By Sally V. Keil
Americans are going through a period we might call “The Great Accountability,” considering how this country was actually built—through the decimation of its Native peoples and the mismanagement of its natural resources. William Cronon’s 1983 classic, Changes in the Land, bears rereading, for it explores the relationships between “Indians, Colonists and the Ecology of New England,” taking our eyes off our first celebrities, the Founding Fathers, and highlighting the critical yet unsung role of such unglamorous things as viruses, pigs, and fences.
Cronon has invented a new kind of history where governments, wars, economics, and cultural movements are all viewed from the ground up. Here the main protagonist is the land and the story is the conflict between the colonial mind and the Indian way of living. In a short period of time, this continent was changed from a respected and fragrant paradise to a marketplace, where everything was up for sale. The cheapest and least respected commodity was the natural world.
Cronon shows how the New England landscape was transformed from a moveable feast of Indian villages, forests, streams, and shores to a rigid matrix of fields, fences, and fixed settlements where transposed Europeans overworked the land (and the Indians) to produce marketable goods. All in the name of “civilizing the wilderness.”
If Cronon looks back in anger, he does so with a certain pragmatism. “All human groups consciously changed their environment,” he says. “One might even argue that together with language this is the crucial trait distinguishing people from other animals.” Yet he goes on to warn that “in the long run, we cannot interfere with natural rhythms or change the identity of a region for whim or profit without creating serious imbalances.”
The colonial mind is alive and well today and we are still submerging regional economies into larger, insensitive macro-systems of world markets. Yet the quality of life, not just for the individual region but for the global community, can no longer be gauged by taking the measure of our technological resources.
Now, city planners worry about flood zones, wild fires rage, and we are struggling to save homes built too close to the forests, or what has become known as the wildlife-urban interface. These are problems of our own making – and they date back to our initial treatment of this land.
Cronon presents a startling vision of New England as seen through the eyes of early settlers: The abundance of fish, “flights of passenger pigeons so thick that one could not see the Sun,” the “good store of deer,” trees “being 20, some 30 foot high, before they spread forth their branches,” clams “as big as a penny white loaf,” strawberries “two inches across,” and other examples of environmental extravagance.
This was the land after being inhabited by Indians for over 10,000 years who left little impact, with their mobile tipis and villages. The Native people killed only enough animals for food, using their skins for clothing. Their practices of growing maize and beans together enhanced the fertility of the soil, and by setting ground fires to clear forest undergrowth, they encouraged small animal populations.
For settlers, however, the abundance of the New World meant greater opportunities for trade. They paid European merchants with fish for salting timber, and the shipbuilders they reimbursed with furs. Drawing on natural resources, they fed the European obsession for felt hats and became reliable suppliers of sassafras, a treatment for syphilis. Suddenly, everything that enriched the New England landscape, from beaver to white pine, had a price on its head.
When the colonists attempted to recreate the familiar landscapes of their homeland, their most important addition was domesticated animals. Livestock were needed to pull plows and bring wagons full of crops to market. The voracious demands of grazing animals caused settlements to expand rapidly, and by 1800, the ecological nightmare had begun. The Indians of New England were confined to small reservations and the once plentiful wild animals like beaver, deer, bear, turkey, and wolves had nearly vanished. The greatest of the oaks and white pines had been harvested from the New England forests, while streams and springs had dried up, and soil exhaustion and erosion were widespread.
Then there was our insatiable need for fuel. The average New England family burned up an acre of timber every year, and even Europeans were shocked at Americans’ wanton use of the environment.
Cronon considers the colonists’ view of mother earth as always pliable and accommodating, and also shows how they viewed their women differently from the Indians:
“To the colonists, only Indian women appeared to do legitimate work while the men idled away their time in hunting, fishing, and wantonly burning the woods, none of which seemed like genuinely productive activities to Europeans. Indian men seemed to acknowledge that their wives were a principal source of wealth and mocked Englishmen for not working their wives harder. Part of the problem with these cross-cultural criticisms was the inability or refusal by either side to observe fully how much each sex was contributing.
“Indian men seeing Englishmen working in the fields could understand why English women were not doing such work. At the same time, they failed to see the contributions colonial women were actually making: gardening, cooking, spinning, weaving textiles, sewing clothing, tending milch cows, making butter and cheese, caring for children and so on. The English, for their part, had trouble seeing hunting and fishing which most regarded as leisure activities involving no real labor and so tended to brand Indian men as lazy.”
There was also a marked difference in the way these peoples conceived of property, wealth, and boundaries. The New England tribes, Cronon notes, did not accumulate goods for the explicit purpose of indicating a person’s status in the community:
“Class authority was maintained more by kin networks and personal alliances than by stores of wealth. It was for this reason that Roger Williams could write of the Narragansetts: ‘Many of them naturally Princes, or else industrious persons, are rich and the poor amongst them will say they want nothing.’ Rich and poor alike were relatively easily satiated and so made relatively slender demands on the ecosystem…The same could hardly be said of the European colonists. The transition to capitalism alienated the products of the land as much as the product of human labor, and so transformed natural communities as profoundly as it did human ones…We live with their legacy today.”
William Cronon is the Frederick Jackson Turner Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. His book Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West won the Bancroft Prize in 1992. He is currently developing a course that will lay the foundation for his next book, The Making of the American Landscape.
Sally V. Keil is a journalist who lives in the Hudson Valley. Her articles have appeared in New York magazine, Vogue, FoodArts, and The Tarrytown Letter.