October 26, 2005

Changes In The Land

Changes In The Land: Indians, Colonists and the Ecology of New England by William Cronon chronicles the drastic and multi-causal changes in New England ecosystems between 1600 and 1800.

Describing in detail the far reaching transformations in communities of organisms, Cronon attempts to convey that the colonization of New England was far more radical than a simple addition of domesticated plants and animals to a ‘pristine’ ecosystem, or even the plunder of game and lumber. Though Indian and colonial approaches towards land management were mutually exclusive, the forests of New England were as planned and cultivated as the farmlands that came to replace them. However the settlers, unable to see the value of publicly held resources, rapidly consumed the biological wealth that allowed them to dream of a life of easy bounty.

Early explorers and colonists saw the richness of the fish, game and forests through the lens of the English commodity and property markets. Coming from a country in which every piece of land and every animal on it was claimed by some individual, New England looked like a miraculously unattended marketplace. Seeing the Indians live there in comfort without the benefits of herds of domesticated animals or an individual title that guaranteed access to a plot of farmland led them to believe that life there would be effortless.

Yet for thousands of years, the people and animals of New England had traveled at will over a land sheltered by native trees and fertilized by fire. This migratory lifestyle was not only made possible by the richness of the land, it was a force for its active maintenance. When the colonists insisted that all the people and animals stay within permanent enclosures and cleared the trees away, they burned through both the accumulated wood and soil in less than 200 years. The ‘free’ goods enjoyed by the Indians succumbed to over-harvesting, domesticated animals and their pests, and were eventually followed by the basic commodities of soil and microclimate that allowed for English style agriculture.

The best summary of the colonists’ experience over the 200 years covered in the book may be something Charles Dickens wrote in David Copperfield, “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pound ought and six, result misery.” The early colonists failed to place a value on anything that wasn’t obviously owned by their standards of property and the decimated Indians were soon in no position to argue otherwise. Having come from a long domesticated country, they had no adequate system of accounting for food that hadn’t been planted or animals that didn’t have to be fed. The current residents of New England survive there now only because the vast plains of the Midwest and the global food markets essentially offer takeout.

The extraction economy of England and other European colonial powers didn’t begin with the colonization of New England, but neither did it end when the land there was no longer able to support the rich food production it once had. While the forests there stood, they supplied England and deforested island colonies with timber. When the timber ran out and the farmland failed, the early Americans pushed their boundaries farther out into gently managed Indian lands. When the rich croplands they took over in the center of the continent began to run down over the past century, ancient stores of oil were used to breathe a little more life into them.

Cronon has painted a picture of a ravenous civilization on the move, slowly running out of free lunches. We haven’t changed a bit.

Posted by natasha at October 26, 2005 12:37 AM | Agriculture | Technorati links |

This looks like a really good read, I'm going to pick it up right away.

Posted by: Ron Beasley at October 26, 2005 03:26 PM