This week, as part of Literati Bookstore’s “At Home With Literati” series, the bookstore welcomed Simon Winchester in conversation with Rich Fahle of PBS Books for a discussion of Winchester’s new work of nonfiction, “Land: How the Hunger for Ownership Shaped the Modern World.”
The event is part of the local Ann Arbor bookstore’s virtual series offering opportunities for reconnection in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. Winchester’s new book tells the history of land ownership and unravels maps as luminous inventories of what has been identified or owned, but also as surfaces stained with darker stories of acquisitive cruelty and conquest.
As with all of his books (including his bestseller “The Professor and the Madman,” which details the lives of the two men behind the Oxford English Dictionary), Winchester sifts through a topic on the fritz and excavates it with unparalleled attention to detail in “Land.” At the same time, he salvages the long-lost intimacies of human lives behind his chosen subject.
Fahle introduced Winchester by observing how “Land” brings a journalist’s instinct to the process of discovering “the story in front of the story,” acknowledging Winchester’s background as a journalist for The Guardian.
Winchester told Fahle that his search for that story began with the purchase of his own tract of land in Dutchess County, New York. While he determined the plot of land to be effectively “useless” because of its mountainside location, it brought him to his next batch of research. Compelled to research the history of his own property, he learned that the Mohicans, an Eastern Algonquian Native American tribe, had lived on the same parcel of land but never officially owned it.
Fahle noted how the interwoven stories of “Land” gather force because they are propelled, in part, by Winchester’s own travelogues and adventures spent making deep dives into research. The conversation managed to seem ambiently personal, despite being focused on the story of Winchester’s research process. Ultimately, his exchange with Fahle lifted the veil from invisible histories of the land and its people hidden beneath the surfaces of maps.
Throughout the discussion, Winchester cleaved to facts with panache while offering mostly brief glimpses of his personal views. For example, he informed Fahle that while he finds the notion of ownership “impertinent and absurd,” he quickly added, as if for balance, that he thinks there might be a reason for demarcation and mapping.
During one segment of the conversation, Winchester spoke admiringly and tenderly of the “beautiful faces” on maps he encountered in his archival research. Yet, when the inescapable topic of violence came up, he provided elaborate descriptions of how points of interference — in the form of international borders — have given rise to increasingly catastrophic forms of displacement and dislocation. He seemed to imply that the global scales of ownership have far exceeded the ambitions of science and cartography.
It all started, he told Fahle, with 16th century English farmers making a line of stones that with time transmogrified into deep dashes in the earth and furrows made by plunging torches into the soil. These lines were formalized as private property through the passing of a series of laws called the Enclosure Acts. Until then, Winchester said, all land had been commonly owned.
Then their discussion made an immediate and jarring turn toward the chaos incidental to mapping the world.
“(There’s this) passionless authority, which then created a split, and then chaos. You create a boundary and then, everything else just comes with it,” Fahle said wonderingly.
From here, Winchester’s views became clear, casting light on the devastating histories of shifting borderlines. He described the effects of private property on citizens:
“That notion of privately owned land did mean the dispossessed either had to become landowners … or cross the ocean and become migrants,” Winchester explained.
Depictions of upheavals, wrought by otherwise innocent ideals, were peppered throughout the conversation. It also implicitly challenged the idea of owning land as a neutral act and placed me as a viewer in conversation with uncomfortable questions: Are maps ever really innocent representations similar to what Susan Sontag described as “visual stenography”? Can the drawing of boundaries showing ownership ever itself be a neutral act? I wanted to buy Winchester’s book to further engage in an inward conversation by reading his encyclopedic mind.
The questions raised during their conversation made me uncomfortable in how they reminded me of my own academic fetishization of maps. In one example, I’ve chosen to display a map of Montana in my apartment — in fact, it is the only thing I have up on my walls. It feels like a souvenir of my memories (notably, souvenir is the French word for memory), but for thousands of years, Native Americans peacefully hunted buffalo the size of small trucks through Montana by herding them off buffalo jumps. They never owned the land but rather coexisted with whatever crossed it. The buffalo thrived. Then, the railroad scarred the plains, and white migrants littered that stretch of land with buffalo bones while trailing European diseases, forming a corridor of skulls.
Toward the end of their conversation, Fahle asked Winchester two loaded questions: “Could the future even involve commonly owned land?” and “Can we put the genie back in the bottle?”
Winchester answered with a somewhat reassuring observation.
“People are beginning to think that communal land ownership, as the Native Americans practiced, is a far better way to go,” he said.
I wondered how to apply this idea to emerging international crises. As global warming causes rising oceans to gnaw at vulnerable coastlines and climate refugees are forced to migrate, what will become of borders? Can borders be eliminated? Should we have them at all?
Daily Arts Writer Sierra Élise Hansen can be reached at email@example.com.