I decided to publish my write-ups from my comprehensive exam reading fields. I am publishing them *as is.* Thus they represent my thoughts as a new PhD student. They were written between September 2011 and July 2012.  The full collection is accessible here

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

William Cronon

Changes in the Land: IndiansColonists, and the Ecology of New England is a study of how the shift from a Native American to a European culture in New England during the colonial times not only changed the lives of people, but also affected change on plant and animal communities. As Thoreau questioned, Cronon asks “how did the ‘nature’ of New England change with the coming of the Europeans, and can we reasonably speak of its changes in terms of maiming and imperfection?” (5) Cronon states that his study is unique because it transcends the typical historical tale based in human institutions to include the history of natural ecosystems. Channeling the work of the Fernand Braudel and the longue duree, Cronon argues that the strength of an ecological history is that it can uncover processes and long-term changes. An ecological history, he writes, also asserts that environment and culture share an ever-shifting and intertwined relationship.

Continuing the conversation started by individuals such as Charles Elton and Alfred Crosby, Cronon also subscribes to the idea of ecological imperialism; however, he broadens the argument by including cultural imperialism in this process of invasion. Ecological pressures and ecological incentives play a dueling role in his narrative. Cronon states that one of his major objectives is to directly compare the pre-colonial ecosystems of New England to those found in the early nineteenth century. Despite concluding that the colonists’ participation in capitalism was the ultimate force of negative change in the ecology of the area, Cronon is adamant that the Indians were not passive individuals and that they did enforce change on their environment. However, due to their cultural differences, most importantly their conflicting understandings of property, Indians imposed less change than the Europeans.

The Native Americans had developed a culture that was well-suited and a direct product of their environment. The colonists on the other hand clung to the eco-culture that they had brought with them from Europe, even though it often was completely incompatible with their new situation. They criticized Indian life not based on reason, but because it was different from their own and because the Indians did not use natural resources in the manner to which they were accustomed. Upon landing, the Europeans did not fully understand the differences in their new home and sought to place order on the supposed chaos of the New World environment. As Cronon puts it, “wheras the natural ecosystem tended toward a patchwork of diverse communities arranged almost randomly on the landscape…the human tendency was to systemize the patchwork and impose a more regular pattern on it.” (33) As a result, the New England countryside was largely transformed into a landscape of fields and fences. Due to market pressures and mercantilism, many animals were overhunted and forests were cleared for timber and agriculture. These new habitats and open niches allowed for new species to come in, further changing the ecosystems. Flooding and rising temperatures ensued due to the loss of trees. In the meantime, a vast number of Indians were decimated by Old World disease and plagued by internal, tribal strife. As the nineteenth century dawned the world in which the Indians and colonists lived was vastly different than the one they had inhabited centuries before. However, the major cultural difference for the two groups, according to Cronon, was that this ecology was completely new to the Native Americans, but was very similar to the environment that the colonists had left in Europe; they had applied many of the same cultural and economic instruments with much the same end.

Like most environmental historians, Cronon has a contemporary, ideological motive. Although he does not overtly state it, it is quite obvious that he is very critical of the way in which the Europeans used the environment and treats the Native American way of life with much more positivity. He states that it is too easy to simply blame capitalism for the degradation of the New England environment and that it also suggests that no change had occurred in the region’s ecology before European arrival. Nonetheless, capitalism created a culture of extreme waste, the product of which he states we are living with today.  In the end, despite his efforts to disguise or assuage his bias, capitalism is the bad guy in Cronon’s story.

Feature Photo: Animals, Old Sturbridge Village – Sturbridge; Springtime has arrived at this living history museum and farm where one can explore colonial New England from 1790-1840.

Published by Jessica M. DeWitt

Dr. Jessica M. DeWitt is an environmental historian of Canada and the United States. She is passionate about the use of digital technologies to bridge the gap between the public and researchers. In addition to her community and professional work, she offers various editing and social media consultancy services.

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