[This book offers an] interpretation of the changing circumstances in New England's plant and animal communities that occurred with the shift from Indian to European dominance. [In the book, the author] constructs [an] interdisciplinary analysis of how the land and the people influenced one another, and how that complex web of relationships shaped New England's communities.-Back cover.
Cronon is an excellent writer; he gives you a sense of what kind of source material he's working with without devolving into a footnote-fest. This book is broken up into thematic chapters, so it's easier if you know some of the characters (William Bradford) and dates (King Philip's War) beforehand, because they will reappear in each chapter in a different context. The non-chronological order works well, even if at times I wished I had some maps and timelines to keep it all sorted out.
Having grown up in New England, it's funny to contrast this book with the dominant myth of the thrifty Puritan. I'm sure I remember learning in elementary school about how colonial wives made their own bread in fire-powered stoves, but I sure didn't learn they were burning more than an acre of forest every year to do it!
The English settlers brought the English methods of farming, new concepts of property, and a market economy that overwhelmed the tribes and transformed the landscape. Forests were cleared, beaver were over-hunted, fences erected, new and domesticated animals and plants were introduced.
An added bonus in this 20th anniversary edition is a delightful afterword by the author reflecting on the book and how it came to be only through repeated serendipity. An added bonus for Wisconsin readers are his reflections on growing up in Madison as the son of a UW history professor and how those experiences shaped his professional life.
Cronon sagely instructs us to asks 'how so Alien a Then could have become so familiar a Now'. Changes in the Land also wrought changes in the way we think.
Cronon’s economic argument centers on the idea that European visitors’ and colonists’ response to New England was colored by their cultural baggage (valuation of the abundance they discovered was influenced by scarcity back home, as in the case of timber and firewood), and on the assertion that the colonists were part of a transatlantic capitalist market and drew the Indians into it as well (in his afterword, written on the twentieth anniversary of publication, Cronon seems to regret the slightly oversimplified depiction of “capitalism”). The pre-colonial landscape he describes is quite different from the trackless wilderness I’d always imagined, and Cronon’s detailed descriptions of the difference is one of the most attractive features of the book. Along the way, I picked up a lot of interesting details: for example, that the colonists were generally healthier and longer-lived than the people they left behind, since they were no longer exposed to the European disease environment (24). Of course, the diseases the colonists brought with them killed 90-100% of the Indians in many affected villages. But the Puritan settlers saw this as a sign of their God’s providence. (90)
Cronon observes that “Many European visitors were struck by what seemed to them the poverty of Indians who lived in the midst of a landscape endowed so astonishingly with abundance.” (33) He argues this is a misunderstanding of the Indian approach to life and land use. In a passage that reminds me a lot of Colin Tudge’s argument about agriculturalists and hunter-gatherers in Neanderthals, Bandits and Farmers, Cronon says that not only did the Indians have a noncommercial value-system that led them to shun accumulation, but they were actually managing their environment in sophisticated ways that the colonists completely failed to recognize. Burning the forest understory created “edge” environments preferred by game animals. Gardening in “tangles” of maize, beans, and squash maximized crop yields, reduced erosion, and increased soil fertility (relative to the colonists’ monoculture). (43, 51)
Cronon’s point is that the Indians had a more stable, sustainable approach to their environment than did the colonists. He frequently accuses the colonists of “mining” the soil, but the fact that their society treated land as a commodity doesn’t necessarily mean that individual farmers deliberately set out to put short-term gains before sustainability. Cronon may be leaning too heavily on Frederick Jackson Turner when he assumes the colonists all simply planned on moving west when they’d exhausted their farms.
The Indian approach clearly required mobility, which made it incompatible with settled European agricultural culture. In another passage that Tudge echoes in his 1998 book, Cronon contrasts the Indians’ seasonal migrations with the colonists’ construction of fences – even their pastoralism was sedentary! Cronon admits that Indian “conservation…was less the result of an enlightened ecological sensibility than of the Indians’ limited social definition of ‘need.’” (98) He invokes Leibig’s Law to explain low Indian population densities (“biological populations are limited not by the total annual resources available to them but by the minimum amount that can be found at the scarcest time of year” 41), but doesn’t elaborate on the mechanism of population control (was it by restricting fertility, or by the starving of the weak?). Clearly, though, the Indians are the “good guys” in Cronon’s account. (I don’t disagree, I’m just pointing it out)
The second half of the book continues these arguments but doesn’t extend them much. Cronon throws in several interesting items for me, though. Springfield, begun by William Pynchon in 1636, was the latest in a string of “fur posts” on the Connecticut River. (99) English colonists who had been restricted by the Game Laws in their home country, overhunted to the point that “Hunting with us,” said Timothy Dwight, “exists chiefly in the tales of other times.” (101) A typical New England household consumed thirty to forty cords of firewood a year.” (120) “Roads…were typically between 99 and 165 feet wide…since they facilitated moving large herds to market.” (140) And Narragansett sachem Miantonomo made a speech in 1642 that complained about ecological degradation and warned “we shall all be starved” (162), so the colonists assassinated him in 1643. Overall, Changes in the Land is a very good read. Cronon makes a strong case for and environmental understanding of early America, and the book helped establish the field of Environmental History in the US.
Changes in the Land is an
Likely what will prove most surprising to many is the great variety that New England's topography offers.