Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Changes in the Land

Pictures of my own altered (altared?) New England landscape, Gilmanton, New Hampshire, summers of 2005 and 2006.

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

William Cronon, of the history department at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Author of Nature's Metropolis (1991) and editor of Uncommon Ground (1996). Cronon penned the paradigm-shifting essay "The Trouble With Wilderness: Or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature", which was included in Uncommon Ground, and which I will write more about when I get to that book. Also author of the awesomest-ever essay on abandoned towns in the West: "Kennecott Journey, or, The Paths out of Town" (in Under an Open Sky: Rethinking the Nation's Western Past [1992], which he co-edited with Jay Gitlin and George Miles). "KJ" is available in PDF form on Cronon's site.

Argument: The ecological transformation of the New England countryside after the arrival of European settlers was intimately tied up with the worldviews, expectations, and social structures of the two major human groups inhabiting the area: the settlers and the Indians. Cronon asks how this transformation, which was so great that "the Indians' earlier way of interacting with their environment became impossible", came about. In the process, he describes the processes used by the Indians and the settlers to shape the landscape to their needs, and examines the ecological effects of these processes (which included agriculture, burning of forests, use of water, and the husbandry of livestock).


Part 1: Looking Backward
1. The View from Walden
: Using Thoreau to exemplify a later European romantic misunderstanding of the nature of the land before European settlement, Cronon seeks to establish the terms of his examination, which will emphasize the point that the Native Americans, too, had evolved a set of practices of living-on-the-land: "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" (12).

Part 2: The Ecological Transformation of Colonial New England

2. Landscape and Patchwork
: What did settlers find when they arrived in New England? Cronon here focuses on both attitudes of settlers and on the actuality of the landscape (as opposed to Kolodny, who sticks closer to attitudes). The land was not "untouched", but rather was a "patchwork", he argues, due to Indian use of agriculture and of burning to create more favorable forest configurations.

3. Seasons of Want and Plenty: This chapter contains information about agricultural practices on both sides of the settler-Indian equation. Englishmen expected to be able to live in America much the same way that they lived in England, which led to what you could call "misunderstandings" between them, the Indians, and the land itself. Instead of following seasonal abundancies of natural resources, as the Indians did, settlers expected to be able to control rhythms of agricultural production and to be able to keep livestock year-round. This was a moral issue for them: they didn't see why Indians went hungry in winter, if they could over-produce in summer and save for the lean times of February. (Settlers also thought Indians were barbarous for giving their women complete control of the fieldwork.) Meanwhile, the kind of monoculture that the settlers practiced would eventually prove destructive to the soil. Here is more on the Indian patterns of burning, and on settler perceptions of the same (they didn't see it as directed, but rather characterized it as out-of-control or wild).

4. Bounding the Land: Settlers pointed to Indian habits of moving villages depending on times of year or fertility of land when citing the principle of "vacuum domicilium" in order to take Indian land. This idea held that the Indians did not actually improve upon the land, but merely hunted it, and thus did not deserve to keep it (in this case, "hunting" was given negative connotations of unplanned leisure or sport, rather than being seen as an essential survival activity, which it was). Here, Cronon discusses conflicting ideas of property on the two sides: Indians would often sell or give what they assumed were usufruct rights, while Englishmen took the sale to mean that they now had control over entire pieces of tribal land.

5. Commodities of the Hunt: Cronon enters the realm of debates over the involvement of Indians in the fur trade. For his part, he argues that epidemics had destabilized the Indian social order to the point where some Indians saw the prestige goods offered to those who would hunt beaver as an opportunity to establish themselves as powerful in a new, post-sickness order. "Animals...had fallen victim especially to the new Indian dependence on a market in prestige goods...the Indians, not realizing the full ramifications of what that market meant, and finally having little choice but to participate in it, fell victims too: to disease, demographic collapse, economic dependency, and the loss of a world of ecological relationships they could never find again" (107).

6. Taking the Forest: Here, Cronon describes the marketing of the New England forest, for fuel, buildings, or for exporting as the masts of ships. The deforestation of the landscape caused runoff, no longer controlled by the roots of trees; the reduction of edge-dwelling animal species; changed the species composition of forests; and, writes Cronon, "where forests were destroyed, the landscape became hotter in summer and colder in winter" (126).

7. A World of Fields and Fences: A further description of settlers' agricultural practices, including particularly their use of livestock, which caused conflicts between settlers and Indians over ranging (see Coleman; Lepore; also Virginia DeJohn Anderson, Creatures of Empire) and continued the process of soil erosion.

Part 3: Harvests of Change
8. That Wilderness Should Turn a Mart: Cronon asks WHY these major changes of species composition, extirpation, deforestation, soil erosion had to take place, and answers that "capitalism and environmental degradation went hand in hand" (161) - but notes that this analysis "makes that change seem too sudden and unicausal", when, in fact, the diseases brought by Europeans had a major effect on social composition in the new world, and pastoralism had predated capitalism in the Old World by thousands of years. However, he sums up, none of these factors would have come into play if the Europeans had never taken it upon themselves to move onto their "new" continent: "Economic and ecological imperialisms reinforced each other" (162).

In the Journal of American History, Karen Kupperman liked the way Cronon synthesized diverse sources and focused them "through the lens of ecological concerns", but faulted him for being too credulous while interacting with his colonial sources, and for failing to incorporate any information about larger-scale climate change during the time period, which might also have caused ecological shifts. Meanwhile, in the Western Historical Quarterly, Bernard Sheehan called this new ecological focus on mostly-old material a "revelation" for most historians, but called Cronon out for what I noticed, too: that although he's careful not to call the Indians "more ecological", he still betrays a certain preference for their way of living on the land. (Hard not to do, considering the evidence.)

Vocab words:
"coppice" ("a small wood or thicket consisting of underwood and small trees grown for the purpose of periodical cutting"); "usufruct" ("the right of temporary possession, use, or enjoyment of the advantages of property belonging to another, so far as may be had without causing damage or prejudice to this"); "severality" ("individual or particular points, matters, or objects").

Books to follow up on: Secondary:
David Hackett Fischer, Historians' Fallacies (1970); Calvin Martin, Keepers of the Game: Indian-Animal Relationships and the Fur Trade (1978); Ronald Tobey, Saving the Prairies: The Life Cycle of the Founding School of American Plan Ecology, 1895-1955 (1981).

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