Howard Mansfield is up to his usual tricks, framing an old familiar topic in a wholly new way. This time around, the acclaimed preservationist and author of 10 books devotes himself to the concepts of land and property. In another writer’s hands, this might be fodder for a dry, academic tome. Not so in this compact, colorful exploration. For Mansfield, property is the bedrock of American life. It reflects our nation’s individualism and its enterprise, the never-ending battle between people and progress.

“The Habit of Turning the World Upside Down” is an eye-opener, as it considers the myriad ways in which land – its ownership, parceling out and sundry uses – pervades every nook and cranny of our country’s development. The book’s title, derived from a comment by Alexis de Tocqueville in 1831, describes Americans’ topsy-turvy practice of constantly moving and cutting up the landscape. In that sense, the book is equal parts history lesson, coffee klatch and reality check.

The book opens with Mansfield walking in the Sonoran Desert in Arizona, along with members of a native American tribe, the Tohono O’odham, which means Desert People. They view the desert not as property, but as a sacred person. In the chapters that follow, Mansfield goes on to survey our “founders’ rapacious hunger for land,” from George Washington’s tenure as a major landowner to the principles embedded in our legal doctrines. “Manifest Destiny” and “the pursuit of happiness,” for instance, prove to be metaphors for property and how we define ourselves.

“Property isn’t land. Property is the legal right to draw a boundary and exclude others,” Mansfield writes. “Our nation is founded on property rights. All the ‘amber waves of grain’ talk comes later.” Then, he adds, “Property is how we have ordered the world. Property lines mark the limits of what we think is possible…. Property is one of the major works of our civilization; it’s our pyramids and our Parthenon.”

Mansfield travels to several sites where homeowners find themselves at odds with corporations that want their land for oil or gas pipelines, or other modern “improvements.” He visits Rod McAllaster, a dairy farmer in Vermont, who declines a $4 million offer from Northern Pass to build power lines on his property.

“My roots are deeper than your pockets,” McAllaster says.

Similarly Mansfield meets Lynne Placey, a piano teacher in New Hampshire, who turns down a half-million dollars to keep a high-voltage transmission tower off her property.

Mansfield walks the land with these homeowners, sits on their porches, listens to their stories. He hears about the infighting among families and neighbors who are wedded to the land, yet tempted by the money – the generational pride of residents who consider their ancestral property inseparable from themselves. Mansfield attends community meetings where corporate liaisons make their pitches and townspeople stake out their strategy for survival.

Near the book’s end, Mansfield boards a research boat with zoologist John Anderson and several of his students from College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, where they’re studying the waning gull colony and native bird population. It’s the other side of the property issue. Climate change has arrived on Maine’s shores in the starkest of terms: The Gulf of Maine is warming faster than its counterparts elsewhere, and is now a harbinger for shoreline birds, even the coastline itself.

“If we can learn to see that marshes move, that barrier beaches belong more to the sea than the land,” Mansfield says, “then we can begin to listen to what the scientists have been trying to tell us.”

Throughout these first-person encounters, the author is always weighing the issues that are at stake – loss of property versus loss of self; our sense of endless bounty versus shrinking resources; our chronic denial of the new realities that are fast approaching our doorstep.

What distinguishes this book is, in part, Mansfield’s refusal to serve solely as a reporter. Instead he’s a nomadic observer, taking turns as historian and advocate, ecologist, neighbor, philosopher. If only we could be more Zen-like in our approach to the world, he suggests, we would accept that change, not stasis, is the norm. Everything is impermanent. Owning property is an illusion, regardless of deeds and titles that say otherwise.

Since the book consists of linked essays, readers can learn about the history of land development in the United States, or fast-forward to more topical matters of pipelines, windmills and climate change. Either way, Mansfield’s lyrical narrative is both urgent and humane.

Joan Silverman writes op-eds, essays and book reviews. Her work has appeared in numerous publications including The Christian Science Monitor, Chicago Tribune and Dallas Morning News.


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