Customer Reviews: Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICEon September 29, 2011
I only picked this up in support of the author after I read a bit about his role in the recent Wisconsin protests and the repercussions he faced therefor. I didn't actually expect to like the book. It sounded like a dry, academic study of a topic I wasn't much interested in. I couldn't have been more wrong. This book is not only fascinating and illuminative of a much overlooked and misunderstood period in history, but it is also relevant to aspects of today's political and economic struggles.

Admittedly, the book gets off to a slow start. The first section explores what we are able to know about New England ecology before and during the colonial period, and the limitations on how we know it. The first chapter of the second section is an exploration of the diversity of New England ecology, both between the general northern and southern regions, as well as among the various "patchworks" of ecological areas within the two regions. These sections form a necessary base for the remainder of the book, but they are rather dry and academic.

But beginning with the chapter "Seasons of Want and Plenty", Cronon gets into the real meat of his argument: the differences between the ways Indians vs. colonists used the land and the fundamental incompatibility of the two.

I learned in school that the Indians had no system for surveying land, nor even a concept of land ownership. In fact, I learned, they didn't even believe land could be owned, and out of ignorance or for sport they would often sell the same parcel to different colonial groups, or to the same group multiple times. Cronon explodes the fallacy in that understanding. Indians did indeed have an understanding of land ownership, it's just that their understanding was fundamentally different from the colonists' understanding. Indians tended to own the land in common with their tribes, and various land use rights were recognized between and within the tribes. The right to hunt on certain land, for instance, could be sold - even sold to different parties - while still maintaining tribal ownership of the land itself.

But to the colonists, however, land ownership included all rights thereto and accrued to the individual owner thereof (although most colonial villages did have common areas of land). Therefore, one of the first acts of each successive group of colonists was to mark the boundaries of their property, generally by the use of a fence, thereby prohibiting any use by any other parties. From the start, the two ways of life were mutually exclusive.

Although the Indians, particularly in Southern New England, did practice agriculture, it was a semi-nomadic form of agriculture that depended on land use more than land ownership. The Indians tilled a particular field only for a few years before moving on and clearing another field, allowing the previous one to lie fallow and become overgrown. The Indians also made great use of controlled burning to clear fields. This prevented the decrease in soil fertility caused by overfarming, as well as creating great areas of borderlands between woodlands and fields, areas particularly hospitable to various berry plants and wildlife used for food and hides. These practices created the conditions for the great abundance of food, trees, and wildlife which so astounded the colonists.

Unlike the Indians who saw this "natural" abundance as simply a means of sustaining life according to the season, the colonists saw each particular resource as a commodity to be owned, used, exploited and sold for profit. Trees, for instance, were in great demand for building houses and ships, fuel for warmth during the long winters, and export especially because of England's tree shortage at the time. The means by which the colonists claimed, harvested and transported these resources, however, ultimately undermined the conditions necessary to supply such resources in such abundance. Trees were rapidly cleared to create fields, thereby leaving a dearth of trees for other purposes. Fields were planted at maximum levels with single crops year after year, thereby depleting soil fertility. Beaver and other animals were hunted to near extinction, at least within New England.

In fact, Cronon argues, this commoditization of the resources of the New World was the beginning of the rise of the capitalist economy in America, even though capitalism as it's understood today didn't truly develop until the Industrial Revolution.

Cronon's book is somewhat slim, but it is dense. It is packed with consideration of how little things impacted the ecology and economy in big and often unexpected ways. The colonists brought many unfamiliar organisms to the New World - seeds that grew to become invasive species, pigs that wreaked havoc with farming and gathering of berries, diseases for which the Indians had no defense. While many of the changes the colonists wrought were intentional, many were not, but the impact was just as great.

In addition to being a sweeping academic survey, Cronon's book is also a masterful narrative. He's not only listing the changes in different plant and animal species and the differences in land use, but he's telling a story of how those changes affected human lives, both the Indians and the colonists. It is a truly engaging account of the causes and effects which form the basis of the earliest history of our country and which still have echoes today.

Cronon was, it seems, a bit of a pioneer with this book. I've recently read several books which explore how advances in anthropology, archeology and ecology have led to enormous gains in knowledge of Indian cultures and have produced radical changes in our understanding thereof, but Cronon helped to set these advances in motion simply by considering and exploring the impact of seemingly small and minor things that most of us take for granted. Highly recommended.
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on April 29, 2006
William Cronon's book was a seminal effort in 1983 that established a new way of thinking about history. It has stood the test of time. The book describes the modes and manner of the ecological impacts that English settlers had on the New England landscape in the colonial era. Some impacts were intentional, others not so much. For example, by the time first permanent settlements were established beginning at Plymouth in 1620, many Indian villages had already been devastated by European diseases (Europeans, especially fishermen had been frequenting the New England fisheries for decades).

The English settlers brought the English methods of farming, new concepts of property, and a market economy that overwhelmed the tribes and transformed the landscape. Forests were cleared, beaver were over-hunted, fences erected, new and domesticated animals and plants were introduced.

An added bonus in this 20th anniversary edition is a delightful afterword by the author reflecting on the book and how it came to be only through repeated serendipity. An added bonus for Wisconsin readers are his reflections on growing up in Madison as the son of a UW history professor and how those experiences shaped his professional life.

Cronon sagely instructs us to asks 'how so Alien a Then could have become so familiar a Now'. Changes in the Land also wrought changes in the way we think.
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on May 27, 2004
Even though I live in San Diego, I found this book to be well worth the read. Dense but short, "Changes in the Land" gives a close reading to the ecological impact of British colonization in New England. As Cronon states in his conclusion, this transformation has ramifications far outside New England, since the environmental degradation that accompanied early colonization forced settlers farther and farther afield.
Twenty years after it was published, the scholarship is still, what I would consider "cutting edge". Cronon cuts across disciplines and primary sources to produce a nuanced model of the interrelationship of humans and the environment. Cronon's work is just as interesting for his (to me, anyway) novel technique of writing a history where the personalities of humans take a back seat to the consequnces of their decisions.
The effect is at once radical and main stream. Radical, in that Cronon strips away traditional justifications for human decisions that reinforce the implicit assumptions that cause those same decisions. Main stream, in that he manages to stay away from the hyperbole and argument that plague revisions of history.
I've also read Cronon's "Nature's Metropolis", which is his book about the development of the city of Chicago. I would recommend that book, as well as this one, to anyone interested in the subjects that Cronon covers. His scholarship is top notch.
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on June 8, 2006
This is not so much a book about New England per se as on how ecology should mould our understanding of history. For too long historians have ignored the ecological/environmental dimension to history, especially colonial history; and Cronon's book is one among a number of path-breaking works that serves to redress the balance.

As Cronon convincingly argues, the strength of ecological analysis in writing history lies in its ability to uncover processes and long-term changes which might otherwise remain invisible. Indeed, ecological change is used throughout the book as a window through which to uncover the complex long-term changes wrought by the arrival of the puritans to New England since the seventeenth century. The full impact of European colonisation cannot be understood apart from the new relationship they established with the New England ecosystem though their commoditisation of resources and their involvement in the international capitalist economy, both of which greatly impacted the land and its previous inhabitants, the Indians. These changes were cultural as much as they were simply environmental or economic: the arrival of the pig, for one, was bound in a cultural relationship to, among other things, the fence, the dandelion, and a very special definition of property.

Of course, the book also offers up fascinating insights into the changing New England landscape from 1600 to 1800. It corrects misconceptions about an unchanging primeval forest before the arrival of the Europeans, or of Indians as passive agents in subsequent changes wrought. It also establishes the origins of the environmental problems in the region such as deforestation, soil erosion, and resultant climate changes - the legacy of which we still live with today.

If this book interests you, so should other landmark studies on ecological or environmental history, such as Alfred Crosby's `Ecological Imperialism' or Donald Worster's `Dust Bowl'.
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Historian William Cronon was one of a group of scholars that pioneered a new and improved way of understanding the past. Environmental history put the spotlight on many essential issues that were ignored by traditional history, and this made the sagas far more potent and illuminating.

His book, Changes in the Land, is an environmental history of colonial New England. It documents the clash of two cultures that could not have been more different, the Indians and the settlers. It describes the horrific mortality of imported diseases, and two centuries of senseless warfare on the fish, forests, soils, and wildlife.

The prize at the bottom of the box is a mirror. The patterns of thinking that the colonists brought to America are essentially our modern insanity in its adolescent form. We are the unfortunate inheritors of a dysfunctional culture. It helps to know this. It helps to be able to perceive the glaring defects, things we have been taught to believe are perfectly normal.

Cronon was the son of a history professor, and his father gave him the key for understanding the world. He told his son to carry one question on his journey through life: “How did things get to be this way?” Schoolbook history does a poor job of answering this question, because it often puts haloes on people who caused much harm, folks who faithfully obeyed the expectations of their culture and peers.

In Cronon’s book, alert readers will discover uncomfortable answers to how things got to be this way. We have inherited a dead end way of life. In the coming decades, big challenges like climate change, peak oil, and population growth seem certain to disrupt industrial civilization, as we know it.

We can’t return to hunting and gathering anytime soon, nor can we remain on our sinking ship. To continue our existence on Earth, big changes are needed, new ideas. This presents a fabulous opportunity to learn from our mistakes, to live slower, lighter, and better. Cronon’s book reveals important lessons — what worked well, and what failed.

In the 5,000 years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, Europe had been transformed from a thriving wilderness to a scarred and battered land, thanks to soil mining, forest mining, fish mining, mineral mining, and a lot of crazy thinking. During the same 5,000 years, the Indians of northern New England kept their numbers low, and didn’t beat the stuffing out of their ecosystem, because it was a sacred place, and they were well adapted to living in it.

In southern New England, the Indians regularly cleared the land by setting fires. This created open, park-like forests, which provided habitat attractive to game. Burning altered the ecosystem. One early settler noted a hill near Boston, from which you could observe thousands of treeless acres below. This was not a pristine ecosystem in its climax state.

In the north, the Indians did not clear the land with fire. The trees in that region were too flammable, so the forests were allowed to live wild and free. Indians travelled more by canoe.

In the south, where the climate was warmer, Indians practiced slash and burn agriculture. Forests were killed and fields were planted with corn, beans, and squash. Corn is a highly productive crop that is also a heavy feeder on soil nutrients. After five to ten seasons, the soil was depleted, and the field was abandoned. The Indians had no livestock to provide manure for fertilizer. Few used fish for fertilizer, because they had no carts for hauling them.

This digging stick agriculture was soil mining, unsustainable. Corn had arrived in New England just a few hundred years earlier, too recently to produce civilization and meltdown, as it did in Cahokia on the Mississippi. Corn spurred population growth, which increased the toll on forests and soils. (Other writers have noted that corn country was not a land of love, peace, and happiness. Most Iroquois villages were surrounded by defensive palisades, because more people led to more stress and more conflict.)

The colonists imported an agricultural system that rocked the ecological boat much harder. Their plows loosened the soil more deeply, encouraging erosion. Their pastures were often overgrazed, which encouraged erosion. They aggressively cut forests to expand pastures, cropland, and settlements, and this encouraged erosion. Harbors were clogged with eroded soil. Their cattle roamed the countryside, so little manure was collected for fertilizer. They planted corn alone, so the soil did not benefit from the nitrogen that beans could add. They burned trees to make ash for fertilizer.

Cronon devotes much attention to the eco-blunders of the settlers. A key factor here is that their objective was not simple subsistence. They had great interest in accumulating wealth and status, and this was achieved by taking commodities to market, like lumber and livestock. The more land they cleared, the more cattle they could raise. It was impossible to be too rich.

This silly hunger for status has a long history of inspiring idiotically reckless behavior. When a colonist gazed on the land, his mind focused on the commodities, the stuff he could loot and sell. He noticed the enormous numbers of fish, the millions of waterfowl, the unbelievable old growth forests, the furbearing animals — all the things that his kinfolk in Europe had nearly wiped out.

Indians hunted for dinner, not for the market. They did not own the deer, elk, and moose that they hunted, so nobody freaked out if a wolf ate one. These wild animals had coevolved with wolves, so a balance was maintained. Colonists introduced domesticated animals that had not coevolved with wolves. The slow, dimwitted livestock were sitting ducks for predators, which boosted wolf populations, which led infuriated settlers to launch wolf extermination programs.

Indians were not chained to private property. When their fields wore out, they cleared new fields. Colonists owned a fixed piece of land, which narrowed their options. In the winter months, Indians moved to hunting camps, selecting sites with adequate firewood available. They had nice fires and stayed warm, while the colonists shivered in their fixed villages, where firewood was scarce.

Colonists suffered from an insatiable hunger for wealth and status, which drove them to spend their lives working like madmen. Instead of belongings, the Indians had a leisurely way of life, and this was their source of wealth. They thought that the workaholic settlers were out of their minds. Indians were mobile, so hoarding stuff made no sense. By having few wants, the path to abundance was a short one. Even the least industrious wanted nothing.

Liebig’s Law says “populations are not limited by the total annual resources available, but by the minimum amount available at the scarcest time of the year.” So, despite the seasonal fish runs and bird migrations, life was not easy in February and March, when the game was lean and hard to hunt. Indians stored little fish and meat. In rough winters, Indians could go ten days without food. They didn’t breed like colonists.

In the south, the Indians were engaged in a high-risk experiment by growing corn, because agriculture is rarely harmless, and it often opens the floodgates to numerous troublesome consequences.

In the north, the Indians were lucky that their home was unsuitable for farming. They adapted to their ecosystem and lived like genuine conservatives, not looters. This was a path with a future, until the looters arrived.
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on August 12, 2004
What an outstanding work for what was essentially a one year graduate paper that accidentally became a book. This is not as thorough as what he would end up writing for his dissertation: Nature's Metropolis, but still an excellent work! Traces the natural history of New England and explores the difference between European and Native American relationships with the land and contrasts their concepts of "land ownership." This difference led to a significant amount of the conflicts between Europeans and Native Americans. The book discusses the process of the transforming the natural world to a series of commodities that largely shapes our current view of the natural world.

This book is an essential work in the understanding of New England, but does not tell the complete story. One should also look to Alfred Crosby's "Ecological Imperialism" for more of the story. Also Carolyn Merchant's "Ecological Revolution" is a must read if you are interested in this topic. Her book goes much deeper into exploring the inseparable role of human social dynamics in the natural history of New England. Be warned! Merchant's book is not for the casual reader or amateur historian. It is difficult reading and very complex social history. It is geared towards a graduate school audience. Reading Cronin's book first will likely make Merchant's book more understandable. One might also want to check out Theodore Steinberg's "Nature Incorporated" if you're really interested in New England's environmental history. This discusses water as a commodity, its industrialization and how this view came to pass. This is very informative, but not very exciting read. I once heard someone call it "the driest book on water ever written." This is not to say however that it is not worthwhile to someone really interested in the subject.
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on February 3, 2008
William Cronon's book Changes in the Land illuminates the relationship and impact the European colonial settlers had with their environment in New England. The main premise for this book is that different human cultures interact with their environment according to their cultural norms and subsequently have varying effects upon their surrounding environment as a result. Furthermore, Cronon illustrates that these effects created by humans on the environment have consequences which in turn affect the human population and its society. Ultimately he accomplishes the task of showing historically that Americans have the live it up now and pay for it later approach with the environment they live in. Unfortunately most Americans still have not learned from previous mistakes with regards to the environment because they still think in terms of wastefulness instead of practical conservation. Even though the concept of Americans being wasteful with their natural resources is common knowledge today, this book truly shows the magnitude of wastefulness European colonial settlers had with their natural resources and the resulting negative consequences for the ecosystem and their own society. Changes in the Land does s superb job of highlighting the fact that this wasteful relationship that Americans have had with their environment has been ongoing since day one they set foot on the North American continent.

William Cronon definitely has the expert knowledge to write a book on the subject of environmental history. In a sense you can say his whole life has involved history and the environment. The afterword in Changes in the Land clearly shows that this book was not only a work that was initially started while he was at Yale as a graduate student, but also was influenced by his own interest of history and the environment even from his childhood. According to Cronon he was inspired as a youngster by his father who was a professor of American history at the University of Wisconsin and by growing up in an area that already had citizens aware and concerned about environmental issues. (pp. 171,173) Furthermore, Cronon's list of academic positions, writings on environmental history, and professional memberships are too numerous to account for in this small book review. Needless to say, after reading his list of lifetime accomplishments in this area on his website it is overwhelmingly clear he wrote this book from an authoritative viewpoint on the subject at hand.

Cronon accomplishes this authoritative viewpoint by juxtaposition of different perspectives and integrating evidence and information from other disciplines. Cronon initially uses the contrast of Henry Thoreau's account of the natural environment in 1855 with an over two hundred years earlier account of the environment in New England by an English traveler named William Wood from 1633. Thoreau was obviously disenchanted with changes that had taken place in the environment since William Wood's day which was evident in his comment, "Is it not, a maimed and imperfect nature that I am conversant with?" (p. 4) Famous intellectuals, early naturalists, and traveler's documentation of the landscape were only some sources of evidence. Cronon also used a wide variety of other sources of information such as colonial town records from the courts and legislation, ecological data, and archeological records to build his case although he was wise enough to note that "caution is required in handling all these various forms of evidence (and nonevidence), together they provide a remarkably full portrait of ecological change in colonial New England." (p. 8) In chapters two through five he juxtaposes the European colonists' and Native Indians' society by comparing their relationship with and effect they respectively had on their environment. The general points Cronon makes, hopefully not oversimplifying too much, were firstly, Europeans viewed the natural resources of New England as commodities and the value they attached to them were based on whether or not they were valuable commodities in Europe. Secondly, Indians had a subsistence economy and moved to different locations depending on the season of the year which dictated where adequate food supplies could be found verses the Europeans who had fixed settlements in which they utilized agriculture and husbandry to generate food and eventually a profit for the excess that they cultivated. Thirdly, Indians' perspective of property was they owned the use of the resources on the land and shared the use of the resources with others whereas Europeans' perspective of owned property was that they owned a specific tract of land identified by clear boundaries in which the land and everything on it was owned by the individual. This comparison served to highlight the impact and consequences on the environment by European colonists due to the way they viewed land and natural resources of New England. The remainder of the book dealt with the consequences of the Europeans interaction with their environment.

Chapter five more or less made the point that due to the impact of diseases on the Indian population and the subsequent restructuring of their social and political system they needed to find a way to survive. One way to survive was to trade with the Europeans and a commodity that was valuable to the Europeans was fur. Indians participated in the decimation of animals that provided these furs and hence they got sucked into the European mercantile trade economy in which eventually they ended up trading their way of life away. Consequently,the environment suffered for it in the process by losing large populations of animals. Chapters six and seven clearly illustrated the wasteful practices of European colonists with the natural resources such as timber which lead to deforestation, hotter summers, colder winters, and more floods as a consequence. The wasteful shortsighted practices of European colonists were also pervasive by the use of their non-friendly environmental agriculture and husbandry practices which only resulted in a vicious cycle of destruction with the environment they lived in. Cronon used an eyewitness account of the colonial time period to conclude his book. A Swedish traveler Peter Kalm summarized nicely the shortsighted wasteful practices of the Europeans colonists by saying "the grain fields, the meadows, the forests, the cattle, etc. are treated with equal carelessness." (p. 168) Kalm concluded that "This kind of agriculture will do for a time, but it will afterwards have bad consequences, as everyone may clearly see." (p. 169)
With that being said, Cronon did a wonderful job a presenting his case and providing evidence which made this book a very interesting read. The only downside for a reader (which is no fault of Cronon's because he is only the messenger), was the disappointing feeling and thought that this is typical behavior of humans when interacting with their environment and why don't people in general learn from their past mistakes?
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on June 14, 2011
As a faculty member of Colorado Mountain College, I was assigned the project of creating a syllabus for "Environmental Sociology." In my search for possible texts I came accross "Changes in the Land." After reading it I realized how relavent it is to Environmental Sociology, New England ecological and natural history, and most importantly as a methodology from which to research other ecological/human interactions.

"Changes in the Land" is not written in a textbook fashion, which, for me,has both positive and negative aspects (it makes what could be a dry subject very readable, but it also means that it shouldn't be used as a text, but as additional reading material). The "easy reading" aspect renders it absorbing for anyone interested in relationships between human societies and ecology. Although "Changes in the Land" focusses on New England, American Indians,and European white settlers,its methodolgy can be applied in diverse environments and cultures...both historical and current. Reading "Changes in the Land" will encourage the reader to pursue further studies in the relationships between various human cultures and ecology. It opens up questions that apply to all ecosystems and cultures...reading it will make you a better person.

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on October 25, 2011
The book was originally written in 1983 and this 2003 edition contains an ample foreword and afterword by the author. The main text covers only 185 pages, in which Cronon decribes the impact of Western colonisation on the environment of New England. The remaining part of the book includes extensive notes and bibliography.
The author starts with a description of the natural landscape before the 1620's, showing the significant impact of the Indians on their environment. This background is then contrasted in various chapters with the changes the English settlers caused on this environment with their very different use of natural resources, from hunting and fur trade, lumbering and animal husbandry to crop farming.
Cronon outlines intended as well as unintended consequences of such use, such as changes in regional climates and soil productivity, caused by deforestation or the introduction of new species, and their final impacts also on the English settlements.
He also confronts the differences in Indian and European concepts of property and trade, as well as the effect of such differences on their cohabitation and on their environment.
The book covers the 17th and 18th centuries until the eve of the Revolution. Chosing the background of New England helps focussing the argumentation, while still covering farming as well as northern wood areas. Moreover, this region obviously has seen the confrontation of Indian and Western concepts of land use at a very early stage of colonial history, when also the English settlers were not yet fully integrated in a market economy.
All of this is presented in a comrehensive form, delivering its main point concisely, while including a lot of interesting details and contemporary sources, and all in all makes a good reading.
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VINE VOICEon December 12, 2015
Perhaps it is appropriate that this book review be done at this particular time; since it is so much about the convergence of cultures in early America and how the use of resources changed as a result. This is especially important as we pause for the holidays and the bounties that are so much a part of the American experience.

William Cronin has been a leading figure in the study of the environmental history of the American West for a generation. This book is one of the reasons why. It is an elegant study, at once entertaining and enlightening as well as seminal in its characterization of the New England frontier and the relationships of the native population to the English immigrants in their homeland.

Cronin’s thesis is straightforward. As he characterized it: “the shift from Indian to European dominance in New England entailed important changes—well known to historians—in the ways these peoples organized their lives, but it also involved fundamental reorganizations—less well known to historians—in the region’s plant and animal communities. To the cultural consequences of the European invasion—what historians sometimes call ‘the frontier process’—we must add the ecological ones as well” (p. xv). So true, but that insight was lost on many earlier historians who had previously studied native/English interactions. What Cronin offers is a well-researched, effectively-argued, and finely-honed explanation of this situation.

Chapters on the landscape and its changes over time, the different natures of agriculture among the native and English populations, ownership and patterns of use, and the interactions of both communities bring this together in a useful manner. Accessing standard historical materials as well as works in archaeology, anthropology, plant and animal science, and climatology Cronin synthesizes a major historical episode in a new way.

His greatest conclusion, at least from my perspective, harkens back to the “frontier thesis” of Frederick Jackson Turner. Turner asserted, and I believe Turner was correct that this was the case, that the broad expanse of land available dominated the thinking of Europeans coming to America and prompted a structuring of the American experience along a specific path. Cronin makes the case that this European path was uniquely destructive to the New England ecology. “They assumed the limitless availability of more land to exploit,” he wrote, “and in the long run that was impossible” (p. 169). Ultimately, Cronin noted, “the people of plenty were a people of waste” (p. 170).
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