Is it time to rethink the way we manage and own land?

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Iconic image of the Oklahoma Land Rush of 1889. Photo by Rachel Hinman, 2012. The Mobile Frontier, New York: Rosenfeld Media (CC BY 2.0)

The hunger to own land has shaped human history. The early Britons, who marked their boundaries with rocks were a far cry from the imperial explorers and mapmakers who laid claim to territory, regardless of local history, customs or geography. How have we gone from a time when land was considered communal and served the needs of all, to an era of private land grabs by the rich, who ridgely police their millions of acres to ensure no trepasses? In a world grappling with the impacts of climate change, what does it mean to “own” land and how has the notion of ownership changed our values and affected us today?

KCRW’s Jonathan Bastian talks with Simon Winchester, author of “LAND: How the Hunger for Ownership Shaped the Modern World” about the history of land ownership and whether it’s time to rethink our sense of entitlement to land? 

The following interview excerpts have been abbreviated and edited for clarity. 

KCRW: Going back hundreds, if not thousands of years, was land ownership something entirely different from the way it’s viewed today? 

Simon Winchester: “Totally. When Henry Hudson came up the river that now bears his name in 1609, as an agent for the Dutch, despite him being English he first met the Lanape around where New York City is today and then the Mohican, and then a few Iroquois in the north, up near Albany. He found them extraordinarily friendly and nice and sophisticated and lots of agriculture and a lot of gifts given each to the other. They decided, they being the invaders, the white invaders, that they would acquire some of the land and they were puzzled because they didn't own it but nonetheless, and it's not a condescending thing to say that they didn't read or write, you can see these old documents from the 17th century, early land deeds made out in beautifully curlicued Dutch with the Mohicans having drawn a little goat or a sheep or a buffalo as their indication of their ascent to whatever these foreigners were wanting. 

What they were wanting was a bit peculiar to them but what they got was something that they then transferred - it was title, they were entitled in their view, to the land and once they've had it, so they began a chain, which bewildered the Native Americans, but of course makes perfect sense to us now - except it does not make perfect sense to me, which is why I question the whole apparatus of land ownership so fascinating.”

Going back a bit further than Henry Hudson, you start with how the concept began with Bronze Age farmers in England. How does that illustrate how we began to come up with the idea of entitlement and land title?

Winchester: “The whole concept of borders and frontiers completely fascinates me - how did it all begin?  I think that probably came from two farmers, let's assume they were Bronze Age, using these early plows called caschrom which were hardened sticks with metal tips to allow them to break up the soil and plant seeds and grow things. So with the beginning of settled agriculture let's imagine two farmers; friends, rivals possibly, but living within sight of one another one drawing his furrows in a north south direction and one perhaps slightly up a hill away with his furrows going in a slightly different direction northwest to southeast. Where those two sets of furrow meet there’s clearly a disconnect, so they decide to mark that junction with maybe a hedge or a line of stones or a line of sticks. 

At first this is rather informal, but slowly, as generations succeed, that line becomes the border between two farms and ultimately between two villages and ultimately, ultimately between two cities and two states. 

In England, still to this day, there are these ceremonies called ‘Beating the bounds.’  I remember my parents who lived in Rutland, in a small county in the very middle of England, every Spring there would be a ‘beating the bounds’ ceremony, where the local Vicar would take the schoolchildren to the various boundaries, these were very, very old 11th, 12th century boundaries that were marked out in antiquity with stones and the small boys — it sounds brutal — but they were often turned upside down and their heads gently banged on to the ground, so that they would remember for all of their lives, where the boundaries were and pass that on to their children. So boundaries are very important and very ancient.”


Simon Winchester. Photo by Rupert Winchester 

How did this become more formalized and why — the sense that this is my land, I own the soil below my feet? 

Winchester:  “Looking at Britain, which I suppose I know or used to know reasonably well, it's a phenomenon that really began in earnest in the 14th and 15th centuries with this idea of enclosure. Because up to that point, although large tracts of land were ‘given’ by the sovereign to feudal lords. A lord would be encouraged to join the King's army to go and fight the French or Spaniards or whoever and in return for his service he would be given land but a large amount of land, Yorkshire or something ludicrous as that. But within that community there would be lots and lots of villages. Within each village, all the land would be communally owned. So they’d be little houses and in the middle would be 20 to 30 acres of land, on which all the locals would graze their cattle or raise their sheep or their pigs, grow their turnips or potatoes, or depending on the climate, their wheat or their corn. 

That was fine except the cows tended to trample on the turnips and the pigs would eat the wheat or whatever. So slowly, those people who were more sophisticated in their understanding of agriculture, thought that it would be better if the land was individually owned. Hedges were put up so that the cattle could be kept off the wheat and the pigs away from the turnips. So borders, initially informal borders, started dividing and cutting up the common land and turning bits of it into private land.  

That was really codified formally in 1604, about the same time as Henry Hudson was setting up the river here in New York. Acts of Inclosure were passed in Parliament, first of all in Dorset in a little town called Radipole, where a sign was tacked to the church door, saying that the common land in the center of Radipole was going to be cut up. John Smith was going to own these 20 acres and Peter Barnes was going to those 20 acres and so on. If anyone objects, you've got a month or so to object and if no one does object, then this will cease to be common land and it will be privately owned land. 

That had all sorts of effects. Social effects, because a lot of people were dispossessed of their common land and they started to either go to the cities, of course, the Industrial Revolution was about to start, so that augmented the flow or else they began to emigrate. 

Going back to your original question, what effects did the Enclosures Acts have on people saying, ‘I'm going to live in another country, where these barbaric things don't happen. I'm going to go to America or Canada, Australia, or wherever.’ So it did have an enormous social effect but once you own land, once you claim to own land because land is immutable, or was thought to be immutable, in that it doesn't go anywhere, you can borrow against it. You can use that as collateral. You can go to a bank and say,  ‘I own 20 acres of fine agricultural land. I'll put that up as security for a loan.’ With that loan I'll buy a house or a wagon, or a car, refrigerator or whatever. So the whole capitalist economy is underpinned by this notion of land ownership. 

It’s hugely important, not terribly old, socially disruptive but is it a good thing? That's what the book is about.”

You mentioned how comparatively land ownership is not very old. Do you think it changed human nature,  how we think of our place in the world?

Winchester: “You're absolutely right. In the early days, it produced a sense of comfort and well being; the idea that you are entitled to the land did induce a sense of personal satisfaction. Unfortunately and I tried to explore this in the book, it led to a number of things which are not good. One of them, of course, being greed. You think, if I own 20 acres, why not 40 or a 100, why not a 1,000? Why not, in the case of this amazing Australian woman, Gina Rinehart 29 million acres, which is more than the entire land surface of England and Wales. So greed is one thing that has gotten out of hand. 

The other thing is the concept of trespass.  There is a difference between real estate, the land and any buildings on it and real property. Real property attaches conceptually to the idea of real estate, because it's the so-called bundle of rights. The rights you have when you own land — you can fell the timber, you can mine it, you can throw people off it, you can assign it to other people. But this idea that once you own land, you have an absolute legal right to throw people off it and can call upon officers of the law to do so, that has gotten out of hand, particularly in this country. Trespass, the whole notion of trespass. If you look at a country like Sweden or Norway, there is no concept of trespass. The rule is ‘Allemannsretten’ all men's rights and it extends to every acre of the country, you can walk wherever you like. 

But in this country, the concept of trespass is so rigorously policed. In certain parts of America, particularly in the West and with certain notorious people it is particularly rigidly applied that it’s gotten out of hand. So the social effects of owning land manifest themself and not all of them are good.”


Book cover for “LAND: How the Hunger for Ownership Shaped the Modern World World.”  

What do you think the future of land ownership is going to look like in the next 50 to 100 years?

Winchester: “I doubt whether it'll change enormously in this country. It's changing in Northern Europe, the idea that everyone ought to have access to the land if not necessarily to own it, has spread and has consolidated itself. In England, things are getting better, with the right to roam, the right to ramble. Access to land is improving, ownership not necessarily.

In this country. I'm hoping that with the kind of movements that I've mentioned to you about community land ownership in the northeast, that may spread, but I think there'll be a powerful amount of resistance to it. There needs to be some sort of national effort, there needs to be someone in Washington to say that this is getting out of hand, people are too greedy, people are ruining the land. 

In Australia, the fires that broke out last year, are giving a salutary warning to the Australians; listen to the Indigenous people, they know how to manage land. The original British explorers, Captain Cook, Joseph Banks, who went there in the 1770s, were amazed at how sophisticatedly the people — the Aboriginals, were. They described how well they looked after their land. Similarly, we should look with a much more sympathetic eye to the way that the Cherokee and the Sioux and the Pueblo Indians manage their land, we should take some lessons from them. Whether we will, I don't know. Whether there's a sufficient sea change, if that's not a mixed metaphor, I'm not certain but change is necessary, because land is all we've got.”

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Producer:

Andrea Brody