What drew you to explore the history of land?
SW: Two things. First, three years ago I was out walking the 123 acres of thickly-forested land that I had bought some twenty years before, showing to an ecologist where she might best place a small portable satellite station for a research programme she was undertaking, something to do with measuring rainfall. She remarked how abundant the birdlife was on this piece of land, how richly varied the trees and, from the evidence underfoot, how interesting the abundance of mammalian wildlife. That set me thinking about what it truly means to be an owner of something which, like the air or the sea, cannot in truth ever be owned. I owned a grove of maple trees? Really? I owned that ancient Indian-built wall? I owned the earth on which I was walking? Somehow that didn’t seem quite right.
And then - my wife and I were talking over breakfast one day soon after about the Enclosures Acts, which took so much common land out of circulation in England in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and which drove so many suddenly dispossessed country people to emigrate - to the Americas, to the Antipodes. And that set me to thinking more deeply about ownership, private and common ownership, and its rights and wrongs, and I realised that no-one had written, at least in recent times, about the more human sides of land and the nature of its ownership.
What scale of land do you explore in the book (from the privately owned home to national borders)?
SW: I think I try to look at large-scale ownership (a la Gina Rinehart) and small forty-acres-and-a-mule ownership, as well as investigating the origins of borders and frontiers. So this is land examined on scales huge and minuscule, back gardens to great nation-states.
Author Simon Winchester
What was a really surprising fact you learned when researching this book (I bet there were MANY!)?
SW: Most of all I liked the lifting from the sea of gigantic tracts of the Netherlands - land new-made by man, never owned by anyone, and thenceforward available to be rented and loaned and then sold to whoever might want to farm it and live on it. The story of the creation of new Dutch land is of epic engineering heroics - and it involves land which, since it never ever belonged to anyone in the past, cannot be said to have been taken away. from anyone, and so has a history, a reputation, that is not in any way besmirched. It is real virgin land, in other words.
Will the reader learn about how class and race have played a role in the division of land as we know it today?
SW: The reader will learn much - I hope - about race, most especially in America, in Australia and in New Zealand. In the Americas the story is generally negative, of theft, neglect, cruelty; in Australia my story is of the growing national respect for her indigenous peoples; and in New Zealand it is a story of real possible reform of the land-ownership situation of the Maoris from whom the country was taken.
Do you think this book will inspire readers to act in a different way in their own approach to land or the leaders that may control it?
I very much hope readers will start to think of land as something that we cannot own, but which in a sense owns us, and towards which we should show respect and over which we should exercise care. And then to learn how much land any one of us truly needs -I ask the reader to turn to the story in the book’s Epilogue, which is my view is clever beyond words.
by Simon Winchester (HarperCollins Publishers) is available in store and online from 3 February 2021.