Whose Land Is It, Anyway?

A few years ago, I needed a filler job to pay the bills, so I hired on at a local customer service call centre. I was assigned to a contract for Highly Personal printers. My job was to help people who phoned in with problems or questions about their printers.

One day I took a call from a woman in the Bronx, Vera by name. Vera was Jewish, she told me, and wrote and produced a newsletter for Kurds.

The Middle East
I’ve always had a soft spot for the Kurds. They were never given any land of their own, back in the early 20th century when Europeans were dividing up the Middle East. The Kurds were pushed from pillar to post, but they never stopped trying for a peaceful settlement with Iraq, or Iran or Turkey or Syria, or whomever. And Vera wrote a newsletter about this and about the people.

We had a good chat about the Kurds, and after we had put in Vera’s order for a replacement printer and were waiting for the confirmation and shipping details, I asked if I could ask her a question. Sure, she said (actually, “shuah”—she’s from the Bronx).

“So . . . what do you think about Israel, Vera? I mean, is that a good thing?” I’d never been able to decide if carving out a Jewish state in the Middle East was wise, even if it was eminently understandable in the aftermath of the Holocaust.

Vera was silent for a bit. “You know,” she said at last, “every square foot of land on earth was owned by someone else at one time or another.”

The confirmation for her printer shipment came through at that point, so we said goodbye soon after. But I’ve often reflected on that observation, and it resonates whenever I re-read one of my favorite books, John MacNab.

I revisit this novel every few years, usually in August, the time of year in which the story takes place. It’s a light read and highly entertaining. It isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I love it because it’s set in Scotland and because I’ve been stalking there, so I know how hard that pastime is.

The story was written by John Buchan of Thirty-Nine Steps fame. It is one of his lesser-known books, a delightful tale of three eminent gentlemen who decide to turn to poaching to relieve their boredom. To up the ante slightly, they inform the owners of the three estates chosen for their depredations that John MacNab will collect a stag or a salmon from the estate between certain specified dates, thus assuring themselves of a warm welcome.

In short, John MacNab is Buchan’s way of exploring land rights. One of the substories concerns the discovery of ancient Norse ruins on one of the estates, ruins indicating that a thousand years earlier the land was owned and occupied by one Harald Blacktooth. In another substory a young woman tells her young man that no one should have the right to just sit on their property collecting rents; that ownership must be justified, not once but regularly, so that no owner can take his property for granted.

Buchan was Governor General of Canada during the thirties, and I sometimes wonder what his views on Indian land rights might have been. This is a subject that may underpin a sequel to my new book Return to Kaitlin, so I’ve been researching the question over the past few weeks. More on the subject down the road.


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