Princeton University Press, 2019. $19.95, 200 pages.
“There are many ways to claim a terrain — by force and by force of the imagination, by cartography and story telling,” writes author and Columbia law professor Jedediah Purdy in This Land Is Our Land. This slim book, adapted from a series of lectures, is a wide-ranging riff and meditation on land and its central, often paradoxical role in the creation of American wealth, identity, and inequality. “This is a material story with an ecological face,” Purdy writes, “a story about the terms of land making that made American wealth so unequal.”
This Land does not offer a boots-on-the-ground exploration of landscape. The terrain Purdy is most interested in is political, the ideological crags and fault lines that have come to define civic life in twenty first-century America. Using flashpoints of U.S. land politics as focal points, Purdy examines the common roots of the words nature and nationalism, exploring how the American landscape has been trans formed into a political battleground — particularly the lands of the American West, where mining and logging companies have profited from the destruction of the public domain for decades and, more recently, where public lands ranchers like Cliven Bundy and Dwight Hammond have become martyrs in a conservative news melodrama. “There has never been enough public space for the contending publics who want it,” Purdy writes. “The land exemplifies the country all too truly: it is the site of fights over whose country is being taken away, who is the patriot and who is the usurper or trespasser.”
Like Henry David Thoreau, one of the book’s central figures and muses, Purdy can move swiftly along a trail of thought, but he’s more of a peak bagger, a seeker of high vantages, than a long-distance trekker. In his effort to make these linkages, he climbs rapidly, tightroping slender ridges between the summits of distantly related ideas. The results can be exhilarating, such as when Purdy adroitly sums up the dilemma faced by workers in extractive industries, whose economic fortunes are tied to the destruction of water, land, and air that they need to survive. “Power rearranges people on the land,” he writes. “Those who cannot control their environment are controlled by it.”
At other times his tracks disappear into heavy clouds of abstraction. For example:
In a time when sweeping ecological crises are rooted in the very structure of the economy, and the political will to change that structure is hard to muster partly because politics is fractured and sapped by mutual mistrust, a vision of economic reengineering and renewed social solidarity is an integral part of realistic climate policy.
It often seems as if he wants to get to the summit in a single bound.
Most conspicuous is Purdy’s blind spot for the ecological functions of public land — the vital refuge for plants and trees and fishes and mammals that these vast, vital, and politically constructed spaces pro vide. In This Land, the American landscape is presented mostly as a stage, an arena of “rock and dirt” in which human episodes of dispossession and exploitation play out. Purdy is at his best when he slows down, putting readers’ feet firmly on the ground. Particularly strong is “Reckonings,” where he examines the steep eco logical and social costs of mountaintop removal coal mining in West Virginia. “Both mountaintop removal and climate change, the iconic crisis of the age, are geological, changes in the chemistry and physical structure of the earth,” Purdy writes. “Both tell us we are . . . working our changes very deep, where they will not come out soon.” Though many writers have chronicled the erasing of whole mountains in West Virginia’s coal country, Purdy digs deeper, convincingly illustrating the ways in which “environmental vulnerability is intimately involved in American inequality,” showing that the debasement of this land is a debasement of ourselves.
Jeremy Miller lives in Richmond, California. His last story for Orion, “Two Kinds of Wilderness,” appeared in the March/April 2017 issue.