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Customer Review

on September 24, 2003
This short book showed me a great deal about both U.S. history and environmentalism. The extensive notes and huge bibliography mark the book not just as inviting severe academic scrutiny but as a pithy summary of a lifetime of information. If my library was as large as this bibliography, I'd feel obligated to open it to the public.
The book is organized around technologies that were used in the white settlement of the U.S.: the different and more efficient American axe (and the log cabin), the water powered mill, the canal and the railroad, and irrigation infrastructure such as dams. With these various technogies over time settlers "improved" the land they found. They felt it took both nature's "first creation" and their efforts at "second creation" to complete the work and make the land truly suitable for life. After years of wondering, here finally is an explanation of what early settlers were thinking when they did things that now seem extremely ecologically destructive.
The book calls out four assumptions of second creation: i) grid surveys were a good way to apportion and settle the fairly uniform land ii) free markets allowed individuals to do whatever made most sense without regard to legislative edicts and local monopolies iii) resources --especially land-- were abundant so that population growth didn't have to worry about the downward resource spiral suggested by Malthus and iv) the universe supported changes at no cost rather than levying an entropic tax on every effort at long-term progress. All four were critical to underpinning our foundation story; all four were eventually thrown in the dustbin of history. Those neat squares are a hallmark of flying over the western U.S., but they condemned neighbors to live a half mile apart rather than in towns, and they dismally failed to promote individual ownership of lands that needed to be irrigated. I'll let the book fill out the details of the remaining three assumptions.
I'd wondered casually about but never seriously questioned the emphasis on water power rather than steam power in the early U.S. I learned our thinkers were glad surfeit of rivers and lack of coal leaned this way, because water power was thought to be more natural and hence to have beneficial sociological effects! Many early investors honestly thought that so long as mills used water power rather than steam power, they couldn't create a downtrodden working class like British mills. I also learned that mills were common in the Southern states too; although they arrived there a generation later, they weren't completely absent as I had thought.
Even though I live near historic Lowell Massachusetts ("spindle city") and thought I was quite familiar with the history of mills in the U.S., the book taught me some new local details. It alerted me to the former existence of the Middlesex Canal that extended almost 30 miles from the Merrimack River to Boston, and to the original construction of the Pawtucket Canal not for the mills but for transportation. Once I knew to look for the Middlesex Canal, I found maps, an interpretive museum which I visited, and even remaining bits and pieces explaining odd landscape features that had never made sense before.
I was also alerted to the fact that the old gristmill I'm familiar with near the Wayside Inn in Sudbury Massachusetts was in fact a reconstruction early in the last century.
And the many references led me to 'The Education of Henry Adams', an autobiography that although clearly a century old speaks to our time. My old public library, which has a vault in the basement and some materials that go back to the sixteen hundreds, still had a copy on its open shelves. When checking it out I commented to the librarian I was glad the library had so many "old" books, and she in turn commented that she was glad to see at least one patron using the older book room.
As time passed and as settlement proceeded westward, the necessary technologies expanded from things each individual could manipulate to things that could only be done by huge collectives. One man could make a clearing with an axe. But only the federal government could construct Boulder Dam. The individualism that's so tightly woven into the U.S. persona made less and less sense as settlement proceeded into the high plains and the arid regions. Even in the already settled east, large civil engineering works such as water pumping stations were once highly visible public technology.
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