Good Fences Make Good Neighbors

Land acquisition, for the purpose of conservation, is a subject that we touch upon from time to time. The bigger arc of land acquisition’s history, as well as its future, helps with perspective. The book to the right (linked to an independent bookseller’s website), potentially important for such perspective, is reviewed by Francisco Cantú in Human History and the Hunger for Land, as excerpted below (you can listen to the review by clicking the start button here):

From Bronze Age farmers to New World colonialists, the stories of struggle to claim more ground have shaped where and how we live.

Territorial expansion once meant conquest, but other modes are being explored. Illustration by Vincent Mahé

The final piece of terrain to be incorporated into the contiguous United States was an oddly shaped strip stretching from Las Cruces, New Mexico, to Yuma, Arizona. Known as the Gadsden Purchase, the area was obtained from Mexico in 1854 for ten million dollars, adding nearly thirty thousand square miles to a nation still drunk with Manifest Destiny expansionism. The motivations for acquiring the land were many—it contained huge deposits of ore and precious metals, held vast agricultural potential in the soils of its fertile river valleys, and, most important, had an arid climate that could allow a rail route to connect the coasts while remaining free from snowpack year-round.

Like much of the American West, the Gadsden region bears unmistakable scars of our nation’s drive for expansion and control. Today, it is dotted with ghost towns and gaping open-pit mines, its rivers are in various stages of death and diversion, and its land has been divided up according to innumerable private and public interests, forming a patchwork of national monuments and state parks, militarized borderlands and for-profit prisons, fiercely defended ranches and sovereign Indigenous nations. The stories that can be unearthed in places like Gadsden, where I have long made my home, are woven throughout Simon Winchester’s new book, “Land: How the Hunger for Ownership Shaped the Modern World” (Harper). Winchester, a British-American author who has frequented the nonfiction best-seller lists during the past two decades, examines our duelling impulses for appropriation and exploitation, on the one hand, and stewardship and restoration, on the other, tracing our relationship to land from the dawn of agriculture to the current age. Moving across varied histories and geographies, he offers us one case study after another of how the once seemingly inexhaustible surface of the Earth has devolved into a commodity, the ultimate object of contestation and control.

By way of an origin story, Winchester imagines two English farmers of the late Bronze Age. The men are neighbors, friends, and, he suggests, sometimes rivals. One farmer plows his flat fields in furrows; the other, cultivating an adjoining hillside, terraces his slopes with lynchet strips. Where one farmer’s furrows meet the other’s lynchets, an easily discernible division is created, giving rise to “the first-ever mutually acknowledged and accepted border between two pieces of land, pieces farmed or maintained or presided over—or owned—by two different people.” Small agricultural frontiers like these, Winchester’s thinking goes, constituted boundary lines in their humblest and simplest form, and soon evolved into boundaries between towns, cities, districts, and nations.

As borders proliferated, so did the need to demarcate them. Moving twenty-eight hundred years into the future with characteristic breeziness, Winchester considers nineteenth-century efforts to mark, measure, and map huge swaths of the planet. In 1816, the astronomer Friedrich Georg Wilhelm von Struve set out to calculate the length of the Earth’s meridians, employing an arsenal of theodolites, telescopes, brass measuring chains, and other hulking surveying tools to triangulate points across great distances and impossibly varied topography. Four decades later, Struve’s Geodetic Arc was completed, spanning ten countries and nearly two thousand miles, from the tip of Norway to the Black Sea coast of Ukraine. The line was a monumental achievement of engineering—it allowed Struve to determine the circumference of the Earth with astonishing accuracy, Winchester tells us, coming within sixteen hundred metres of the figure nasa settled upon more than a century later with the aid of satellite technology.

Winchester is a master at capturing the Old World wonder and romance of exploits like Struve’s—his past books have delved into such subjects as the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary (“The Professor and the Madman”) and the birth of modern geology (“The Map That Changed the World”). In “Land,” his prose frequently exudes the comfort and charm of a beloved encyclopedia come to life, centuries and continents abutting through the pages: there’s a micro-history of a hundred-acre tract he owns in eastern New York, an appreciation of Britain’s once ubiquitous Ordnance Survey maps, and the saga of the German cartographer Albrecht Penck, who sought to bring far-flung nations together in order to map the Earth’s entire surface at a one-to-one-million scale. These early chapters also read as a lament for bygone eras of exploration and mapmaking, with Winchester delighting in the cartographer’s nobility of spirit and the intellectual honesty of the craft, wrongly denigrated, he thinks, by “modern revisionism” and its anti-imperialist preoccupations.

But Winchester’s nostalgia leads him to skate over the involvement of cartographers, surveyors, and other diligent functionaries in the inner workings of conquest and empire. “Physical geographers back then,” he maintains, “took pride in remaining as politically neutral as the land was itself, caring little for which nation ruled what, only for the nature of the world’s fantastically varied surfaces.” In fact, American surveyors in charge of delineating the U.S. border with Mexico were decidedly less apolitical about their task than Winchester proposes. The various teams of “surveyor-dreamers,” as he calls them, seemed to take little interest in the nature of the Southwest. Despite traversing the world’s most biodiverse desert, they found the flora “more unpleasant to the sight than the barren earth itself”; the landscape, they reported, was “utterly worthless for any purpose other than to constitute a barrier.” William H. Emory, who headed the first post-Gadsden survey, complained in 1856 that the new boundary would limit the “inevitable expansive force” of America. When the Gadsden line was resurveyed, in 1892, the U.S. War Department dispatched a military escort of twenty enlisted cavalrymen and thirty infantrymen, “as a protection against Indians or other marauders.” In this sense, as the nineteenth century’s surveyors and mapmakers moved across the horizon, they served not only as beacons of scientific progress and civilizational promise but as grim harbingers of the encroaching technology and militarization that soon came to define ever-hardening lines across the globe.

Read the whole review here.

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