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Trespassing: An Inquiry into the Private Ownership of Land Hardcover – May, 1998


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 295 pages
  • Publisher: Perseus Books; First Edition edition (May 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0201442140
  • ISBN-13: 978-0201442144
  • Product Dimensions: 1.2 x 6.2 x 9.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #3,979,841 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

When Mitchell (Walking Towards Walden; Ceremonial Time) challenges such a seemingly fundamental notion as the private ownership of land, one almost expects a Marxist rant or New Age screed. Happily, Mitchell neither scolds nor soothes, offering instead anecdote, history, law and keen naturalist observations in making his case. Here, the editor of Sanctuary magazine has created a work as pleasant as a walk through his beloved New England countryside, rambling around the property "legally owned" by a somewhat obscure tribe of Native Americans (documented as far back as the 17th century and through to its subsequent owners). There, land serves?and is served?as a source of the sacred, a bearer of ancestral wisdom and inspiration, an investment in future generations and a present home. Mitchell's travels take in the history of land ownership (which, as he points out, arose on these shores approximately 400 years ago), using revealing character studies of landed gentry, who jealously protect property rights, and of ordinary citizens, who throughout history have fought developers as well as interlopers, such as him, who cross formal property lines to enjoy nature. Such crossing, Mitchell writes, "is the only way to get to know a place?you have to break through boundaries." And so he does, but gently. For if he holds little regard for property lines, he certainly respects the history they encompass, and explores that history with style and grace in his engaging, well-organized book.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Kirkus Reviews

A Thoreauvian ramble through English common law, American history, the New England landscape, and much else. Mitchell (Walking Towards Walden, 1995), winner of the John Burroughs Essay Award, takes a sidelong look at our tenure on the American land, contrasting communal-property ideas of the continents indigenes with imported ideas of might and rightideas, he writes, that are really fairly new, dating only to the 18th century, before which time one bought the right to live on a particular piece of land, not the land itself. How do you determine where the boundaries lie exactly while you are out walking, and if you happen to cross an imaginary line, one run out and recorded and set on paper and filed in a registry of deeds, what does it matter? he asks while roving in the Yankee woods of Massachusetts. It matters plenty, he answers, to his good-fences neighbors, who jealously guard their domains with shotguns, writs, and pot-bellied pigs. It matters, too, to history; the domain of the Nashobah Indians, on whose historic ground Mitchell and his neighbors now dwell, is contested by four postage stamp-sized Massachusetts townships. Mitchell is quite at home entertaining the airless abstractions of property law, but hes resolutely (and literally) down-to-earth; to know a place, to know the real map of the world, you have to get out on the land and walk, he notes, and walk he does all over the green fields, turning up a solid piece of nature writing in the bargain. Elsewhere he examines the history of public- and private-domain property rights, tracing them through Anglo-Norman custom into the present and considers the question whether we have the moral right to destroy habitat in order to make room for yet another boxlike development for 60 or 70 or 100 well-heeled families. A thoughtful, beautifully written addition to environmental and regional literature. -- Copyright ©1998, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.

Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

10 of 11 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on July 8, 1999
Format: Hardcover
This book passed a basic test of polemical writing: it inspired me to go out and do what the author strongly suggested the reader do. It was the middle of the night, but I put the book down and went out for a walk in the woods on someone else's property (don't worry they have plenty) so that I could look at the moon and stars and sparkling landscape from a high place.
I learned an awful lot about the history of private property from this book. Because the concept of private property is so central to American identity I was left wondering why someone had not presented an environmental history from this perspective before. It is has given me a lens through which to read other books of environmental history.
Mitchell is honest about where he stands in the debate about who should be in charge about what should be done with private land. He is an ecocentrist, pure and simple, and doesn't trust individual landowners to "do the right thing" by their land. He allows that one of the chief antagonists in this book, a man named Morrison, actually does take good care of his land, but he makes it clear that he does not want to leave such a precious thing as the land to the chance that the owner may or may not take care of it. In fact, much of the book is an attempt to show us how absurd and artificial the idea of "land ownership" really is.
One of the threads in the story is Mitchell's recounting of an attempt at group ownership ("co-ownership") of land. The community that is finally realized falls short of its ideal, but he insists that it is far better than the default condition in modern America. Decide for yourself whether it is a pyrrhic victory.
The main thread of the book is the tribal history of his favorite plot of land in Littleton, Mass. As usual, it is a pretty sad story.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on August 28, 1998
Format: Hardcover
John Hanson Mitchell is a nature writer, yet he is without the dead seriousness of many zealous "tree-huggers." His humor is dry and droll -- try his two-page account of the Indian who "discovered" Italy, which has become my favorite read-aloud. More important, his deft style is in the service of an underlying interest in human nature, history (and prehistory) and mythic currents in human life, which peek out from under his strong knowledge of nature and environmental affairs.
This book focuses all that and more with great imagination through the lens of a several-square-mile patch of land west of Boston called Neshobah, which was Indian territory until the Europeans arrived, became under them one of the first Indian reservations, became private property and now is partially being restored to common use via various land trusts, bringing a 400-year history full cycle. Captivating, engaging, thought-provoking stuff and a great read.
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6 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Thomas Conuel on December 6, 1998
Format: Hardcover
John Hanson Mitchell has been ranting on about his beloved square mile of earth, Scratch Flat, for longer than anyone would care to know. His latest book, Trespassing, An Inquiry into the Private Ownership of Land, offers no release from this obsession. Granted, the manner in which we in North America came to actually own land (instead of have use of it, as in England) is, or could be, an interesting subject. But, Mitchell takes us into yet another exploration of the common ground of Scratch Flat, specifically a five hundred acre tract where there used to be an Indian village. Those who know Mitchell's work will find some familiar characters here, namely the 17th century Pawtucket Indian, Sarah Doublet, the wife of Tom Doublet, who Mitchell wrote about in Ceremonial Time, and again in Walking Towards Walden. Enough already. Why should we care what happened to American Indians back in the 17th century. For that matter why should we care about a square mile tract of land, that by Mitchell's own admission is essentially "nowhere and everywhere". We know what he's trying to get at here. Scratch Flat "is and was the world", as he writes in Ceremonial Time, but he's got an odd obsession with time, the preservation of doomed farmland, and especially the fate of the American Indian, a.k.a. "Native" Americans.
Trespassing is an attempt to set the historical record straight. According to Mitchell, no one actually "owned" America until the Europeans set foot on these shores. Indians used the land, but they did not have the concept (yet) of ownership. They do now, as Mitchell is willing to point out.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on December 31, 1998
Format: Hardcover
John Hanson Mitchell is a graceful stylist who has been hammering away at a host of environmental subjects from the perspective of a single square mile. Trespassing may be his best book yet, and only slightly less ambitious than his monumental tour de force, Ceremonial Time. He takes the theme of ownership of land, one of the most potentially boring subjects around, and turns it into a great nonstop read by focussing on a single five hundred acre tract of land through some three hundred years of history. Some of the characters in this book are right out of Dickens, some of the descriptions of the landscape are out of Conrad, and, as far as I can tell, he's got a great understanding of the whole process of the creation of the American laws that govern the use of land. But you don't have to be interested in environment or legal history to enjoy this. Just read it for the characters. I wept for Sarah Dublet at the end of this book.
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