Facts about the earth are balanced with the championing of ordinary lives. Winchester tells us about Akira Aramaki, a second-generation Japanese strawberry farmer who was incarcerated in a concentration camp following Pearl Harbor and returned home to Bellevue, Seattle in 1944 to discover that his fields had been taken away from him. It is a tribute to one man’s struggle for justice that Aramaki is given an entire chapter to himself.
The best of the book’s many pertinent quotations and anecdotes is a remark made by the Duke of Edinburgh. Should he ever be reincarnated, the Prince once said, he would like to return as a deadly pathogen — ‘one that might solve human overpopulation and the harm it has persisted in visiting on the natural, God-given landscape’. Be careful what you wish for.
Winchester offers a mainstream account of these episodes, with some vivid portraits of their villains and victims. But other tragedies he covers — such as the plutonium pollution caused by lethal incompetence at the Rocky Flats factory on Denver’s outskirts, or the theft of land from Japanese farmers interned in California during the second world war — are smaller in scale and lesser known. His overarching thesis — overstated but not by much — is that struggles over land, and human hunger to possess it, lie at the root of most human conflicts.