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.
The Great Meadow: Farmers and the Land in Colonial Concord
Brian Donahue, while trying to determine why Concord’s forests had been cleared and then allowed to grow back, discovered that there was a glitch in the traditional assumption that the changes in the New England landscape had been caused by incessant environmental degradation on the part of Europeans and their descendents since they took their first step off the boat. Through intense analysis of the land use techniques of colonists by way of mapping the original land grants using GIS, Donahue determined that until the nineteenth century, colonial farmers had fostered a sustainable, agricultural system. Like in Cronon’s New England, White’s Washington, and Stewart’s Georgia, the European colonists in Donahue’s narrative came to Concord with a distinct plan for the land based on their prior experiences and institutions in England. However, unlike the other three accounts, Donahue does not illustrate this initial transplantation of techniques as a forced and damaging occurrence, but rather as a peaceful and sustainable process.
“Colonial mixed husbandry,” Donahue states, “was an ecologically sustainable adaptation of English mixed husbandry to a new, challenging environment.” (xv) The main incentive for this sustainability was that these colonists, much like the Native Americans in the area, planned to stay there for generations to come, and thus, ruining the land would also ruin their own and their children’s futures. This is not to say that the colonists did not change the land, as Donahue asserts that they were clearly some of their first participants in Turner’s American frontier myth, a people destined by God to tame and redeem the wilderness. However, the change that they wrought, at first, did not cause a great deal of harm to the environment. As a sustainable farmer himself, Donahue contends that he is in a unique position to fully appreciate the balanced system that the colonists developed.
The fences and patchwork nature of the colonial, agricultural landscape that Cronon views critically take on a much more positive function in Donahue’s narrative. According to Donahue, these different areas represented the fact that the colonists were using the diverse regions of the landscape to the best of their natural ability. As the title suggests, the Great Meadow was the most influential piece of the patchwork, while the pastures were the pieces that were changed most significantly from their original form. The waterways and even the woodlands were respected as crucial pieces of the puzzle and thus equally exploited and conserved. Property was divided so that every family was able to have access to each natural resource. By the mid-eighteenth century, Donahue states that the colonists had perfected the process of transforming English mixed husbandry to fit the unique, natural characteristics of their new home. Again, this does not mean that the land was not changed, in fact it was very different from the one to which they had initially come. However, they had managed to replace the natural, biologically diverse environment with one that was new, but equally as diverse. Thus, Donahue directly connects sustainability to diversity. Also important to his thought process is the fact that he does not think that avoiding degradation and achieving sustainability are the same thing. The challenge in the nineteenth century that led to a turning point in colonial agriculture and environmental management was not due to degradation on the part of the earlier colonists. Rather, it was due to an increase in population that put a strain on the resources as they were fixed at that point. Needing to make a change, the residents of Concord succumbed to the temptations of capitalism, and that is when the actual degradation, that Thoreau would remark upon later in the century, began.
Feature Photo: “The North Bridge” by ashokboghani, Concord Massachusetts