THE HABIT OF TURNING THE WORLD UPSIDE DOWN
by Howard Mansfield
“I absolutely love this book, a thoughtful, sometimes heart-breaking examination of the American idea of property. Although a stinging indictment of such concepts as private property and eminent domain, more than anything it troubles the definition of property versus land. This powerful book will slice you to the bone with its sweeping intelligence, austere poetics, and utter kindness. Mansfield is a modern explorer, sure-footed and consumed, uneclipsed, his a great mind, his a rousing voice. The essay “Three Days on a Warming Planet” brought me to my knees. Let me say again: I love this book.”
— Janisse Ray, author of Ecology of a Cracker Childhood
“A fascinating look at a subject we don’t think about often enough—and a subject which now informs a number of crucial debates, including whether big corporations are going to build some monster pipelines through the middle of people’s land.”
—Bill McKibben, author of Falter and The End of Nature
“The Fifth Amendment of the US constitution holds that private property cannot be taken without due compensation. All well and good. But what if a property owner does not wish to sell at any cost?
“This fine, wide-ranging overview recounts the intimate stories of regular families versus well-funded corporations seeking to acquire properties of private individuals who refuse to sell. This is an ancient conflict. It reaches back to the very roots of civilization, pitting peasants against kings and, in our time, corporations against people, but Mansfield manages to portray the complex legal wrangling that is common to such issues while at the same time capturing the personal stress that cases of this sort evoke.
“An entertaining read as well as a good lesson in collective citizen resistance.”
—John Hanson Mitchell, author of Ceremonial Time and Trespassing
“When land becomes property, lines will be drawn—between white and native peoples, utility companies and homeowners, coastal cities and rising seas. In The Habit of Turning the World Upside Down, Howard Mansfield walks these permeable borders, and delivers a rich and compelling exploration of the joys and perils associated with claiming our temporary place on earth.”
—Kate Whouley, author of Cottage for Sale, Must Be Moved
The always eloquent Mansfield conducts an evocative foray into the history of American property rights in this slim but enormously prescient title. In a series of related essays, he takes readers from the arrival of the Europeans (who “defined the Indians by what they didn’t own”) to George Washington’s land speculation career with the Adventurers for Draining the Dismal Swamp (a slave-labor-based company attempting to drain a Virginia swamp) to contemporary struggles defending private property rights against pipeline and transmission line developers. While he crafts strikingly evocative portraits of the people he profiles (his essay on farmer Romaine Tenney, who sacrificed everything to fight against the interstate barreling across his land, is simply unforgettable), it is the scalpel like precision with which Mansfield homes in on the relationship between Americans and the land that proves most perceptive. He accepts all the complexities of his chosen subject yet is gifted with an unerring eye for the true heart of the matter. “American property is always in motion,” he writes, but it is also “our anchor and our North Star.” Who decides the best use of property? Who truly owns it? Powerful insights live on these pages, and Mansfield’s observations matter now more than ever.
— Colleen Mondor, Booklist (starred review)
There comes a point early on in the reading of Howard Mansfield’s newest book The Habit of Turning the World Upside Down 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.
“..I was witnessing an essential American experience: the world turned upside down. And it all turned on one word: property.”
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 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.
— The Miramichi Reader
I’ve written about a number of Howard Mansfield’s books over the years here at bookconscious. Today on the bus back and forth to Boston I finished his latest, The Habit of Turning the World Upside Down, and I’m pleased to report that like all of his writing, it is both a delightful read and one that will leave you better informed and perhaps pensive. Mansfield has the gift of writing both clearly and intellectually. His topic this time is property, particularly the American concept of property as “the rock-solid part of our creed of individualism.” From the colonies to climate change, Mansfield traces the ways we’ve sought, fought over, bought or taken land, and how we associate land with identity and progress….
The book is definitely about hard things, but Mansfield doesn’t leave us entirely without hope. His suggestion for how to move forward is based in a Buddhist idea of accepting the reality of fragility, and living as if things are already “broken.” It’s interesting, and complicated, and thought provoking. And he lets Tocqueville have the last word, writing about the wilderness he saw as he traveled America, knowing that the American penchant for “progress” would conquer it: “It is this consciousness of destruction, this arriere-pensee of quick and inevitable change that gives, we feel, so peculiar a character and such touching beauty to the solitudes of America. One sees them with a melancholy pleasure; one is in some sort of hurry to admire them.”
If you live near a wild place that is transient — as most of us do — that will be developed, or drilled, or dug, or turbined, or covered in rising seas, go on. Hurry to admire them.
— Deb Baker, BookConscious.com