There comes a point early on in the reading of Howard Mansfield’s newest book The Habit of Turning the World Upside Down (2018, Bauhan Publishing) when you realize that you thought you understood what “property” meant, but in actuality, you didn’t. A point when you say to yourself: “Ok, I’m listening to what this guy has to say.” This book is a path-clearing work; the idea of property as most of us understand it has been occluded by so many branches consisting of conflicting ideas, legalese, lawsuits and the idea of eminent domain that one needs a person like Mr. Mansfield to clear away the brush and show us the path again. He does this admirably well in this, his tenth book.An American writing to Americans, we travel along with Mr. Mansfield as he walks the Sonoran Desert with its Indigenous peoples, comes back to New England to visit with landowners and homeowners whose way of life is threatened by the (forcible) building of highways, pipelines and transmission towers in their backyards and farms by power companies (including Hydro-Quebec and the infamous Kinder Morgan), the loss of coastal property in Maine due to rising sea levels and so on. All of his narratives are clear and concise, and most importantly, eye-opening. Even life-changing. Particularly so if you live in the path of any proposed power projects or on the eastern seaboard. Your property may not be there (or as it exists today) even in your lifetime.
My review copy* is full of dog-eared pages (I don’t always have a highlighter handy), but I would like to quote a small portion from the poignant narrative entitled The Ballad of Romaine Tenney, who was a bachelor farmer that was told one day in the mid-sixties that Interstate 91 (see picture) was going to be built right through his farm, no if and or buts. Rather than give it up, he turned his few animals loose one night, set fire to the buildings and enclosed himself inside, perhaps taking his own life first by a shotgun. Mr. Mansfield sums up:
Romaine Tenney had the misfortune of living right in the path of the largest peacetime construction project in history. In fact, the surveyors laying out the highway sighted the peak of his barn and aimed Interstate 91 right at it. All of us can end up in the crosshairs of some surveyor, some big project in the public’s interest, our house sliced in two by the dotted line on someone’s plan. Romaine may belong more to our future than our past. There are more of us and we’re in the way of ever-bigger projects.
At the outset of his book, Mr. Mansfield rightfully acknowledges that the first Europeans took the land from the native peoples, either by force, trickery or by simply pushing them West. Slaves were coercively brought in to work and clear the land. Wars were fought on American soil in a quest to grab even more land. Now, says Mr. Mansfield:
We are reaching for permanence – for iron borders, for an idea of possession that doesn’t allow for shadings, overlapping claims, changes in the land itself. We have a fortress mentality. Legal deeds are our castle walls. “Keep out” and “No trespassing” is our creed. Under attack, we tighten our hold on our property. We have to. It’s as if the property tightens its hold on us. Faced with a big corporation’s lawyers pulling at our land, we can only dig in and pull back. It’s a war, all the delicacy of peacetime ambiguity is lost.
At 128 pages, The Habit of Turning the World Upside Down is a quick read, but it demands a thoughtful read. Parts of it should be read to your children so they understand the incertitude of what they are taught in school. Property is a fluid thing; it can never be truly controlled, as the native peoples of North America tried to tell the first Europeans who landed in North America. Five stars and highly recommended reading.
*This review was based on an Advanced Reader’s Copy (ARC) supplied by the publisher in exchange for a fair and honest review. The book will be available in October 2018.
The Habit of Turning the World Upside Down by Howard Mansfield
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