40: Bill Cronon – Changes in the Land

Bill Cronon’s Changes in the Land is an ecological history arguing that “the shift from Indian to European dominance in New England entailed important changes…in the ways these peoples organized their lives, but it also involved fundamental reorganizations… in the region’s plant and animal communities.” (xv)  By extension, history and ecology cannot be separated; further, biological and ecological changes were just as active in shaping history as were the intentional actions of human beings toward each other.  Cronon builds his argument for interdisciplinarity/ interconnection/ ecological history using a variety of sources, including geography (of course), historical descriptions of landscape and environment, anthropology, and, when sources from these disciplines proved too general or inconsistent, “modern ecological literature.”  The result sometimes feels like a smaller Nature’s Metropolis or a more academic Guns, Germs, and Steel: English attempts to make New England more like Europe economically and politically were intimately connected to ecological changes.  (Indians were not passive in this transformation, either.) 

Working at the intersection of two disciplines (history and ecology), Cronon organizes his argument both chronologically and ecologically (lucky for him, they work out to be about the same).  He begins with a picture of pre-colonial New England as being a varied “patchwork” with many more species than we know today; critical here is the relative abundance of the region and the interconnectedness of an ecosystem not yet mined for commodities (which atomize the landscape into a set of extractable units.)  He begins by characterizing the pre-colonial Indian relationship with the land.  Indians tended to deal with seasonal changes by moving to different areas in pursuit of food (streams in the spring for fish, summers near the ocean for shellfish, winters inland for hunting, and a couple of lean months in Feb and March, which kept their food consumption and population density down and thus preserved the natural abundance of the land.  These migratory practices led them to think of land more in terms of its function than in terms of property: Indians were more interested in living well (and remaining mobile) than in acquiring a lot of stuff.  They also created “edge habitats” by planting fields with many different species in them and practicing selective burning, which resulted in fertile ground, good food sources for all sorts of animal life, and therefore abundance.
By contrast, the English come from a sedentary, precapitalist, agriculturally monocultural society, which relied on systematization of the landscape (property, commodities), economically-based relationships, and close ties between accumulated wealth and power.  The changes their arrival made in the New England landscape, both ecologically and socially, were vast.  They began by implementing European ideas of property on the landscape and redefining land in terms of exchange-value rather than use-value (landscape becomes more stable, less varied, less fertile); then, in conjunction with European diseases that ravaged the Indian population, they encouraging the hunt for fur-bearing animals and thus simultaneously depleted the beaver population of New England and transforming a personal, diplomatic Indian society into a pre-capitalist one (though Indian fur trade made use of pre-existing trade diplomatic networks among tribes, devastation due to epidemics allowed for drastic social reorganization).  Then, in clearing forests for timber (which selectively depleted whole species), for grazing (which compacted the land and encouraged weeds, clover, grasses, and other European plants to grow in place of natural species), and monocultural farming (which led to soil exhaustion), they reduced the number of species in New England and reduced the land’s ability to support the hybrid, interconnected patchwork – and the abundance – the Indian agricultural methods had encouraged.  Finally, the sedentary English system of monocultural farming and raising domesticated animals rather than hunting wild game led to a world of fences, fields segregated by function, an intensification of the concept of property, increased weeds and pests, decreased land fertility, and a replication of Europe – both good and bad (they even brought wheat diseases – the “blast”).
There are a lot of interesting things in Changes in the Land.  Rather than take the celebratory tone of more traditional histories of the early colonists, it is written (as much as it is able) from the perspective of the Indians and the land itself and thus tells a tale of depletion and disruption rather than one of cultivation and domestication.  Further, the not-so-subtle subtext throughout the book is that the imposition of a commodity- and property-based social organization on the landscape is ridiculously unhealthy for people and for the land: the monocultural, sedentary, property-oriented, densely-populated economic and geographical situation we find ourselves in is not natural, and it is actually worse for the environment than maintaining low population density and moving seasonally.  And in attempting to draw in voices of the Indians and the land – though he has to do so largely through anthropological and ecological sources – Cronon is building a history where there was little or none.

However, the book is not without its problems.  The precolonial Indians seem to live in a happy harmony with the land and with each other, and despite Cronon’s protestations in the conclusion that germs, increased population, and decreased abundance were partly responsible for the changes in the landscape, the implication that the European Enlightenment/ capitalist system was most directly responsible for resource depletion and social and ecological reorganization is clear.  The result is that the two poles feel undertheorized/ oversimplified: the Indians are perfect, pure; capitalism is evil.  Further, as an ecologist (geographer), Cronon is clear where his biases lie: sustainable relations between humans and the environment involve flexibility, mobility, an emphasis on use-value over exchange-value, and ecological variety and complexity over cultivation, order, and legibility.  While I am totally sold on this claim in theory, we’ve reshaped the landscape so drastically and built such a dense population around it that I’m not sure we could go back to the natural balance he espouses.  Could we support our current density using earth-friendly methods?  Or if I’m reading him incorrectly and he doesn’t want us to go back to a precolonial past, how might we integrate a more equitable connection between humans and the land into our current situation?  (In other words, this book is mad timely.)

Cronon, Bill.  Changes in the Land.  New York: Hill and Wang, 2003 (1983).
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