For Many, this is EnvHist

William Cronon, Changes in the Land, 1983

This is the first Environmental History book many students read. For general readers like those who made it the #1 EnvHist book on Goodreads, this may be the only book they’ve ever encountered on the subject. Partly that’s because this is one of the books that helped establish the field. Also, it covers a time period that forms the beginning of many traditional American Histories. My own course includes two units before North American colonization, but lots of traditional histories in the United States still start with the Pilgrims or Jamestown.

William Cronon was a young man when he wrote
Changes, and in some ways it’s a young (idealistic) man’s book. Although he breaks the icons of the pristine landscape and the noble savage, Cronon’s Indians are still pretty heroic relative to the English colonists. Cronon begins with an introduction called “The View from Walden,” which in my mind also suggests the youth of the discipline — many early Environmental Historians seem to have come from a Cultural History background, so it’s not surprising that a discussion of Thoreau’s perceptions of Nature precedes Cronon’s narrative of how the environment influenced the Indians and Colonists who lived on it and how those people changed their surroundings to suit their needs. And Cronon takes on not only the Pristine Myth, but also the unsound ecology of the “timeless wilderness in a state of perfect changelessness, [the] climax forest in permanent stasis.” (11) Cronon criticizes first-generation ecologists for assuming that all systems tend toward a stable equilibrium, and also for assuming “humanity was somehow outside the ideal climax community.” (10) This may be unfair to ecologists, who had recognized their error and begun developing more complicated systems theories, but it’s a good reminder for historians, who sometimes lag behind the state of the art in scientific disciplines we borrow from.

Cronon’s argument in the body of the book is that the Indians knew what they were doing and the European visitors’ and colonists’ response to New England was colored by their cultural baggage. The land was rich because the Indians worked it, and the high valuations Europeans placed on the abundance they discovered was influenced by scarcity back home, even in the case of something as simple as  firewood. Cronon throws in with the “capitalist” side of the “Market Transition” debate that was raging at the time, arguing that the colonists were firmly embedded in  a transatlantic capitalist market and drew the Indians into it as well (in his afterword, written on the twentieth anniversary of publication, Cronon seems to regret the slightly oversimplified depiction of “capitalism”).

The pre-colonial landscape he describes is quite different from the trackless wilderness most popular histories depict, and Cronon’s detailed descriptions of the difference are one of the most attractive features of the book. Along the way, the reader picks up a lot of interesting details: for example, the colonists were generally healthier and longer-lived than the people they left behind, since they were no longer exposed to the European disease environment (24). Of course, the diseases the colonists brought with them killed 90-100% of the Indians in many affected villages. Many of these plagues raged before the colonists arrived. But even so, Cronon doesn’t hide the uncomplimentary fact that Puritan settlers saw this depopulation as a sign of their God’s providence. (90)

Cronon says “Many European visitors were struck by what seemed to them the poverty of Indians who lived in the midst of a landscape endowed so astonishingly with abundance.” (33) He argues this is a misunderstanding of the Indian approach to life and land use. Cronon says that not only did the Indians have a noncommercial value-system that led them to shun accumulation, but they were actually managing their environment in sophisticated ways that the colonists completely failed to recognize. Burning the forest understory created “edge” environments preferred by game animals. Gardening in “tangles” of maize, beans, and squash maximized crop yields, reduced erosion, and increased soil fertility — especially relative to the colonists’ monoculture. (43, 51) Cronon’s claim is that the Indians had a more stable, sustainable approach to their environment than the colonists. He frequently accuses the colonists of “mining” the soil, but the fact that their society treated land as a commodity doesn’t necessarily mean that individual farmers deliberately set out to put short-term gains before sustainability (I think Brian Donahue made this point brilliantly in
The Great Meadow). Cronon may have been  leaning too heavily on Frederick Jackson Turner when he assumed the colonists all simply planned on moving west when they’d exhausted their farms.

Indian land management clearly required mobility, which made it incompatible with settled European agricultural culture. Cronon contrasts the Indians’ seasonal migrations with the colonists’ construction of fences – even their pastoralism was sedentary! Cronon admits that Indian “conservation…was less the result of an enlightened ecological sensibility than of the Indians’ limited social definition of ‘need.’” (98) He invokes Leibig’s Law to explain low Indian population densities (“biological populations are limited not by the total annual resources available to them but by the minimum amount that can be found at the scarcest time of year,” 41), but doesn’t elaborate on the mechanism of population control. Was it by restricting fertility, territorial expansion, or by letting the weak starve? Clearly, though, the Indians are the “good guys” in Cronon’s account. (I don’t necessarily disagree, I’m just pointing it out)

The second half of the book continues these arguments but doesn’t extend them much. Cronon throws in several interesting items for me, though. Springfield, begun by William Pynchon in 1636, was one of a string of “fur posts” on the Connecticut River. (99) English colonists who had been restricted by the Game Laws in their home country, over-hunted their new home to the point that a century later “Hunting with us,” said Timothy Dwight, “exists chiefly in the tales of other times” (101). A typical New England household consumed thirty to forty cords of firewood a year” (120). “Roads…were typically between 99 and 165 feet wide…since they facilitated moving large herds to market” (140). And Narragansett sachem Miantonomo made a speech in 1642 that complained about ecological degradation and warned “we shall all be starved” (162), so the colonists assassinated him in 1643. Overall,
Changes in the Land is still a very good read. Cronon makes a strong case for the importance of developing an environmental understanding of early America, so it’s fair that Changes is the book most people think of when you say Environmental History in the US.