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Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and…

Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England (1983)

by William Cronon

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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I just don't know how much I got out of this - it's def. aimed at scholars or autodidacts with some background studies. And some of it seemed like common knowledge by now, almost 30 years later. It's fairly short, with lots of addendum, but dry. Sorry I can't be more helpful to anyone considering reading it. Now I'm into [b:The Rural Life|1081559|The Rural Life|Verlyn Klinkenborg|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1344269055s/1081559.jpg|1068302] which is more poetic and personal, and enjoying it much more, and actually learning from it, too. ( )
  Cheryl_in_CC_NV | Apr 14, 2015 |
This is the first Environmental History book many students read. Partly because it’s one of the books that helped establish the field; partly because it covers a time period at the beginning of traditional American History courses (my own course includes two units before North American colonization, but lots of people still start there). Cronon begins with an introduction called “The View from Walden,” that not only acknowledges some of the changes Henry David Thoreau saw in his neighborhood, but explodes the idea that these changes represent some “fall” from a pristine, ahistorical initial state. The landscape is always changing, and was changed by the Indians before white people arrived. Cronon states: “There has been no timeless wilderness in a state of perfect changelessness, no climax forest in permanent stasis.” (11) Cronon criticizes first-generation ecologists for assuming that all systems tend toward a stable equilibrium, and also for assuming “humanity was somehow outside the ideal climax community.” (10) This may be unfair to ecologists, who recognized their error and developed more complicated systems theories, but it’s an instructive metaphor for historians.

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. ( )
1 vote Dan.Allosso | Dec 12, 2014 |
William Cronon is a genius, particularly how he frames the conflict between Indians and Colonists as a conflict between different systems of property ownership and to see how this intersected with the ecological processes and landscape of the region. In Cronon's analysis, although we still see how the English, with their newfound love for the commodity and the market, are still blameworthy, they were not the only ones involved in the scope of these changes as even beavers and bees took part in the creation of new lands and new markets. ( )
  sherief | Apr 26, 2011 |
Keep in mind that my interest regarding all books in this collection relates to research regarding the Podunks. A composite publication regarding them has not been written. Therefore, my reviews deal with each book’s contribution to this effort.

Changes in the Land is an interesting treatise regarding the "ecology of New England" relative to how the Native Americans contributed as well as the early colonists from western Europe. Of this entire publication, what has proven most valuable to me is the 30 page Biographical Essay which is well written and useful for anyone wishing to learn more about the environment of New England when the first settlers arrived and their impact upon it.

Likely what will prove most surprising to many is the great variety that New England's topography offers. ( )
  BobEverett | Jul 17, 2010 |
William Cronon's book was a seminal effort in 1983 that established a new way of thinking about history. It has stood the test of time. The book describes the modes and manner of the ecological impacts that English settlers had on the New England landscape in the colonial era. Some impacts were intentional, others not so much. For example, by the time first permanent settlements were established beginning at Plymouth in 1620, many Indian villages had already been devastated by European diseases (Europeans, especially fishermen had been frequenting the New England fisheries for decades).

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. ( )
1 vote dougwood57 | Dec 20, 2008 |
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Demos, JohnForewordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0809016346, Paperback)

The book that launched environmental history now updated.

Winner of the Francis Parkman Prize

In this landmark work of environmental history, William Cronon offers an original and profound explanation of the effects European colonists' sense of property and their pursuit of capitalism had upon the ecosystems of New England. Reissued here with an updated afterword by the author and a new preface by the distinguished colonialist John Demos, Changes in the Land, provides a brilliant inter-disciplinary interpretation of how land and people influence one another. With its chilling closing line, "The people of plenty were a people of waste," Cronon's enduring and thought-provoking book is ethno-ecological history at its best.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:02:03 -0400)

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