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

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Since the mid-1980s, William Cronon’s contributions to environmental history remain pivotal. Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (1992) combined environmental, ecological, and economic histories to explore the effects of the Midwest’s largest city on the region and surrounding lands. Likewise, Cronon’s earlier effort, Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England (1983) attempts to extend historical boundaries past “human institutions – economies, class, and gender systems, political organizations, cultural rituals – to the natural ecosystems which provide the context for these institutions.” Cronon cautions readers to not draw the wrong conclusions from his work. Though European and Native American ideas about property and land use differed, neither proved “purer” rather each illustrated ways humans altered the environment, “the reader must be very clear that the Indians were no more static than the colonists in their activities and organization. When I describe pre-colonial Indian ways of life, I intend no suggestion that they were somehow “purer” or more “Indian” than the ways of life Indians chose (or were forced into) following their contact with colonists.” (viii)

For the newly arriving European settlers, the landscape held, in addition to environmental and economic value, symbolic meaning. Cronon points out that for Enlightenment thinkers like Benjamin Rush, “the landscape was a visible confirmation of the state of human society. Both underwent an evolutionary development from savagery to civilization.” (6) In this way, Cronon notes that colonists did not arrive on “virgin lands” but rather an environment that had been altered by Native American practices. When these practices collapse in the face of colonial settlement, Cronon carefully notes that “The destruction of Indian communities in fact brought some of the most important ecological changes which followed the Europeans’ arrival in America. The choice is not between two landscapes, one with and own without human influence; it is between two human ways of living, two ways of belonging to an ecosystem. The riddle of this book is to explore why these different ways of living had such different effects on new England ecosystems.” (12)

Comparing pre-colonial Indian ways with the alterations brought by European settlement, one of the clearer observations that Cronon draws upon is the failure of Europeans to grasp the meanings behind Native American ecological practices. This lack of understanding emerge in several instances. For example, colonists failed to comprehend why Native Americans lived, in European eyes, in state of poverty, “the way Indians had chosen to inhabit that world posed a paradox almost form the start for Europeans accustomed to other ways of interacting with the environment. Many European visitors were stuck by what seemed to them the poverty of Indians who lived in the midst of a landscape endowed so astonishingly with abundance.” (33) Other examples of misunderstanding proliferated.

The division of labor between men and women among Native Americans confused colonists who viewed the men’s incessant hunting, a form of leisure in Europe, as lazy, viewing Indian women as indefatigable. Europeans not only used “Indian reliance on hunting not only to condemn Indian men as lazy savages but to deny that Indians had a rightful claim to the land they hunted. European perceptions of what constituted a proper use of the environment thus reinforced what became a European ideology of conquest.” (53) The occasional forest burnings that Native American tribes engaged in also confused European observers who failed to grasp the importance of managing the forest for plant and animal life. Most colonists believed forest burning simplified Native American hunting and travel, but Cronon points out fires helped to increase soil nutrients, destroyed plant diseases and pests, and “promoted the mosaic quality of New England ecosystems, creating forests in many different states of ecological succession.” (51)

In other cases, different understandings of a concept resulted in confusion. Cronon disputes ideas that Native Americans lacked any understanding of property, rather he points out they had a keen understanding of it but utilized it differently. The mobility of Native American settlements made property accumulation more burdensome. Moreover, property was often employed as gifts to neighboring tribes and the like. Since the role of kinship and personality played a larger role in Native American political society, property served as a way to gather allies and authority. Native Americans employed “usufruct rights” as a means of managing land. Cronon defines “usufruct rights” as “acknowledgments by one group that another might use an area for planting for hunting or gathering non-agricultural food on such lands, and no conception of deriving rent from them.” (62) Rules applied to hunting, gathering, and planting lands but often a tract of land could be used for multiple purposes by different groups so usufruct rights enabled them all to access the land. Though somewhat variable, usufruct rights were not “inherently exclusive” . (67)

What separated European and Native Americans understandings of property rested largely in commodization as Cronon notes, “more than anything else , it was the treatment of the land and property as commodities traded at markets that distinguished English conceptions of ownership from Indian ones.” (75) Likewise, commodities drawn from the land whether they be animal or plant, were now valued for their market place worth rather than utility. Taxes on the land itself required more than subsistence farming, drawing residents into colonial production and an orientation toward “market exchange”. Again, Cronon points out the any ecological changes “related to these commodities, we can safely point to market demand as the key casual agent.” (76) However, the “land-capital equation created two central ecological contradictions of the colonial economy.” (169) The colonists economic transformations conflicted with those of native Americans, but the adjustments of indigenous peoples to these changes contributed to such transformations. Secondly, the colonists own economic practices were “ecologically destructive.” (169)

For Native Americans, forced settlement meant that their former subsistence practices now had negative effects, “subsistence practices which had never before had deleterious ecological consequences began gradually to have them. Planting fields could no longer be so easily abandoned when their fertility declined and agricultural yields fell, making crops a less reliable source of food. Hunting to became more difficult.” (103)

Deforestation provided the “most sweeping transformations” as flooding became more common and certain species of trees (white pines, white cedars, and white oaks) due to colonial practices, diminished. Use of trees for fuel proved the largest reason for deforestation. The loss of trees meant more flooding and even changes in the landscape’s response to weather, “In wintertime, the effects of clearing produced even more complex set of changes in these relationships. Although cleared land tended to be colder in winter than forested land – because drier and more exposed to the effects of the wind chill – it received enough radiant heat from the sun to melt the snow more quickly … It was not, as some thought, that the weather itself was changed by clearing, but rather the way landscapes responded to the weather.” (123) New England colonists drove much of this deforestation since in European minds clearing marked another means toward civilization. Europeans saw deforestation as “the progress of cultivation”, they hoped to recreate the environment in the image of their home continent, “for the New England landscape, and for the Indians, what followed was undoubtedly a new ecological order; for the colonists, on the other hand, it was an old and familiar way of life.” (126) Pastoralism also undermined Native American subsistence patterns. In addition, the combination of deforestation, flooding, soil compaction, and intensive plowing led to increased soil erosion.

Native Americans were not passive in their responses. Indians both took advantage of new opportunities presented by Europeans while resisting those they viewed as threatening or dangerous. Such changes altered the identities of Native Americans. In this way, as Cronon points out, these adjustments had effects, “by ceasing to live as their ancestors had done, they did not cease to be Indians, but became Indians with very different relationships to the ecosystems in which they lived.” (164) Cronon concludes that the “transition to capitalism” led ot an alienation of the land’s resources and human labor, transforming “natural communities as profoundly as it did human ones. “ (170) The integration of the New England eco-systems into a capitalist global economy meant colonists and Indians played a role in ecological destruction

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