The Declension Story

As I prepare my lectures for US EnvHist, I'm reading Ted Steinberg's Down to Earth very closely. Maybe a little too closely, and certainly more critically than most students read the text. But I'm using it as a template to some degree, since it's the de facto undergrad textbook; trying to decide what I like about the way these ideas are presented to students, and what I'd do differently.

I just finished reading the conclusion to Part One, "Chaos to Simplicity." It more or less covers the chronological beginning of the story, although the book is organized thematically and not chronologically (I'm not sure I agree with this choice, but I distinctly recall having a conversation about thematic organization with an Oxford acquisition editor, so I imagine there's a story behind this choice. I'll probably return to that theme some other time). The thing that really struck me about this section, though, was that it was really a downer. Or, to put it academically, a story of declension.

"Wilderness Under Fire," the first of the three chapters in this section, begins by challenging 1492 as the beginning of US History and the pristine myth as an inaccurate image of precolonial America. Steinberg uses the debate over the Holocene Extinction of American megafauna to talk briefly about the conflict between romance and reality. And, as I've already
mentioned elsewhere, he draws a distinction between subsistence and commercial lifestyles. Indian use of fire to alter the landscape (and what happened when the Indians stopped) is an important element of this early part of the story. But I do think it would be helpful to mention that the Indians had more tricks up their sleeves than just shifting agriculture. Extensive farming was appropriate for the landscape, climate, and population density of the Atlantic coast. But Indians in Mesoamerica and the Andes were masters of much more intensive techniques. And those regions were the sources of many of the crops (including maize) raised in New England. So it's likely the Indians practicing shifting agriculture were doing it by choice, and not just because they couldn't think of an alternative.

The second chapter, "A Truly New World," describes the catastrophic results faced by English colonists when they tried to apply European styles of farming and land use in places like Jamestown. This section follows the thread of histories like
Changes in the Land, and like them offers an antidote to the idea that Indians were ignorant and Europeans sophisticated. I agree that "Focusing only on the successful efforts of the colonists has…obscured the very real struggle they faced in coming to terms with the environment." But at certain points, the story gets away from me. Steinberg describes "pools of stagnant water" around Jamestown, "contaminated with human waste" and breeding pathogens like typhoid fever and dysentery. Well, yeah -- but that's nothing new. The colonists could have learned that lesson in England. The problem was, the people who came were not the type of people who paid attention to that kind of thing. Or who could be bothered with actually farming, which is another reason so many died.

Similarly, in the third chapter, "Reflections from a Woodlot," there's a long discussion of sustainable farming and of the Little Ice Age. But the story seems to shift. In one passage, climate change seems to be causing colonists all kinds of trouble, and even driving them to embrace the market as a kind of insurance against starving. But a few pages later, we're told that agricultural yields were increasing during the same period: that in fact, "By the late eighteenth century, New England's food supply became less dependent on seasonal changes." Steinberg describes wasteful extensive farming, but then says there wasn't enough land to go around -- which you'd think would make farmers more careful not to exhaust their soil. And the experience of Concord, which the text draws from Brian Donahue's study,
The Great Meadow, seems to contradict the narrative arc. As does the advice of early agricultural reformers to use manure and practice crop rotation. I think the problem here is there's just too much jammed into a very few pages, which leaves the reader confused about the overall theme.

Finally, "Reflections" begins and ends with Thoreau's ambivalence toward first farmers, and later industrialists. And it takes Thoreau pretty much at face value, which I think is problematic (this is also a theme for another day, but I think Thoreau has to be read as a complex and somewhat ironic character. A guy who made some really important observations but was completely blind to his own privilege). In a passage on the "Malthusian Crunch," Steinberg says that even if nature could be dealt with, "there was still a threat posed by too many people pressing against a limited resource base." Overcrowding in New England, he says, "forced up the price of land…America, the land of opportunity, was in trouble." He goes on to say that inefficient farmers "remained wedded to an extensive mentality," and agriculture "foundered on the limits of meadow grass." But it didn't. Half a dozen pages later we learn that "Between 1801 and 1840, Concord farmers doubled their English hay output," and stopped relying on marsh-hay. And there's plenty of Early American History supporting the idea that New Englanders didn't agonize that much over the scarcity of land or the inflated prices. Many sold their old farms at huge profits and moved west to Upstate New York and the Ohio Valley. They didn't see this as a disaster, but as an opportunity.

And maybe that's my real issue here. It's one thing for environmentalists today to look back on the past and identify problems we now face such as sustainability, soil mining, and an excessively commercial agriculture. But I think we also have to convey to our students and readers that that's not how people saw things at the time. They were happy about some of the things we're calling out as errors, and they weren't necessarily wrong. The real story, I think, is more complex. It's not that self-sufficiency is good and commercialism bad, for example. It's about how the two things interacted with each other and changed over time -- when we got too much of a good thing.

1491 and the Historians

In the process of reading 1491, writing a bit about it, and deciding how I'm going to use it in my next EnvHist class, I've run across some environmental historians and some others who -- how to put it -- seem less enthusiastic about Mann's book than I am. This led me to wonder how academics responded to it when it came out. It was a big hit with readers and popular reviewers, as I already mentioned. But how did experts and scholars respond?

I've read several reviews, and most of them are pretty positive. However, this may be due to the steamroller effect of
1491's popular and commercial success. So what did academics say amongst themselves? Luckily, the prominence of the book created an opportunity for several panels and fora in the years after its publication. The transcripts of these events provide an interesting look at the relationship between academic research and popular writing.

Autumn 2004 issue of the Journal of the Southwest featured an article composed of the reactions of several of the researchers Mann relied on, including Henry F. Dobyns, William M. Denevan, and William I. Woods, and also a response by Mann. These scholars were mostly pleased with the popularity of 1491 and its success getting their ideas in front of general readers. And according to their responses in the article, they seemed pretty satisfied with the accuracy of Mann's portrayal of their ideas.

Another forum, sponsored by the American Geographical Society and published in the
Geographical Review in July 2006, discussed 1491 in even greater detail. (http://www.jstor.org/stable/30034522 and the eight articles that follow)

In his review, geographer Jerome Dobson quoted his colleague Dan Gade at a recent CLAG (Conference of Latin American Geographers) conference forum on
1491, asking simply "What's wrong with us? Why can't we [geographers] write our own story?" Dobson rephrased the question: "How odd is it that geographers can't excite the public about geography, yet others do so routinely?" That's an interesting question, but I was even more interested in what Dobson said next.

1491," Dobson continued, "and you'll find the 'stealth discipline,' geography, operating beneath the public radar. From Carl Sauer on, geographers led the way toward new understandings of the ancient Americas...Profound ideas reported in geographical literature and widely accepted by geographers did not reach broad public awareness for half a century or more, and then not directly from geographers themselves but from the able pen of science journalist Mann."

This is an interesting dilemma for geographers. Even more interesting to me is the idea that geographers like Carl Sauer and William Denevan were leading the revision of American history more than fifty years ago: Sauer in the 1930s and Denevan in the early 1960s. Historians only caught up when Alfred Crosby started writing about these issues in the 1970s, and Crosby couldn't find an academic publisher willing to touch
The Columbian Exchange. So as a historian, I think I've got even more claim to Gade's question. What's wrong with us?

Most of the geographers' criticism in the forum consisted of complaints that Mann hadn't spent enough time and effort covering the particular specialties of the reviewers. There's not a lot of "you got this wrong." More "why didn't you say more about this?" or "maybe by simplifying and dramatizing this point, you didn't do justice to the complexity of the issue." Those are fair criticisms, and Mann responds to them gracefully. It's great that geographers spent a lot of time thinking and talking amongst themselves about Mann's work and the relationship between scholarship and public understanding of their field. It’s a bit disconcerting that historians didn't.

I trolled JSTOR pretty extensively, hoping to find reviews of 1491 in history journals or the transcripts of similar panel discussions. Without much luck. I did find a review article by Colin Calloway in the January 2007 issue of
Ethnohistory, covering both 1491 and Julian Granberry's 2005 academic monograph, The Americas That Might Have Been. Calloway, who has written extensively on Native American History, had good things to say about 1491. The most interesting to me, though, was this: "Specialists will learn nothing new about their own areas of expertise…and ethnohistorians who have spent their lives dealing with the issues it covers may wonder what all the fuss is about." To be fair, Calloway explains what all the fuss is about and concludes by saying "The fact such a book is getting a lot of attention is surely a good sign." But still, I think he makes an important point.

The basic question in
1491, that Mann keeps returning to, is why do high school textbooks still mislead students about early American History? After all that geographers have uncovered and written about the pre-Columbian Western Hemisphere, why have historians not revised their stories? How have we managed to drop the ball so completely?