Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England
By William Cronon
William Cronon is a scholar from Rhodes who has a doctorate in philosophy from Oxford. He taught history of the American West and American urban history at Yale.
The main argument forwarded by Cronon in the book “Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England” are the following: first, that the way cultures conceptualize property and ownership is a major factor in the economies and ecosystems. The second was that the Indians were active intervenors in and shapers of the ecosystems in the environment they revolved in.
Changes in the Land by William Cronon focuses on the history of New England, specifically the colonists relations with the environment. Cronon aims to write an “ecological history” of colonial New England in this book. He also makes it clear that it “is not a history of New England Indians, or of colonial relations, or of the transformation of English colonists from Puritans to Yankees.” All throughout the book, Cronon talks about the natural and human influences on the natural ecosystem.
Before the colonists came, the American Indian were surprisingly adept in taking care of the and and increasing its productivity without sacrificing its welfare. They plant beans with corn and set fires to forest every year in order to clear the underbrush and produce crops of strawberries, blackberries and other berries.
However, when the Europeans came, new farming methods were introduced. Instead of working with nature, they worked against it by burning out the entire forest. They also ignore acidic or sandy soils, choosing to cultivate instead the rich soils under the trees when it is apparent that trees make the soil rich the same way that the soil helps the trees.
The first chapter talks about inconsistencies in history records. He states that it is “tempting to believe that when Europeans arrived in the New World they confronted Virgin Land, the Forest Primeval, a wilderness which had existed for eons uninfluenced by human hands,” but “nothing could be further from the truth.”
Too often historians paint an idyllic picture of New England of old. It is easy to believe that the natural world in the olden times was unchanged. “There has been no timeless wilderness in a state of perfect changelessness, no climax forest in permanent stasis.”
All cultures make use of their environment therefore, control of environment was unavoidable. The “Noble Redman” was a myth. The Native Americans could have utilized the environment in a different way but that did not make them better than the European colonists. Both the Native Americans and the European explorers used the environment in their own way which led to different results. “The choice is not between two landscapes, one with and one without a human influence; it is between two human ways of living, two ways of belonging to an ecosystem.”
The book is persuasive as it explores the differences of their ways of living and the effects on New England environment. Chapters two and three paint the environment of New England when the Europeans arrived. Cronon used a number of sources to recreate a better picture particularly the accounts by European settlers on New England environment before colonial times. Cronon left out erroneous and vague accounts, mentioning only the certain and the common impressions of the many.
Chapter four is about the colonists’ use of the environment such as dividing the land. This act according to Cronon stemmed from capitalism and the growing number of inhabitants in the land. Chapter five covers the fur trade, practiced by the colonists and Native Americans alike, but was mainly the responsibility of the European colonists.
The succeeding chapters talk about deforestation, “one of the most sweeping transformations wrought by European settlement,” primarily done to establish a “new” England separate from “mother” England. Cronon believes that the most important changes in land use were domesticated animals, particularly the swine and the plow, which destroyed native vegetation and allowed foreign weeds to spread in New England. This, in turn, enticed a growing number of “animal weeds” such as the Hessian fly to inhabit the place.
The last chapter tackles a very interesting point regarding the influence of capitalism on the European colonist. He believes that there is direct correlation between the deterioration of the environment in New England to the spread of capitalism because “English property systems encouraged colonists to regard the products of the land—not to mention the land itself—as commodities.” Due to this mentality of the Europeans, Cronon says “they assumed the limitless availability of more land to exploit, and in the long run that was impossible,” and concludes that “the people of plenty were a people of waste.”
From the book, one can glean that Capitalism both has positive and negative effects to the environment. That land is not a commodity. It is not a renewable resource that one can use over and over again without negative effects. It is imperative therefore that each of us should take care of our lands and environment. That, we should instill in each and every person the need to protect the environment so we can all enjoy a sustainable future.
This sentiment of preserving the environment echoes not only during colonists time but more so today. The need to make our environment sustainable by promoting environmentally-friendly practices are getting more pronounced than ever. With the threats of global warming and climate change plaguing our generation, learning how to take care of the environment is certainly a predominant issue in our times.
The ecology underwent 400 years of devastation under the hands of the colonists. How to revert the environment to its natural state is now a question our generation faces. Replanting trees would be a good way for us to start.
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