TRESPASSING by John Hanson Mitchell


An Inquiry into the Private Ownership of Land
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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 continent’s indigenes with imported ideas of might and right—ideas, 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 he’s 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.

Pub Date: May 1st, 1998
ISBN: 0-201-44214-0
Page count: 320pp
Publisher: Addison-Wesley
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1st, 1998


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