Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England
by William Cronon
Hill and Wang, 1983
235 pages
ISBN- 0-89090-0158-6


Changes in the Land by William Cronon is a great resource for anyone interested in the history of New England, particularly with respect to its changing ecology. In fact, Cronon makes it clear in the preface that his aim is to write an "ecological history" of colonial New England and that it "is not a history of New England Indians, or of colonial relations, or of the transformation of English colonists from Puritans to Yankees." Throughout the work, Cronon emphasizes the natural and human influences on what is a dynamic natural system.

Cronon begins by outlining two common pitfalls of studying ecology and Native Americans respectively. The first chapter is dedicated in essence to a critique of the psychology behind Thoreau’s Walden. He points out that it is not only "tempting to believe that when Europeans arrived in the New World they confronted Virgin Land, the Forest Primeval, a wilderness which had existed for eons uninfluenced by human hands," but also that "nothing could be further from the truth." Too many well-intentioned but misguided authors paint this idyllic picture of an unchanging natural world apart from the meddling human world. "There has been no timeless wilderness in a state of perfect changelessness, no climax forest in permanent stasis," and, indeed, all cultures attempt to control their environments.

Cronon then debunks the deep-rooted myth of the "Noble Redman," to whom a spiritual and natural sheen has been given since the days of the first European explorers. This notion of the Native American as the "original environmentalist" is a fallacy and dehumanizes the Native Americans. Just because the way Native American groups interacted with the environment differently the European colonists does not imply that they were any better or worse. Each group manipulated the environment according to their own set of values and the technological resources they had at their disposal with clear differences in effect. "The choice," therefore, "is not between two landscapes, one with and one without a human influence; it is between two human ways of living, two ways of belonging to an ecosystem."

The essence of the book, then, is "to explore why these different ways of living had such different effects on New England ecosystems." Chapters two and three attempt to recreate the landscape of New England at the time of European arrival. Though Cronon summarizes a number of sources for studies in palynology in the bibliographical essay in the back of the book, he primarily refers to accounts by European settlers to reconstruct the New England environment prior to colonial times. This seems problematic due to the subjectivity and often erroneous nomenclature of the early authors, but Cronon does a great job of saying only what seems certain and leaving speculation to the reader.

Chapter four begins the discussion of the colonists’ interactions with the ecosystem starting with their need to divide and bound the land, a need that Cronon argues derived from capitalism (at least in its infancy) and the reality of population density in the Old World. Chapter five is interesting because it covers the fur trade, showing equal participation by the colonists and Native Americans alike, but placing the bulk of responsibility on the colonists.

Returning to the Europeans, the next two chapters deal with deforestation, "one of the most sweeping transformations wrought by European settlement," and a host of other effects caused essentially by the colonists’ need to create a "new" England away from "mother" England. The two most important changes in land use, Cronon argues, were domesticated animals, especially the swine and the plow, which soil studies have proved had a drastic effect on the composition of New England’s ecosystem, destroying native vegetation and allowing foreign weeds to spread. This, in turn, opened the door for a number of "animal weeds" such as the Hessian fly, which themselves fed a number of environmental effects.

The most interesting chapter from a human conceptual point of view is the last. Though Cronon reiterates the influence of capitalism on the mindset of the colonist, he goes into detail in this final chapter. This is also where Cronon’s ideas are the most insightful and best argued. He ties the degradation of the environment directly to the rise of capitalism because "English property systems encouraged colonists to regard the products of the land—not to mention the land itself—as commodities." Pulling from Marx, Cronon goes on to argue that "they assumed the limitless availability of more land to exploit, and in the long run that was impossible," and concludes with the rather stoic remark "the people of plenty were a people of waste."

I believe Cronon’s "ecological history" of New England is a must read for any scholar of New England, but for the secondary school student, I am not convinced that reading the entire work is necessary. Since the book was written as a collection of essays, it ends itself to reading only selected chapters to suit particular needs. One other text that I did not see cited by Cronon but that I think could be very helpful in recreating the New England forest prior to the colonists’ arrival is Folk Medicine of the Delaware and Related Algonkian Indians, by Gladys Tantaquidgeon (Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, 1995) because it describes traditional food resources, medicinal plants, and even folklore of southern New England Indians.


review © 2003 by Justin Symington and RSiSS
Palmer Trinity School
Miami, Florida