” is that things are ... well, complicated.

We humans have made it so throughout history, sometimes necessarily and sometimes, as Winchester suggests, not. That’s just one of the surprises inside this book; another is the extensive history behind the acquisition of large tracts of land, the decision-making that went into territories and town limits, and the defending of both. Readers will also delight in, and be astounded by, the Swedish idea of a hike unencumbered by property lines but governed by hemfridzon, and the Finnish attitude toward “No Trespassing” signs.

In the end, as Winchester points out, most of us wind up in a plot of land six feet by three feet, six feet under. Long before you get to that, though, you should read this book because “Land” is rock-solid.

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