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  • Ken Ilgunas

The making of “This Land Is Our Land”

So I recently finished my third book, This Land Is Our Land, to be published in the spring of 2018 by Dutton, a Penguin Random House imprint.

The book proposes something many will consider radical: opening up private land for public recreation. I have much to say about the “right to roam,” but I’d like to use this space to talk about how the book came to be.

The idea for the book came about during a dinner table conversation at my friend David’s home in North Carolina. I was living elsewhere at the time, but I was driving through North Carolina on my Trespassing across America book tour.

Either I was talking about the recent Scottish law that opened up private land, or I was moaning about all the No Trespassing signs in North Carolina. I don’t know how it started, but I’m sure I at one point said something like, “Roaming ought to be considered a natural right!” David, seeing that I had more than a bit of passion for and knowledge of the subject, suggested I write a book about it.

Recognizing that I had this topic more or less to myself (in the U.S., at least) and reminding myself that I’d already done a great deal of research, I figured I could pump out a 20,000-word treatise that could be an e-book accompaniment to the paperback version of Trespassing across America. It would ultimately be an extension of my New York Times Op-Ed, “This Is Our Country. Let’s Walk It.” That one NYT article gave me the standing to write the book, and the reaction it got (many hundreds of reader comments) made me think this subject needed expanding.

Once my book tour was over, I went to work, crafting up a book proposal and planning chapters. Soon, I got the okay from my agent, my editor, and my publisher, and I had my third book contract and a $20,000 book advance.

Over the next few months, though, I began to see that the topic was too big for a 20,000-word book. I felt like the book should not just propose a radical idea, but that it should describe how land is being seized from the public, and how we’ve for decades been losing our green spaces to either development or private landowners. The book should go deep into American history: It should chart how our present understanding of private property came to be. Moreover, the book should go deep into human history: It should describe how different cultures and different peoples understood property differently, from our hunter-gatherer past to urban-suburban present.

In time, 20,000 words would grow to 70,000. Six months turned to twelve. An e-book accompaniment turned into a legitimate paperback book. And, finally, I’d have to deal with the mess of 575 footnotes.

I often asked myself, “Why am I writing the book?” I have little hope that Americans will gain a “right to roam” anytime soon. I may very well be the only American, out of the 324 million of us, overtly calling for it. There are no groups or politicians calling for a right to roam. There are no magazine articles advocating it, nor organizations. Nothing and nobody. [There are about half a dozen law scholars in favor of a right to roam, but their works usually deal with the issue obliquely, often (and very helpfully) describing other countries’ systems.]

This was exciting: I had the subject all to myself. But it was also discouraging: I wasn’t sure if there would be an audience for the book. Being the author of a book that proposes something nobody else is advocating can be lonely, even a little scary. Will I be ridiculed by critics? Will I be attacked by the Twitterverse? Or, worst of all, will I be completely written off and ignored–an author’s worst fear? But one ought not write a book that has nothing new to say, and mine certainly has plenty to say. And as scary as the book was, it was exciting: I’d get to be a sort of “thought pioneer,” even if a lot of my thinking draws from current countries and centuries-old history.

My work, though, began to feel particularly pointless when, halfway through, Trump got elected. The whole country seemed to be sliding into the Dark Ages and here I was, talking about something as terribly important as… walking rights?

The election took the wind out of my sails, but I sailed on when I began to think about the book not as a book for the twenty-first century, but as a book for the twenty-second. It’s critical we work to fix the concerns of the present (no one would argue that), but I also think it’s necessary for a few of us to set aside the immediate now to think about the possibilities of the deep future.

I’ll be the first to admit that we have graver problems than our problems of nature-deficit disorders and recreational access. Racial inequality, environmental justice, prison reform, climate change, a broken political system are issues more serious and more pressing. So, at times, I’d feel guilty for focusing on something so un-immediate and faraway. It was like I was planning for a far-fetched future while the rest of the country was hard at work, focused on fixing the difficult problems of today.

But the truth is that the difficult problems of the present already have their champions–champions with greater expertise and greater passion for their subjects. The right to roam, though, was practically my own. That’s not to say that I care about the right to roam more than anything else. That’s not the case at all. I care about climate change, wealth inequality, and a number of subjects more. But those subjects have their share of experts, whereas the subject of roaming only had me.

I remember listening to a Tim Ferriss podcast interview with co-founder of Wired, Kevin Kelly. Kelly said that he has had tons of ideas for books, but that he tries to give those ideas away. He only writes a book when he knows he’s the only person who can write it. And I suppose I felt this way about This Land Is Our Land, that I was the only person who could write it.

Why? Firstly, it’s emotional: I have always been unusually irked by unnecessary “No Trespassing” signs. The idea that someone could selfishly close off access to land for one’s exclusive use has always seemed plainly unjust. Let’s say I’ve always been predisposed to an open roaming culture. Secondly, I literally trespassed across America when following the Keystone XL, an experience that gave me a one-of-a-kind perspective on private land and what natural glories lie behind all our fences and barbed wires. Thirdly, from my research, I’d been acquainted with the roaming laws of Scotland, Sweden, and England. Knowing that these systems not only existed, but worked, made the idea seem less fantastical and more possible. It made me think that it’s something we should discuss, whether in this century or the next.

There are a few property law scholars who could write this book, and who could have written the legal parts of it with much more ease, but I felt that the subject wouldn’t gain a proper audience if written purely from a legal point of view. I thought that my voice, which combines interests in land use, philosophy, pop culture, history, and nature writing (plus a memoirish touch here and there), might do a better job helping the idea spread than that of a more restrained legal voice. (Legal scholars tend to be dispassionate in their prose and conservative in their ideas, always judging what can or cannot be done based on a few Supreme Court cases. My healthy distance from the law gave me a bit more room to be bold.)

Looking back, I see a book crammed with research and interviews and I ask myself how I did it in the space of a year. But this is how it works: one question leads to another question, which leads to another and another. Once you’ve answered all your questions with research, you’re done. This book was propelled by curiosity. Every enthusiastic researcher, I think, has a bit of the explorer in him, because to him the uncovering of a long-hidden fact, or quote, or idea may be just as exhilarating as cracking open a chest of buried treasure.

But it was also propelled by something else, something close to heresy. There is something exciting (dangerous, even) about saying what has yet to be said, about trying to make a country think critically about itself, about being the first to stick your neck out there. In ways, I welcome (even desire) the criticism, the malice, the ire, as any true heretic might.

I mentioned before how I thought the right to roam was somehow irrelevant to our present times, but after researching the subject I began to see that many of our present-day issues are tied to how we use and own land. We see the same sort of inequality in land ownership that we see in wealth. We see racial groups underrepresented in their ownership of land and their access to green spaces. We see an isolated Bowling Alone society, cut off from one another and scared of everything. We see growing obesity in adults and kids. We see an America that is blind to the ecological atrocities committed on private farm land. We see forces that want to privatize the public, exploit the sacred, and favor individual liberty over the common good. And so my book went from the twenty-first century, to the twenty-second, and came back again to the twenty-first, oddly relevant in the age of Trump.

It remains to be seen how the book will land when it comes out in 2018, when our backwards-looking president and Republican-led Congress will likely still be in power. Readers may very well be too fixated on the slow-motion train wreck we all can’t look away from, or just maybe we’ll all be itching for something new.


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