The Habit of Turning the World Upside Down: Reviews

by Howard Mansfield
Bauhan Publishing
ISBN: 978-0-87233-270-6


“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

I found this book – The Habit of Turning the World Upside Down – as a book I’ve been looking for to be written for many years. So I’m glad you wrote it. It’s about a very important subject.
— Francesca Rheannon, introducing her interview with the author on her podcast, The Writer’s Voice. Listen here.

“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

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 ten 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. Mansfield’s lyrical narrative is both urgent and humane.
— Joan Silverman, Portland Press Herald

“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)

From the hosts of the podcast Infrastructure Junkies:

Dave Arnold:  I took Mansfield’s book off the shelf and “I began reading and it changed my life and my perspective…. The Habit of Turning the World Upside Down is now required reading for anybody who wants to come join my [legal] team.”

Kristen Short Bennett: “I’ve spent 16 years in the right of way industry. I have relocated over a thousand displacees. I have sat around countless kitchen tables explaining relocation benefits, listening to family histories, getting to know people from all walks of life.  I pride myself on my ability to build rapport with landowners and displaces, and I’d even consider myself to be empathetic with their situations. But this book changed me as well. It shifted my perspective on what we do and the people who are impacted.

“I’ll give you an example, and this might even be a little controversial. I have stated on this very podcast, I think multiple times, that we don’t take people’s property, we buy it. And I would like to today retract that statement. We absolutely do take it. We take it and they do not have a choice or a say in the matter. Oh, we pay them fair market value, sure. But we take it. And I don’t need to lie to myself anymore about what I do to sleep at night because I think that we do is important and it’s necessary. But it is not work that his done without tremendous sacrifice by people who did not choose to be part of the process.”

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,

The Habit of Turning the World Upside Down is an eloquent and occasionally heartbreaking exploration of the American notion of property, a deep dive into how something we take for granted today—the ownership of land—is infinitely more complex. I appreciate especially the historical look at how our legal system, which gives priority to the “exuberantly active” citizen over the quiet one, has shaped everything from the government’s disastrous interactions with indigenous peoples (who had a very different relationship to their land) to eminent domain property seizures that are leaving homeowners feeling robbed and defeated, and to the changing boundaries of our land itself as it is already, slowly, quietly, inexorably being altered by a changing climate. I’ll join in his lament that our laws favor corporations over individuals, “progress” over stewardship.

This is the first book I’ve read by Mansfield, and I found it probing and beautifully written, and also deeply caring. A collection of themed essays rather than an overarching narrative or argument, this book gave me so much to think about. After finishing it, I am carrying about with me Mansfield’s concluding metaphor that draws on a Buddhist notion of impermanence. This is a long view we need to hear and see more often. It was a pleasure to be in Mansfield’s intelligent company, and I look forward to reading other of his books.
— seidchen, LibraryThing

This is a well-researched and passionate exploration into the history of American property rights. The precision with which the author homes in on the relationship between Americans and the land is fascinating. Who decides the best use of property? Who truly owns it?
— BooksForYears, LibraryThing

“Pay attention to the stories of individuals courageously fighting in The Habit of Turning the World Upside Down.