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'This Land Is My Land' Paints Sometimes Wacky Human Nature In Bright Colors

Remember Loompanics? It was that dicey little press skulking on the cultural fringes from the 1970s through the mid-2000s.

Even now there's something charming about Loompanics' vast list of books on self-reliance (the same charm, presumably, that attracts viewers to shows like Doomsday Preppers). Who, after all, hasn't occasionally contemplated pulling up stakes and heading off the grid? Loompanics was there to help. Its 2003 catalog, still findable on the Internet Archive, included books like Backyard Meat Production and The $50 and Up Underground House Book. Best of all were two titles on the ultimate act of societal defiance: How to Start Your Own Country and (if you weren't sure where to do this) Uninhabited Ocean Islands.

These books described setting up your own country as doable, exciting and politically potent. Under their sway, it could fleetingly seem like seizing some empty scrap of land and planting a flag was a triumphant act of freedom and self-definition. Now, though, Loompanics is no more. Instead, if you're interested in self-made countries, you might turn to Andy Warner and Sofie Louise Dam's This Land is My Land: A Graphic History of Big Dreams, Micronations and Other Self-Made States.

Loompanics' approach to DIY countries combined practical how-tos with an edgy political attitude; Warner and Dam veer decisively away from such downbeat stuff. Bubbling with madcap energy, This Land slaps the eye with sunshine colors and seduces with doodly lines. The authors seem positively high on the wackiness of the various communities they chronicle — or, more precisely, on the oddball aspects of human nature such places highlight.

The result is a bright, frictionless treatment of a topic that could have been controversial in other hands. The art is full of playful experiments with composition and seemingly endless variations on some of the stories' most common themes. The latter indicate just how creative the authors are, since most micronations and utopias tend to have similar histories. A guy (it's almost always a guy, though the roving lesbians who called themselves the Van Dykes were a colorful exception) and possibly some followers find a place where the nearest government hopefully won't notice them. They throw up a few rickety structures (though, again, there are exceptions, like the elaborate Alpine tunnels of the Temples of Humankind). Sometimes they declare themselves princes and princesses and issue stamps. Sometimes they even get a rudimentary economy going. But after a while, usually, the aforementioned nearby government decides enough is enough and crushes them.

Faced with this unavoidably repetitive script, Warner is undaunted. His unflappable cheer infuses even the most short-lived or featureless communities with interest. The more extraordinary ones are utterly mesmerizing. There's Auroville, within the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, a spiral-shaped city built by a female guru and her followers in 1964. Its massive golden dome, the Matrimandir, still attracts tourists. There's Freedom Cove, in British Columbia, a self-sufficient floating estate constructed by two artists in the '90s. The couple must continually rebuild as Pacific winds rip parts of the structure away. There's Libertatia, a possibly mythical community that's believed to have been founded by pirates and former slaves off the coast of Madagascar in the 1600s. Supposedly, they established democratic rule and created their own language.

You can't get tired of stories like these. There are a couple of problems marring This Land, though. The biggie is the lack of footnotes. When it comes to this topic — bristling as it is with the self-made myths of self-made kings — it's important to say where you're getting your information. Also, some of the communities on the Pacific Rim get short shrift. The stories of Xieng Khuan and Sala Keoku, built on the Thai-Laotian border over decades since the '50s, and the "Chicken Church" in the forests of Indonesia are particularly unsatisfying.

Even so, Warner and Dam have infused these often-absurd stories with joy and a measure of dignity. There's a real poignancy to the collapses or crackdowns that end so many of these tales. But as Warner notes, an eclectic assortment of independent communities is still hanging on out there in the world. He makes the fact of that survival a testament to the human spirit — kind of like Loompanics did, but with less backyard meat.

Etelka Lehoczky has written about books for The Atlantic, The Los Angeles Review of Books and The New York Times. She tweets at @EtelkaL.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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